It’s easy to wonder or worry about your job prospects when you’re looking to start a career in UX—with prior work experience that seems entirely unrelated. Is it actually possible to land a job as a UX designer with a professional background as a graphic designer? Teacher? Barista? We’re here to answer that question and give you some tips on how to make it happen.
Spoiler alert: The answer is yes. You can break into a new career as a UX designer without prior experience in the industry.
So how do you make that happen? In this guide, we’ll give an overview of the field (and what makes it ideal for career change) and tell you what you can do—starting now—to ensure that employers understand (and are impressed by) the value and expertise you bring to the job. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What is UX design really all about?
- How important is “real world” experience in landing a UX design job?
- Know your transferable skills
- Develop your technical knowledge and skillset
- Cultivate core UX competencies
- Learn from people who have successfully changed careers into UX design
1. What is UX design really all about?
For a brief overview of what UX design actually is, check out Jeff Humble’s take on the topic:
As important as UX designers are in the process of creating products and experiences that truly delight users, UX design is a relatively easy industry to break into without a background in tech or design.
Here’s why: The core competencies that make for a great UX designer are “soft skills” that can be learned in countless other kinds of work.
Let’s start with the big picture: The job of the UX designer is to advocate for the needs of the end user—whether that advocacy happens somewhere within the design process itself, during research, or in a meeting with stakeholders.
The UX designer has their hand on the pulse of what users need and want as they experience a particular product.
Now, while it’s true that UX designers wield a host of specific technical skills to do their magic, at its heart, UX design is all about empathy and communication.
What other jobs come to mind that require empathy and communication? Perhaps the better question is which jobs don’t.
If you have a background as a barista or bartender, chances are that you’ve got some well-built communication and empathy muscles to flex. These jobs are all about connecting with your customers—understanding what they need and how to make the experience meet or exceed their expectations. You’ve likely got those regular customers whose orders you’ve memorized and whose lives you can ask about.
If you’ve got a background in teaching (regardless of what age or level), and you were (or are) any good at it, you’re probably a communication and empathy mastermind. Not only can you read a room and know when or how to explain things in a new way, but you also likely have those students with whom you share a particular affinity or connection.
The same may be said of just about any profession that involves providing service, support, understanding, or just a listening ear to other human beings. If you’ve worked in a setting where you needed to have an understanding of what your customers needed—which is true in sales, graphic design, customer service, marketing, hospitality, and the list goes on and on.
And the really great thing about UX design is that the work often benefits from fresh perspectives and diverse backgrounds.
Someone with a completely different background can bring valuable skills and fresh insights to the table—they can ask questions that a seasoned tech professional might not have considered. More and more employers understand that this is true and have come to value a variety of backgrounds and work experiences on their teams.
So whether you’re managing a hedge fund or selling tickets and concessions at a movie theater—if you’re considering a career in UX, you’re not dreaming too big or leaping too far.
Of course, on top of empathy and communication (and other competencies or “soft skills”), there are loads of technical skills that UX designers utilize to get the job done. They facilitate design thinking workshops, conduct user research and usability testing, create affinity diagrams and customer journey maps, craft user personas and persona spectrums, and finesse prototypes and wireframes—just to scratch the surface.
But technical skills can be taught. Underlying all of this technical work are core competencies that can’t be taught (or that at least take longer to cultivate): empathy, communication, organization, and critical thinking are just a few that are common among successful UX designers.
2. How important is “real world” experience in landing a UX design job?
Let’s first talk about what “real world” really means and how employers might gauge that in the first place.
Often what people mean when they say they need “real world” experience is that they need a line on their resume or CV that proves that they did this specific kind of work at this specific company for a given period of time.
Does that line on the CV prove that a person knows how to do the work and do it well? Not likely.
Employers will expect you to be able to discuss and demonstrate the work you did. So while a line on your CV can certainly be helpful, that should only ever be based on something you can showcase in your UX portfolio and talk about in interviews.
Your UX portfolio (and your ability to talk about it in depth) is where employers will look to assess the quality of your work, your attention to detail, your ability to reflect on your process, and to learn from past experiences and apply those learnings going forward.
Your UX portfolio showcases the work you’ve done—and that work might come from a formal UX designer role, of course, but it can also come from projects you complete in a course or bootcamp, from volunteer experience, or even a project you took on to apply principles of UX to your current job.
So, in short, if “real world” experience means work that you can demonstrate through case studies in your UX portfolio, it’s very important in landing your first job in UX.
But it’s important to know that you can gain that experience in any number of ways; it doesn’t have to come from a formal role in the industry.
It can even come (at least in part) by knowing how to identify your transferable skills and communicate those effectively during the UX interview process.
3. Know your transferable skills
As in any journey, the best place to start is…right where you are. Mine your previous experiences for skills and competencies that transfer to the field of UX design.
It’s common to have a sense of the inherent connection between what you did before and what you’ll do in your new career. It’s your job to gather those inherent connections and communicate them explicitly so that employers can see the direct connection.
By way of example, let’s say that you are (or were) an awesome indie coffee shop barista. There’s an inherent connection between your ability to connect with your customers as a barista how you’d connect with users as a UX designer. But let’s make that connection explicit. Think of your customers as your “users.”
Did you merely slog through the morning rush and make that never-ending line of customers dwindle before lunch? Probably not—at least, not if you had any competition and/or kept any regular customers.
You made eye contact with people, you said good morning to them, you listened to their order and made it well, you handled a monetary exchange; maybe you even listened to what they were stressed about in the coming day or dealt with the occasional grumpy customer, or one who’s order wasn’t what they’d expected.
This is reflective of the same competencies you’d employ as you conduct research on customer needs and goals and really get to the heart of what it is users want to accomplish using your product.
You have experience in connecting with and empathizing with users; assessing user needs and finding creative ways to meet those needs; building brand loyalty and crafting experiences that users are eager to return to. Does your former experience look exactly like what you’d be doing as a UX designer? Probably not.
But you’re tapping into the same core competencies.
To get a better idea of what you’re transferable skills might be, we suggest starting by talking to experienced UX designers, or even someone who’s new to the field. They can tell you what some of the most important skills they’ve had to develop over time and help you identify the ones you already have.
You’ll also start to recognize more of your transferable skills as you go about learning the process of design thinking and developing all of those technical skills you’ll need in your new career.
As you learn new concepts, processes, and tools, you’ll begin to see skills you didn’t even know you already had. Which brings us to the technical side of things.
4. Develop your technical knowledge and skillset
There’s no getting around it. Core competencies and transferable skills are foundational to your successful career change into UX; but there are a lot of technical skills you’ll also need to master to really stand out to potential employers. The good news is that there are some very straightforward ways to go about gathering these skills.
UX blogs, books, and podcasts
If you’re brand new to UX and you’re not entirely how a day as a UX designer would even look, we recommend that you take an exploratory approach. Read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, and do everything you can to immerse yourself in that world before you take the leap. Here are some resources we think you’ll find helpful:
- Take a free short course in UX design to test the waters and see what it’s all about and how you feel about it.
- Work through our reading list for aspiring UX designers and our list of design thinking books to read. Explore both lists and jump in where you’re most curious!
- Read UX blogs! There’s always more to dive into here on the CareerFoundry Blog, but we also recommend UX Collective, UX Planet, Inside Design (from InVision), and Adobe XD Ideas.
- Listen to some of our favorite UX/UI podcasts for some UX learning on the go.
Though, to be honest, these are great resources to immerse yourself in even if you’re a seasoned UX professional. One of the best things about UX is that there’s always something new to learn and explore.
Enroll in a UX design program or bootcamp
One of the best ways to structure your learning and get some hands-on experience is by enrolling in a UX design program or bootcamp. The best program for you will depend largely on your schedule and your budget, but if you’re coming into this with no former experience in tech or design, we highly recommend finding a UX design program that takes a hands-on and practical approach to helping you develop core skills and a professional portfolio—along with some degree of preparation and guidance for your job search.
Enroll in the right kind of program and you’ll end up with a professional UX design qualification, a strong foundation in all things UX, relationships with UX design mentors and others in the field, a polished UX portfolio, and a clear idea of what kinds of jobs to apply for and how to really ace the interview process. If you’re worried about re-training for your new career while you still keep up with your current responsibilities, know that many people have navigated the same thing! It’s possible to juggle a UX bootcamp with a full time job and other responsibilities.
There are a lot of programs on the market, though, so finding the right one for you can be daunting. Our guides to the best UX design certification programs and the best UX design schools are a great place to start!
If you’re considering going back to school and getting a design degree, here’s a guide that you’ll find helpful: UX Bootcamp vs. Design Degree: Which is better?
5. Cultivate core UX competencies
As you look at where you’re at and where you want to go, as you consider your transferable skills and work to develop your technical skills, it’s important not to overlook those core competencies where you have room to grow.
When it comes to things like communication, empathy, organization, and critical thinking, these are not skills that you can pick up overnight. A program or bootcamp isn’t going to hand you these skills on a silver platter—though that kind of learning (working with a mentor and fellow students) can certainly help you continue developing in those areas.
These are areas where you need to seek honest, constructive feedback from your colleagues, or even friends and family.
The thing about many core competencies is that how good we are at them (or how much room we have to grow) is often most apparent in how others experience working with us. You might think you’re an amazing communicator, but your colleague at a neighboring desk might see areas where you could grow or challenge yourself.
Improving in these “soft skills” requires a more overarching commitment to bettering yourself and to learning and growing as an individual.
Ask your colleagues for feedback. Talk to friends and family about what they observe in you. Identify the competencies you really want to get better at—there’s always room to grow. Then find the people and the communities that are also seeking to improve in that area. Find a mentor. Read books. Watch TED Talks. Listen to podcasts.
Do everything you can to stay on your own growing edge and watch how that will positively affect your work—no matter where you are in your career.
6. Learn from people who have successfully changed careers into UX design
One more critical thing to remember is that you’re not alone in this. Many, many people have successfully changed careers from something totally unrelated to UX design; and many, many people are very happy with that change.
Here are a few of our favorite UXers who came from entirely (seemingly) unrelated fields. Check out their stories—chances are, you’ll find some resonance with their experiences:
- Rachel Abrams—from admin to UX
- Jeff Buchanan—a pastor turned UX designer
- Flora Kiss—from graphic design to UX
- Sagan Pope—English teacher to UX designer
No matter your background, changing to a career in UX is no simple task. And hindsight is always clearest! Here’s what design experts at AJ&Smart wish they’d known before they became designers.
If you’d like to learn more about UX design or how to kickstart a career as a UX designer, check out this workshop where we show you how to find your UX design niche and stand out in the job market. You might also find these articles useful: