Breaking into UX design
Andy Budd, Clearleft: “One of the most common things I’m asked about is how you can break into the field of user experience design. I’d love to be able to give a simple answer…”
How to break into user experience design
Andy Budd, managing director at Clearleft (http://clearleft.com/)
One of the most common things I’m asked about is how you can break into the field of user experience design. I’d love to be able to give a simple answer — like studying a particular course at University or starting as a UX apprentice and working your way up a series of clearly defined roles, but sadly that’s not the case.
There are Masters degrees out there, but the good ones are few and far between. With current courses failing to meet demand, there’s no way the education system will be able to cope in the next two to three years once User Experience practice becomes the norm.
Even if you’re lucky enough to attend a good course, unless you had some level of prior experience, you’ll find it hard landing that first job. User Experience is no different from the rest of the design industry. There are few large companies willing to train people up so most employers need people with at least a couple of years experience in their chosen field, and preferably more.
For designers and developers it’s easy to gain experience though personal projects. This is why most of my peers came to prominence through their blogs, portfolio sites and side projects. They were blank canvases on which they could try out new skills and learn the tools of their trade.
It’s easy for designers and developers to take on solo projects, but it’s much more difficult for budding user experience designers. I can’t imagine many UX Designers sitting around in the evening running usability tests, doing card sorts or designing complex sign-up processes just for the fun of it. By its nature, user experience design is a specialisation and one that forms part of a bigger process and a larger team.
The most successful user experience designers tend to come from a graphic design or front-end development background. As they’re already working on the parts of the project that come in contact with the user, it’s natural for some of them to be more in tune with UX problems. If they happen to work for a company without a dedicated UX person, it’ll often be left for them to solve. If you find yourself in this position, one way to break into the industry is to take these responsibilities on yourself to push the company forward. As your company grows in its maturity, you will too.
Bizarrely it’s a lot more difficult to become a user experience designer in a company that already gets UX and has dedicated staff. That’s simply because the opportunities to dabble are much less. In those situations it’s worth letting your employers and colleagues know that you’re interested in moving into that field and offer to help out as much as possible. This could be helping to moderate usability testing sessions or helping your UX team design with deliverables or prototype ideas.
If the day job doesn’t provide the opportunity to flex your UX muscles then you’re going to need to build your experience and portfolio via other means. One idea is to have a pet project. This is a little more difficult if you don’t have any back end skills, so it may be sensible to find a friendly developer to partner up with. Another idea could be to offer your services to one of the worthy open source projects out there. Lastly, I’d recommend going along to a hack day, Design Jam or Dev Fort style event. It will take time to get the requisite experience, but it may be the only way.
One of the most difficult problems is taking the leap and redefining yourself as a user experience person. Often your existing company won’t see you in that light, especially if they’ve always known you as a graphic designer or front-end developer. However, until you have a couple of years of dedicated experience, you’ll find it very difficult picking up full time work.
If you’re young enough, the best way to redefine yourself is to walk into the wilderness and simply call yourself a freelance user experience designer. You’ll find it difficult picking up work at first, but as you get better, more will come. Go to as many UX conferences and community events as you can. The sooner other people in the community start thinking of you as a user experience designer, the sooner you can start feeling like one yourself. There is a certain amount of re-invention going on here, but that’s going to be the only way for some people.
Sadly, until universities wake up to the need for modern courses in interaction design, and until large companies and agencies set up dedicated training programs on user experience, it’s going to be tough making the jump. However, with demand for good people growing, and showing no sign of letting up, if you are interested in making the leap I’d encourage you to do so.