The longer you are in the UX business, the less people care about your qualifications and your portfolio. In fact, ten years down the line, it is likely that no one will even look at either of them anymore.
Whether you want to study UX design, or are looking for new opportunities in the field, this article will show you how and why to make networking the cornerstone of your career. If you’re not in the mood for written words, skip to the end of the article for my webinar, and learn how building your personal network from day one can ultimately result in you getting contracts for jobs which never make it onto public job boards.
The (un)importance of qualifications and portfolios
Don’t get me wrong: a formal qualification or degree is an important starting point. However, the nature of your formal education will probably be forgotten once you have some experience in the field. Your choice of qualification should depend on your learning style, how much time you have available, and how much you want to spend. The main take away from it should be an understanding of the basic principles of UX design, and enough know-how to land your first job. Usually the course itself won’t be a deal breaker, and for your second and third job, definitely not.
With that box ticked, let’s move on to the dreaded portfolio, a hot and controversial topic in UX. As a UX designer, it can be harder to show off your credentials than it is for your fellow UI and graphic designers, where a portfolio of beautifully polished visuals and some fancy typography should do the trick.
How can you show all those hours of user research, mountains of Post-it notes, and screens full of grey boxes in different sizes without boring the hell out of the recipient? And how can you showcase your skills when you haven’t got a huge amount of work under your belt yet, or some of your client work is covered by a strict NDA?
These are questions we will cover in more detail in another blog post, but for now, suffice to say that if you ask 5 different UX designers, you are likely to get 7 different answers, almost all of them starting with “it depends” (a phrase you will be hearing and using a lot during your career in UX).
Feel free to check out my slideshare favorites dedicated to this topic, where some senior UX people share their take on UX portfolios. And for a further reality check, please also have a look at a typical portfolio review process that people in hiring positions apply. Don’t let it dishearten you, it is aimed at more senior positions in a more UI focused environment, but just be aware that all your days and nights carefully crafting that perfect portfolio will boil down to just a few minutes and it will be amongst a pile of hundreds of other ones.
More than anything else, qualifications and portfolios are initial door-openers for an interview. Once you’ve got the interview, your real personality can shine through and you should demonstrate two crucial UX qualities that, in my book, are more important for junior talent than any expensive qualification or polished portfolio: empathy and enthusiasm.
What you know and who you know
As your singular chunks of knowledge gradually develop into a web of experience during your career, you will be exposed to many different people: clients, colleagues, peers, and superiors who will all leave some sort of impression and form the way you think, act, and communicate.
It is vital that you foster these relationships and start building a network of people that you like and trust early on.
The world of UX may seem huge at first but it is highly likely that your paths will cross again at some stage, so the impression you leave with people at your first job might benefit (or haunt) you throughout your career. For example, I still get freelance gigs off a friend of a service provider for a client from my second job in a digital agency years back from another part of the country.
My last full-time job at Publicis.com came about because I went for a casual pizza with the friend of a friend who I met during my training as an artworker. My current long-term freelance gig at Moccu.com happened because I went jogging with a former project manager colleague from Publicis who happened to know they are currently looking for some freelance UX support. Incidentally, none of these jobs were advertised in the openings section of a website and no one wanted to see my MA certificate for any of these jobs. Ever.
Stalk and talk: Find your heroes and connect with them
Even before you have landed your first internship or job, you should start networking by using the universal principle of “stalking and talking.”
Look for your UX (or related) heroes: be it agencies, companies, authors, speakers, or people you’d like to work with. Ask around or concentrate on a handful of influencers that you stumble across during your course. Then… start stalking them!
Twitter, Medium, Slideshare, and YouTube are great sources where many respected figures publish their thoughts and discuss ideas. Go further by following your heroes’ heroes and peers: who do they follow, mention or quote themselves?
Lists on Twitter can also be a true goldmine and I’d advise you to curate your own e.g. “Would like to meet,” “UX conferences,” or “Cool agencies.” By all means, use the channels that work best for you e.g. Pinterest, Behance, or Dribble might be just as valuable for the particular type of content you are after. Remember the golden rule of UX: It depends.
Following key influencers in the field is something you should definitely start doing from the outset. However, I’d encourage you to also jump to the next level of “stalk and talk” too i.e. not only stalking, but also talking to your heroes.
Since UX is essentially about human interaction, most people in the industry are quite approachable, happy to give advice and feedback, or share their thoughts. Also brace yourself for emotional discussions on the value of a dropdown, or the beauty of an input form field.
You can grab your hero’s attention by retweeting, sharing, commenting, asking a question, or just complimenting them. While there is some ego on the scene, I feel it is quite bearable compared to other industries and even the most seasoned pro is just a human being and likes a compliment.
If you happen to be in the same area or are visiting the same event you can also ask to meet for a chat over coffee.
Test different ways of approaching and talking to people. The worst thing that can happen is no reply, so just be prepared to fail often, fail fast, and learn for your next try.
Listen to your heroes (but also listen to your gut)
I should perhaps point out at this stage that I am using the term “hero” very loosely. I actually don’t really believe in heroes and think you should strive to be your own hero.
Nevertheless there are a lot practitioners who have been very influential for me personally, e.g. Dan Saffer, Don Norman, Mike Monteiro, Abby Covert, or Stephanie Rieger to name just a few. I value their work and their controversial views, which doesn’t mean I worship them or agree with everything they say. And neither should you with your personal heroes - form your own opinions!
My advice is to always keep a critical mind, even if you are just starting out in UX, and apply what Steve Krug, another hero of mine, refers to as “advanced common sense.”
Get out of the building: From local meetups to international conferences
The real magic happens when you get out of the building to meet real people in real life, and showing your face at one of the events below is actually my number one tip to grow a meaningful network.
They are also the soundest way to validate if you’d actually want to work for somebody, have him or her in your personal network, or if you are happy to just keep on stalking.
There are UX events happening constantly, all over the world. Just check out Finduxevents.com or search Google for an event near you. A few formats I can highly recommend from personal experience include:
People who are interested in using a design-based approach to problem solving and creativity meet for 48h all over the world to develop brand new services inspired by a shared theme e.g. Jam Berlin.
Similar spirit to a Jam but often a more developer driven event looking at ways to solve problems and create a prototype over the course of a whole weekend. UX support is usually highly appreciated, and don’t expect to sleep a lot while hacking away e.g. the Startup Europe Summit Hackathon.
Local events that can range from informal drinks to talks from the UX community and topical meetups like a local UX Book Club. Just check out meetup.com for an event near you and start showing your face.
Also worth noting is that many conferences offer student discounts and most of these events look for volunteers to help organising them. Volunteering at one of these events is a fantastic opportunity for you to get to know a lot of industry people, see how they actually tick, and expand your network exponentially. It is also a great way to show your enthusiasm for UX and your willingness to give back to the community which, as mentioned above, says much more about your personality than any formal qualification.
Be nice - UX is all about human interaction
Finally, apply your “advanced common sense,” and remember that UX is essentially about helping humans solve their problems. Every user is a human, as is every employer, colleague, or client, and as such they want every interaction with you to be as pleasant as possible.
When interviewing prospective interns at my last agency I came across some amazing egos and attitudes, which instantly made me ignore the applicant’s impressive qualification or beautiful portfolio. These were people I did not want to spend the next 6 months of my life with and consequently we did not take any of them on.
My 8 KPIs or “key personality indicators”
So, to wrap up, I’d like to share my 8 KPIs that will make people want you in their personal network:
- Aspire to know as much as possible but never know it all
- Listen to your heroes but don’t switch off your brain
- Criticise constructively and take critique with dignity
- Be very serious about your work and less serious about yourself
- Always acknowledge interactions online and in real life
- Always introduce yourself on LinkedIn and in real life
- Don’t burn bridges when you leave a place and keep in touch with the good people
- Be open source and steal like an artist!
My final piece of advice would be to question everything (including everything you just read) and remember the golden rule of UX is: it depends.
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).
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