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Considering a Switch to User Experience?

October 21, 2019

Because the field of User Experience offers interesting problems to solve, a fast pace, and lucrative salaries, its professions have gained attention and grown in popularity over the years. As a consequence, a steady stream of people have reached out to me to learn more about my career path and my daily work experience and to request practical tips for breaking into the field. In this article, I’ll provide the key points that I share with these people to help them get started in User Experience.

Attend Meetups

Meetups are a great way to get your feet wet, learn the UX lingo, see whether you’re really interested in the industry, meet UX professionals, and learn about job openings. I was actually incredibly lucky to land a UX research internship at the very first meetup I ever attended. I realize now how crazy that was, but I’m definitely glad I decided to venture out to the meetup after work that day.

Attending meetups is also an excellent way of integrating yourself into the local UX community and building your network. Even in New York City, where I began my career in User Experience, the UX community is fairly small. Because I saw the same people at various UX events, I began to develop some really great friendships.

UX meetups and events are also a good way of learning about User Experience across different industries and roles. These events offer a wide range of speakers with different areas of expertise—from FinTech to museums to social good. Attending a variety of meetups can help you find the niche that interests you most.

Reach Out to Your Network and Explore Your Options

Reaching out to UX professionals to learn about their experiences is another great way of educating yourself about the field and building your network. Learn about their background, career path, and day-to-day tasks. This can help you decide what path would be right for you—whether that of a designer, researcher, content strategist, or generalist.

Because the field of User Experience is still relatively new, talking to a wide range of people can help you better understand differences across companies, teams, and positions. People are usually happy to help and chat with you about their experiences. They’ll often have really valuable resources or connections they can share with you. In my senior year of college, I set up countless informational interviews, which were invaluable in helping me learn more about a variety of jobs in which I was interested. Because of what I learned during these conversations, I was able to cross off several fields that weren’t a good fit for me and focus my time and effort on preparing for more promising roles.

When you reach out to someone to request an informational interview, explain that you’re interested in having a brief informational interview to learn more about their background and experiences. Don’t position it solely as a conversation about a potential job opening! People are busy, and they’re much more likely to agree to a simple chat about themselves than to entertain a stranger who is asking them for a job.

Fill in Any Gaps in Your Resume

Based on these informational interviews, you’ll develop a better sense of the skillset and knowledge you’ll need to succeed in the field of User Experience. Ideally, your background and experience should align with the requirements for your desired position, but if they don’t, you’ll need to start filling in any gaps. Luckily, there are several strategies for doing this—such as reexamining your experience, landing an internship, expanding your duties within your current position, volunteering, or taking classes.

The easiest approach is reviewing your own experience. Go through a wide range of UX job postings and distill the key skills and requirements they want. For example, for a UX research job, mastery of research methods, clear communication, effective persuasion, and excellent organizational and project-management skills are key.

Once you understand a UX profession’s core skillset, think about your experiences and how you have mastered and utilized these skills. Maybe you don’t have actual UX research experience, but you might have worked at an academic research lab so have a thorough understanding of a variety of research methods. Or you might have majored in English and Anthropology and can communicate effectively, concisely, and persuasively. Put some thought into this, and make sure you can convey a clear, compelling case for your meeting the job requirements in your cover letter and resume. During interviews, demonstrate how your experience translates well to the position for which you’re applying.

If your work experience has some holes, explore whether there is any way for you to gain experience in User Experience or at least get relevant experience in your current job. If there is a UX team at your company, ask whether you can shadow, apprentice, or help them out on any projects. This is a great way to gain hands-on experience at no cost. If things go well, you might be able to make the switch to User Experience internally by joining that team.

At my last job, one of our content strategists expressed interest in learning more about UX research, so we offered to train and mentor him. He shadowed our research sessions, prepared research plans and scripts that we reviewed, and ran several studies by himself. It was a win-win. We gained an additional UX research resource, and he gained valuable UX research experience.

If there is no UX team at your company, talk with your boss and ask whether there are any projects or responsibilities you could take on that would help you gain or flesh out the key skills you need for your UX dream job. Working creatively within the constraints of your current job is a great way to demonstrate your ingenuity, passion, and tenacity.

If expanding your skillset and the scope of your current job is not feasible, consider volunteering or starting a passion project to gain more hands-on experience and develop your portfolio. Think about an organization or cause that you care about and reach out to them to see whether they’re open to your helping. Many nonprofits and libraries have limited resources so are open to outside assistance. VolunteerMatch is a great Web site that offers a variety of volunteer opportunities where you can gain experience and skills. Organizations on the site ask for professionals to donate their time and skills.

If none of these avenues work for you, consider taking some formal UX courses. You’ll gain explicit instruction around User Experience, work on projects, and build up your portfolio. However, these courses can be very expensive, so be sure to weigh the pros and cons of taking a specific course from a particular vendor.

Apply Strategically

Once you feel good about your experience and skillset, scour opportunities on LinkedIn Jobs, Glassdoor, and Indeed for full-time UX positions and internships. Entry-level positions can be a bit difficult to come by, but keep your head up and your eyes peeled.

For college students, internships are a great way to break into User Experience. You can gain real-world experience, build your professional network and portfolio, and get paid to do it. Summer internships are the most common, but set up job-posting alerts so you’ll be aware of any new internship openings.

If you’re not a student, lean on your meetup network to learn about new job opportunities. Often, at the end of a meetup, people who are hiring raise their hand and give a quick pitch on their company and its open positions. Then, during networking at the end of the event, you can walk over and introduce yourself. 

Consider Going Big

In my own experience, beginning my UX career at a large company was really beneficial. I was on a team with eight other UX researchers, and I made a point of soaking up as much knowledge as I could. My colleagues were much more experienced than I was, and they were willing to train and mentor me. This experience was irreplaceable. I gained a strong foundation of learnings that I’ve continued to build upon.

Plus, at a large company, I was able to specialize and focus exclusively on UX research. I ran a study every few weeks and developed strong research skills and processes. At a smaller company, you must often wear many hats, which can be great, but it can also make it more challenging to master a skillset in depth.

Larger companies also have the advantage of abundant resources. Plus, they have more entry-level positions because they have the funding to support them and the people to train and mentor people who are new to User Experience. Consider focusing more of your time and effort pursuing openings at larger companies. Then, once you’ve gained some industry experience, you can move to a smaller company where you might have the opportunity to work more cross-functionally, avoid bureaucracy, and apply what you’ve learned so far.

Conclusion

Since the field of User Experience is growing in popularity, the competition for jobs is heating up. Lots of qualified candidates—as well as unqualified candidates—are vying for a limited number of entry-level spots. Think about how you can best position yourself, your skills, and your experience.

Attend local events to learn more about the field of User Experience, meet other UX professionals, and become part of the UX community. Learn about others’ experiences and backgrounds, so you can discover your niche and identify any gaps in your own portfolio. Get creative and fill in these gaps by taking on new projects at work, volunteering, or taking a course. Set up job alerts, then apply, apply, apply! Consider focusing on larger companies that have more resources and entry-level opportunities. Your hard work will pay off, and eventually, you’ll land the UX job of your dreams! 

UX Researcher at Factual

New York, New York, USA

Meghan WenzelMeghan is starting the UX Research team at Factual, a startup focusing on location data. She’s establishing research standards, processes, and metrics; building partnerships across teams, and leading research efforts across all products. Previously, she was a UX Researcher at ADP, where she conducted a wide range of exploratory, concept-testing, and usability research across products and platforms. She was also involved in ADP’s Come See for Yourself contextual-inquiry program, whose goal was to educate colleagues on the value of UX research and get them out into the field to talk to real users.  Read More

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