Over the course of a long and winded career in the field of Design, I have been hired (and rejected) many times, and I have hired (and rejected) numerous candidates for design roles. As a candidate, I learned a lot from the results, and – on the odd occasion – the feedback I received. As a hiring manager, I’ve had to justify my decisions in front of hiring committees here to help ensure that my judgments were fair. I’ve also helped (hopefully!) a number of mentees and discussed this topic with them at length, learning about their worries and concerns.
All this has taught me that there are too many paths designers can pursue to draw a universally applicable map to success for them. But they often start shaping their own path by asking the same types of questions. So I decided to write this article in a FAQ format in the hope that you might find the most helpful nugget of information you need to define your own journey. Here we go:
Just to be sure, what does a UX Designer do?
What is the problem I am trying to solve?
User Experience and Product Design are popular and appealing professions to get into, but since they lack a ‘typical’ trajectory, it can be hard to begin and succeed in such careers.
Who am I solving this problem for?
– people with little work experience who are considering this as their first career
– people with an existing profession related to the creative industries or technology who are considering a career change
How might I leverage technology to solve this problem in a way that delights the target audience and that works for the business I am trying to help?
– download the most helpful pieces of my personal experience into a blog post.
This is it really. As a UX Designer, I spend the vast majority of my working life thinking about these three questions. There’s a process to answer them. The process is my friend. There are many people involved in helping me answer them and realise the solutions we come up with together. They are my friends too. There are many activities I will engage in and many types of collateral and ‘creative’ I will produce to communicate these solutions. There are many tools I use to produce these things. There are many things I need to learn each time I solve a problem. But ultimately, the three questions are always on my mind. This is in part because they are the only ones the answers to which should ideally never change on each particular project, and partly because I personally care about them deeply and I enjoy the process that leads to the answers tremendously. It’s what makes Design a very special career for me. Some of these reasons may be why you are here. But UX Design is not for everyone.
Where should I work as a UX Designer?
You’ve made up your mind about the job, but don’t know where to look for a job? I’d consider three factors:
1) What type of environment do you want to work in (e.g. corporate, big tech, startup, etc.)?
I’ve worked in many different environments in order to answer this question. Here’s my quick take including the ‘buts’. Because there’s always a but.
- Startup: Own huge part of the experience and have a big impact on the company direction; be excited and invested in the problem you’re solving, learn many different skills, but little exposure to more senior people to learn from, no corporate benefits, lower pay, terrible hours and often work on weekends, little formal upwards mobility, always working on the same problem
- Agency: Many different challenges and industries, learn working with clients, grow your network with each project, higher pay, but hours can be bad (but better as a contractor), detachment from the delivery process which means much of your work may never see the light of day
- Big Tech: Learn from an internal of experienced colleagues, interesting challenges in a company with name recognition, great benefits and easy hours, learn mature development practices and processes, decent pay, but upwards mobility is extremely slow, much waste and slow software development, many products aren’t actually customer-facing and invisible to the public (you won’t build a portfolio), level of excitement and enjoyment highly depends on the team you work with and can be low.
- Consulting: High energy environment working on real-world challenges with clients, grow your network, learn from highly intelligent and experienced colleagues, decent pay, but the work-life balance can be very bad, projects are often relatively short and you may not see the impact yourself, you may need to cut corners on your design process due to time constraints (e.g. less time for user research), a lot of education on the value of design can be required with teams who have not previously worked with a designer
- Internal product development: A combination of the benefits of a startup and corporate, immediate access to your end-user, but no visibility of your work as most of it will be confidential, high reliance on qualitative research as the user base is often small
2) What industry do you want to work in?
Either you’ve already worked in some industry you know well and you want to continue doing so, or you want to ‘get out of it’, or you have no industry specific experience yet and want to become known as an expert in some area. If any of these is true you should consider the industry any prospective employer operates in to meet your development goals.
3) Where will you be able to optimise for learning?
This is really the most important question for me and I keep asking it even while I have a job. Especially if you are looking for your first design role I encourage you to look at your career as a journey with many phases that equip you to arrive at your desired destination.
For example, let’s say your dream is to develop the interface between humans and an Artificial Intelligence controlling a spaceship to Mars. You could take an all-or-nothing bet on applying to SpaceX for your first role and hope the plan works out. But I’d give you better odds if you did something like this:
- take a job at a mature tech company to learn the ropes of UX design from those who know it well
- then spend some time with a few A.I. and voice interface startups to learn what those technologies can do and how to design for them
- maybe study psychology or behavioural sciences in your spare time to learn about the human users and how to maneuver their psyche.
- and just generally be really, really passionate about space and consume any related information to learn how to have an educated conversation with peers you’ll have to collaborate with
- all the while building your network with people who operate in the field to learn where the industry is going, what matters most, and where jobs become available
Such a trajectory is more likely to help you build and demonstrate the skills and experience needed for your dream job. Once you feel you stop learning at each phase, move on to the next, but you don’t have to look for the one job that ticks all the boxes.
How do I begin my job search and keep it efficient?
Read The Two Hour Job Search. As the author willingly admits, it’ll actually take you longer than two hours to get that job, but if you follow his process, you won’t regret it. I promise.
How can I stand out as a prospective UX Designer?
Here’s a mistake I made for far too long that I’m not proud of: When writing a CV, I’d look at the CV’s of people I admired and copied their layout. When creating a portfolio, I’d look at those designer’s portfolios and copied their structure. When I wrote a blurb for my LinkedIn profile, I’d do the same. Those results may have been okay, but replicating someone else’s work certainly didn’t help me stand out. By the time I became aware of another designer’s cool website, thousands others would have seen and copied it. By the time I’d copied that website, it would look like everyone else’s.
Eventually, I had realised this wasn’t the right way forward and some time ago, one of my mentors told me at last: “You’re really good at being yourself.” This meant a lot to me and I think it is a key tool on the way to realising your dreams. To use someone else’s words (I forgot the source): “Nobody else is as good as being you as yourself.” This means that in order to stand out, the only sure fire way is to be your original self. I know it sounds corny. I’ve always snuffed at this statement when someone mentioned it to me a few years ago. Now I think I understand it’s meaning and how this needs to be applied.
In practical terms, this means that of course you should keep looking at other’s work and learn from it (i.e. Steal Like an Artist). But then you need to apply those critical thinking skills (see above), understand why this implementation works in that person’s specific context, abstract the principles behind this, and learn and possibly apply them to your own context. Find ways to make it “You” and communicate this so you can stand out while not losing in humility. If this still doesn’t make sense, listen to Stephen Gates’ podcast episode on building a brand somebody hates.
For me, this presents itself in my online presence, but also in the way I work with development teams, and I communicate this as part of my Ethos. You don’t need to have this fully formed yet, but I recommend reflecting on it each time you present yourself and your work and shape your personal brand over time.
Beyond your personal brand, the key way to stand out is your work. The way you approach challenges and develop solutions should be the focus of your portfolio.
But how can I build a portfolio without work experience?
This is a catch 22 every designer I’ve ever met has found themselves in at the beginning of their career. To be honest, this problem never goes away. I still have it today because the kind of work I’ve done in the past isn’t necessarily what I want to keep doing in the future. That means there’s always an element of having to prove you can do a job you haven’t yet done.
The answer is obvious. If you don’t have enough practice to demonstrate expertise, then practise. When I look at portfolios of applicants, I try to understand how this person thinks, what it would be like to work with them. I try to estimate their level of various skills and look for evidence of critical thinking (see above). The output is the thing I am least interested in. Even with senior roles, once someone meets a certain minimum requirement their output is largely interchangeable with that of 1000 other designers. How they got there and how they communicate this to me is a different story.
This means that as long as you can demonstrate the attitudes and aptitudes required for the job, it doesn’t much matter what you worked on. A case study could be about a weekend-long hackathon, a test exercise you completed for an application to a different job, a side project, a collaboration with a personal friend. You don’t even need to show me all the skills as part of the same case study. Maybe you performed some research in an academic context and posted some visual designs on Dribble. Granted, the more you can draw a coherent story from the initial situation to the changed outcome, the better, but if you can explain all the elements needed, you’ll likely pass the portfolio review. I will test you on anything that seems missing in later interview stages anyways.
There is much more to be said on what makes a good portfolio, but I’ll just add one more thing here (which seems random but really bugs me): Your portfolio should be online. If you’re applying for a software related role, you should have a website, not (just) a PDF document.
How should I talk about my work and experience (and stand out)
One more common mistake I’ve made and see every day in others is thinking that an application to a job is about yourself. It is easy to fall into this trap as much of the material you create – the CV and portfolio – are seemingly about you. They are not.
You may think of applying for a job as a UX project in itself. The hiring personnel are your users. The problem you need to solve for them is this: How can I help both recruiters and hiring managers to see what uniquely qualifies me for the job. Consider their context, their needs. What type of screen are they looking at? How much time do they have to review my material? What do they care about most? Don’t waste any time (yours or theirs) sharing your entire life’s story. Focus on what truly matters to them, and ruthlessly prioritize the rest.
Truthfully, every time I see a CV that is ONE page long and lists evidence of measurable impact rather than lists of responsibilities or actions, I put that CV on the very top of my virtual stack. Such an applicant demonstrates empathy for me, impact focus, and prioritisation skills (all key skills of a designer) and saves me time in the process. Such an applicant makes it easy for me to choose them.
My own CV is far from perfect in this respect, but feel free to copy this Google Doc template and use it as a starting point. And don’t forget to tailor each version to the role you apply for.
How should I prepare for interviews?
Don’t just rock up to a conversation. Interviewers will do their best to make you feel comfortable, but make no mistake, you are applying for a job and you should expect to be asked for certain things. If you are asked for ‘a casual chat’ you should make sure you’ll have access to your portfolio and are able to talk about previous experience. Expect to talk someone through the relevant parts of your CV. Be able to talk to what you like about their company and why working there might be great. Be prepared with questions about them and their company. If you work as a contractor, know how much money you’d ask for.
These are just a few examples. Basically, expect any stage of an interview to happen at any point. Common stages of the interview process are:
- Basic screening of you and your experience
- Portfolio review and discussion of a case study
- In-person problem solving exercise on a fictional challenge
- Fictional project brief to solve at home and present back
- Behavioural interview
Do your research on what each of these phases entails and be prepared to accept each challenge or conversation.
Once I have a job, how can I develop my career?
Not only are there many paths leading into this profession. Once you’ve started in UX Design, there continue to be many career paths. I’ve made the step to the somewhat wider role of Product Design where I give more consideration to strategic aspects of product development, but there are many more possible avenues. This post sums a few of them up quite nicely.
What other advice would you give that I might not ask for?
- Get a mentor. Better still, get several. As many as you need to speak with credibility on each aspect of your professional life you’d like to improve on.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. Find people who have made their careers in UX and related fields and speak to them about what they like and dislike about their jobs and even particular companies and projects. This will correct many false assumptions you might hold today.
- Don’t be afraid to email people. Pester them until they explicitly tell you that you are not a good fit at the moment or they aren’t hiring. Many people are just bad at email. Don’t take their silence as rejection.
- Take all advice with a pinch of salt. Every article online is just representative of one person’s voice (this one included). Apply those critical thinking skills and consider what is worth taking on board, and what you can leave out.
- Learn from your mistakes, but don’t be sad if you’re rejected. Job applications are about mutual fit, so if it didn’t work out, it’s probably for the better for both of you.
I truly hope this helps. If you have any comments on what I wrote or if I’ve missed anything important, please let me know in the comments. If you enjoyed this article, you can listen to my podcast, sign up for my newsletter, or read my journal for more helpful advice.