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 days 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


tom randle said on June 10, 2011 7:02 PM

Hi Andy,

We recently wrote a post on How to get a graduate position in UX and design:

Our company has historically really struggled to recruit ux graduates.

I think as you say, most degrees are years behind what’s really happening, and many HCI graduates seem more interested in visual design than usability.

I still wonder whether a lot of the people with appropriate skills have never heard of UX design or fear starting a career in such a new field?

Russ said on June 10, 2011 7:32 PM

Love this!

Of course, the even bigger question to me is:

“How do you get OUT of User Experience Design?”

I mean that with sincerity—I’ve been telling people who are in UX to ask their boss(es) what their career path is.

Where do you go from UX?

I don’t think it’s a story that’s completely written, but it’s one worth thinking about.

I mean, Andy, what’s next for you?

Greg said on June 10, 2011 7:37 PM

> I mean, Andy, what’s next for you?

A hunting lodge in Burma, right?

Stuart said on June 10, 2011 8:29 PM

Well, as someone who’ll be graduating with an MSc in HCI come September, this has really cheered me up!

@Tom: Thanks for the link.

Adam Procter said on June 10, 2011 10:14 PM

Enjoyed this article very much however the unqualified attack on University course does no one any favours.

Adam Procter said on June 10, 2011 10:15 PM

Obviously that should say courses

Andy Budd said on June 11, 2011 6:11 PM

Thanks for the feedback Adam. However I wouldn’t say it was unqualified. I speak to plenty of people in education about thei courses, visit graduate shows, get emails from frustrated students and receive graduate CVs. I honestly think that the educatiOn system is failig both students and employers in most digital related fields. So as somebody who cares about the future of our industry and sees the effect poor education is having upon it, I’d say that I was perfectly placed to comment.

Rob said on June 12, 2011 4:05 AM

“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 did your visual design and front-end code suffer from more of your time and energy being spent on UX? I’m not certain I get that part of it. I mean, when you started doing more and more UX (let’s say 50% or more of your time vs your original tasks), what happened to your other responsibilities? Did you lobby for the company to hire another web designer to take over the duties you had less time to fulfill now that you moved on to more UX stuff?

Andy Budd said on June 12, 2011 10:26 AM

Because we started offering UX as a new service we upped the initial time and budget estimates to compensate. So I ended up doing UX, visual design and dev. As I got better at UX and became the only person in the company who knew how to do this aspect of the job, others started picking up more of the design and development responsibilities.

Adam Procter said on June 12, 2011 5:36 PM

Thank you, I should have been clearer, I was referring to the fact that the statements you made at then end where unqualified in the article. I have seen a number of design articles with similar claims. For Universities to hear why employers feel this way and engage with them can only aid the UK creative industries. There are many things some University’s are doing wrong but they are many that are doing things right. I hope to write an article myself about some of the pressures and demands perhaps unknown to employers and talk about obstacles within HE and digital media that can cripple some courses and innovation. 

Leisa Reichelt said on June 14, 2011 8:13 AM

speaking as a UX freelancer who also has to answer this question fairly regularly, I am really cautious about recommending that people new to User Experience start out freelancing.

The best way to learn how to do what we do and how to do it better (it’s a constant path of improvement) is to work with other people more experienced than you - something that you’re possibly going to isolate yourself from if you go freelance. The easiest time to learn is when you yourself accept that you have lots that you need to learn - it can be difficult to maintain honesty (and awareness) of the need for learning if you’re in a freelance bubble.

Freelancing, where you’re the main/only UX person is tough - if you do go down this path be sure to cultivate networks of UX people you can connect with regularly and compare notes and please be as honest as you can with yourself and your clients about what you’re good at and not so good/experienced at.

I haven’t worked with them for a while but I’d suggest that an alternative is to stake out and do your best to impress some of the companies with larger UX teams in town. They’re more likely to have an ongoing demand for UXers at all levels of experience and to perhaps provide you with either formal mentoring/training or, more likely, just give you the opportunity to observe experienced UXers in the wild. Combine that with reading and practicing a lot and that’s as good as any ‘learn UX’ program I could think of.

WOG said on June 21, 2011 7:40 AM

I think its only a matter of time for the UX to create a buzz in the field.