New professionals entering into UX encounter a common problem: employers want their entry level candidates to have at least a couples years of experience. But how does one acquire those years of experience without a job? If you’re reading this and fall into the category of an “entry level UX professional”, I’m sure you have felt the pains of this dilemma firsthand.
As someone who recently navigated these waters (and was fortunate enough to land a job), I learned a few things along the way that are worth reading about. Some of the tips in this article are fairly straightforward; you may have heard about them in one manner or another. Others may be new to you. Nevertheless, if you are an aspiring UXer who is looking for a job, here is your easy guide to kicking off a career in the rapidly growing, cool-people-ridden, enjoyable field of human-centered design.
Network with anyone who will listen.
Successful networking involves four basic components: frequency, persistence, speed, and quality. “Frequency” is a tried-and-true factor in networking, business, and sales. It’s the idea that the more swings you take toward the ball, the more likely that you will hit it at least once. The state lottery slogan of, “you can’t win, if you don’t play” sums this point up perfectly. Aim to network with as many people, as often as possible. Especially at an entry-level in UX, you will quickly discover that people are more connected to industries that are directly or indirectly related what you want do professionally. Be open to speaking with anyone who will listen. And, of course, listen to what they have to say in return.
“Persistence” refers to your ability to try again when your first or fifth email or phone call fails to generate a reply back. It also describes an unwavering commitment to reaching out to new people (i.e., tying back to “frequency”), even when many of the new people you meet will not be able to offer a direct line to achieving your professional goals. You may have to kiss a lot of frogs, but if you stick to it (and wipe the slime from your lips) you will eventually find the right one.
“Speed” relates to your ability to network several times in a day. It’s difficult to maintain the “frequency” element of networking, if you’re not limiting the duration of each connection to a reasonable, short period of time. Your networking encounters should be brief and respectful of the other person’s time (as well as your time too). Work on a 10 second, 30 second, and 60 second professional “elevator pitch”. Each should be succinct and action oriented. That is, you should be able to very quickly describe what you are after in terms of professional goals to the person with whom you are networking. Additionally, that person should know exactly what you want him or her to do after the conversation ends.
Having a short and long version of your elevator pitch helps in situations where your conversation may be drawn out or abbreviated due to the context or social circumstances of the conversation. While it is great to be able to describe your career goals and what you offer professionally in the time it takes the elevator to travel from the lobby to the tenth floor, remember that power could always go out in the elevator too. Don’t get caught flat footed if the person you are speaking with wants to know more about you.
“Quality” refers to your ability to offer something valuable in the networking exchange. This can be an unique perspective on a problem, a publication s/he should read, a person s/he should get in touch with, or a program or tool s/he that might be helpful for a given problem. Just like in any other conversation, networking is a two-way street. Be able to offer that person something other than just a statement about what you want in life.
Quality also refers to your willingness to maintain relationships over time. Far too often you see people connect with someone on LinkedIn, only to never speak with him or her after that initial connection is made. That is a missed opportunity for networking. While that connection does “boost” your connection numbers on LinkedIn, it misses the chance to actually connect with that person at a professional level — the main point of social media such as LinkedIn. Maintaining relationships over time takes substantial effort and energy, but can pay off in many ways over the long haul.
Use social media and in-person meetings in a complementary way.
Use capabilities of the web to set up meetings with prospective employers. This is an area where few people thrive and most of us feel incredibly awkward. However, networking is one of the most important areas to push yourself to the limit in order to meet people who matter. Marketing yourself in person cannot be beat.
Go to meetups. Get busy on LinkedIn. Ask your old professors for recommendations. Ask your connections for more connections. All of these can get you in-person meetings. This is a time to be aggressive, because no one has anything to lose by networking. My personal favorite is a classic: ask your connection to send an introductory email for you (this makes your name mean something), follow with your own introductory email (gives the person a chance to think/adjust), and invite them to coffee or lunch (facetime, for the win).
Every single person you meet could change your life, and you could do the same for them. Just because a connection may not offer you a job, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth knowing: 1) they might offer you an opportunity later on and 2) they may introduce you to someone who will sooner. There is always the possibility that your new connection knows someone who matters and that possibility makes connecting with them 100% worth it.
When you are pursuing these endeavors, be kind. Be professional. Be courteous. Do not waste other people’s time and always frame your discussions not by how the person can help you, but how you can help them. In the business world, this is referred to as a “education-based sales” technique. You offer something to someone else that advances his or her knowledge, without the expectation that s/he will offer anything in return. Often however, people feel inclined to return the favor regardless. This could be in the form of friendly wave or smile at a professional conference, or perhaps the name of a professional looking to hire someone just like you.
Read broadly and boldly.
In your extra time, read as often as possible. This can be in the form of UX-related books, journal publications, or even blogs directly or indirectly related to your field of interest. Blogs can be especially helpful in UX because there are so many good options out there to choose from — almost all of them are free, most information is quick and easy to take in, and they are constantly being updated with discussions about the latest technologies. Importantly, blogs can also help you get a sense of what’s going on in the UX industry, where the current trends are taking us, and who the trusted experts are.
Make it a point to stay sharp on key terms and concepts in research. As a rule of thumb, the further removed one gets from an undergraduate or graduate program, the less often one is to keep this information at the front of their mind. Details such as the differences between an independent and dependent variable, between vs. within subject study designs, and the various types of validity (ex., construct validity, internal validity) are important to remember and talk about while planning studies. Interestingly, this information helps you think about problems in the industry in standardized, approachable ways, regardless of whether you are dealing with a brand new idea or system.
Read boldly whenever possible. That is, read publications and books around your professional interests, not just directly within them. If you’re a tech person, read tech articles. But don’t dismiss design articles altogether. There is often a fair amount of overlap that can help you think about problems or information in different ways.
In addition to books and blogs, don’t ignore the scientific literature. The major journals are widely read and highly respected in academia and industry alike — although sometimes stakeholders in the latter just needs to be reminded of its (massive) value to their needs and problems. Research methods are often communicated via these channels, and being familiar with the details of these methods will be a great way to stay current and impress in the interview room.
If you’re a student, subscriptions to many of the main human factors or UX-oriented journals are either free or cheap. The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) and User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) both have journals (and conferences!) that will be read far and wide. An annual fee is a small price to pay for these resources.
“T” up your skills.
Being marketable to a company is heavily dependent on what you bring to the table. What skills do you have? What can you help the company do in an efficient and effective manner? What strategies or approaches will you use to resolve a specific problem?
Building up a strong skill set is a wise move in the highly competitive job market. However, you also need to strike a balance between the breadth of skills you aim to acquire, and how deep you should dive into each one.
A good approach to follow with skill development is to think of it as a “T”.
At the top of your “T” you have a broad range of skills, but developed only to a shallow level. In other words, you have the introductory knowledge to talk about the skill or complete basic tasks, but not enough to pave the way for new ideas. Although this seems counterproductive, the top of your T accomplishes two things. First, it allows you to speak the same language as shareholders, other members of the UX industry, or those in tangential industries to UX. This is important when it comes to things like being an effective contributor in cross-functional teams, as well as winning trust from those outside of the UX bubble. Second, it allows you to identify skills where you may want to take a deeper dive into as you continue reading and learning in the future. It may turn out that in addition to having a lot of skills in research methods, you may discover that developing a deep understanding of using biometric equipment is a good fit with your professional interests and goals.
At the stem of your “T” is your skill depth. While starting in UX, find one skill that will get you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of helping you professionally. This might be something like learning to use biometric equipment, operating a 3D printer, or an analysis program such as R, SPSS, or MATLAB. (Side note: Excel is essential to learn in UX. It might be clunky for some applications or analyses, but due to the widespread use of the Microsoft Office suite in this industry, you will have a hard time convincing people in an organization to try something else).
If you aren’t sure where to start looking for skills you should develop, consider signing up for a lynda.com account. This is a great website to get your feet wet in a lot of different topics without too much cost or effort investment on your part. You can explore different skill options to see what might be a good fit with your professional needs and interests.
Like most of the tips in this guide, developing a new skill can be the differentiator between you and your competition for the next round of interviews. The more you know and the more you can do going into a new job, the less time and money the employer has to put into training you — which, will always make you an attractive resource.
So, with the skills you’ve been honing for a while now as well as the ones you’ve just started developing, show the employers what you can do…
If you don’t have work experience, create your own.
One of the trickiest parts about getting your first job in the UX field is the fact that most employers want a significant amount of working experience before a candidate is considered for a position. Not surprisingly, this is very difficult to manage for undergraduate and graduate students alike. Often, they are overwhelmed with class projects, capstones, internships, theses, and dissertation research, making it a challenge to gain the firsthand experience needed to enter the industry.
Keep in mind too, that while internships are a step in the right direction — and you should definitely have at least one before graduating — a 4 – 6 month internship is not the same thing as several years of experience.
So, what do you do in this situation?
If you don’t have a job to give you projects, make your own projects. Find something, anything, to develop your skills as a designer, researcher, developer, whatever. Show employers that you can do all this stuff because you truly already have, from start to finish. This could include conducting a series of heuristic evaluations on a website or product, or even a small-scale usability study with a recently released printer or mobile app. Yes, it is more work. Yes, there is no pay. But, it’s a clear way to demonstrate your personal and professional interest in UX to prospective employers.
Be sure to find a balance point between the workload on these projects and the expected payoff. As you get started with your first few projects, aim to complete each one quickly. The goal is to learn the steps involved. Later projects will help you focus on refining your skills and knowledge within each step at a deeper level.
Starting your own project is not something that’s easy to do, but it’s a chance for you to let your creativity run free and really do good work. There are no deadlines or limitations, so take the time to do great work and take out all the stops that you know of. Feel free to collaborate with someone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a respected mentor/advisor. Running a project is not only a time to grow and learn, but also to make mistakes. All of these things will be invaluable to you in the future.
The above tactics won’t guarantee anything for sure, but I promise you they will help! Networking, developing career skills, and continual learning demonstrates to prospective employers that you are highly qualified and willing to put in the extra miles to improve their company.
Part 2 of this guide contains advice on having a successful first six months at a new job!
About the Authors
Anders Orn | Human Factors Scientist | Research Collective
As a Human Factors Scientist, Anders Orn plans for and conducts observational research at Research Collective. While he is involved in many aspects of research, Anders enjoys in usability testing in the healthcare and automotive industries as they are a unique opportunity to examine human behavior. You can find Anders on LinkedIn here.
Joe O’Brian | Senior Human Factors Scientist | Research Collective
Joe O’Brian is a Senior Human Factors Scientist at Research Collective. He has co-authored articles on topics ranging from judgment and decision making to education and healthcare technologies. At Research Collective, his contributions include project planning, observational and biometric research, and advanced statistical analysis for major automotive and healthcare organizations. Joe can be found on LinkedIn here.