I get a lot of DMs on Twitter and LinkedIn all from students all over the world who ask me for “advice on how to find their first UX job”. I started writing a “short” answer for them. But let’s face it: I don’t do short answers. So here we are with the “things I wish someone told me when I was finishing my master degree and looking for my first job”. But also the “things I want to say to candidates as a lead designer who screens resumes and conducts interviews”.
Before we start, it’s worth mentioning that how to find a job in the UX design industry might depend on where you live in the world. Some areas have a bigger tech scene than others). So keep in mind that those are the advice from a “white lady working in Europe” and they might not all apply to your particular context and location.
The 14 advices in TL;DNR
It’s a long article so here is the “summary” version of those 14 tips:
Learn about the different types of structures where you could work as a UX designer (or User Researcher) and find the one that is right for you. For example: I started as an in house designer. I was mostly working on internal products but also on a few client’s mobile apps. Then I worked for an agency where I worked on smaller projects with short timeframes (like a few months). It can be nice to change often because you don’t have the time to get bored. But it can also be frustrating to not see a project up to final completion. After that, I worked for the Human Computer Interaction department of a University. I was doing some academic research, service design and some inhouse product design. Then I worked for a consulting agency where I was part time on one single big project I was able to follow, but also part time on a lot of different client projects. I decided that I wanted to try to concentrate on one project and one client and be able to follow a project on the long run. So now I work only as a consultant for bigger missions, directly within the client’s teams.
Here are a few questions you might want to answer (and remember that the answers can change during your career)
Do you want to work on the same project for a year (or a couple of years) or do you prefer to work on smaller projects and change often? (both have pros and cons)
Do you want to work in a design team “in house” and mostly work on one (or a few projects) for one single company?
Do you want to work in a web or a creative agency and work on different projects (quite often at the same time hahah)?
Do you want to be a consultant who mostly works on specific longer missions for some clients through a consulting agency?
Do you want to work for a startup on one single product?
Note that I would not advise consultancy to a junior. Usually clients expect consultants to be senior people who can solve all their problems. In my experience, consultants often end up working as the only UX designer (or even the only UX and UI designer). So, it might be a little bit hard to get mentorship if you work as a consultant and you might end up alone on projects (alone as in “the only designer”, you’ll most likely work with devs, POs, etc.). Of course there’s expectations for that and companies that get different consultants to build a team of “external people”. Make sure you know what you are getting yourself into when you apply to a position.
I’ll be honest: I would also not advise going freelance as a junior.
Freelancing requires a lot of experience dealing with projects, clients, but also to have a solid network if you want to make money. And it’s super hard as a junior fresh out of school. Unless you were already freelancing in your previous career, freelancing as a junior might be the hardest thing to do actually.
“For your first role, don’t choose the place with the most prestige or the best salary, but rather where you think you will learn the most.”
This is good advice. A lot of newcomers expect to get hired directly by the big companies. Finding an environment where you will have someone who can mentor you and help you grow is super valuable. Because you can’t learn everything at school.
Find an internship (or an apprenticeship)
One of the most common ways to enter in any industry is usually to find an internship at the end of your studies. And to turn this into a job offer afterwards. That’s also how I started: 6 months internship in Germany and then they hired me. Yes, easier said than done, I know. Also, depending on the country, it’s hard (or impossible) to find an internship if you are not in a school. So if you are doing one of those bootcamps for example, it might get complicated.
Depending on where you live, some schools might have some “job fair”. Some schools even have some companies they partner with that will take some interns every year. My previous company for example used to do that: they had a partnership with specific Belgium IT schools.
In some countries, part of the time (or all) you spend as an intern sometimes counts as “trial period” if they hire you after. Take a look at local laws in your country.
There’s also the option of doing an apprenticeship. Usually this means that you are both working and studying at the same time (often 2 days vs 3 days a week, etc.). This is also a good way to enter the industry with some experience. But again, it will depend on the school or university you plan to attend. Some of those even have partnerships with specific companies and call help you find a company for your apprenticeship.
If you are in a school, check out if there’s a network of previous students. There’s usually places, mailing lists where previous students share job offers. Connect with previous students, check where they are working now, maybe their company is also hiring?
It’s sad that we are stuck at home, because, COVID. But in the meantime, a lot of meetups and events are now online. Those are great opportunities to build your network (many events now even offer a job board).
If you speak French, Flupa has a lot of meetups all around the French speaking countries (France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Canada)
UX.stackexchange.com is the stackoverflow of UX designers and a great place to ask questions, it’s not networking per se but it can help reach out to other people
Shameless plug: if you are in Luxembourg check out the community we are curating with my friend Laurence. It’s called UXinLux and we are also bringing our workshops online at the moment.
You could also reach out to the people of the community to ask them if you could shadow them in their work. For example, I had people ask if they could attend some of my interviews. Unfortunately, I am in no position to accept external shadowing. I work for a bank and this would be security issues. But it might work for some people. Please note that as observer you should never intervene ^^
Seek feedback and find a mentor
The nice part about building a network of people you trust is that you can have a safe environment also for seeking feedback (on your work, portfolio, resume, etc.). Use that. Especially if you end up being the only designer in the team. Try to avoid NDA breaches, but also try to show your work to some people. It really helps when you are stuck to bounce ideas to someone.
There’s this method called “rubber duck debugging” where, I quote: “a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug their code by forcing themselves to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck”. This totally works for design as well. Just “explaining” to someone why you designed something like that might help you get a clearer picture and come up with new ideas.
I also advise you to find a mentor to check on what you are designing and seek feedback. Otherwise, how would you know that this is good work and you are going in the right direction?
If you are working internally in a design team, it might be easier. It could be a senior within your team.
If you are working alone as the only designer currently hired by the company, you will have to find an external mentor. It’s a little bit more difficult though. That mentor can be someone you found in your network for instance. Please note that mentoring takes a lot of time though, so don’t be mad if a lot of people you reach out to tell you they can’t mentor you.
I would stay away from “unsolicited redesigns”: you know when you decide all of a sudden that you need to redesign wikipedia on your own? First it feels presumptuous that you, alone, could solve all the design issues of Booking, Wikipedia, you name it. There might be a LOT of technical and business constraints you are not aware of. So your redesign will just be some “shiny pixel porn” which defeats the whole purpose of proper User Centered approach to design.
Some people will tell you to work for free for some startups, NGOs or small businesses to fill your portfolio. Here’s my take on that.
Find “volunteer” work to fill your portfolio: where and what to watch out for
First, not everyone has the ability to work for free and it’s okay. So don’t feel guilty if you can’t work for free to fill your portfolio with experience. At some point you need to pay your bills. Be aware that you might have to get a job on the side for a while (and this sucks SO MUCH).
If you are in a position where you can volunteer and give your time pro bono, a great place to find people who need UX designers isuxrescue.org. They match UX designers with people seeking some help for volunteer work. They also try to provide mentorship which I think is great.
There might also be some NGOs or organisations in your city, in your neighborhood who need help. Your local community is a good place to start. Find a project or an organisation that is dear to your heart.
Another place to start is online communities. And maybe open source projects. Are there any projects that you could help or contribute to, as a designer?
Be careful though: NGOs or open source communities might not be used to work with designers. And it can be sometimes super hard and time consuming to work on such projects. Everyone has their own opinion on design. Most of the time people in those organisations want to include EVERYONE in the decisions. This can quickly turn into some horrible “design by committee” session where people end up voting on a forum about their preferred color scheme and what they want to see in the logo.
Let them know the real value of your work
Whenever you work for free for anyone (even later in your career), let them know the value of your work. It can be an estimation with the REAL value, and then you add a 100% discount. Or simply write an email to tell them “I’m doing this for free, but, I would normally charge you XX for that”. Whatever works for you. Because, even when you work for free, you want people to know that this work has value, some real one 🙂
Trust me, you are doing yourself (and the whole industry) a favor here.
Have a sideproject
Another idea would be to run a sideproject. The difference between working for free for a startup/NGO and a sideproject it that you call the shots on your sideproject. It can be something you are passionate about, something you care deeply about, etc. It’s a nice place to experiment. But don’t forget, even for side projects: seek feedback and try to have a mentor to check on your work.
My advice on “speculative work” during the interview process
I think spec (speculative) work, also known as “design tests during interviews” should not exist. I think companies should not be allowed to ask candidates to work for them for 3-4 days for free just to “prove” they are worth getting hired. Especially when those candidates already have a portfolio. For me, this makes no sense, especially when hiring UX designers. There’s a lot of other things you can ask from a candidate to see if they are a good fit. Also it makes no sense to me to ask a UX candidate to produce high fidelity mockups without them having business knowledge, do user research, etc. Sadly, many companies still do that.
So if you end up doing “design tests” or whatever they call those, here are some advice:
Try to set a time limit for this. Like “I am only going to spend 4 hours on that, if you want more than half a day, please pay me the hours”
Try to negotiate to not go into full details mockups mode but to offer process and idea instead. I usually tell people that I will not build the full detailed mockups but I will explain how I plan on doing the research to build that. If they insist on some UI ideas, I would maybe add a mood board and one simple component but that’s it. Note that this is actually building a research plan and you should get paid for that as well so it could be considered as spec work as well. Still, it takes less time than full detailed mockups…
NEVER give them the sources. EVER. If they ask for the sources, this is a BIG red flag, run. Those people have zero ethics and you don’t want to work for them.
The only time I did some spec work, I sent them a PDF presentation with compressed images and flattened text. I kept it high resolution enough so that they could read it, but not enough that they could re-use it. The presentation also had a really nice copyright in the footer of every page. Something like “this content belongs to xx and was created for the purpose of an interview exercise and should not be re-used by the company”. My PDF also contains some legal text at the end about how they are NOT allowed to re-use the work and that I keep all the intellectual property of everything that was created here. And yes, it might sound a petty move. But I like to protect my work, especially when it’s for free (on something that was clearly an upcoming feature they would eventually develop). And sure, if a company wants to screw you over, they will re-use it anyway. Just don’t make it too easy for them. I just like to remind them that this is not “work for free you can use how ever you want”.
Use the hell out of this spec work in your portfolio. You spent 10 hours on that, why not use it? But be honest about the context, don’t try to fool people into thinking it was actual work for that client. Graphic designers have done that for ages in their portfolios. If you are afraid that the company might sue you (they won’t have bigger fishes to fry), change the logo and the name. Do you really think I worked for a client who was called “Claude Walter”? Nope, that’s my little brother’s name who happened to have the same initials as one of those spec work clients for a call for tender we lost. I changed the name and used to showcase this on my portfolio on dribbble.
I also tend to believe that companies hire and interview you, but you also hire and interview them. A company with a shitty, unethical design recruitment process that uses recrutement to get free ideas from candidates might not be the company you want to work in. One day I will write an article about how I declined a final offer I got because the recruitment process was so shitty that I didn’t trust them and didn’t want to work with them in the end.
Polish your first impression (resume, presentations, etc.)
You will need to sell yourself on that market. And it’s hard. Sorry. But at the same time, you are a designer, and you will have to convince clients, stakeholders that your design decisions are the right ones. So, how do you expect to convince those people if you can’t convince HR people that you are the right person for the job?
Your resume and presentations are your image. Be careful about typos, alignment issues and paragraphs missing in your resume and presentation. I am not kidding. I had someone who wrote “detail oriented” on her resume send me a presentation with a lot of typos (like 3 every sentence). Also half of the content was missing in some pages (maybe due to the boxes in powerpoint). We are all humans, 1 or 2 typos are fine by me. But I still expect some level of professionalism. Ask someone to proofread your resume and the presentations you send. Make sure no content is missing before you send anything.
Work on your presentation skills
Yes, you will have to work on your oral presentation skills. Again, as a designer at some point you are expected to be able to present your designs and explain the design decisions. How do you expect someone to hire you if you are not good at presenting yourself and you job?
You need to already show your presentation skills during the interviews. And trust me, depending on your culture and country you come from, this can be hard. Even worse when it’s not your native language.
My advice: practice with interview simulation, alone, or even better with some people. Take one of your designs, and get comfortable explaining every pixel decision there. Get comfortable talking about yourself (yes this part is always strange). If there’s some gaps in your resume, rehearse how you will explain those during an interview. It’s all about storytelling and being able to tell your story. The more you practice, the better you will get at it.
On a fun sidenote: I have some friends who accept interviews for recruiters once in a while just to see if they are still “in the game” and to practise their interview skills.
Be honest, don’t steal other people’s work, credit where due.
Maybe this part is less for “first job” juniors but more for “second job” ones.
I WISH I would not have to write this but apparently I have: do not steal other people’s work to put it into your portfolio. PERIOD. And this happened to me a few times already: I was checking a candidate’s portfolio and something was off. The portfolio was quite average (to be polite). But the case studies were super shiny dribbble levels of polish. Something was off. And of course it only took me 5 minutes and a google search to find out that those case studies were stolen. Yes, those guys stole those from Dribbble, Behance and just put case studies of other (way more talented) people in their portfolio as their own. I even confronted one of those guys and he kept on trying to bullshit me about some “client in Switzerland”.
So, okay you might be able to fool RH people with your shiny portfolio. But you won’t fool the designer who will check your portfolio in step 2 because that designer is not an idiot. I honestly don’t even understand why those people do that.
Also, be honest about your role in a project. The UX community is smaller than you think, people talk. Trust me.
Second, be honest about your skills. I prefer someone who tells me “Look, I tried to do some usability testing but was never able to find a client who was willing to let me do those for budget reasons. I really want to progress in that area and get more practise” than someone lying. Again, most of the time senior designers catch those lies quite quickly. Because you know what? I have been in your situation. I was working in an agency at some point and was the one trying to push those usability tests to clients. So I have more empathy for someone who is honest and shows me that they really want to progress in that area than someone trying to fool me.
Last but not least: be clear about what your role was in a project. I have a fun story about a guy taking credit for the work of one of my colleagues during an interview. Bad luck for him: the lead designer of the hiring company is a friend. He saw I was colleague with someone who used to work with the candidate so he asked me to investigate. Needless to say my colleague was less than happy to learn that someone was taking credit for his work during an interview. The guy didn’t get the job, obviously. The UX community is small (especially in Luxembourg) and people check credentials, lying will only get you that far.
If you worked with a team, say it. It’s not a bad thing to “not work alone”. Crediting other people for their work will show that you are a team player, why hide it? Be clear about what you did, what you didn’t on the project.
Be also honest about student projects. If some of your portfolio projects are student’s project, mention it. Don’t try to make us believe it was actual work for a client, we will discover it sooner or later. Also, someone hiring might be more willing to forgive some design issues if it’s on a student’s project than on client projects.
Keep on growing as a designer (but don’t overdo it)
BUT don’t overdo it. I know you are eager to learn. You might feel like you need to learn it all, to read all the books. But you can’t learn everything. And it’s fine. Don’t burn yourself out trying to be this perfect version of yourself. It’s not worth it 🙂
Even seniors end up googling methods all the time. So don’t put your mental and physical health at risk by over studying to compensate for the fact that you are junior.
Smoothly transition towards a UX role inside your current company
This part is maybe more for “people already working in other jobs in the tech industry who want to transition towards UX design/research jobs.
You’d be surprised by how many UX designers used to be developers, visual designers, project owners, business analysts. etc. They taught themselves UX design and user research with books, articles and workshops and then they transitioned “slowly”. So here are a few pieces of advice I gathered from listening to how those people transitioned.
Brian Corbitt on LinkedIn gave a really interesting tip: apply to jobs in an industry you already have experience with because you have the ability to speak the language of the companies.
Plan the transition with managers and the company
You usually get hired for one (or a few) specific roles and responsibilities. Getting out of the career path you were hired for might be complicated. You will have to plan this with managers and it might take some time. Especially if you are in a position where you are the only (or one of the only) people doing what you do. You, transitioning towards UX means that the company has to find someone to fit your current role at some point. This might be a tough sell depending on the company, so be prepared to have a slow transition. And maybe even to eventually have to leave your current company to be able to grow into your new role somewhere else if it is not possible at your current company.
Observe other Designers
If you are already working in a company that has designers, you can ask if you could spend some time with them to observe their design work. This is called shadowing by the way and it’s a nice user research method ^^.
I know some companies even offer that directly: you can ask for 2 days to shadow another employee to discover their job.
Make sure that their (and your) work doesn’t suffer from the experience though. Note that you might have some resistance from people in the team. I would be clear about the fact that the goal is for you to transition in the end towards a new design role to avoid any confusions as to “why does the PO/dev/BA want to do my job?”. Present this more like a “I want to be your apprentice” than a “I want to steal your job” situation. Politics and ego matter a lot.
Ask to get involved in some design tasks gradually
A soft way to transition is usually to ask gradually for more and more design tasks. This can be a double edge sword though, if you keep on getting new design tasks but still have to do all the tasks of your previous role until they hire someone to replace you. So again, be prepared 🙂
Please note that it feels a little bit strange to give all that advice because my first design job was 10 years and I feel like a lot has changed in the industry since then.
So I think that it would be interesting to ask this question to people with maybe 2 or 3 years in the industry. And since I’m nice (and curious) I asked people on Linkedin. Dig into the comments from more advice from other people than me.
If you have any more advice, feel free to leave a comment here.