So you’ve been learning UX design, maybe studying online with the likes of CareerFoundry or General Assembly. You’re confident in your skills and beginning to look at work opportunities in the field. But now that you’ve got the knowledge you need, how do you break into the industry itself? In other words, how do you go about getting that all-important first job in UX design?
User experience design is such a new field that the role of the UX designer still comes under a variety of monikers, from user researcher, to information architect, or the common “UX/UI designer.” That’s because many employers don’t understand exactly what the role means. This can be confusing when you are just starting out in your job hunt, particularly when you’re still relatively new to the field yourself.
But don’t worry. In this post, I’ll cover exactly what roles you can expect to find as a junior in the field, what is likely to be expected from you in these roles, and which of your UX muscles you’ll get to flex the most. Crucially, I’ll give you actionable advice on how to apply for and land your first contract, from prepping your portfolio to nailing that first interview.
By following this advice, you’ll be putting your UX skills to use in no time.
Do I need a UX portfolio?
A portfolio is still one of the best ways to show that you have the experience and skills to perform well in a design job. Even though your work won’t be as easy to show as a UI or visual designer’s work, you should still attempt to showcase all of your work in a visual way. You can use sketches, wireframes and even photos of yourself working to help fill out the visuals. Many sites allow you to do this, including:
I also recommend that you try to blog about UX design concepts as well to show that you are knowledgeable and interested in the field. Personally, I like Squarespace for the ease of publishing, and the blogging platform is powerful with tons of options for customisation. Whatever platform you use, make sure your finished site is easy to navigate and understand. If an employer can’t understand your site, they’ll never hire you as a UX designer.
What should go into a UX portfolio?
As I mentioned, much of what you do as a UX designer is intangible and therefore difficult to visually represent in the form of an online portfolio, the kind often associated with “designers” of every kind. But don’t lose hope! There are ways to demonstrate your expertise in UX design.
A strong UX portfolio should include:
- Case studies to show the entire UX process from discovery to solution
- Case studies that contain a strong narrative and storytelling, using both images and words
- Stories with an awesome ending using evidence, KPIs, and results
Check out Simon Pan’s case study on Amazon Prime Music. He does an excellent job of combining all of the advice given above. It will give you something to strive for.
Don’t forget: your personality and thinking should be evident in the narrative. Your employer wants to know more than just your process; he or she wants to understand who you are and how you solve problems. Demonstrate your thought process!
How many pieces do I need in this portfolio?
There is no perfect number, but ideally an entry-level UX designer should have three to six projects showcasing their skills in their portfolio. However, one solid comprehensive case study will be infinitely better than six projects that don’t show process, narrative or results.
If you don’t have anything to show yet, don’t fret. Tons of nonprofits can’t afford UX design and would love help with their sites and apps. If that doesn’t interest you, pick a popular site and attempt to improve its UX.
Even better, find a friend who is a developer and work on your own idea together. Employers love to see designers with entrepreneurial instincts that can keep the business needs in mind, and starting your own project will show them you’re that person.
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How do I fill out my resumé if I’ve never worked anywhere as a UX designer?
While you probably won’t have past jobs that are in UX design, you should still try to show how these past jobs have shaped you into the UX designer that your are. Describe your role in a way that shows how it’s relevant to UX design.
If you need to fill out a resumé with content, you could include any projects in your portfolio and position them as freelance projects. Your resumé should give a broad overview of the projects you’ve included in your portfolio and what your role was on the project. Also include anything relevant like honors, awards, and skills if they pertain to UX design.
What do I put in my cover letter?
Once you have a killer portfolio and resumé, it’s time to tell your story. A great cover letter tells the employer how your past work is relevant to the job. It’s also good place to address the requirements of the position and how you fill them. You might even include a bulleted list that shows which parts of your portfolio match what they want. You should definitely include a snapshot into who you are why you would be perfect for the job.
OK, time to take a breath. I know, getting your portfolio, resumé, and cover letter ready can feel like a monumental task, but think of it as an investment into getting that job you love. Next up, we’ll talk about what sort of jobs you should be applying for, and how to position yourself for the right role in your next dream job.
What sort of role should I be applying for?
If you’ve never worked as a UX designer before then you should look for junior-level UX design positions. While you may get lucky and skip the junior title, most people will start out as a Junior UX Designer. Watch out for job titles that say “UI/UX Designer” as often these roles tend to be either mainly UI or UX, rather than both (more often they lean towards UI).
As I said, UX design is a rather new field, so don’t be surprised to find employers that don’t know the difference between UI and UX. It may take a little detective work to determine whether the position is actually a UX position.
Be wary of words in the description that tend to fall under UI like:
- Look & feel
- Interaction & animations
- Visual aesthetic
- Front-end branding
Look for words that are usually associated with UX design like:
- Competitive analysis
- Product strategy
- Information architecture
- User personas
- User centered design
- Analytics & tracking
For more on the difference between UI and UX check out this great article by CareerFoundry.
Should I work freelance or full-time?
UX designers will find it hard to start out as freelancers because research work is hard to conduct remotely. You will also miss out on the opportunity to learn from other more senior designers if you always work on your own. If you already have an outlet for steady work then go for it, but you should also look for someone with experience in the field to mentor you. For most UX designers, however, full-time work is the best way to start out.
How do I know where to apply?
When you’re first starting out, establishing a network is important. More established UX designers are key to your next job, and the best way to meet them is to attend as many networking events as you can.
I like Meetup.com for meetups and talks while Eventbrite is better for conferences and design jams. It might feel like cheesy networking, but you will meet people just like you, and people who were in your shoes three years ago.
Just because you’re junior doesn’t mean you should just sit there and listen. Speak up and talk about what makes you passionate about UX design. You will find people who are passionate about the same things, and these people will know about the jobs you want. A referral through a personal connection is a hundred times more likely to land you a job than a cold application.
What if no one is hiring?
Demand for UX designers is pretty high these days, but some companies still need convincing to spend money on user experience. If you have already looked on all the job boards and can’t find any junior roles, I would recommend looking at tech funding sites like Crunchbase, Venturebeat, and Techcrunch to see who has recent funding. If you want to find companies willing to invest in user experience, follow the money.
What if I’ve applied but I can’t get an interview?
Sometimes your portfolio or a contact in the company is only enough to get your foot in the door. It usually only takes me less than a minute to look at a portfolio and less than fifteen seconds to look at a resumé. Within that small window, what can you do to show them you’re truly interested in the position? You can show that you’re serious about a job and and stand out by doing some targeted UX work for the companies that you’re seriously interested in.
Employers will always understand your skills better when it’s put in their perspective. Do a competitive analysis and walk through some weaknesses in their product. Come up with a plan to fix this. Then perform some high-level user stories, sketches and wireframes for how you would approach problems with their UX. Send this along with your portfolio and resumé and you’re guaranteed to get their attention.
It might take you a whole weekend, but I can tell you from personal experience, I would always give a candidate with that kind of work ethic an interview over another with more experience.
How can I demonstrate understanding of concepts beyond my work?
The ability to write well about UX design is a huge bonus for any UX-er, and will help you master concepts that you into which you’d would like to dive deeper.
When you read about concepts that interest you, write a blog post about it. Research other points of view and summarise your thoughts. Include screenshots and don’t forget to include your own point of view. It’s a great chance to show a potential employer that you understand a concept even if your portfolio doesn’t showcase that understanding.
I would recommend writing them in Google Docs for safekeeping, then publishing them in multiple formats for your portfolio site, LinkedIn, and Medium. Those work best for me, but don’t be afraid to venture to newer blogging formats like Ghost and Commaful.
Also, don’t forget to share them on social networks you already have like Twitter and Facebook. Otherwise, no one will ever see your posts! You never know who might stumble across your article and want to hire you based on your expertise.
No one said that starting a new career was going to be easy. But if you follow these guidelines, I think you will have what you need to succeed. User Experience Designer is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after job titles in tech, and I can tell you personally that it is a rewarding career. I hope that these tips will give you the boost you needed to start you on the path of your new UX career.
Starting a new career isn’t easy. Follow these guidelines to land a great job — leading to a great career — in UX design.