How to break into User Experience Design | June 10, 2011
One of the most common things I’m asked is how people can break into the field of user experience design.
I’d love to be able to give a simple answer—like studying a particular course at University or starting as a UX apprentice and working your way up a series of clearly defined roles—but sadly that’s not the case.
There are Masters degrees out there, but the good ones are few and far between. With current courses failing to meet demand, there’s no way the education system will be able to cope in the next two to three years once User Experience practice has becomes the norm.
Even if you’re lucky enough to attend a good course, unless you had some level of prior experience, you’ll find it hard landing that first job. You see, User Experience is no different from the rest of our industry. There are few large companies willing to train people up so most employers need people with at least a couple of years experience in their chosen field, and preferably more.
For designers and developers it’s easy to gain experience though personal projects. This is why most of my peers came to prominence through their blogs, portfolio sites and side projects. They were blank canvases on which they could try out new skills and lean the tools of their trade. These day’s people are doing the same thing, but with start-ups and iPhone apps instead.
It’s easy for designers and developers to take on solo projects, but it’s much more difficult for budding user experience designers. After all I can’t imagine many UX Designers sitting around in the evening running usability tests, doing card sorts or designing complex sign-up processes just for the fun of it. By it’s nature, user experience design is a specialisation and one that forms part of a bigger process and a larger team.
The most successful user experience designers tend to come from a graphic design or front-end development background. As they’re already working on the parts of the project that come in contact with the user, it’s natural for some of them to be more in tune with UX problems. If they happen to work for a company without a dedicated UX person, it’ll often be left to them to solve.
That’s exactly the situation I found myself in. I worked for a company where I was the main designer and front-end developer. With nobody else to worry about the user I found myself running usability testing sessions, setting up card sorts, working out site maps and designing wireframes. The more UX work I did the less visual design and front end development I did, until one day I found myself doing User Experience design full time.
So if you are working for a small agency on in-house team and don’t have a UX person on staff, one way to break into the industry is to take these responsibilities on yourself push your company forward. As your company grows in its maturity, you will too.
Bizarrely it’s a lot more difficult to become a user experience designer in a company that already gets UX and has dedicated staff. That’s simply because the opportunities to dabble are much less. In those situations it’s worth letting your employers and colleagues know that you’re interested in moving into that field and offer to help out as much as possible. That could be helping to moderate usability testing sessions or helping your UX team design deliverables or prototype ideas.
If the day job doesn’t provide the opportunity to flex your UX muscles then you’re going to need to build your experience and portfolio through other means. One idea is to have a pet project. This is a little more difficult of you don’t have any back end skills, so it may be sensible to find a friendly developer to partner up with. Another idea could be to offer your services to one of the many ugly, badly conceived but nevertheless worthy open source projects out there. Lastly, I’d recommend going along to a hack day, Design Jam or Dev Fort style event. It will take time to get the requisite experience, but it may be the only way.
One of the most difficult problems is taking the leap and redefining yourself as a user experience person. Often your existing company won’t see you in that light, especially if they’ve always known you as a graphic designer or front-end developer. However until you’ve a couple of years of dedicated experience, you’ll find it very difficult picking up full time work.
If you’re young enough the best way to redefine yourself is to walk into the wilderness and simply call yourself a freelance user experience designer. You’ll find it difficult picking up work at first, but as you get better, more will come. Go to as many UX conferences and community events as you can. The sooner other people in the community start thinking of you as a user experience designer, the sooner you can start feeling like one yourself. There is a certain amount of re-invention going on here, but that’s going to be the only way for some people.
Of course you could think about doing a masters degree in some HCI related subject. Sadly most of the courses are 10 years out of date, so it’s less about what you’ll learn and more about the opportunities that will arise from the course. So take every opportunity to do practical work and fill out your portfolio. A year long Masters with a couple of obscure essays and a final project on machine learning won’t help you as much as a dissertation on sign-up techniques and 4 or 5 relevant side projects. It still won’t guarantee you a job, but it will probably put you a couple of years a head of where you would have been otherwise.
Sadly, until universities wake up to the need for modern courses in interaction design, until large companies and agencies set up dedicated training programs and until user experience becomes the de facto standard for web design, it’s going to be tough making the jump. But with demand for good people growing, and showing no sign of letting up, if you are interested in making the leap I’d encourage you to do so.
Posted at June 10, 2011 3:18 PM