I’ve done a lot of UX work over the past 20+ years, from freelance and contract, to startups and big enterprise companies. I’ve also seen thousands of CVs (really) and hired over 100 people into design roles. I get asked (some permutation of) this question a lot, so it seems like a good idea to collect my thoughts and turn it into a guide - I aim to update this regularly as I think of new things.
Version 1.5, Updated 24 October 2023
- 1. Background
- 2. Preparation
- 3. Your portfolio
- 4. Getting hired
- 5. Conclusion
Why work in UX?
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already decided you’d like to work in User Experience. If you’re still deciding, here’s some reasons why I think UX Design (and Product Design) is a good career to investigate:
If design is working well in your organisation, then designers can have a huge, direct impact on the products and services your organisation delivers. You can improve product capabilities, save people time, help them make better decisions, and generate more revenue for the company - all by employing thoughtful design at every stage of the product life cycle. It’s a rewarding feeling when you see something you’ve designed being used (happily) by thousands or even millions of people.
UX is, by its nature, a very human-centric field. You have to think about people a lot, empathise with their people’s needs, interview people, and liaise with lots of people across your organisation on a daily basis. You don’t have to be a “people person” to be a good UX designer, but if you’re at the other end of that spectrum and really don’t like social interaction - UX might not be a great fit for you. You’ll be forcing that social interaction often, and even worse: avoiding talking to users and designing poor experiences in a vacuum.
Many jobs in the tech industry are remote-friendly like software engineering and customer support. UX lends itself to this mode of working really well - thanks to collaboration tools like Miro, Figma and video conferencing. I hope you like video calls, you’re going to be doing a lot of video calls.
Over the past few years I’ve worked with great UX people who’ve come from the following disciplines: marketing, visual design, product management, and even non-tech fields like medicine or bioscience. It’s a very broad field of work and that does make it accessible to lots of people.
Do I need a university degree? No.
Would it help me stand out amongst other applicants? Probably, for some roles.
It really depends on the sector or industry you’re going into.
For example: if you work in marketing for a fashion company, moving into UX on an online fashion store would be a great transition - and it’s unlikely a degree or masters’ in UX or HCI would add much to your chances of getting hired.
Conversely - if you’re applying to work in UX on deeply technical software for database engineering, a Computer Science degree would make you a more desirable candidate to a recruiter.
Everything you do as a UX designer can be learned as an adult. It’s not like those kids that learn the violin at age 3 and become international superstars - you can still be great at UX if you picked it up later in your career.
Empathy and objectivity are the primary skills you need to succeed in UX - more so than any skills in using a particular piece of software like Figma or Miro.
You need empathy to understand your users’ needs, goals, and frustrations. To “walk a mile in their shoes” requires you to approach user problems with respect— they’re not stupid, your software is just too hard to use. You need objectivity to look at your product with fresh eyes, spot the flaws, and fix them.
Communication (written and verbal) are essential skills. If you can’t write well, you’ll find it hard to succeed in UX. You’ll need to take notes from stakeholders (internal and external), user interviews and handover meetings with engineering. You’ll need to write product copy, documentation and UI copy. If you can write well - you’ve got a head start in UX.
Communicating design decisions to other people is vital. We need to do a certain amount of evangelism to convince people of our design work, explaining the thought process and problems along the journey that led us to this solution. Communication is two-way of course, so you need to be receptive to new ideas, feedback and things you haven’t considered (or have simply gotten wrong).
You need to “read the room” and adjust your presentation style for the audience - you’ll talk in very high-level terms with the CEO or other senior stakeholders, explaining why you took a certain design decision and how it relates to the wider company goals. Likewise, you’ll be talking about the details of an interaction, or some UI copy with product managers or front-end engineers.
Wireframing & Prototyping represents a lot of the “doing” - once you’ve thought everything through, you’ll need to express how the software works visually and tools like Figma, Sketch, Miro, Axure and so on are the way to do this. They’re not difficult tools to learn - and most have component libraries of UI elements you can drag and drop onto the canvas to lay out screens.
Courses and bootcamps
A short online course in the basics of UX should be considered mandatory for anyone entering the field. In a good course you’ll learn basic HCI theory, practice the problem solving of “design thinking”, come up with user personas, draw wireframe designs, and so on. There’s probably a lot of “snake oil” out there - courses that claim to skill you up to “master” level in a few days - clearly impossible. But, stick to the well known, well-rated courses and you’ll get a lot of value. I’ve hired a few people over the years who’ve done the Coursera courses and the work they’ve demonstrated as part of their coursework has been excellent.
Here are some books that I’d consider essential for any newcomer to User Experience (note these are Amazon Affiliate links).
|The Design of Everyday Things - Don Norman (revised 2013)||The ‘godfather’ of them all. Everyone doing HCI or UX will have to read this at University. It’s old now, and some of the concepts will be second nature to experienced designers, but it’s still essential for newcomers.|
|Don’t Make Me Think - Steve Krug (2014)||Also quite old, but focused on web usability. Informative but also an entertaining read.|
|Lean UX - Jeff Gothelf (2021)||"Lean" is everywhere in the tech industry, and this guide applies lean principles to product design.|
|101 UX Principles - Will Grant (2022)||Disclaimer: I wrote this one. Obviously, I think it’s good for newcomers to the field - and as a reference for more experienced UX designers.|
|Laws of UX - Jon Yablonski (2020)||Started life as a "cheat sheet" website, but expanded nicely into a great reference guide into the theory behind UX principles and why they work.|
|Articulating Design Decisions - Tom Greever (2020)||You’re always designing for someone else, and how you present and communicate your work to those stakeholders is vital.|
|Just Enough Research - Erika Hall (2019)||Compact, well-written guide to the different types of research and how you can get started with each of them.|
Speculative projects (often called “spec work” or similar) is where you pretend to be working for a real paying client: but do all the work yourself for a portfolio piece.
They’re great for a few reasons; first, they’re great practice. Setting yourself a challenge like “let’s redesign Instagram for the macOS desktop” or “Could I design an Uber-for-dog-sitting” is a doorway to a whole heap of new ideas and exploration. You’ll flex those UX muscles and finish the process with a bit more practice under your belt.
Second: they can help bulk out a beginner’s portfolio - obviously the hiring manager will know you didn’t actually work for Instagram, but you can demonstrate your process anyway.
Finally: they look great to recruiters and hiring managers. A spec project shows your work and shows your interest in the field. Being curious and interested in design is very attractive to hiring managers.
One step up from spec work is actually working on a real product as a volunteer. Many small charities have little to no design resource internally - but they all have websites (and apps) in need of major UX improvements. I have first hand experience of this as I volunteered for a small health charity in my country: their site had never had the slightest bit of “UX love” and I was able to do a lot of work for them to improve their donations conversion and generally apply some UX best practices. This can then form a portfolio piece just like spec work.
It’s definitely worth asking them directly - usually the “Press” contacts on a charity’s website are a good starting point.
3. Your portfolio
The portfolio paradox
You need to get a job to complete projects, to put them into a portfolio to get a job. Elsewhere in this guide I’ve talked about several “hacks” to get around this;
- Using coursework projects
- Speculative projects
- Parts of your real job where you’ve used UX approaches
- Volunteer projects
Once you’ve got your first job, obviously it becomes easier to build a portfolio, but either way it’s important to focus hiring managers’ attention on your process - with “real” projects or speculative ones.
What to include in your portfolio
Include 3 or 4 pieces of work - each should demonstrate multiple aspects of your UX methodology.
For a select 1 or 2 pieces of work - expect to be able to talk in further depth about those in a “portfolio review” - which is common as an interview stage in the hiring process.
For each entry, include:
- The client/employer, project and dates
- The core problem you set out to solve
- The steps of your methodology
- The learnings from each step
- The solution you arrived at
- The results the solution delivered
It sounds like a lot, but you can really condense it and be succinct - include bullet points and pull quotes to emphasise the important things you don’t want readers to miss.
For each step, include evidence of your process; personas, notes from interviews, empathy maps, flow diagrams, wireframes and sketches.
Write prose explaining how you arrived at your solution, how you tested the solution and - if it went wrong, why it went wrong and how you corrected it. This part is the chance to show your shiny mockup UI in an iPhone - but don’t over-do it.
Finally, results are nice - but not essential. It’s not always possible to quantify the improvements: “Reduced cart abandonment by 1.6%” - but if you can, it tells a powerful story about the effectiveness of your approach.
What not to include in your portfolio
I do occasionally see UX portfolios that resemble a Dribbble page. High-fidelity user interfaces, sleek isometric devices, animated micro-interactions, and 3D graphics from a stock site. It’s lovely and very pretty but it tells me nothing about your UX process.
In the day-to-day reality of a UX designer, the ability to produce a polished production-ready UI is very low down the list of requirements. Most decent organisations with a modern design function will have visual designers, user interface designers, a developed design system and front-end engineers - they don’t need UX people to build pixel-perfect front-end mockups. They need UX people to understand users and design experiences to meet their needs.
4. Getting hired
If you’re in a big enough organisation, it might be possible to move internally across teams or departments and take on UX work. If a full move isn’t possible, maybe you can “act up” and perform some duties of a UX professional. All this work can be added to your portfolio and resume for a future external role.
Why get a job at all? Freelance UX designers work directly for clients and deliver problem-solving design solutions. You find clients, understand their needs, deliver design work, present it back - and get paid. That’s the idea anyway (more on that later).
There’s lots to like about the freelance (or short-term contract) life: you get to work for yourself, feeling in control of your own destiny - it can be rewarding.
There are some downsides too: you need to be constantly searching for work, always thinking about the next gig. After a while, it feels like 80% of your job is sales, prospecting, client management (ie: please pay me!) - with a little bit of time left over to actually do design work.
How to get that first freelance client
Look at existing customers - who have you worked for in the last 6 months or 12 months (in any capacity) - reach out to them: do they need any UX projects tackling?
Look for customers like your existing/past customers - reach out to them: “Hey I did a project for X recently, looks like you’re solving similar problems at Y”.
Network - look at your network and approach them “I really like [your thing] - I’d love to help out with any UX design requirements you might have”.
It’s a “numbers game”, send a lot of messages, hope that some stick. Remember: it’s 100x easier to get work from a past client than to find a new one.
Applying for jobs
So you’ve ticked all the boxes so far:
- Keen interest in UX, product design, user interface, or cognitive psychology
- Completed a UX, research, interaction design course or similar
- Built a portfolio from your coursework and some spec work
- Read (or started to read) some classic UX books
…and it’s time to start applying for jobs.
This really is a “numbers game” - you have to apply to a lot of jobs, to get a few interviews, to get the one offer you want. Think of it like a sales funnel.
Don’t get fixated on one job, or one employer - it’ll be too disappointing if you don’t get that one dream job. There are plenty more jobs out there to apply for, you need to have thick skin, patience and determination.
Resume or CV
There are a million pages on the web about resume (CV) writing tips, so I won’t go into that in detail. Keep it short, readable, tastefully designed, focus on experience, skills, education.
The Interview (and Cover Letters)
I’ve lumped these together because, in a way, you’re trying to demonstrate the same things to the hiring manager in both cases. It’s true that cover letters matter a lot less than they used to, but you can think of a cover letter as a written version of your manifesto - the key points you want to hit during an interview.
The “big four” you’re demonstrating are: your interest, experience, methodology, and commercial awareness - this is based on my experience of hiring many UX people at all levels into multiple different companies (admittedly all in the Tech & Software industries).
The people interviewing you are asking themselves “is this person nice, decent, approachable and can they do the job?”.
- Evidence of interest - does this candidate have a genuine interest in UX, what have they done “off their own bat”: internships, spec work, blog posts, online portfolio, even evidence of being mentored by a more senior designer on a platform like ADPList.
- Evidence of experience - hard if you’re new to the sector, but put down anything you can think of: did you perform some related work in a previous role that you can mention?
- Evidence of methodology - do you understand a modern product design methodology, do you use one? How can you evidence this with examples? No experience? Fine: talk about what you learned on your course or university degree.
- Evidence of commercial awareness - design doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Do you understand the company, its products, competitors and market? Demonstrate you’ve done some basic background research.
The “take home test”
I often advise more senior designers to avoid these tests and decline when asked to do them. They’re unnecessary - a hiring manager should be able to look at a seasoned designer’s portfolio of work, and with a couple of interviews, establish if they are a good fit or not. The time spent doing these tests could be better used applying to more jobs with companies that don’t ask for a take home test.
However, if you’re just starting out, I’m afraid you’ll need to accept these “take home” tests. I’d advise not spending too much time on polishing them - when interviewing I care more about the thought process the designer went through rather than seeing a shiny finished product. It’s not a dribbble piece, it’s a story of how your design process works.
Usually you’ll be asked to spend a few hours on these tasks, and present them back to the hiring panel. Remember what you’re trying to demonstrate: interest, experience, methodology and commercial awareness. Cover all these points when presenting your work back to the interviewers.
It’s hard, but it’s possible. You can move into UX with no experience, it takes a lot of determination and perseverance - but it can be done (I’ve seen many people do it over the years).
Finally, if there’s anything you strongly disagree with in this post I’d love to hear about it. I’ll be revising this post as I think of new things or change my views over time.