Getting your first UX Role

If you’re like me, you don’t come from a typical design background. Maybe you just came out of a bootcamp, or a second bachelor’s degree, or are even self-taught. Regardless, starting over — or starting anew — can be a daunting task. These days, it seems like there are higher barriers to entry than ever before. With the constant influx of new designers, it is difficult and competitive, but it’s not impossible.

Let me tell you my story.

I completed my Bachelor of Commerce in Montreal, Canada. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to work with people. I figured International Business might be the best way to do that. I hustled to figure out my role in the world by taking on internships and jobs throughout my university career. I was a PA, Social Media Manager, Marketing Lead, and the list goes on. What I learned from all of these jobs was that I didn’t want to do them forever. It didn’t sit well with me that all of this helpful data we had was going towards exploiting users to make them buy a product that they didn’t necessarily want or need.

I’ll spare you the details, but after a bit of soul-searching, I quit my job, went backpacking across Italy with my mom (Hi, Mom) and started the UX full-time program at BrainStation when I came back to Toronto. I chose BrainStation because of it’s involvement in the UX community and the network it’s created for itself. I found myself there. I realized the necessity for human-centered design and enthusiastically took a head-first plunge into the world of UX design

Reading books ironically was my constant source of continuing education and inspiration for my newfound path in a cutting edge industry. I couldn’t consume enough UX and human-centred design books. With the help of so many amazing authors and the guidance of the BrainStation educators, I taught myself to think creatively; something I lacked in business school. From my hours of research, I realized that my reliance on structures and processes (something really emphasized in business school) boxed in my abilities to think creatively. Sure, these attributes are incredibly important for everyone, and can be an effective stepping stone to helping break down a problem to find the solution. But it is just a stepping stone, one that should be utilized and not relied upon as the end-all be all. Beyond the safety of imposed processes, you have to develop and learn to rely on your instincts, your experiences and above all, your users. The first few times I kicked off a design, I remember looking for exact patterns to follow and felt really uncomfortable with the lack of structure that comes with creative thinking. But with time, practice, trial and error, I forged my own path far beyond what I thought was possible. I found others like me that had made the pivot from industries like pharmacy, graphic design, photography and psychology. It became clear that having perspective, drive and life-experience made new UX Designers amazing and empathetic.

Then I graduated.

I remember thinking: Now what? I’ve just gone through this amazing, life-changing experience and I still don’t know what I want to do; what type of industry I wanted to work in, nor what area of UX I wanted to specialize in. Suddenly, those passed few months felt like a flash in the pan. At this point, it’s so easy to experience analysis paralysis: not knowing what to do, so you don’t do anything. So, when I was asked to come back and TA the course, I leapt at the opportunity to do something, anything, while I struggled to find my path as a UX designer. I ended up ta-ing for two semesters, and it ended up being an accidentally amazing learning experience. Sitting in a classroom and being fed education is one thing, sitting down with students and being asked questions about it was something else entirely. The students challenged me, made me think of the concepts from perspectives I never imagined, and kept me hustling to maintain and grow my own knowledge in order to feed the bright minds that now depended on me for help. While being a TA, I didn’t want to become stagnant and lose the skills I’d worked so hard to build. So I decided to hustle harder and develop who I wanted to be as a designer.

Through hard work and committing to constant learning, I landed my first UX role. Here are my tips for landing one.

Start Re-designing.

A huge problem when new designers start the job hunt is that they don’t have any work to show. You’re faced with the catch 22 of needing experience to get a job, but can’t get a job without experience. It doesn’t look great if your portfolio is a blank website.

Here’s a tip. There are ton of terrible websites, mobile apps and digital experiences out there. Use them to grow, practice and use as portfolio pieces. Conduct heuristic evaluations, perform re-designs and advance your UI skills while working within their brand constraints. Create a case study with it outlining process, inspirations, research and strategy. Employers like to see thought process and output. Give them that.

As a pro-tip, if there’s a company you really want to work for, do a re-design of one of their products. Don’t be cocky about it, but show them how you might approach their product to enhance it for users.

Curate your portfolio.

My educator, mentor and now good friend, Alex M. Chong, once told me that you need to curate your portfolio for the job you want. As UX/UI roles have become increasingly diverse, you need to know the type of role you’re looking for. Being a generalist is OK if you want to wear all of the UX hats, but if you want to specialize (ie. research, strategy, UI, etc.) your portfolio should reflect your goals as a designer.

The curation process is multi-faceted: Curate your portfolio for the job you want, and create succinct case studies to get the interview. Let me ask you this: why would you interview a candidate who has laid out the entire end-to-end UX process in their portfolio? If they’ve clearly “done UX” from a checklist, then where is the strategy? The thought process? And better yet, if the research and process is high-level and they don’t feel you’ve nailed it, wouldn’t you assume that this is all they’ve done? Approach your portfolio as you would a pitch and use your human-centered design chops to create intrigue. If you’ve showed all of your cards and the company isn’t impressed, then why would they bring you in for an interview? They know everything already. Let your portfolio start the conversation, and you finish it in-person at the interview.

Note for bootcampers and students: Make sure that you’re perfecting and building on top of the pieces you’ve produced throughout the bootcamp. A complaint that comes up often from the design community is that all bootcamp portfolios look the same, with the same projects. Don’t be that designer.

For the love of all that is good, network.

Networking can be scary, but the design community (especially in Toronto) is incredibly friendly and welcoming. Talk to them. Don’t ask them for a job (at least not right away.), just get to know them, hear their stories, and become friends. The more you can integrate yourself into the community, the more you can learn and grow.

Create long-lasting relationships and nurture them. Go to networking events, meetups, demo days and just chat people up. There are some crazy talented UXers out there and you can learn from them (at any point in your career.) We’re UX Designers and we design for people. Talk to people.

Pro-tip: Get yourself onto the DesignX Slack group (founded by Preet Arjun Singh for Canadians & Americans) or the Candles Slack Group (founded by Tom Cotterill for Europeans.) They are filled with amazing designers from all walks of life who would love to chat with you.

Pick up freelance projects or get involved with a charity

Just like there are so many bad user experiences out there, there are also some that don’t yet exist. Go chat with the owner of the laundromat across the street, see if they need a website. You’re just the person to design it! You can also venture onto UpWork or Freelancer to find a plethora of UX/UI roles. These websites can be helpful for getting yourself some experience and some solid portfolio pieces.

Charities are constantly looking for tech people to donate their time and efforts. You can dedicate anywhere from 5–25 hours per week to help them with some of their projects. By the end of it, you’ll have contributed to something good and (again) have a solid portfolio piece.

Honestly, between getting out of school and picking up your first job, you might have anywhere from 1–3 (sometimes up to 6 months) where you’re in limbo. To be frank, it’s up to you to fill your time. You can use it as an opportunity to grow and learn or you can use it as a time to do nothing and relax. Both can have benefits, but likely only one of them will yield the results you’re dreaming of.

Get a Mentor

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether or not young designers need a mentor. To be transparent, I’m not sure how one searches out a mentor, but I do know some designers offer their mentor services such as Helen Tran, Jenny Shen, Mike Dekker and so many more. I was lucky enough to land two amazing mentors through my time at BrainStation. They’ve been invaluable to me during these early stages of my career and have helped me when the road gets tough and challenging.

If you are looking for a mentor, look for someone who at least has a senior title with 5–7 years under their belt. The best ones are the ones who have worked in different companies/agencies and have self-teaching tendencies. They can help guide you through the process and be your fairy godmother when you have questions about the industry.

(Optional, but highly recommended) Be a life-long learner and show it.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, UX Designers are some of the scrappiest people out there. With new and emerging technologies coming left right and center, you have to be able to jump on the bandwagon even if you don’t see a driver.

Employers want to see that hunger to learn. You can go into an interview and recite the UX process and the tools you currently use, but what about the tools you’re going to be using in 1, 3, 5, 10+ years? Are you adaptable and willing to change your ways? Show them.

And here we are.

I landed my first UX role by following (and failing a few times) all of these tips. I definitely went out of my comfort zone, but in the end it paid off. I met amazing people, had some excellent interviews and landed my role at BOOMPAH. Today, I get to work with clients around the world and help them re-invent their digital experiences.

Marcelle is a UX Designer & Researcher at BOOMPAH. You can visit her portfolio here or shoot her an email here. Marcelle’s portfolio was also recently shared on Bestfolios.