Get Started in UX: The Complete Guide to Launching a Career in User Experience Design

April 21, 2014

This is a sample chapter from Matthew Magain and Luke Chambers’s new book, Get Started in UX: The Complete Guide to Launching a Career in User Experience Design. 2014 UX Mastery.


OK, now you know where you’re going … but where are you coming from?

Why Are You Here?

Your head may be spinning, either because you’re overwhelmed—or excited—by the prospect of what lies ahead.

Before we continue any further, it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on why you want to begin a career in UX. As you’ll soon come to understand, the sheer amount of information that you’ll need to absorb is potentially overwhelming—although I’ll give you some strategies for dealing with this later. And there’s no shortcut in gaining project experience—that comes with time. This is a journey you’ll want to be embarking upon for the right reasons.

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Personally, I get excited by the variety that UX offers me: the breadth of design challenges and the range of activities that I get to engage in—with other people and on my own. I’ve learned over the years that I need that variety for job satisfaction. A job where I can apply my visual skills, my technical skills, and my people skills is one that I find incredibly rewarding. The fact that the outcomes of my work—Web sites, mobile apps, user interfaces—often empower the people using them is the icing on the cake.


What Is It About UX That You Are Drawn To?

Whatever your personal motivation to succeed in the field of UX, it needs to be more than the cash or the glory. Work out your why, and the challenges ahead will feel less daunting.

It might feel a bit contrived, but I have an exercise for you to try your hand at. I want you to put this ebook reader down—or minimize the window on your computer—pick up a pen and paper, and complete this sentence for me. Try to avoid referencing salary or recognition in your statement.

I want to become a UX designer because…

Write it down. Seriously, I’ll wait!

Oh, you’re back! Great. How did you find that exercise? If you found it particularly difficult, you may want to mull over the topic some more and refine it when you’ve crystallized in your mind what’s driving you. Having a sense of purpose equips you with the stamina you’ll need to navigate the inevitable difficulties that come with any career.

tipVideo: Knowing Your Why

Simon Sinek’s TED talk, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action, is an inspiring reminder of how acting with purpose in our personal and professional lives can lead to success, regardless of the field.

Performing a Self-Assessment

If you were redesigning a shopping cart, with the goal being to increase the number of sales the site processes, the first thing you’d need to know is how many sales it’s currently making.

Deciding how best to tackle your entry into User Experience is a lot like tackling a UX project itself—you need to have a baseline. Understanding where your skills are at now is a prerequisite to charting where you want to go.

There is no one “best” way to perform this self-assessment. We humans and the skills we possess are complicated! However, there are a few different approaches that have been devised specifically for thinking about a career in UX. Let’s look at a few.

UX Knowledge

Elizabeth Bacon’s sundial of User Experience fields is a wonderful model for looking at the big picture and how your knowledge stacks up. To progress toward operating at a strategic, big-picture level—arguably the ultimate goal for all practitioners—one needs to be able to understand, define, and communicate a vast range of fields.

Figure 1Elizabeth Bacon’s UX Sundial, reprinted with permission
Elizabeth Bacon's UX Sundial, reprinted with permission

Of course, no one person can be expected to have in-depth knowledge of all of these subject areas. One of your career goals should be to become an expert in one or two of them, but maintain a balance across the entire spectrum. Here’s what Elizabeth’s self-assessment looks like.

Figure 2Elizabeth Bacon’s self-assessment, reprinted with permission
Elizabeth Bacon's self-assessment, reprinted with permission

This paints a holistic picture of Elizabeth’s experience. As a senior designer, Elizabeth is clearly strong in interaction design and several closely related fields. She also has a good understanding of other areas, and this balance no doubt serves her well as she interacts with developers, business owners, users, content producers, and other team members involved in her projects.

The fact that all of these skills contribute to making a successful UX designer is an overwhelming prospect. However, the intent here is not to suggest that you should strive to become an expert in each one of these areas—more to give an indication of just how vast the UX umbrella really is.

For now, it suffices to say that, no matter how skilled you become in one area, there is always more to learn.

tipAssess Yourself Now

Bundled with this ebook is a UX self-assessment kit. Print out the sundial and use it to perform your own self-assessment. There’s no need to get fancy with graphics software—just color in the wedges using a marker. Pin your self-assessment poster up in your cubicle or at home so you have it on hand as a reminder of the areas that you hope to develop.

Try it now: rate yourself in each of the following categories from 1 to 10, with 1 meaning “I’m a complete beginner” and 10 meaning “I’m an expert.” Answer honestly!

Soft Skills

Knowledge about a particular field is all well and good, but being able to apply that knowledge is another thing altogether. Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering, deduced from studying a number of expert UX professionals that the five indispensable skills for UX mastery were the softer skills of

  1. sketching
  2. storytelling
  3. critiquing
  4. presenting, and
  5. facilitating

You’ll notice that all of these skills are quite independent of the fields we just looked at. They’re not the type of thing you take a class in and master over the course of a semester; they’re life skills, and you work on them throughout your career.

In the fields in the previous section, in-depth knowledge of all fields is practically unattainable. However, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that someone could potentially master all five of these soft skills. When visualized, your goal should, therefore, be to achieve maximum coverage rather than an even balance across the spectrum.

Figure 3—Luke’s self-assessment of soft skills
Luke’s self-assessment of soft skills

Environmental Experience

If you’re coming to UX from a career in a different field, another lens through which to view any relevant experience you may have accumulated is to consider the environments under which you’ve operated. UX is a pretty broad umbrella, so while some of your previous roles may not be directly related to UX, you may have performed them in environments that allowed you to develop business and workplace skills that you can still leverage in future roles.

There are basically four types of work environments within which UX Designers operate:

  • In-house—You are working as an employee in a company, on a product or service that the company sells. You may be working in isolation or as part of a team.
  • Agency-side—You are working as an employee in an agency, providing consulting or other professional services to a range of clients.
  • Freelance/Contractor—You are working independently for a company, providing consulting or other professional services to them or their clients.
  • Business owner/Independent consultant—You are the owner or part owner of a product or service business. You may get hands-on with product development, consulting, sales, or other activities; but a large number of your tasks also include planning and making strategic decisions about your own business.

You can chart your career in a way that demonstrates in which environments your experience was attained. Here’s a chart of Matt’s career—not including part-time jobs throughout high school or university. This is obviously a simplification of the nuances of different employment circumstances, but even if only for your own reference, it’s a useful technique for reflecting on your journey and the direction you may wish to head next.

Figure 4—Matt’s career, showing a variety of roles in different work environments (View a larger image)
Matt's career, showing a variety of roles in different work environments

Contrast this with Luke’s career, which is wildly different and tells the story of someone who was far more entrepreneurial in the early stages of his career.

Figure 5—Luke demonstrated a leaning toward entrepreneurship early in his career (View a larger image)
Luke demonstrated a leaning toward entrepreneurship early in his career

Strategic Thinking

Many of the UX techniques we discuss are strictly operational. These are important, but different roles allow you to have differing levels of input on a business’s strategy. While the challenges of directing a business strategy of a one-person startup are wildly different from making strategic decisions within a large corporation, it’s still useful to visualize at what stages you’ve had the opportunity to apply strategic thinking. Here’s what that visualization looks like for Matt.

Figure 6—Matt’s career mapped into a range of different roles (View a larger image)
Matt's career mapped into a range of different roles

It can be interesting to compare these two graphs by placing one on top of the other. Here’s how that looks for Matt’s career.

Figure 7—The relationship between Matt’s various work opportunities and degrees of strategic thinking (View a larger image)
The relationship between Matt's various work opportunities and degrees of strategic thinking

While there’s not necessarily a one-to-one correlation between the environment one works in and the degree of strategic thinking that one engages in, understanding this data can help you make decisions about how to direct your career. It can also be a very effective instrument for communicating that experience to a recruiter or prospective employer.

tipWalk Before You Run

If you’re just starting out, don’t jump straight to the strategy stuff without logging some hours in the trenches. Strategy is important to strive for, but a good understanding of and experience in user-centered design is invaluable for being able to give authoritative strategic advice.

tipGet Reflective

Your UX self-assessment kit also includes templates for soft skills, work environment, and strategic thinking, which you can print out, color in and post somewhere to remind yourself of. Remember to be honest with yourself—you should view the self-assessment exercise as an opportunity to identify areas that you can focus on to one day become world-class in that skill, not as a means to impress someone.

A Roadmap for Success

OK. Up to this point, I’ve given you a handful of starters and side dishes, but you’re probably still hungry for more information. Here’s the main course—the steps you need to take to launch a successful career as a UX designer. There are just six of them.

  1. Get educated.
  2. Get the right tools.
  3. Get some experience.
  4. Get connected.
  5. Get a mentor.
  6. Get hired.

For the rest of this book, we’ll be exploring each of these steps in turn.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. Why do you want to get a job in user experience? If you’re just chasing a salary, you’re unlikely to be fulfilled or successful.
  2. In which fields do you have the most knowledge and experience? If you’ve worked in other industries, there’s a good chance you have existing skills and experience that you can leverage in a UX role. An honest self-assessment will help you determine which areas to expand your knowledge of.
  3. In which of the five soft skills are you strongest? Which of these skills need the most work? What opportunities can you seek to further develop these blind spots?
  4. In which environments do you have the most experience operating? Staying within familiar territory may be comfortable, but the different dynamics of work environments encourage professional growth.
  5. At what level on the strategic plane is the majority of your experience? Seek opportunities to get exposure to more strategic-planning and decision-making roles.

Chapter Summary: Self-assessment

  • Know your why. Basing your decision purely upon the expectation of an increased salary is not good grounds for changing your career.
  • User experience is a vast umbrella. A self-assessment will reveal the fields that you’re most knowledgeable about and those that you may need to focus on.
  • Analyze your soft skills. Make it a goal to seek out opportunities that allow you to further develop those skills that you are weak in.
  • Reflect upon the types of environments that you have experience working in. Consider opportunities that give you exposure to different environments.
  • Throughout your career, seek opportunities to learn about and understand how business strategy and UX influence each other. Your goal should be to develop a core competency in the strategic planning, advice, and direction of a product, service, or business. 

Discount for UXmatters Readers—Buy Get Started in UX on the UX Mastery site, using the discount code UXMATTERS, before the end of May 2014, and save 33% off the retail price. (Follow the checkout process till you see the field for the discount code.)

Cofounder at UX Mastery

Chief Doodler at Sketch Videos

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Matthew MagainAfter completing a Masters degree in Engineering, Matt began his Web career in the corporate world, evangelizing Web standards and accessibility at companies like IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers long before it was trendy to do so. He began embracing user-centered design techniques during his time at SitePoint, after editing The Usability Kit, and went on to apply them to spin-off companies such as 99designs and Learnable. In 2010, Matt founded Useractive, a boutique user experience design agency that offers creative services to brands such as Australia Post, Monash University, and Bain & Co, and founded UX Mastery. He has presented at a range of conferences, including UX Australia, Webstock, Web Directions South, Microsoft REMIX, and Tech•Ed. At home with his wife and two daughters, Matt spends his evenings pretending he’s a cartoonist. He recently wrote, illustrated, and self-published a children’s book.  Read More

Co-founder at Experia Digital

Co-founder at UX Mastery

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Luke ChambersGeneral tinkerer, Web tailor, user-centred design soldier, and tall-ship sailor, Luke is one half of the founding partnership behind UX Mastery. He learned his collaborative, visual thinking, and storytelling skills while studying filmmaking at the Victorian College of the Arts. Luke has worked in the Web industry since his first startup in 1999 and came across user-centered design while himself participating in a usability testing session for Sensis. He has since championed UX design, both on small guerilla projects and at large companies like Penguin Books Australia. Luke consults through his agency Experia Digital. He enjoys sailing tall ships, writing retro detective fiction, and creating lists—lots of lists. Throughout each day, Luke listens, sketches, tells stories, and explains to people the why of the design that happens behind the visuals. He lives in a tumbledown farmhouse in Melbourne with his wife and has two chooks.  Read More

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