So you want to become a UX designer?
Perhaps you’ve heard the terms bandied around your office, or read about this burgeoning field. Maybe you’re already familiar with the perks of a career in UX design: creative and fulfilling work, flexibility, variety, competitive salaries, and the opportunity to work directly with real people.
Indeed, UX designers enjoy the best of both worlds: they are right in the thick of the exciting tech industry, but unlike many other tech professionals, they’re not limited to sitting in front of a computer. UX design is all about human interaction—getting out into the field and engaging with people, from CEOs and key stakeholders to real-life customers and end users.
Sounds pretty exciting—but what does a UX designer actually do?
The term “user experience” (or UX) describes the interaction a person has with a product or service. Consider the task of shopping online or trying to book a holiday. In an ideal world, you’ll come across a website or app that’s easy to navigate and enables you to quickly find what you’re looking for. In no time at all, you’ve made a purchase and you’re on your way. That’s what we call a good user experience!
If you’re unlucky, you’ll land on a website or app that is not so user-friendly. Perhaps the page takes ages to load, or the layout is so confusing that you find yourself going round in circles. When you do eventually locate the item you’ve been looking for, the checkout process seems impossible; first, there’s a page-long form to fill out, then you’re getting pop-ups asking if you want to add further items to your basket. In the end, you admit defeat and close that particular website, vowing never to return. That’s what we call a bad user experience.
Good and bad user experiences don’t just happen by chance; they are the result of either good or bad design! That’s where UX designers come in. They consider each and every element that shapes the user experience—whether it’s for a digital product like an app or website, or for a physical product that you can hold in your hand, like a smartphone. How does it make the user feel? How easy is it to use? Is the user able to complete their desired task without too much thought or effort?
UX designers combine market research, product development, strategy, and design to create seamless user experiences for products, services, and processes. They build a bridge to the customer, helping the company or product owner to better understand and fulfill the customer’s needs and expectations.
There’s still plenty of confusion around what UX is and what it’s not, so if you feel like you could do with a more detailed introduction, be sure to check out our comprehensive beginner’s guide to user experience design. For now, though, we’ll assume you’ve overcome that minor hurdle and are now asking yourself: How can I break into the field?
Unfortunately, there’s still a fair amount of confusion around this, too. If you want to become a doctor, you go to medical school. If you want to be a lawyer, you go to law school. But there simply aren’t as many traditional avenues which end up in UX; so how do you become a UX designer?
UX is a favourite of what the Germans call the Quereinsteiger—newcomers transferring from one field to another and bringing their expertise—their transferable skills—with them. We’ve seen thousands of Quereinsteiger go through our career change course in UX design and land the job they want, in a new career they love. And they have an extraordinarily broad range of backgrounds—from roles within tech such as digital marketing, visual design and software development (44%) to ostensibly unrelated roles in teaching, banking and office administration (56%). So how do they do it? And how can you?
In what follows, we’ve teamed up with UX designer Gabriel—the superstar behind the immensely popular UXBites Instagram channel—to walk you through eight steps you can take to become a UX designer. The first three are largely exploratory and will help you determine whether UX is really for you. The ensuing five are all about building up the technical expertise—the hard skills—and the professional capital—the soft skills—you’ll need to convince design leads and hiring managers that you’re the right person for the job. If you feel you’ve covered some of the initial steps, simply select a later one in the list to jump straight to it.
- Start reading up on UX
- Learn the key UX principles
- Learn about the key UX design methods and processes
- Structure your learning with a credible UX course
- Apply what you’re learning to real-world projects
- Learn the tools of the trade
- Build your UX portfolio
- Network with both aspiring and established designers
Are you ready to be transformed into a UX designer? Excellent. Then let us begin.
1. Start reading up on UX. Ask yourself: “Is this for me?”
Gabriel says: “Immerse yourself in content aimed at beginners. Whether you spend your time on Instagram and in UX communities, listening to podcasts, chatting to people in the field, browsing the more established UX blogs for beginners, or you purchase the most authoritative introductory books, or a mixture of all the above, you should aim to develop a broad understanding of the history of the field, and then you should develop an understanding of its current status.”
So you’re interested in UX. Great. But what does that actually mean?
Does that mean you love quantitative data analysis, and that you’re desperate to dive into UX research? Or does it mean you love developing and testing rapid prototypes on real-life users, and iterating to produce an industry-leading experience? Or perhaps it means you’re a microcopy whizz, who can confer a compelling, on-brand message in just a smattering of characters. Your first step is to understand the various disciplines that constitute the broad church of modern day UX design, so explore its interior, from alter to aisle, before deciding whether it’s for you—and whether you’d ultimately like to refine your skills in one particular area of user experience.
So how should you go about gathering all this knowledge from the farthest reaches of the world and its web? Well, do as you normally do. If you spend too much time on Instagram already, then follow UXBites (and all the other excellent channels out there, of course). You’ll get digestible tips and advice on a daily basis, delivered directly to your feed. If you have a little more time on your hands, it’s well worth subscribing to the following YouTube channels: AJ&Smart, CareerFoundry, The Futur and Jesse Showalter. In terms of blogs, the most well-established include UXPlanet, UXCollective and InsideDesign by InVision. Prefer a nice cup of tea and a good book? Then we have a few recommendations for you, too. You’ll need to start out with The Design Of Everyday Things, a seminal book written by Don Norman, considered to be the father of UX design. After that, you can move onto Don’t Make Think, and 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.
Of course, if you’re very serious about getting into UX, you can do all of the above: reading the books first will give you a strong foundation, subscribing to the blogs will keep you abreast of all the latest trends and developments, and following the social media accounts will deliver you a compelling little insight now and again via your feeds. Oh, and if you’re into podcasts, here are the top 15 design podcasts, courtesy of our friends at InVision.
2. Learn the key UX principles
Gabriel says: “As you read up on and around the topic of UX, you’ll frequently come across laws, principles and best practices. My UXBites book will give you a clean and concise introduction to the most important ones. Knowledge of such key principles, such as hierarchy and consistency, and laws, such as Hick’s and Jakob’s Laws, will give you a strong foundation on which to build.”
So you’re ready to dive head-first into the principles of UX—but what are they, and where do you start?
The golden rule of UX design is user-centricity, and you’ll find that each of the more specific rules and best practices you come across feeds into this one ubiquitous principle.
But what does user-centricity mean exactly? Well, it’s all about putting the user first; designing with real people in mind and making decisions based on what they actually need—not on what you assume they need.
As a UX designer, it’ll be your job to advocate for the user while keeping business stakeholders happy. This means understanding who your target users are, finding out what they need and expect from the product you’re designing, and then coming up with a solution that is user-friendly, technically feasible, and viable in terms of budget and business goals.
You can think of user-centricity as the pillar of UX. Branching off of this pillar are a whole host of rules and principles that will guide you to make smart, user-first decisions. The book Universal Principles Of Design offers no fewer than 125 laws and guidelines for good UX—but that’s quite a hefty starting point.
UX designer and CareerFoundry tutor Jonny Grass advises new and aspiring UX designers to start with just five key UX design principles: hierarchy, consistency, confirmation, user control, and accessibility. Jonny explains each of these principles and why they’re so important in this guide: 5 Key Principles For New UX Designers.
For further reading around the subject of key UX principles, we also recommend taking a look at these user experience basics set out by usability.gov, product designer Andrew Zacek’s five principles of design for a better user experience, as well as Steve Jobs’ six key principles of UX.
3. Learn about the key UX design methods and processes
Gabriel says: “With a solid idea of what UX design is all about, it’s time to start learning how to actually do it. UX designers utilize a whole host of different methods and techniques—from conducting user research to sketching up wireframes, to building prototypes and running user tests. As part of your inauguration into the field, identify the key methods that make up the UX design process and learn what goes into each. This will pave the way for you to start getting hands-on.”
What are the most important UX methods?
Once you’ve got to grips with some of the key principles behind the practice, you’re ready to explore the methods and techniques that actually make UX design happen.
Before zooming in on specific methods, familiarize yourself with the UX design process as a whole. At this stage, you want to get a broad overview of all the steps you’ll go through to design (or redesign) a successful user experience.
The UX design process can be divided into four key phases: research, design, testing, and implementation.
During the research phase, you’ll scope out the goals and requirements of the project at hand. Who are your target users and what do they need? In what context are they interacting with the product or service in question? What are the limitations of the project? For the latter, you’ll need to liaise with key stakeholders—for example, the product owners or the CEO—in order to determine things like budget and time constraints.
The design phase is where you come up with solutions and start to turn them into tangible artefacts. If you’re following some of those Instagram accounts we mentioned in section one, you’ve no doubt seen your fair share of wireframes. This is exactly the kind of thing you’ll produce in the design phase. Eventually, your wireframes will become high-fidelity prototypes which can be tested on real and representative users during the testing phase. User testing is a crucial part of the UX design process, as it enables you to highlight any usability flaws or holes in your solution before you take the product to market.
After several rounds of user testing, you’ll move into the implementation phase. Here, you’ll hand your designs over to the developers who will code them up and turn them into a fully functional, market-ready product. We’ve covered the UX design process in detail in this comprehensive guide.
With this overview in mind, you can start to learn about the specific methods and processes that go into each phase. To help you get started, we’ve put together a little list of some of the key methods and techniques that UX designers use:
- User research
- User research analysis
- User personas
- Information architecture
- User testing
- Usability testing
This is just the tip of the iceberg; as you research and explore, you’ll find that many of the methods listed above encompass further, more specific techniques (especially user research and user testing).
So where can you learn about the countless UX design methods? As always, the internet is full of handy how-to guides and beginner-friendly tutorials. As a starting point, check out this A-Z of UX techniques by UX Mastery and this big bumper guide to some of the most common UX design methods over on UX Planet. If you’re more of an audiovisual learner, you’ll also find loads of informative content on the CareerFoundry YouTube channel.
4. Structure your learning with a credible UX course
Gabriel says:“If you’re serious about forging a career in UX, you’ll need to structure your learning in a way that incorporates both theory and practice. A good UX design course will give you a logical path to follow, ensuring you cover all bases in the right order. Many courses are great at teaching the theory of UX, but not all courses focus on concrete outcomes. The CareerFoundry UX Design Course does all of that—and guarantees you a job at the end of it.”
What should you look for when choosing a UX design course?
So far, your journey into UX has been all about discovery; a rather autonomous endeavor that has seen you free-styling your way around various blogs, books, and YouTube channels. By now, you should have a good idea of what UX design is all about—and whether or not it’s a career that you seriously want to pursue.
Assuming that you do indeed still want to become a UX designer, it’s time to take it up a notch. As you’ll have noticed, there’s an overwhelming abundance of content out there, and while this is ideal for background reading, it won’t turn you into an employable UX designer. What you need now is a structured, hands-on approach to learning.
When it comes to choosing a UX design course, you want to make sure that you’re getting the best value for your money. It’s an investment in your future, after all, so you need to get it right—and not all UX design courses are created equal.
So what exactly should you look for when choosing a UX design course? Based on our extensive knowledge of the industry, we’ve put together a checklist of pointers that will help you to distinguish the best from the rest:
Look for a course that requires you to get hands-on. Employers will want to see that you’ve mastered the right practical skills, so it’s not enough to just learn the theory. A good course should provide expert content coupled with hands-on exercises to test what you’ve learned.
A strong focus on building a portfolio
This goes hand-in-hand with the above point. It’s important to graduate your chosen course with something tangible to show for it, and the first thing that employers will look at is your design portfolio. Choose a course that will not only get you working on at least one portfolio project, but will also help you to refine and polish your portfolio ready for the job market.
Learning a completely new field from scratch is tough—there’s no two ways about it. What you don’t want to do is fork out loads of money for a UX design course, to then be left to muddle through the content on your own. The most effective courses on the market are those that offer human support as part of the curriculum. Opt for a course that pairs you up with at least one industry expert, be it a mentor, a tutor, or (ideal scenario!) both. We’ve covered the importance of mentorship in more detail here.
Beware of curated content. Many course providers will wax lyrical about their expert curriculum which, upon closer inspection, actually turns out to be a compilation of third-party content. It’s normal for a UX design course to point you to other resources for further reading, but ideally the core syllabus will be written (and continuously updated) by expert curriculum writers.
Mastering the right skills is only half the battle. If you’re serious about breaking into the industry and landing a UX role, look for a course that offers specialist career support. Here at CareerFoundry, for example, our UX career-change program incorporates an entire job preparation module. Students are also assigned a dedicated Careers Specialist who provides one-to-one coaching throughout the job search period.
Besides the points listed above, consider your personal situation. How much time can you dedicate each week to learning UX? How much flexibility do you need in terms of scheduling? What’s your budget?
Ultimately, if you’re paying for a UX course, you want the full career-change package. Some providers (like us) ensure this with a job guarantee; if you don’t find a job within six months of graduating, you’ll get your money back. Before you commit, conduct thorough market research; check customer reviews, speak to a career advisor, and look for legitimate alumni success stories.
5. Practice as much as you can
Gabriel says: “UX design is an extremely hands-on field, so you’ll want to gain as much practical experience as possible. Fortunately, the principles and processes of UX can be applied to just about anything, so this isn’t as hard as you might think. Volunteer your newfound skills to non-profit organizations, do unsolicited redesigns, or look for opportunities to incorporate UX into your current job. Seize every chance you get to learn-by-doing.”
Where can you find opportunities to apply your budding UX design skills?
If you want to become a UX designer, the best thing you can do is to practice what you’re learning. Aside from the portfolio projects you cover as part of your UX design course, you can give yourself a real advantage by doing as much extra-curricular design work as possible.
Unless you’re lucky enough to land a paying client while still learning the ropes, you’ll need to be proactive—and creative—when looking for ways to gain experience. To help set you off on the right track, here are three key strategies you can use to get hands-on with design.
Volunteer your design skills
Hiring designers can be expensive, and there are plenty of charities and non-profit organizations who will be more than glad to benefit from your budding design skills. Skills-based volunteering is an excellent way to gain real-world experience while gathering some interesting projects for your portfolio. Not only that: volunteering is also a great way to expand your network and make valuable industry connections—not to mention the feel-good factor! Use platforms such as Catchafire, donate:code, and VolunteerMatch to find suitable volunteering opportunities.
Do an unsolicited redesign
Have you used an app or a website recently that was lacking a little on the UX front? Perhaps there’s a particular user experience that’s imprinted on your memory for all the wrong reasons. This is the perfect opportunity for an unsolicited redesign. An unsolicited redesign is essentially a voluntary design challenge that you undertake purely for the fun of it (and to gain valuable UX experience). If you’d like to learn more about this popular UX practice, take a look at digital designer Sean Hervo’s article on the value of unsolicited redesigns, and heed Jason Li’s advice on how to do an unsolicited redesign that people actually care about. For inspiration, check out product designer Priyanka Gupta’s unsolicited redesigns of LastPass and Sephora.
Apply UX design to your current job
Perhaps you’re working full-time while learning UX and don’t have all the time in the world to devote to passion projects or volunteering. If that’s the case, look a little closer to home for opportunities to practice UX. Identify a potential challenge in your current workplace and attempt to address it using UX methodologies.
Perhaps you work in a shop and want to improve the customer experience. Why not conduct quick-and-dirty user interviews with customers to find out what they want? Maybe you work in an office and can’t bear the chaos of the company’s digital filing system. This could be an excellent exercise in information architecture! This third strategy requires you to think outside the box a little, but once you slip into your UX designer mindset, you’ll start to see opportunity everywhere.
6. Learn the tools of the trade
Gabriel says: “When it comes to hiring UX designers, employers are checking for mastery of the right tools. In order to hit the ground running, you’ll need to know your way around the most important design software. The designer’s toolkit is made up of prototyping software, UI design tools, and user testing platforms—to name just a few. With such a vast selection available, there’s no hard-and-fast rule as to which tools you should use. Start with the big names (such as InVision and Sketch) before experimenting with some of the newer tools on the market, like Figma.”
What are some of the most important industry tools, and what’s the best way to master them?
Learning the tools of the trade goes hand-in-hand with mastering the most important UX methods and processes. Employers will expect you to be comfortable with the big-name tools like Sketch and InVision, but it’s also a good idea to experiment with others, too. Every designer has their own individual preferences, so play around with a few different options and see which ones you like best.
So what exactly do you need in your UX design toolkit? Here are some of the most popular tools for various phases of the design process:
User research tools
Wireframing and prototyping tools
- Adobe XD
User testing and usability testing tools
We’ve only listed a handful of tools here—there are dozens, if not hundreds more out there. To start your education with UX tools, we recommend consulting designer-curated lists. Joanna Ngai, UX designer at Microsoft, shares her favourites in this comprehensive list of UX design tools. We’ve also covered this topic extensively: check out these ten tools that UX designers use to do amazing things, as well as this round-up of wireframing tools. UX Mastery have left no stone unturned in this giant list of 200+ tools for UX designers.
If you’re still not sure which tools to focus on, ask fellow designers what they use. At the same time, get a feel for what tools are most popular in the industry by browsing UX designer job ads—what tools are commonly referenced by employers? Your UX design course will probably provide recommendations, too.
7. Build your UX portfolio
Gabriel says: “Your portfolio is your golden ticket into the UX design industry. It shows employers that you’ve mastered the right skills and that you know how to apply them. As you gain real-world experience, fill your portfolio with detailed case studies. For each case study, describe your process; showcase how you solved the problem at hand and eventually reached the final design solution. You want your portfolio to tell a visual story, so keep hold of all artefacts that were part of the project.”
What exactly is a UX design portfolio, and what should it include?
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: your portfolio is your most valuable asset as a UX designer. In the simplest of terms, your portfolio is a personal website that introduces you and showcases a selection of your work. But, if done properly, it does much more than that; it tells a story and takes the viewer on a journey.
Why is this important? Well, employers don’t just want to see beautiful interfaces and finished products—they want to know how you got there. Your portfolio should demonstrate your process: how do you solve problems? What are your thought patterns and processes as a UX designer?
To quote design guru Sarah Doody: “Most UX designers make a huge mistake when it comes to their portfolios.They show their work, but they don’t tellpeople about their work. They don’t provide that context, and without context, no one looking at your UX portfolio can get a sense of why you made the decisions you made.”
In section five, we looked at three techniques you can use to gather valuable case studies for your portfolio. The next challenge is to present them in a way that tells that all-important story.
So what should you include in your UX design portfolio? What exactly is it that employers and clients are looking for?
Tiffany Eaton, interaction designer at Google, outlines five key components that make up a good portfolio project: context—the problem you are trying to solve; scope—the internal and external factors surrounding the problem; rationale—your design process; visuals—the look, feel, and function of the final design; and impact—what people take away from your design solution.
As a newcomer to the field, the thought of creating a stand-out portfolio might seem like a rather daunting task—but no need to feel intimidated. We’ve seen countless UX design students create remarkable portfolios completely from scratch; just look at this case study created by UX designer-in-training Miriam Nawo as part of the certified UX Design Program, and this one by CareerFoundry alumna Huiqin Gao. As you can see, both designers have detailed the problem they set out to solve as well as the tools and processes they used, together with visual artefacts that document the evolution of the final design.
Before you get started on your own portfolio, take some time to explore and get inspired. Immerse yourself in the wonderful world of the UX design portfolio, and read up on industry best practices. Shilpa Tripathi, UX design specialist at SAP, has outlined thirteen UX portfolio best practices to help you on your way. We’ve also put together a comprehensive guide to creating a killer UX portfolio with the help of UX design mentor and startup coach Tobias Treppmann, complete with advice on what to include in your portfolio, techniques for making sure your portfolio stands out, as well as some very important portfolio no-gos. For further portfolio inspiration, check out these fifty essential UX portfolios, as well as these CareerFoundry student portfolio projects:
- Elvira Hellenpart’s vocabulary learning app
- Aaron Akbari-Mort’s app for tattoo enthusiasts
- Alex Alman’s architecture app
8. Network with other designers
Gabriel says: “Never underestimate the power of a solid industry network. You’ll learn so much about the field simply by being around other designers, so start making those connections early on. Attend local meet-ups, reach out to seasoned designers on LinkedIn, invite your UX colleagues out for coffee, and join dedicated Slack channels. This is just a handful of ways you can put yourself out there and experience the industry first-hand.”
So you’re ready to get out there and build an industry network—but where do you start?
Networking is often hailed as the secret doorway to any industry. While it’s easy advice to give, it is perhaps one of the hardest strategies to actually implement. The reality is, not everyone feels at home on the networking scene; for many of us, it can feel pretty awkward. Especially if you don’t yet consider yourself a “proper” UX designer, you might feel somewhat apprehensive about stepping into a room full of industry experts.
So why do we do it? Is networking really that worthwhile?
In a word, yes. Especially in a creative field like design, networking offers many advantages—and it’s not just about schmoozing your way to a job opportunity, either. Connecting with fellow designers will inspire and motivate you—whether it’s with like-minded newbies or industry veterans. You’ll also discover untold opportunities to learn, collaborate, air your frustrations, and just have fun.
The good news is, networking comes in all different shapes and sizes; you don’t necessarily need to attend a big, formal event in order to start making valuable industry connections. When you’re just finding your feet in the world of UX, we recommend starting small. If you’re not quite ready for in-person networking, online platforms like Slack are an excellent way to ease yourself in. Check out Designer Hangout, Junior UX Community, Dear Designers, and Team Sketch—together with this list of 28 Slack communities you should join as a UX designer.
From there, build up the courage to take your networking efforts offline. If there’s a UX designer in your current company, invite them out for a coffee and pick their brains. At the same time, searchmeetup.com for local groups and events.
However you choose to network, bear in mind that it’s not about exchanging business cards and collecting LinkedIn contacts. Focus on making meaningful connections and building up a genuine rapport with those around you. UX design is all about empathy and human interaction, after all!
To learn more about networking as an aspiring UX designer, check out Clive Lavery’s networking guide, Mark McGuinness’ top ten social networks for creative people, and, if you’re an introvert or reluctant networker, this guide on how to network without losing your soul.
How to become a UX designer: The takeaway
So, what do you think? Is UX design for you? As you’ve seen, breaking into the field of UX design requires the development of a very varied skill set—and that’s exactly what makes it such an exciting field. You’ll need to do lots of reading and plenty of hands-on practice, and you’ll have to learn how to tell your story as a UX designer. And we can help you do that, and we can help you land a job in UX, too. Here’s the breakdown of job titles our UX design graduates currently have in 2019.
Regardless of your previous experience or current job title, following the eight key steps we’ve outlined in this guide will place you firmly on the right path to becoming a bona fide UX designer. Are you ready to make it happen? Discover your complete career-change package with our UX Design Course.
For further reading, check out the following guides:
- What Salary Will I Earn As A User Experience (UX) Designer?
- UX Bootcamps: Expectation vs. Reality
- The Ultimate UX Reading List: These Are The 10 Best Books For Aspiring UX Designers
What You Should Do Now
- If you’d like a step-by-step intro to find out if UX design is right for you - sign up here for our free 7-day UX short course.
- If you are interested in becoming a UX Designer check out our UX design course (you'll learn the essential skills employers need).
- If you’d like to speak to an expert Career Advisor for free about how you can really get a new job in tech - connect with us here.
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