You’re looking for your first ever job in UX or Product Design: excited, but also intimidated. All of the jobs descriptions you come across have an endless list of requirements: technical skills, real-life experience, and, of course, the portfolio... It’s a classic chicken and egg problem: You’d love to get work experience and build that portfolio, but can’t get work without having it already.
So now what? Are you doomed to forever stay in the job-search limbo?
Not on our watch! We caught up with our UX designers, and gathered their battle-tested advice on landing that first UX job, even without a portfolio. Curious yet? Then read on.
Expand your network
This is an obvious one, yet so many people dismiss it. “Networking is just so sleazy”, “But I don’t have a lot of connections”, “Ugh… it’s just not my thing...” Sound familiar?
We get it, networking is not the easiest skill to master. But UX Design is a VERY people-focussed field, so if you feel uncomfortable about approaching people, networking, and mingling...you need to work on this. Getting a job is so much about showing up, “being there” and building relationships with the people in your industry. Good news? We have a few tips on how to network your way in without feeling like a sleazy used car salesman.
Volunteer at Events & Go to Meetups
Here’s a hot tip: Volunteering at UX and Product Design Meetups is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the industry, meet relevant people, get your foot in the door, and learn something useful in the process. Why are we so confident? Because a loooot of the people who work at AJ&Smart today are people who have attended and helped us out with our events.
Go to Facebook, Eventbrite, or Meetup.com, and look for design events in your city: These could either be events that the company you're interested in is hosting, design meetups, or career events for designers! After you’ve found the event you like, contact the organizer and ask to volunteer. They’ll likely respond with a yes (who doesn’t like free help, right?!) But if they don’t, move on to the next one. Don’t give up until you find an event you can volunteer at.
This is a fantastic way to work your way into a company, even without a portfolio, because you will have direct access to the people who work there, and you can connect to them and ask directly what you'd need to get an internship or a junior position.
Now there is a catch to this strategy: if you want to stand out from the crowd, you need to absolutely overdeliver. You need to be the most proactive and helpful volunteer they’ve ever met, without being too pushy or desperate. How do you strike this delicate balance?
Put simply, just be patient and build trust with the employees of the companies, create genuine connections, and be willing to really help without expecting an instant job offer in return.
*Don’t be quick to dismiss this strategy in times of social distancing. If your region doesn’t allow for in-person gatherings, contact online meetups and conferences. Striking a connection online is more challenging, but definitely possible! Read this for tips on how to ace remote networking and collaboration.
Join a UX community
Another great way to build your network is to join a community (online or in-person) of like-minded UX designers. Being part of communities is really amazing for staying up to date in the fast-paced UX industry, getting real life advice from people who are going through the same struggles as you, and–you guessed it–expanding your network.
You might even find a UX mentor as a bonus, and rub elbows with someone who’s on the lookout for fresh UX hires!
Don’t know where to start? Here are some of our all-time favorite communities:
- Innovation Hackers
- UX Mastery
- UX Beginner Design Community
- Designer Hangout
Leverage the Canvas Strategy (a.k.a. Make Other People Look Good!)
We’ll take a wild guess here, but you’re probably so busy thinking about the ways you can get a head start in your UX career that you completely forget that the people hiring for UX positions...are also only thinking about themselves.
Here’s the secret knowledge nugget that we would’ve LOVED to learn about earlier: One of the best things you can do for your career is to help other people get ahead. Canvas Strategy, coined by Ryan Holiday, is a tried and tested success formula, yet gets overlooked constantly.
We believe in this strategy so much, we even filmed a video about it! Take a look:
So how does it work? You have to follow these simple steps…
- Find out where you currently are in the job food chain. If you're at the start of your career, you're probably on the lower end. And that’s totally fine! Accept it and don’t try to boost your ego by placing yourself higher than you actually are. The sooner you can accept your status quo, the sooner you can start working on boosting your career!
- Target a few people that you would like to get in touch with (e.g. people working in your dream company!) and figure out what it is that would be valuable for them. Now, don’t make the rookie mistake of contacting them directly and asking how you can help. That puts the ball in their park, and places the ‘responsibility’ of figuring stuff out on their shoulders. Do your research, and really pinpoint the obstacles or troubles that they’re facing in their day to day work, and then...
- Solve them! You might not be able to solve their biggest business challenges, but we can guarantee that you can find something you can help with.
How does this strategy look in action?
Let’s say you want to work at a trendy UX design agency. Because they’re so cool and trendy they likely get tons of applications on a daily basis, and can hardly keep up with candidates inflow. Following the steps of the Canvas Strategy, you have done the research and realised they’ve recently launched their new YouTube channel, and are now trying to grow it. You can now figure out a way to help them with YouTube growth: connecting them with an influencer who might be willing to help, offering a few insights, creating engagement in their comments, etc. You’ve delivered value and started building a genuine relationship before ever asking for a job– so you’re already going to stand out from the rest of the applicants.
Understand what hiring managers are ACTUALLY looking for
The big thing that most applicants underestimate is how hard it is to actually find good people. Yes, the competition out there is fierce, but most people are not paying attention to some of the most essential skills that hiring managers are looking for.
Landing a job is not just about mastering the hard technical skills, or knowing the ins and outs of the latest design software. All of that is learnable–and if you’ve done a UX course or a university degree, you’re probably well-versed already.
What's really hard for hiring managers to find are people who are great at communicating, and activating other people to collaborate. People who have a solid thought process behind their work, and think critically instead of following a cookie-cutter process. These things are much harder to learn the formulaic design processes, and that’s where you can really set yourself apart. Here are our best tips on how to do just that.
Leverage Your Previous Experience
You might think that as a newbie in the world of UX Design, without any direct work experience under your belt, you’re starting from zero. But what if we told you that you most likely have worked through the elements of the UX Design process already?
Especially if you’re switching to UX from a different career path, take the time to pinpoint where your previous role might’ve intersected with the field of UX. Did you do Market Research? Great, then you’ll probably be more confident with UX Research. Do you have experience with Quality Assurance? Learnings from this field can be implemented in Usability Testing as well!
While these are not exact matches, it goes to show that you can reframe your previous experience into skills relevant for the UX profession.
Get to Grips With Facilitating
Decision-making in team and collaboration are one of the hardest challenges of every designer. What a lot of designers realize a few years into their careers, is that they have to facilitate way more than they’ve anticipated.
Over the course of your career you’ll need to be able to facilitate design decision-making, present and synthesize research findings, conduct retrospectives, and so much more. All of that requires facilitating and getting people on the same page... In other words, being a good facilitator makes you a better designer, and by learning this skill from the get go you dramatically increase your 'hireability'.
Besides, facilitation is easier to learn than you might think. We recommend you start with learning how to run a few quick and easy workshops, like the Lightning Decision Jam that will help you nail the decision-making process, or The Problem-Framer, the perfect project kick off workshop. And then transition into creating your own custom workshops with The Workshopper Playbook.
Have Something to Show
To be crystal clear, you don’t NEED a fancy sleek portfolio to land your first job in UX or Product Design. However, having something tangible that shows your interest in the field will trump telling about it any day. While you might not have done any “real” work, there are still plenty of ways to showcase your interest in UX, and build your first portfolio. Here are some of our favorites.
Do a Personal Project
Reach out to your network, and see if anyone needs help with a project where you could hone your UX skills. Maybe someone in your network needs a new website: you could design it for them; do a few sketches and mockups; test it with the real users - in other words, really practice the craft of UX Design. Not sure whom to ask? Here are a few suggestions: Approach a local business, help out a non-profit, or scout your personal network. Now, be sure to set some boundaries from the get go, so that you don’t end up working for free for months on end. Limit the scope of your project to what you want to showcase in your portfolio, and if your 'client' likes your approach, maybe they'll even be willing to offer you some paid gigs.
Related: Our guide to the best free UX and UI design courses
Redesign an App or a Feature
What if you just can’t get the chance to do a real-life UX case? Don’t give up, there is a way to showcase your skills even if you can’t do any “real” work at the moment. Pick out a product or a feature that you like and redesign it.
Now there is a caveat to this portfolio strategy: doing simple visual redesigns won’t get you far. You need to take a deeper look at the product and showcase the reasoning behind every UX decision you make. Create a little case study on what you changed, why you changed it, what the product challenges were, and what about your design might not work.
Nothing makes senior UX Designers roll their eyes more than seeing a portfolio which is just about changing features to look more "aesthetically pleasing". One of the first things you’ll need to learn as a UX designer is that every UX decision you make has to serve an end business goal (and mere beauty is rarely one of them.)
The bottom line here is: don’t spend ages fleshing out a nice trendy looking website. The most important thing in a portfolio is showcasing your thought process, the challenges you needed to tackle and how you went about it.
Define 3 Simple Skills That You Ace
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Being a UX Designer is about so much more than isolated tech skills. It’s a combination of holistic understanding of UX as an industry, craft mastery, and being able to make headway on projects.
So even if you don’t have any design work to show, highlight 3 skills that make you fit for a UX Designer role. Include a problem-solving or a decision-making workshop that you can run, a process you’ve mastered and use in your UX Design methods, and a tool that you know in and out and can use confidently.
That way, even if your portfolio might be lacking some design aspects, you will have showcased 3 clear ways in which you’ll be able to add on value to the team.
Show Your Interest In the Field of UX
Still think your portfolio is not ‘good enough’, even after going through all the points above? First off, relax–it’s your first UX job, and no one comes into a profession as an expert (otherwise you wouldn’t be looking at an entry-level position!)
A great way to compensate for a lack of design work in your portfolio is to really showcase your interest in UX design and eagerness to learn about it. Leverage the power of the internet and social media to start building your expertise and personal brand in the field of UX.
Write about your journey of becoming a UX designer, analyze and discuss the latest product news on social media, share exciting news in the world if UX, you get the gist. This advice is great even for experienced UX designers: personal brand is one of the most powerful future-proofing strategies you can use.
Use the LEAST crowded channel
Here’s the thing: you might have the most amazing portfolio out there, all the relevant skills and expertise and still not get noticed by the hiring managers. That’s because it’s extremely hard to set yourself apart from the crowd of the same-looking email resumes.
So, how do you get a companies’ attention in the over-saturated, messy world of hiring? Well, you look for the companies’ Least Crowded Channel. Or put simply–reach out to the company you want to work at on the channel where you know not a lot of people will be contacting them.
How would this work in practice? Let's say that you want to work at AirBnB or another Silicon Valley giant. If you would email the person working in the recruiting department or, the Head of Design, the chances of you getting a (useful) reply are very low because their inboxes are probably swamped! Now imagine you managed to track down one of these people on Twitter or on Instagram, for example–that might not be the channel that a lot of people are using to contact them about jobs. If you find a way to capture their attention there–without being spammy–you have much higher chances of getting noticed.
Learn the Business Lingo
You’ve learnt your UX jargon, and can impress your fellow designers by “speaking their language”, but can you actually sit with a team of non-designers and understand what they are saying to you?
UX Design is not an isolated discipline. Although it might be tempting to think that companies are after sleek intuitive interfaces because they like them–in reality there’s always a tangible business goal behind. It’s your job as a UX Designer to help the company achieve it, using your expertise and working closely together with marketing, business development and other departments. So get to know the metrics that they’re using, learn their lingo, and speak it. This will not only help you get a job, this will also help you get ahead in your career much faster.
Be Eager and Humble
A major mistake we’ve seen time and time again with junior (and sometimes not-so-junior) UX Designers is to try and “overcompensate” for their lack of experience by acting uninterested or even arrogant.
Here’s the thing: Nobody enjoys working with somebody who’s arrogant and not eager to work. You could tick all of the other tips on this list, but if you do it arrogantly and half-heartedly, they will be no good. Being eager to work, excited to take on the challenges, to learn, and to openly admit you don’t know it all will massively help you in building genuine relationships with the people on the teams you want to work at.
It’s this simple: People are attracted to the energy of someone’s who’s excited about the work they’re doing, however small the task may be. As a junior employee, you’re not expected to know the ins and outs of your craft from day one. If anything, meeting someone junior who's boasting about knowing it all is a huge red sign for most companies. It shows a huge lack of curiosity and desire to learn.
So accept the fact that you don’t know it all just yet, stay hungry for more and keep in learning. Be open about the things you don’t know yet and proactive about learning them. Here is the list of our favorite resources that will help you in this way.
Must-Read Books for UX Designers
Reading–and self-education in general– is a scary career advantage. You’d be surprised how many people pass on this opportunity to get ahead of the game because they don’t have time, or reading is just not their thing. So if you really want to stand, this one of the best–and easiest– ways to do just that. Here’s the list of the books that EVERY designer should read:
- Don’t make me think by Steve Krug
- The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
- The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
- Sprint by Jake Knapp
- The Workshopper Playbook by Jonathan Courtney
*Bonus tip: join our Book Club where we continuously review and discuss the hottest Product and UX books!
Best UX & Product Podcasts
And this concludes the list of our advice for landing that first job in UX or Product Design! We’re confident that if you take the time and effort to implement this advice, you’d be on your way to that dream job of yours in no time!
Now, it’s over to you. Which tip will you implement first? Do you have any tips that we missed out? Let us know in the comments below!