A year ago, I met an ambitious dude who was doing a 180 on his career. He wanted to switch from finance to UX. Why do I say ambitious? The goal was to completely switch industries within 3 months.
So I prodded him for more details…what was his plan? What concrete things was he going to do to achieve this within 90 days? It looked something like this:
- Month 1: Take a free online UX course
- Month 2: Work on UX projects
- Month 3: Build portfolio and apply to jobs
Not a bad start, but there was a huge assumption built into this plan…did you spot it?
Month 3: Build Portfolio and apply to jobs
The deadly assumption is the time between applying to jobs and getting a job offer is short. It’s like assuming you’re going to get married after going on a few dates (but hey, it’s possible… go to Vegas).
In reality, it took my dear friend a total of 8 months to land his first UX job, which is still no small feat.
The best advice I ever got in regards to a job search is to start early. You don’t just apply to jobs and land an offer right away. Even if you do, it might not be the right offer with the right company. The experience my friends and I had was that it took at least 3 months to find a solid match.
As with all worthwhile efforts, slow and steady wins the race. But if you’re starting from scratch, what should you be doing?
Let’s tackle that question using 4 tactics for a Proactive UX Job Search.
1. Start with the end in mind
Looking for a job is a full-time job in itself. After spending that much time, you might as well get something you want. So what are you looking for? Consider these 3 factors:
Perhaps you’ve been at an ad agency for years, and want a change of pace to go in-house. Or maybe you’re itching to work with a small, bootstrapped team at a startup. If you’re early on in your UX career, consider working in a new environment.
This not only adds to the diversity you bring to future jobs, but you may surprise yourself with how much you like working at a large company/agency/startup.
I wrote an article on How to Evaluate UX jobs at Agencies vs Startups vs Big Companies for extra analysis on this subject.
For designers, a workplace is only as good as the projects it affords us. Take a look at the projects you’ve done and what you want to try next. Maybe you’ve only been designing websites and want to get your hands dirty in mobile apps.
Itching to do responsive web design but just haven’t had the chance? Find a place that skillset and tailor your portfolio according. Or maybe you’ve had a long interest in working with data analytics or hardware.
Listen to your interests and pursue places that are full of the projects you want to do. Remember, even your dream company may not have your dream projects.
Similar to projects, consider the industries you’re curious about. Here’s a beginning list of industries that demand UX talent:
- SaaS (software-as-a-service) companies
- eCommerce (from Amazon to fashion websites)
- News & Content (from Buzzfeed to LA Times)
- Entertainment & Advertising
Certainly there are tons more industries than this list. If you have a chance to combine your passion for UX with an industry you have an affinity for, you’re likely to have much higher job satisfaction.
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Ultimately, the key is to finding an opportunity that’ll help you grow. What challenges would you want to tackle next? What would you like to work on?
2. Start Networking Now
The natural next step is to network…and it really pays to network earlier than later.
Relationships take time to build, so you might as well start now and plant seeds that may blossom into friendships and referrals down the line.
I believe the single most effective way to professionally network is to do short informational interviews.
Here’s what you do:
- Create a list of companies that match your criteria from step 1 – figuring out your interests – industries, projects, work environments worth pursuing next
- Visit LinkedIn and search those companies, filtering by the UX designers who work there
- Reach out to those designers with a short message introducing yourself, why you’re emailing the designer (admiration of their work is usually a good entry point), and a specific time to connect. If they’re local, offer to buy them coffee.*
Designers are a nice and sharing brunch and you should expect a relatively high response rate (25%+) if you’re nice and genuine.
Adopt a long term, outcome-independent approach with networking.
This means getting to know another designer over a period of time rather than asking them for a job upon the first meeting. There’s no faster way to ruin your networking efforts than to expect someone to give you something without proving yourself, or establishing a relationship first.
*Many people often email with good intentions but expect the other person to do the work. Your objective is to make a connection as fast as possible, so that means right off the bat suggesting a time and place to meet up (if local) or have a phone call.
Note the difference between these two messages:
- “We should get together sometime…when are you free?”
- “I’d really value hearing your advice about insert topic… are you free for a 15 minute call tomorrow or Thursday at noon? My phone number is…” <—winner
The easier you make it easier for the other person to just say “yes” or “no,” the more likely a meetup is actually going to happen.
Informational interviews are flexible too, you can do this over coffee, phone or Skype.
There are many strategies to networking, but doing your informational interviews early on can really pay off in the long run.
3. Review your job application materials early on
There are two non-negotiable assets in your job search: your resume and portfolio. Working on these two items early on has interesting benefits…
When you’re forced to look at your resume early on, it helps your brain evaluate where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want to go next. It helps ground you in your current professional standing, because trying to summarize your (professional) life in one page requires a lot of thinking.
Reference material: Complete Guide to UX Resumes and a Free Template
Evaluate your current portfolio and sketch out how you’d like to it to look in the future.
For example, you may notice that there isn’t much much user research or user testing in your past works, and the type of job you want (as identified in Step 1) would require those items.
The added benefit is that you’ve also allowed extra time to take on side projects that can showcase those skills.
Getting started with your first portfolio? Read Minimum Viable UX Portfolio
Don’t forget to do this: Have a friend, ideally someone in the design industry, review your resume and portfolio. Another pair of eyes can help much more than you think. Better to catch mistakes early on than rushing your portfolio when a job you really like pops up.
Interview for practice
Interviewing is a skill and takes practice. They can be rough because interviewing simply isn’t a thing you’re doing everyday, unless you’re a recruiter.
Consider interviewing for practice with companies even with companies you’re not sure you’re interested in. And consider practicing even if you have a current job.
Might as well get your practice in with companies you don’t want to work for, than to come in with no practice for a company you care about.
So before you decide to leave a job, interview for practice.
That joke of a company who’s asking for a unicorn but wanted to bring you in anyway? Practice with them. The firm who invited you in to interview for a level above or below where you’re looking to go next? Try them out for size.
Interviewing is like experimentation, and just like design with every iteration you’ll get better.
Note: always leave a good impression, be respectful and courteous.
Storytime…I once went into a firm that clearly knew what my salary expectations were, brought me in for 3 grueling interviews, had me redesign one of their apps, then asked if I’d accept a salary $20k less than what I was currently paid.
I don’t drink coffee, but I wanted to go down to the local Starbucks, grab a coffee and spill it all over their nice suits. But I summoned the kinder side of me, thanked them for their time and got the hell out of there.
Always being respectful and professional under all circumstances, even when meeting assholes.
The silver lining on the cloud? Even if you don’t take an offer or get rejected from a job, you don’t know if they can turn into freelance opportunities or side gigs. The design and UX community is smaller than you think, so being nice pays dividends.
- Start your UX job hunt early, at least 3 months or more before your ideal start date – don’t wait until you quit your job.
- Examine yourself and really identify the next adventure you want to take – different industry, role, projects?
- Networking: do informational interviews with designers you admire
- Practice interviewing with companies – companies you don’t want to work at are especially good low-risk practice opportunities
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Also published on Medium.