To become a UX designer, you actually do need to show some experience. However, it is within your power to create opportunities that will showcase your abilities. In this post, I have outlined examples of what some of my colleagues and I have done to kickstart our careers in UX.

Start with learning the UX process

It seems like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, I have met enough people who feel they can apply for jobs with little knowledge or application of design basics or usability principles. I was probably guilty of this, and I painfully remember getting called out by interviewers for odd design choices in my portfolio work. Study and do the classwork.

I am not recommending that you must take one path to get educated. There are options that can work for you depending on your budget and available time. To learn more check out this post on my lessons from 20 UX boot camp students. And check out this post about Jonathan Morgan who has been able to make the switch by piecing together free UX courses.

Embrace User Research

People are often attracted to UX design for the design aspect of the job and the chance to make and work with cool technology. The research aspect is actually the core of UX. Starting from when you present your portfolio work to when you actually become a practicing UXer, people will want to know what you did to understand the problem and the users. If this is missing from your process, it opens up your work to doubt.

Start with the basics here.

Learn the basic principles of design

Whether you are designing something new or refining past work, always go back to the basic principles of design.

  • Contrast
  • Balance
  • Emphasis
  • Proportion
  • Hierarchy
  • Repetition
  • Rhythm
  • Pattern
  • White Space
  • Movement
  • Variety
  • Unity

Get familiar with usability principles

When I started as a UX designer, I quickly got thrown into situations where I was designing for not just simple workflows but for whole systems. If you need an example of scale, a workflow could be scrolling through Instagram, and a system could be the entire Instagram app. Thinking at a system level, I needed to look beyond the basic design principles which only covered visual aspects of design.

Usability principles helped ground me in system behavior and how it can help the user complete tasks and avoid mistakes. Nielsen Norman Group has published a very clear usability heuristic that is helpful for benchmarking your product’s system.

  • Visibility of system status
  • Match between system and the real world
  • User control and freedom
  • Consistency and standards
  • Error prevention
  • Recognition rather than recall
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use
  • Aesthetics and minimalist design
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
  • Help and documentation

Create opportunities for experience

With a foundational UX education, you can find opportunities to build your portfolio with real-world examples. From the aspiring and newly minted UX designers I have met, I have noticed three possible ways to do this: 1). Find multiple internships, 2). Work with a non-for-profit, and 3). Make a redesign love letter.

Find multiple internships

An internship is one of the few opportunities where a company is open to giving someone with relatively no experience a chance to see into the day-to-day operations. There are plenty of companies out there that want the help of an intern, and there are no rules as to when you get an internship or how many you get. I started looking for a UX internship as soon as I had a year of classes completed. One of my former colleagues was able to get three internships while still studying design. Read about his experience here.

Work for a non-for-profit

Charities and nonprofits are often open for help. The trick is to understand the scope as to which you can help them. Also, you should think about their ability to sustain the work you do for them. One of my former students at Austin Community College and a colleague at IBM created a project from helping out a local non-for-profit with classmates. Learn about her experience here.

Make a redesign love letter

There was a trend where aspiring UX designers would post redesigns of popular applications such as Facebook or Craigslist. If well throughout and executed well, these projects can showcase your knowledge and abilities for potential employers. But why stop here?

Address your potential employer directly

A great example of how well an unsanctioned work can demonstrate a deep understanding of the business, its industry, and potential untapped markets. It should show value for them. While not an example for UX, I found one for marketing. When I presented at the ADDC conference, one of my fellow presenters showed her marketing work directed at Airbnb. Learn about her experience here.

Build a network that trusts you

Networking is a delicate and time-consuming investment. It can be difficult if you are coming from a community that has almost nothing related to technology. Starting from scratch requires intentional and consistent efforts to build your reputation.

Join a design or UX organization

Go to talks put on by your local design or UX organization. The next step is to join as a member. Some organizations like AIGA are paid memberships that would get you access to more events. Other organizations such as UXPA are usually free.

Depending on the city you are in, you may have limited or abundant options. In Austin, Texas where I started my UX career, there is a growing list of groups that put on events.

Volunteer as a board member

Volunteering for an organization is a solid way to show your commitment. If you are able to go the extra mile and volunteer as a board member, that can help you get connected with the core group. The key is to consistently show up and offer value to the board as well as the larger organization.

Do what others can’t or won’t do

Trying to join a board of an organization with little or no experience in the industry is intimidating. When I joined the AIGA Austin board, I was still in design school. However, when I met the then AIGA president at a happy hour event and she asked if I wanted to join the board, I said, “yes.”

How did I do it? I said that I could migrate their site from Drupal to WordPress. No one on the board had done it before. And to be honest, I had only done WordPress installations. Nonetheless, I was confident or naive enough to sign up for the task.

Do the work and build trust

My work on the WordPress migration and maintaining the site for the organization caught the eye of another board member. A few years later, that board member approached me for an opportunity at a startup. This actually got me my first experience as a UX designer embedded in a product team with Agile sprints. This was a valuable experience that gave me the foundation for starting new teams and training new UXers.

Closing thoughts

Why do some people seem to have an easier experience transitioning to a full-time UX designer? The answer is the amount of work they put in to craft a solid portfolio that showcases their understanding of the UX process. In addition, they also invest in building a network that knows their abilities and can see them performing well with a team. It is possible to get into UX with no design background or education. The examples and resources laid out in this post should communicate that it is a difficult but achievable path.

Matt Eng

Matt Eng

DesignOps Manager. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.