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How to Become a UX Designer

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A career in UX design stands out as a forward-thinking prospect. The role’s compatibility with remote work has enabled many designers to sustain their practice in a world maintaining its distance. We are seeing demand for UX skills persist even through our current sluggish global economy, due to accelerated digital transformation in response to unforeseen challenges across every industry. The tech workforce is coming out ahead overall — though many businesses and startups are faltering, companies that survive are leaning on tech innovations to adapt intelligently to the new normal, with experience design leading the charge.

Forecasting into the upcoming decade, the nature of UX design work will likely continue to evolve along with technological advancements. The experiences we design for will also change, from today’s ubiquitous smartphone apps and websites to more hybrid touchscreen and voice interactions, video inputs, and augmented reality.

As exciting as the UX design field can be at its best, I encourage anyone serious about becoming a UX designer to also consider potentially negative aspects of a UX career path. Working conditions vary wildly in tech; research common complaints from tech industry workers by checking out online employee reviews of some prominent tech companies, and judge for yourself if it’s for you. In real-world situations, people in UX roles in particular may encounter ethical issues related to their profession, in terms of driving user behavior to meet business goals. As you learn more about entering into a design practice, consider what principles you believe should guide good UX design.

Dive In

So, still curious how to become a UX designer? Start by finding and immersing yourself in example designs that inspire you. Diving into a new subject matter is, in many ways, what UX designers do best. When you’re beginning to research an unfamiliar domain, it’s best to cast a wide net and gather all the resources you can. A bit of light reading and video viewing will go a long way, and designers are notorious content producers — don’t take my word for it, just browse by topic on Medium or YouTube. When you’re just starting out, a steady stream of design inspiration can capture your imagination in a way that will sustain you through the hard work to come. Discover the amazing work of user experience designers in the community, the tinkering and creative hacking, the impactful research, beautiful UI design, and the world-changing achievements in the field.

Socialize

Committing to a new career path requires a leap of faith. As you consider your options, the quickest way to get a realistic sense for what it will be like for you to be a UX designer is to ask some real UX designers. Get out there and network, if not in a physical space, then virtually. With so many active design nerds in the community, a quick search will reveal plenty of results for design events, meetups, and knowledge shares to attend. In my own personal journey, I’ve found industry seniors quite welcoming to early-stage UX designers, and generous with their willingness to mentor — remember, these are professional empathizers we’re talking about. For your unanswered questions, online communities often have Slack channels or message boards to crowd-source answers and support. Find one in your local region, look into groups that share your interests, and be sure to connect with UX practitioners globally to follow trends and innovations.

Introductory Study

User experience is a field of applied design with rich literature. Start off your academic investigation with the things that excite you the most. Check out some books from a reputable UX design reading list, and seek out lectures and webinars from established designers.

While there is no industry-wide definitive education background requirement for UX design, employers do often expect an undergraduate degree in design or a “related field”. Since so many fields are related to UX design, hiring evaluations often weigh professional experience more than education credentials. Schools have only started to offer programs focused explicitly on user experience design in recent years. Related fields might include human-computer interaction, communication design, information architecture, and product design. I’ve seen successful designers that come from backgrounds in anthropology, psychology, language arts, engineering, business, or even music.

If you’re new to the field, look for the right timing in your development to enroll in an actual UX design course. Everyone’s career journey is unique, and a course load can be a big investment of time and energy. To test the waters, you can find a lot of free intro classes, and plenty of remote learning options. An instructor-led class provides the opportunity to interact with a knowledgeable professional to answer your questions in a safe setting. The (virtual) classroom environment also exposes you to other learners who may be experiencing similar struggles. If your strategy is to learn and practice as much as possible in a condensed timeframe, a UX design bootcamp will guide you through the fundamental skills and knowledge, and help outline next steps for expanding that foundation.

If you’re already in a role related to UX design, see if your employer will sponsor coursework fees. If you’re an employer, make sure your employees have an education budget to apply toward new skills and career growth. The job market may be daunting for nascent design applicants, but the first few years of experience can really open up the doors to a more senior tier of opportunities.

Gut Check

Is UX design for you? Try to articulate what it is about UX design that attracts you the most. For some people, it’s the joy of crafting things. For others, it’s a passion for empathizing with human needs. For others still, it’s a fascination with complex systems. 

Find the right role that matches your interests. Within the field of UX design, there are multiple areas of specialization including user research, strategy, interaction design, UI design, product design, service design, and usability testing. While considering the best fit for your aptitude, be sure to also consider all the other fields related to UX design that are perhaps less well known but just as cool. Look into roles like Product Manager, Business Analyst, Prototype Engineer, Copywriter, Visual or UI Designer, and Data Scientist, to name a few. 

Building a Portfolio

The designer’s UX portfolio is their passport to navigating job applications. When creating your portfolio, be sure to follow best practices and let inspiring examples guide you. If you’re just starting out, you might think about achievable starter projects to take on that will turn into featured case studies. Many designers build their first portfolio projects with independent work, unsolicited redesigns, and favors for friends. Set clear design challenges for yourself, and document the experience of solving them. For a bit more structure, enrolling in a project-based course will help you produce a tangible portfolio piece that follows a typical design process.

There’s a natural life cycle to any design project, from its germination to fruition. The job of a UX design professional is inherently project-based, and a designer’s portfolio is living documentation of the best of their accomplishments.

Learning on the Job

Budding UX designers reach a real milestone when they land their first professional UX job. This could take the form of an entry-level or internship position, and the work might not exactly resemble the glamourous, world-impacting projects that inspired you to become a designer in the first place. While still standing up for your principles, use early job opportunities to study the UX design process in action, to study how the entire creative process works, and understand how organizational roles relate to each other.

You may also find more early success, and potentially long-term fulfillment, working as a UX consultant or freelancer. Part-time self-employment may be the right choice for someone holding down an existing job while building their portfolio of work. As with any applied field, only so much can be learned in an academic context; real-world experience completes the UX designer’s professional development. Today’s aspiring UX designers must gain a business sense to guide their career moves. Invest energy in the areas you need to cultivate most. Listen for credible feedback from the people you work with, and target those areas to improve.

Ongoing Education

As a UX designer, resign yourself to a lifetime of study. The technology we design for will continue to advance, along with design tools, methodology, and theory. As designers and technologists we have to hustle to keep up — learning periodically, staying up-to-date with relevant professional skills and new concepts. It may help to define clear education goals that relate directly to your professional aspirations, and track regular progress.

As you cover more ground in your career, continually demand more for yourself as you work toward your long-term professional goals. When negotiating or renegotiating contracts, research employment statistics on fair compensation and benefits, and reach out with your burning questions to other professionals who you respect. Knowing your worth is leverage for achieving the conditions you deserve.

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