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Breaking into the Field of User Experience

Enterprise UX

Designing experiences for people at work

A column by Jonathan Walter
April 6, 2020

Lately, I’ve been having some conversations with people who want to enter the field of User Experience. These people range from professionals who work in adjacent roles or domains to college students who are studying User Experience and are hoping to land their first job. This is a wonderful signifier that people are seeing the value of the UX professions and want to be part of them.

However, as many people working in UX related roles can attest, it is not easy to get a job in User Experience. There are many barriers to entry. You must take the time to craft a compelling portfolio, which is no trivial matter. You need to demonstrate your ability to think critically about users’ needs, which can be difficult to quantify and measure. If you do not have a formal education relating to User Experience, you must somehow show potential employers that you are better suited for a job than the many experienced UX professionals or highly educated people who are vying for the job.

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As someone who has taken an unorthodox career path leading to User Experience—veering off at one point to become a front-end Web developer—I can personally relate to the challenges of shifting one’s full-time job to User Experience. But, with the right tactics and enough patience, you can position yourself to be an attractive candidate—with or without a formal education. In this column, I’ll describe some ways to do just that.

Do Not Work for Free

Before I delve into suggestions on what to do, it is important that I describe what you shouldn’t do: which is to allow prospective employers to take unfair advantage of your valuable time and intellectual property, which can be tempting if you’re hoping to break into the space.

I can clearly recall being a recent college graduate and receiving a coveted phone call from a small design firm. My interview and portfolio presentation had gone well and, according to the hiring manager—my potential future boss—I should have felt good about where I stood in the hiring process. As you can imagine, I did feel good. My twenty-two-year-old brain was positively loopy about the opportunity to work for a firm that did cool work, kept a keg of beer perpetually on tap, and boasted a foosball table in the main lobby. But that was when the manager described the next step, which would entail my coming into the office for a full day of work alongside other designers—my potential co-workers—for free, so they could gauge my overall fitness as a teammate. I was flummoxed by this suggestion. After consulting with a trusted mentor, I withdrew myself as a candidate for the job, which was the right thing to do.

What this for-profit firm had asked me to do was unethical. No candidate should spend an entire day—or even a few hours—working for a prospective employer, even if doing so occurs under the guise of that employer’s gauging that person’s suitability for the job. The candidate would be sacrificing time he could be spending making money elsewhere, applying for other jobs, caring for family—the list goes on. In addition to the opportunity costs that candidates would incur, such companies swindle intellectual property from candidates who collaborate with paid employees on actual products or solutions from which the company profits.

Is this practice still common? I can’t say for sure—I certainly hope not—but unethical activities such as these should be clear red flags if you encounter them, and you should immediately remove your candidacy. While companies have a right to make the best hiring decisions possible—and should be diligent in doing so—they do not have the right to profit off your unpaid labor. Do not allow them to take advantage of you. If you cultivate the right skills, create a portfolio that showcases your abilities, and align yourself with the right people, a better opportunity will eventually come your way—and you’ll be ready for it.

Initiate Personal Projects

You probably won’t have a deep UX portfolio—or even have one at all—if you’ve been working in a role that is unrelated to User Experience. But you’ll need a compelling portfolio if you want to land a UX job. How can you craft a portfolio if your day job provides no such opportunities? You must initiate projects on your own time. Often, the more personal these projects are, the better.

I’ve often found that the things I’m most passionate about or feel most energized by engender the highest quality of work. Where do you spend most of your free time? Pretend it’s a Saturday morning, and you have no obligations awaiting you for that day. What are you doing? Perhaps you like to make music. Maybe you’re a movie buff. Perhaps you enjoy being outdoors. Whatever your hobbies or interests, you likely know of opportunities for improving your experiences and increasing your enjoyment because you already spend a good deal of time doing or thinking about them. I once needed to beef up my portfolio—given my scant amount of professional work—so I initiated my own brand-identity project for my favorite used-CD store. One of my favorite weekend activities was perusing its shelves to discover hard-to-find gems. (I know that makes me sound old.)

Your time is valuable currency, so don’t squander it on things you think might be popular or what others might want to see or feel are important. If your heart is not in your work, your final output suffers, and your audience might not give back the energy you’ve put into it. If you have fun with your pet projects, your energy and passion show through your work.

Build Your Portfolio

Once you have several personal projects under your belt, you can begin to piece together a compelling portfolio. However, do not create a simple highlights reel that shows only final outcomes. Ensure that, for each project you’ve worked on, your portfolio communicates the problem you needed to solve, your process for understanding the problem and why users struggled with it, your role on the project—even if self-initiated—and how your deliverables evolved throughout the project.

Most candidates now have a portfolio Web site. The best portfolios—whether online or not—tell stories behind the final deliverables they showcase. Whatever your final solutions, ensure that you take visitors through the journey you took to achieve them. Hiring teams are just as interested—if not more interested—in the quality of your thinking as in your abilities to use Sketch or Figma.

Establish Your Network

Do not wait until it’s time to apply for jobs to build a relevant LinkedIn network. That would feel inauthentic to the UX professionals with whom you want to connect—especially if you’re hoping they might be able to help you land your first UX job. It is best to erect that scaffolding well in advance—even before you create a portfolio. However, when you ask to connect with a UX professional, do not be shy or vague. Tell them why you want to connect. Describe your desire to enter the field of User Experience. For example, a LinkedIn connection request to an established UX professional might look like the following simple example:

Hello, [name of recipient—spell it right!]

I am currently looking to enter the field of User Experience and would like to have an experienced UX professional such as yourself in my professional network.

Regards, [your name]

It’s incredible how many people do not write such personal notes and, instead, rely on LinkedIn’s canned introductions when connecting with total strangers. Do not blow a major opportunity to build rapport with your network invitees. To them, you might be an attractive job candidate or a potential mentee, but they’ll never know this if you do not reveal your goal. Mentoring is a two-way street, and the paths to UX leadership and professional growth often include mentoring experiences for those wishing to advance. UX professionals have their own career aspirations, and you might factor into those aspirations more than you realize.

Moreover, if you are not currently employed elsewhere, it is beneficial to indicate that you are seeking a job as a UX [insert a specific discipline here]. Replace the title in your LinkedIn profile with this information to show people that you could be worth keeping on their radar. Do not be shy about expressing your desire. Others cannot help you if they are not privy to your ultimate goal. Finally, it helps to be specific about which UX specialty you want to grow into. Someone who would be willing to mentor a user researcher might not be as eager to mentor an interaction designer or a visual designer—or have the experience or expertise to do so effectively.

Find Your Mentor

Once you’ve connected with several experienced UX professionals, identify those with whom you feel you have established solid connections. Some may even have responded to your connection requests with positive messages of their own. Seize those opportunities to deepen your relationships with those people, organically. Avoid jumping in feet first and asking any UX professional to be your mentor, which might scare them off. After all, they do not know you. You’re still a stranger to them.

Instead, start with smaller, more innocuous requests such as asking what they would look for in a job candidate or what steps they would take if they were in your position and were hoping to break into the field. Resist the urge to ask them to do any work right away—such as reviewing your portfolio or giving you feedback on a design deliverable. Gauge their enthusiasm and responsiveness if and when they do follow up with you. If they seem engaged, continue to build your relationship with them organically, which will pay dividends down the road. And who knows, a UX professional might even offer to help you before you even ask for their help. Before you know it, you’ll have a mentor—or perhaps several!

Immerse Yourself in the UX Community

In addition to your being an avid reader of books, blogs, and Web magazines that are dedicated to the topic of User Experience—including UXmatters, of course—it helps to join online communities in which interesting conversations are constantly occurring. There are many UX communities you can consider joining. Just being part of a community gives you deeper insights into the types of challenges UX professionals often face and offers valuable opportunities for initiating conversations with other people.

As tempting as it is to list my go-to communities, I feel that doing so would do a disservice to the valuable communities and groups of which I am unaware. Some lists of useful UX communities already exist, including “Top UX Communities & Groups,” on UXbeginner.com, and “UX/UR Communities and Resources,” on User Interviews. For you, the best communities are the ones in which you feel most comfortable. If you spend some time on LinkedIn, you’ll find plenty of UX groups to join. The same goes for Facebook and Slack. Consider which platforms you prefer and where you spend most of your time. Odds are good that those platforms are the ones from which you’ll reap the most benefit.

Seek Opportunities in Your Day Job

Sometimes, our best opportunities are right under our noses. Whatever your current role, if you work for a company that values your professional growth, there could be opportunities to integrate UX design projects into your work. Here are some ideas:

  • Create a professional development goal. Many companies establish annual business and personal development goals against which you’re measured. Discuss this with your manager. If your company does not have a formal career-development process or an established method of initiating stretch goals, ask whether you can create your own—and clearly state your desire to build your knowledge about the field of User Experience. In some cases, you won’t have to leave your current employer to land your dream UX job. You must speak about your desire to create the opportunity, then take the steps necessary to make it a reality. The road may be long and meandering, but if you have deep respect for your current employer and enjoy working for them, the journey could be well worth effort. Do not keep your desires locked inside your head. Share them with others and enable them to assist you.
  • Shadow a UX professional. If your company has a formal UX Design team or some professionals who do UX work, ask them whether you can meet with them or even shadow them for a couple of hours a week. Folks in UX design roles are like anyone else in their desire to demonstrate what they do for their company—if not more so. They’ll likely jump at the opportunity to help you. After all, there are major benefits to them, too. Developing colleagues’ interest in User Experience throughout their company helps them to mature the UX practice and mindset. As I mentioned earlier, UX professionals who want to grow their own careers or leadership capabilities also stand to gain from such relationships.
  • Do actual UX work. Often, the best methods for learning involve doing. You can read countless UX books, attend local UX community events or gatherings, and connect with influential UX folks on social media. But, at the end of the day, doing UX work ramps up your knowledge the fastest. If you immerse yourself in the work, you’ll learn the most about UX skills, opportunities for growth, and some of the finer nuances of being a UX designer. So, with your manager’s approval, ask your company’s UX Design team whether they might have opportunities for you to take on a small side-project under the tutelage of a seasoned designer. If no such team or individuals exist—which is an unfortunate reality at many companies—perhaps you could meet with a software-product team and offer to work with their product manager on the problem they’re attempting to solve. Volunteer to meet with prospective customers or users. Design wireframes and mockups. Share your findings and ideas with the team. Most product teams struggle to obtain adequate funding and resources, so you’ll likely find stakeholders amenable to your involvement—as long as you bring them value.

Get Training

Most hiring UX managers and teams are more interested in your practical work experience and skills—including, in no small part, your soft skills—than in your formal education. However, taking a UX research or design course covering an area of interest might be a good way of rounding out your knowledge. Web-based training courses are available, convenient, and far more affordable than earning an undergraduate degree. While such courses are by no means replacements for four-year undergraduate degrees in any field, you could still get up to speed on some of the basics of user-centered design. In conjunction with your initiating your own projects, working with a mentor, and finding opportunities on your day job, additional training could help fill in some previously unknown gaps. Plus, many training courses offer communities and forums in which you can connect with other like-minded individuals and experts.

Conclusion

While your desire to enter the field of User Experience is a good thing, it should not compel you to subject yourself to companies’ unethical practices that would take advantage of that desire. Aspiring UX professionals still have a right to be paid for their work. Within your current company or on your own, initiate your own projects, from which you would ultimately profit. Use these projects in your portfolio, telling the stories about these projects, so hiring teams can get a sense of the quality of your thinking and how you approach problems.

Establish a UX network early and organically, before you need to call upon it. That network may give rise to mentoring relationships, so pay close attention to those UX professionals who demonstrate enthusiasm about your connecting with them. Perhaps they could help you advance your budding career. Join online communities—which are abundant—and are good places for finding like-minded people. Opportunities often present themselves in ways you might not expect. You might get an opportunity to cultivate your dream job at your current employer. Finally, taking courses can be an affordable, convenient way of fleshing out your knowledge and revealing hidden gaps.

Breaking into the field of User Experience is not easy, but casting a wide net and taking all of the actions I’ve described in this column increases your odds of landing that coveted job in the field of User Experience. We need you! 

User Experience Architect at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. In 2013, Jon joined Rockwell Automation, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. He is UX lead for a revolutionary analytics appliance for users on the factory floor. In addition to his Fortune-500 experience, Jon has contributed his skills to a real-estate startup. Jon rounds out his time by writing and reading anything he can get his hands on.  Read More

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