Starting a Career in User Experience Design
Aug 10th, 2009
About once a week, I get an email from someone who is interested in becoming a user experience professional. They ask me a series of questions about how one would do this. The questions and areas of focus for these emails vary dramatically, depending on the interests of the individual asking. I thought it would be a good idea to write a post on some of the more common information about how to begin a career in user experience and how to become a user experience professional.
I have found three core areas of advice that I tend to dispense when it comes to someone who is starting out and wanting to know more about user experience. These three areas contain a lot of information. I could write a book on each one, but for the sake of brevity, I am going to keep my advice here limited to the high-level concepts. I am also going to limit this advice to being more web-centric rather than trying to cover all of the platforms and perspectives that user experience covers.
This advice likely applies to fields outside of the user experience realm. It is also applicable for those wanting to go into a specialized area of user experience.
The number one success factor for user experience professionals is education. It is critical to understand the realm of user experience and all that it covers before deciding on what areas to specialize in, be it information architecture, usability engineering, interaction design, visual design, content strategy & copywriting, web analysis, user research, online marketing, or web strategy.
If a formal education is not for you there are more informal options to look at. Consider self-guided education, such as the WaSP InterAct Curriculum. Consider simply reading highly recommended UX books. In addition to reading on your own you can also join user experience book clubs that have regular meetings all around the world.
Another option is to find someone willing to mentor you. There are several programs for those looking for a mentor, as well as those looking to be a mentor. For example, the IAI Mentor Program and the IxDA Mentorship Program.
Coupled with education is experience. A formal degree in information science won’t get you too far in the professional field if you haven’t had first hand experience doing the work outside of college. This often means getting a entry-level job to get some projects under your belt. The first step in getting a job is creating a highly-polished resume.
Now, there are a billion resources out there for how to craft a resume, so I don’t plan rehashing that here, but I am going to tell you some tips that could help you actually land a UX job. Your resume is a elevator pitch, avoid going into detail where not needed. Focus on the things that are important to that specific job your are applying for. Create a special resume that highlights the necessary points needed for each job your are applying for. Have it reviewed, edited, and polished by your friends. You can’t afford to have spelling or typographical errors in your resume.
Going hand-in-hand with the resume is a portfolio. This is something I feel a lot of user experience professionals miss, especially those who do not specialize in visual design. Yes, even if you are just producing wireframes or XHTML/CSS all day, it is crucial to have a portfolio of your work. Employers want to see your work, your code, and designs.
If you don’t have any work to put into a portfolio outside class projects, there are ways to get work to show. One way would be to do some freelance work for friends and companies you have established relationships with. Remember, this is about you building your portfolio, it may be worth it to take a project or two for free to do so, ideally for a non-profit organization. If you have a full time job doing something unrelated to UX perhaps moonlighting as a freelancer from home is another thing to consider. If you can’t get a project, try creating some scenarios that would allow you to show your skills. For example, what would you do if Apple asked you to redesign their website? What if Yahoo needed a new information architecture? In a worst case scenario, use your own portfolio as an example of your work. Any work is better than none.
Once you have a portfolio and highly-polished resume, the next step is to find a job. A good way to get your foot in the door, especially if you are still in school, is to do an internship at a company you one day hope to work for. This establishes a solid relationship, familiarity with your work and skill set, and most of all, trust. When that company decides it’s time to hire, you will be high up on their list.
Another aspect of finding a UX position has to do with figuring out what kind of job is right for you. For example, in a position within an agency, you work with multiple companies and projects lasting from one week to an entire year, depending on scope. In this case, someone is hiring you or your company for their expertise in user experience. The flip-side of this would be working within a business who needs a full in-house team. In this case, your projects will be internal to the company and may not be as variable as what you would encounter in an agency setting. You may be working on the same project for several years, or a group of projects for a year or two.
Building on the education and experience is exposure. Exposure is very critical for differentiating yourself from others in the industry. It is also useful for differentiating what you do versus other roles that may appear as very similar at first glance. This differentiation is established by being a thought leader in your area of specialization, and by helping to define that area better.
The first aspect of being a thought leader is to start writing about your work, especially if it seems as if no one else is really doing what it is that you are doing within the user experience space. A blog is a good first step in to writing about your expertise. Even if you are just learning something for the first time doesn’t mean you should not write about your experiences on the subject. Writing for other user experience publications is also another good step. What you write doesn’t have to be a lengthy article either, it can be just collection of links or commentary on something someone else wrote. Posting useful information via Twitter is another great example of this. This will help establish your expertise and help others out as well. Your ultimate goal is to be the first person who comes to mind when someone is thinking about a specific subject.
In addition to writing, you can get great exposure by speaking at user experience events. Practice the craft of public speaking, it will become useful in your career as a user experience professional. To get noticed as recognized speaker, you must first have some presenting experience under your belt. A good way to do this is to ask to speak at various local user groups and meet-ups happening within your area. These events are often organized by those within the immediate community and it doesn’t take much more than an email to be considered. Professional conferences may require you to submit your presentation ideas or even a completed paper. The more academic the event, the more likely there will be a formal call for papers and a peer review process.
If you can’t seem to get a speaking gig, the next thing you can do to help increase your exposure within the professional space is to simply attend events. Start with local groups, go to any event you feel is related to what you are doing. Introduce yourself to anyone who seems interested, print and bring business cards even if they are just your name, email and Twitter ID. Be sure to get business cards from anyone you talk to. Engage in the discussions going on even if the event is just a social hour. Some of the best conversations I have had happened at social hours. Some of the greatest people I know I met at a local gathering.
Not up for going to a lot of local or national events? You can use Twitter to communicate with several other user experience professionals. Most of them are more than willing to help you out and answer any questions you may have about user experience. Likewise, when you tweet, keep it on topic and useful. Twitter is quickly becoming the most efficient means of communication among peers out there, you can use it to gain some level exposure, education, and more if done right. Remember these are other people you are talking to, be kind and courteous of their time and interest.
Like Twitter you can also get engaged with the community by simply reading industry blogs and following along in the comments and forums. Be sure you take the time to learn about the people involved with each blog or website before jumping into the middle of a ongoing conversation. Again, be respectful and courteous of everyone’s opinion and the time they are going to take reading your comments, etc.
Once you have established some connections with other professionals in your area, start emailing them and seeing if they would be up for you bouncing ideas off them. You would be surprised at how many colleagues will be interested in giving you critiques of your work, even if it’s just high level feedback. Some of these relationships may even build to the level of mentorship like I mentioned above. Be sure to give back as much as these colleagues are giving their time and energy to you. Go out of your way to help them when they ask. Help them find connections when you think you may know someone who can help them. Be a connector. They will give back ten fold.
In conclusion, the three core aspects of getting a career as a user experience designer is focused around education, experience, and exposure. The more effort you put in, the more you will see results. The more passion you put in, the more you will grow as a professional. I hope you found this information useful, and that it helps you guide you down your career path. As always, my door is open should you have any questions. I will do my best to answer them.
I owe a series of big thank you’s to the people who helped make this post possible. To Olivia Zinn for helping me edit this post and craft it into something that could be easily read. To Steve Baty for giving me great advice as I wrote it. To Thomas Vander Wal for sharing various sources of information that helped fuel this post. To all the UX gurus on twitter who gave me feedback on what information and great quotes to relay to those who are just starting out. And last but not least to all my colleagues and friends from the user experience field who inspired me to write this post.
About the author
Nick Finck is a user experience professional who has dabbled in the web for over a decade. He specializes in information architecture, interaction design, usability and user research. Read more