It’s not unusual to come across a UX Job posting that reads like this:
“7+ years of professional experience as a UX Architect, expert in interaction design, front-end web development…”
UX is still being formalized as a field right now. Whoever has that much experience is probably a top-dollar consultant, has his/her own business or wrote a book on it already. All of it culminating in: those job descriptions, with the best thing going for them as “great benefits!!1” won’t nab the 7+ year veterans they want anyway.
But these UX job descriptions, ineffective/unrealistic as they are, do have one effect:
Scare the $hit out of aspiring UX designers trying to break into the field. It makes UX beginners think that they need years and years of experience to nag their first UX job. This creates an feeling of being under-qualified for aspiring UX professionals.
Case in point…
I know someone who has taken three different UX certificates (not courses) and considering doing a Masters before even seriously applying for her first UX job…that’s ridiculous.
Today I’ll talk about how you can break into UX with no professional UX experience.
- This article will mainly concern building a UX portfolio, which is the #1 requirement in the UX job application process.
- The article also assumes someone who already has basic knowledge of what UX design is…someone who has read at least 1 book on UX.
1. Shape your existing experience.
Most UXBs come into this field thinking that they have no UX experience. Here’s a not-so-secret secret: you most likely have projects that already include elements of the user experience design process.
Some key pieces of the UX design include ideation (brainstorming), research, implementation of the solution itself (design), and the validation & testing of those solutions. Many jobs and projects, regardless of what industry you’re in, are likely to include these elements. They just go by different names:
- Market Research -> UX Research
- Business process modeling (BPM) -> UX workflow
- Anything to do with data -> numbers that validate the success of a (UX) solution
- Quality Assurance (QA) -> Usability testing
These are not 1-to-1 translations, but the idea is that UXBs can frame existing experience into relevant projects for their UX portfolio.
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. – Theodore Roosevelt
In the spirit of Roosevelt’s words, examine the work you’ve already done, take the projects that include the most UX-related elements, and turn them into portfolio pieces.
But what if certain projects don’t feel “complete,” like they can’t stand on their own as a UX portfolio piece?
Glad you asked.
2. Fill in the Gaps
Some typical user experience deliverables include sitemaps, process flows, sketches, wireframes, etc.
If your existing projects can use more UX deliverable to better show your design process, you can go back and fill in the gaps…
For example, let’s take a graphic designer who wants to frame what she does into UX design. She already has high-fidelity comps and sketches of her work. The visual design part of the UX process is done.
She can go back and look at her designs, and spend two hours creating a simple sitemap that ties together all the different pieces of the experience that she made. She might also whip up a taskflow of the different paths that users might take to achieve a task. It’s even fair game to survey her friends and get some guerilla user testing done.
For UXBs transitioning into the field, this is a completely legitimate way to build portfolio pieces. Just because you didn’t create all the UX deliverables in the correct order, doesn’t mean you can’t open up old or existing projects and add new UX deliverables to your design process. After all, it’s your own damn portfolio.
Note: this strategy works especially well for ongoing/personal projects in which these non sequitur UX deliverables actually play into an informed design solution. Just like in a real work environment, it’s never too late to do some testing to validate major concerns.
3. Finish That Portfolio
Have at least 3 solid pieces of work to showcase in your UX portfolio. Ideally, each portfolio piece is different; perhaps one is a mobile app, another a desktop application, and another one a responsive website.
To develop these different pieces, the three avenues to go are existing projects, personal projects, or consulting/freelance projects.
But don’t spend forever on it. Time is finite. Focus on “done,” instead of “perfect,” so that when a job that interests you comes along, you can apply immediately. Speaking of which…
4. Apply & Interview
Apply to UX jobs ASAP. Even if you don’t feel like you’re 100% ready, this is critical to get your job hunt rolling. Even if it’s a firm that you’re not really interested in, it’s a good opportunity to practice your UX interview skills. Do it, learn, and profit.
In these relatively early days of the UX field, not only will you be interviewing for UX jobs, but you may very well be educating companies about UX itself. This knowledge gap presents an opportunity to establish yourself as a UX expert. For example…
Did internet marketing in your last job? Stress how your background in optimizing conversion rates gives you a unique UX perspective that’s valuable for testing ideas & measuring results.
Were you a librarian? Emphasize your background in information architecture, cataloguing and organizing data in the most efficient, searchable way.
Remember: UX is a broad field and you are likely to already have experience in one piece of UX. If you once thought your job was a weakness, it is now the strength and uniqueness you bring to a UX role.
To continue off of that last point, feel free to edit your current job title. A biological researcher can be a UX Researcher. The editor of a magazine can be a Content Strategist. A blogger can be a UX Copywriter & Social Media Strategist. I didn’t get much attention as a business analyst until I framed myself as a UX Analyst (which actually was a better reflection of my work anyway). If you are coming from an extremely different industry like cattle-ranching or firefighting, get experience with personal/consulting projects and start calling yourself a Freelance UX Designer.
All of the above helps you adopt the thinking that you are a UX Professional – how you view yourself is vital and this will show in the interview process
5. Education & Community
If you are struggling in your job search even with the above “lean” approach to creating a portfolio & applying to jobs, then consider getting more involved in the UX community.
Classes can help further educate you and introduce you to job leads – a number of students in my UX Certificate were already working in the field just looking to expand their knowledge…and a lot of them were actually hiring or knew someone who was hiring.
Meetups are awesome for connecting with peers who can help review your work, staying up to date with the UX industry, and of course rubbing elbows with those who are hiring.
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Job hunting is an entire job unto itself, but I hope these 5 strategies give you a big push to complete that portfolio and start the interview process….all with no “professional” UX experience needed. Good luck!
Also published on Medium.