This quick start guide is for designers who need a concrete, actionable plan to break into the UX industry.
UX and UI designers are some of the most in-demand tech jobs out there - but getting into the UX industry isn’t easy. The demand for jobs is high - and the supply of interested beginners is even higher. The job market is full of university students, bootcamp graduates, self-taught designers, and freelancers. Standing out to get the job is harder now than ever.
If you’ve been hunting for advice on what to do to get results and overwhelmed with all the information out there, then this quick start guide is for you.
Before we start, let’s lay down some common understanding about UX and get some of the most commonly asked questions out of the way.
The short answer is no - it’s not a requirement. Education by itself is useful, but it’s not a replacement for real-life experience.
Because designers are practitioners, actual work experience is the most important proof for a designer to have - even more than educational background.
That’s why designers are known to come from a variety of backgrounds, degrees, and work experiences - some as unrelated as accounting! Many successful designers have often forgone traditional routes of formal education, and proven themselves through getting the right experience.
However, there is a certain level of technical skill required to become a proficient designer. By “technical skill”, we don’t mean programming. We mean specific hard design skills such as choosing typography, spacing, and color, and using design software such as Sketch, Figma, or Principle.
We'll cover what you need to know at a minimum in these hard design skills later in this quick start guide. The great news is that there are a ton of online resources out there that can help you get a better grasp at the basics - as long as you know what to look for.
There are many design job titles available in the UX industry, and they can often overlap or be used interchangeably. Sometimes companies will say they want a certain type of designer, but they mean another. As a result, you will want to focus on job descriptions over job titles to pick the right opportunities. Here's a collection of common types of UX designers:
If you don't know what kind of design you want to be, don't worry! When you're first starting out, you don't really need to specialize. It's more important that you get your foot in the door first and gain some exposure to real design problems. As you experience different types of problems, you will start to get a sense for what specialty appeals more to you.
This guide will cover material that’s relevant to most types of UX designer roles, so you can increase your chances of breaking into the industry.
It always helps to have a network - but it isn’t necessary, and it’s far from a guarantee that you’ll get hired. At the end of the day, you need to have the design skills, right mindset, and the proof of your proficiency to make the cut. No amount of referrals can make up for the lack of those skills, so make sure your primary focus is on your abilities and not your connections. Once you have the necessary skills and proof, getting connections can definitely help your chances.
No, this isn’t a requirement. Most designers will not do any coding in their day-to-day work, but they will often have to communicate their designs to developers. In that way, it is very helpful for a designer to understand some basics of code.
HTML, CSS, and the box model are probably the most important for a designer to understand. It’s also extremely helpful to know the difference between “back-end” and “front-end” programming.
So how do you break into the UX industry? How do you become a hireable designer?
You will need to meet these four criteria:
Let’s go over each one.
Good design is not only how something looks, but how something works - a delightful combination of form and function. Most designers who are struggling to get entry-level design jobs are lacking minimum proficiency in at least one of the two areas.
You’ll need basic UI and visual skills in order to create the “form” of your design - its appearance, aesthetic, or layout. You’ll also need basic UX and user research skills in order to create the “function” of your design - its feel, flow, usefulness, and ability to solve user’s problems.
These skills are the foundation of all great designers, and you’ll need a minimum level of proficiency here before anything else, such as networking or interviewing.
A popular misconception is that designers are simply creatives, artists, or visionaries. But in the world of software and hardware, designers are much more than that. They are problem-solvers, merging creativity and artistry with functionality and usefulness.
Their designs are intentional solutions that account for edge cases, errors, and for when users are in non-ideal conditions - designing for what goes wrong, not just when things go right. It’s usually work experience that teaches designers about this mindset - that’s why employers value work experience so much and avoid hiring designers without it. We'll talk about how you can gain this type of mindset later on in this guide.
Every designer, like every person, has particular strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Starting out, you may not know what these are, or what specific facets of design interest you the most. When you aren’t familiar with these, you’ll try to jump at opportunities that don’t suit you, unintentionally showcasing the wrong things about yourself in portfolios and interviews, and fail to stand out to hiring managers or companies.
Take time to think about and explore what makes you special as a designer. What are you really good at? Are you especially good at a certain skill, or do you possess a unique set of skills? Do you have hobbies, education, or work experience outside of design that gives you a perspective others don’t have?
Leaning into your strengths and interests will help you stand out from the crowd, advance in your career, and match with the right opportunities.
None of the three above criteria will matter much if you can’t prove them. As a designer in the UX industry, you are entering a world of practitioners. In this world, proof of being able to do something is king, with past work experience being the strongest form of evidence.
You’ll need to demonstrate your skills through a portfolio, case studies, and resume, and in talking about your design process. We’ll go into more detail about this in a later section.
With these three focus areas in mind, it’s time to get moving on an action plan that’ll make you competitive in the UX industry.
We’ve run this action plan with lots of beginner designers and mentees with great results. This isn't a “hack” or cheat code - it requires hard work. But if you follow the plan, it will help reduce uncertainty in your process and guide you to focus on the things that will most improve your chances.
The rest of this guide will walk you through the details on how to start putting this plan into action.
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