UX Design: How to Get Started (A Full Guide)

Want to get started in UX design? Make products? Thrive in a company of like-minded designers? Check out these tips to break into the wonderful world of UX!

Want to get started in UX design? Make products? Thrive in a company of like minded designers? Well you’ve come to the right place. We’re ready to spill the beans on our best ways to become a UX designer and solidify a space for yourself at the designers’ table. In just six steps we can get you from right where you are now to working as a professional junior UX designer. We’ve rolled together every tip, trick, and idea all into one place so you can stop scouring the internet and get cracking on with what’s most important - LEARNING.

We’ve also recently released a video that works through all six points of how to get started in UX design which you can watch here: 

and well, if you’re more into reading, don't worry - we’ve got you covered!

1. Do you want a Career in UX? 

Given that you’re reading this article, we assume you already know a little bit about what UX design is, but might not be 100% sold on if it’s the right path for you. UX is a fascinating career but dabbling in it on the side and making a career out of it are two very different things. Before you get started on building that portfolio and landing that job, it’s important to work out if designing products is really what you want to be doing every.single.day.

Just like with any other skill, you can’t really make a call on that before you give it a real go. Rest assured, spending a few thousand on a bootcamp is not the only way to dip your toes in the field of UX Design. In fact, we have gathered an extensive list of free UX courses that will help you get a feel for the industry and find out if it’s something for you.   

Choose from any courses on the list you like. Our personal favorite is Career Foundry’s free email course. Its short, sweet, and simple emails will help you understand the basics of the UX better and really gauge whether it’s something you’d be interested in doing every day as a career.

Our second tip for working out the depths of your love for UX is to talk with a real, live UX designer. While it might be tempting to substitute a chat with a real person with a good old Google search or YouTube video marathon, we highly recommend you take the time and effort to seek out a real conversation.  Searching the web for answers can be a great beginning, but you’ll likely be hearing splices of information here and there, without knowing the full context.

By picking  a UX designer’s brain you can get a real feel for what a regular working day as a UX designer looks like, and what they love and dislike about it. This should give you a better, more realistic overall picture of what to expect if you do pursue UX as a career. 

2. Learn the Principles of UX Design

You’ve dabbled in UX Design basics, talked with a real-life UX designer, researched all possible job openings and the skills that they require and have decided that UX is your next career path. Now what?  The tendency is to start watching random tutorials here and there. The thing is, when you're learning in such a scattershot way, you never have anything concrete that you can say that you've mastered. ​That’s why it's really important for you to go through a structured curriculum.

So which courses should you direct your attention to? We’re glad you’ve asked! 

We’ve tested loaaads of free courses out there, and these are our favorites:

Coursera is golden for online courses. This one is free, but note that if you want your certification there is a fee. We don’t believe the certification is so necessary though so feel free to skip that bit. The course has got tons of well-deserved 5 star reviews as the syllabus is very strong. It’s 5 weeks long and it covers all of the basics from how you should gather requirements for a design, through to prototyping and evaluating your final designs. 

This course is also excellent. It covers everything that the Coursera one does in 3 weeks so it is a little less in depth but will still give you a good overview of UX. It has great tests, a fantastic community and also has a certificate option. The real plus with this one is that it includes “A day in the life of a UX designer” which is super good for helping those who are still working out if UX is a hobby or possible career option. 

This third option is really great for those of you who live in Germany. If you’re an unemployed resident of Germany you might qualify for a free waiver which is a real plus as it is usually quite pricey. This bootcamp is excellent, very thorough and quite a bit longer than the other two mentioned. It takes about 6 months to complete, but in that time span you’ll get a very solid foundation in UX. 

3. Master a UX Design Tool 

Once you’ve got your UX basics done, it’s time to dive deeper, and master the exact tools used in the industry. According to Adobe, 42% of hiring managers placed “knowledge of UX tools” as the most important prerequisite for a job in UX. 

There’s so many tools available, and for someone just starting out, the vast array of options can leave you feeling overwhelmed. The most important thing is to pick a tool that can take you from a low-fidelity prototype to a high-fidelity implementation quickly. 

Our best picks for this are Figma and Adobe XD. We use both and we love them for different reasons. They are totally free and have very generous plans. They also work on whichever computer you have whether it be a Mac, PC or Linux.

So what are the differences? Let’s break them down: 

We love this tool for its collaboration features. Figma allows collaborators to work on the same file at the same time (sort of like Google Docs...but for design!) We use this design tool at AJ&Smart weekly, it’s really strong and has never disappointed us! 

Watch this  great tutorial for getting started, it’s only half an hour long and explains how to design a simple app from start to finish. We find this one to be the most thorough while also being concise which is important at this stage in your design career. Use this tutorial alongside your chosen course from step 1 and you should be well on your way to designing easy, simple apps. 

With this tool you can create screens for multiple platforms in one project. Adobe’s artboard feature is also super quick - allowing its users to create large projects (100 + screens ) with no problems at all. 

We work really fast here at AJ&Smart - turning out prototypes in just 4 days, so this tool is excellent for us and it’s also very well recognized across the board. We recommend it to starting UX designers as once you familiarize yourself from the beginning with this tool - there’s so much scope to grow with it. 

4. Start Designing and Practice

Now, this is the most important step and it’s actually where a lot of people stop. Starting designers are really happy to do all sorts of passive learning - kicking back, watching some User Experience videos, reading some articles here and there. And while this will get you feeling good about yourself - your progress will rapidly diminish unless you’re practicing. We’ll even go so far as to say that if you’re not practicing you’re really only going backwards. 

But how can you get started without any experience at all? And how would you know that you practice in  a ‘correct’ way? We’ve pulled together some of the best ways to get your UX design groove on when you’re just starting out.  

Redesign Something Good 

Our first tip for getting in that practice is to take something with a strong design, something that catches your eye or is just a pleasure to use - an app for example, and redesign it. This is one of our favorite exercises, because when you take a good design and draw it out again pixel by pixel, you start to absorb why certain decisions were made. Having this understanding is one of the most crucial steps in becoming a UX designer. 

Once you’ve tried your hand at this a few times, you’ll begin to understand what constitutes a good layout, why a specific typography was used, what good spacing looks like and so much more. Once you know in your mind what a strong design looks like you can strive towards it. Copying out designs you like is a surefire way to gain some really valuable insight. By doing this you’re really learning from the best in the business - and it won't cost you a single penny.  

Then Redesign Something Bad

Another great trick is to do the reverse of designing good apps and to focus on the bad ones. Find an app that you find uncomfortable to use and fix it. You want to choose something that you and your friends find really glitchy and frustrating and remake it into a positive experience for users. By doing this you can start to implement all of the principles that you learned in your chosen course, which includes gathering user requirements, doing research, designing the app and then testing it out. After you've run through all the steps and made your improved design, test it out with some friends and ask for feedback. All the feedback you receive will be tremendously helpful. 

Check out the UX Guidelines

Two more resources to utilize are the Human Interface Guidelines by Apple and Google Resource for Android. By learning the principles and guidelines of app design for both platforms - and implementing them in your work right away - you can practice at creating designs that aren’t flashy but feel right at home on your chosen device.  

Practice for us here at AJ&Smart really means going through the whole cycle, playing out all the principles that you have learned from start to finish. We really can’t stress enough how much repeating this process matters. Starting designers tend to skip out on this portion way too often and it really is reflected in their work. So if you want to excel in UX, it’s imperative that you put in the hard work, swallow the feeling of not being great just yet and keep on practicing. And don’t be worried if you don’t feel quite ready to start redesigning the app. We always push people here to start before they’re ready and it works wonders. Mistakes are all part of the learning process and if you want to get to your end goal quickly it’s best to waste no time hesitating! 

5. Join a Design Community 

If you're someone who's learning design on your own, joining a design community is a real game changer.  It helps immensely as it’s a great way to ask questions, ask for feedback and learn from the mistakes and challenges that other designers are facing. And hey, having a learning buddy is a great way to keep yourself motivated. Sharing your ideas, thoughts and feelings about your work with people who understand the journey can really give you the extra push you need, especially on lazy days.

One of our favourite design communities is called Designer Hangout. It’s invite only, and it's completely free!  You get to join a slack community where you can chat to fellow designers, take part in frequent Q&A’s and get access to a job board with the most recent UX vacancies. 

And did you know that we also have a great design community? We talk about all things User Experience related on our Instagram and LinkedIn AND if you want to dive into the community even further we have a super active Facebook group that can be unlocked through our Design Sprint Masterclass. Not only do you learn how to generate strong ideas, collaborate effectively and work through challenges but you’ll get access to a host of like minded designers asking questions, sharing feedback and our AJ&Smart team pitching in our ideas, holding Q&A’s and supporting you along the way. 

Learn more about facilitation and workshopping in our FREE FACILITATION COMMUNITY

6. How to Land Your First UX Job  

Ah the interview process - it’s a nerve wracking journey but it’s the golden ticket to where you want to be. There’s one major point to remember here: When companies are hiring their only goal is to hire the person who can be TRUSTED to do the best job possible. 

In order to build this trust, you want to show your thought process and create clarity for the hiring manager. Interviewers want to see how your mind works, why you made certain choices and visualise the whole journey of your design from start to finish. This does not mean overcrowding your portfolio - but rather choosing a few designs that you know inside out. Share the process of fewer designs thoroughly and clearly and you’ll be a step ahead. Couple this with knowing UX terms, understanding the interviewer's expectations and requirements and you’re golden. Let’s dive a little bit deeper into how to execute this:

Show the Important Things in Your Portfolio

Let’s go back to step 4 real quick - where you redesigned some apps. Remember that? 
Yep, well what’s super important is that you don’t just show up to your interview with a lot of visually appealing screens and no story. Instead, write a memo detailing exactly how you thought through your whole design. Tell the interviewer about your research, what you understood from it, what your design and  thinking processes are like, the drafts, the alternatives you considered that didn’t succeed...Basically, show them the whole picture, rather than just the end result. Always remember that if an interviewer is going to trust you, they will have to understand how your mind processes information and generates ideas. 

Browse UX Job Descriptions  

Now this one is great for sharpening the skills that your direct potential employer wants. Believe us, there’s nothing worse than an interview where you’re not equipped to answer basic questions, feel puzzled and clearly haven't done your research. 

One of the best ways to land a junior UX role is to browse the job descriptions across different job boards. By learning the tools that are listed in the descriptions for your chosen role you can learn directly from the companies you want to work for. You’ll probably notice by this stage that by engaging with design communities you’ll hear a lot about many different tools and skills. While this is good knowledge to have - it’s not necessarily what hiring managers are looking for. Design agencies tend to look for a very specific set of requirements so you want to focus your attention on exactly what is listed in front of you and treat the requirements as a list of goals you are aiming to reach. 

Find several roles that interest you and create a checklist out of each post's requirements. Don’t forget to make note of any terms throughout the descriptions that are unfamiliar and make it a priority to learn these terms so you are well versed and understand what these companies want from you.  

Another thing to remember is to not be alarmed if the job descriptions ask for 2 - 3 years of experience for Junior UX positions. Hiring managers write this in to intimidate candidates, weed out the designers who are not confident enough to apply and draw down the applicant pool. As long as you're confident enough in being able to present your skills and show what you've worked on, just go ahead and apply to these jobs anyway.

Give to Get - The Canvas Strategy

Employing the Canvas Strategy is one of the strongest things you can do to get yourself ahead of the game. It’s actually how one of our Sprint Leads here at the company landed their position. 

The basic premise of this strategy is to find where you can be of value, to fill in the gap and then do it as a favor without expecting reciprocation. The idea is that in order to get a job at your desired company, you want to help that company by facilitating something they’re currently struggling with and prove that you can be an asset to the team. You want to almost create a vacancy they didn’t know they had.

The best way to start this is to follow the company on their socials, check out their website, and find the weak points that the company could benefit from being reinforced. Perhaps it’s something frustrating on their website, or something on their app isn’t so clear. Make a note of it, and then follow the same principles as in step. 4 - redesign the app or website to resolve the problem. 

Research it, talk to some people, and then create the solution. After you’ve got a design that you’re happy with you can approach the company and present it to them. Make sure to not insult the company when explaining the flaw you came across, start by telling them how much you like their service, but how you identified an area that you felt could be strengthened. It’s so important to mention that you want to give this design to the company with nothing in return. By not feeling entitled to anything you will depict your initiative, ability to be a team player and your potential value to the company. Some companies might just say thank you and nothing else, but others will be impressed enough to start a conversation with you. Even if they may not have a role they can offer you, they might be able to point you in the right direction and building these relationships will be a strong advantage. 

Bonus Tips

So there it is, six simple steps to get you from total beginner to landing a Junior UX role.  Now it’s over to you to go off and implement all that advice. You won’t get there in a day, a week, and not even in a month- the courses, the practicing, the whole process is a lot of work. It’s a lot of commitment and unless you really want to branch into UX, you might get stuck along the way. 

So we’ve detailed a few extra tips just to give you that extra push when motivation isn’t at an all time high.  

Find a Design Partner 

We break promises to ourselves all the time, and we tend to not even feel that bad about it. But breaking promises to others usually leaves us with a twinge of guilt. So if you want to stick to your plan, make the promise to yourself and to someone else. We recommend finding someone who wants to go on this journey with you. Not only will tasks become more enjoyable when you have someone to share your progress with but you’ll be more inclined to reach your benchmarks if you’re working with someone.

Set Deadlines 

As we said before, this journey might take you six months, or it might take you a year. And during such a journey you’ll want to have some concrete milestones. 

The courses we mentioned are structured week by week which is great for measuring your progress and giving yourself a well deserved pat on the back. But when the course ends it’s so important to keep on implementing structure and deadlines. 

Setting deadlines can be a drag, but they’ll force you to make some hard decisions about what to prioritize, what you need to do and how to create time to learn and practice. Without deadlines you’ll most likely fall prey to dragging out the whole process, deadlines might be frustrating but they’ll keep you right on track and progressing quickly. 

When we’re learning something new here we like to set a recurring event on the calendar app in our phones. We find that having a set time everyday really helps us to get miles ahead. Even if it means interrupting something just to complete 5 - 15 minutes of a task keeps us in that learning mindset and ensures we’re gaining every single day. So even if you’re in a real slump after work and don’t feel like practicing - just do a little and you’ll really see the dedication pay off in the end. Trust us! 

Publish Your Work

Publishing your work doesn’t mean waiting for the perfect design to push out on a savvy website. Nope, publishing work means pushing your work out whether it be Medium, Tumblr or Wordpress and focusing on the documentation of your progress rather than only publishing perfect work. We suggest documenting work once a week. 

It might seem like an aside but you really should commit to putting something out there. Also, if you do this, you’ll be hitting two birds with one stone. You can build a portfolio and make the recurring publishing your deadline. This step is really not about curating attractive screens on an attractive website - but more about documenting progress and showing the journey over the months with all of your steps included.

And Last but Not Least….Don’t Avoid Feedback 

It happens - you build a new app that you’re really excited about, but don’t want your bubble burst by criticism. 

Whatever stage you are in your design career, criticism will come around. So it’s important to get comfortable with it and adopt a positive perspective on the topic. Don’t avoid feedback for fear of feeling bad and wrap your head around viewing feedback as another amazing learning opportunity. Unlike every other resource, feedback is tailored directly to you and therefore is really one of the best tools you have. So seek it - share your work in design communities, ask friends to have a look and use the feedback you receive to propel your work even further.

Join the Facilitator Club community to connect with other facilitators and learn from their experiences

Design Books you SHOULD be Reading

Now for our very last tip (really this is the last one, we swear) - read, read, read, READ. Keep one of the below options with you at all times. Rather than scrolling through your socials while waiting for a friend to meet you, waiting for an appointment or your commute to work - read a few pages of one of these books instead and you’ll be thinking like a designer in no time. Here are our best picks:

A list of books for UX designers

This is a really good book for someone who wants to design any app, website or digital product. It's a fun read with good principles and it’s rather short. 

This book will really hone your designer's eye. You'll start to see products and processes differently and you'll start to consider how everyday objects are designed, what makes good design, what constitutes bad design and so much more. 

We love this book for teaching great terminology that hiring managers will bring up in interviews that they’ll expect you to know. The Lean Startup is great for giving you some beginning insights into the term product and exactly what it means. 

This book was written by Jake Knapp while he was working in Google Ventures. So this process came out of Google and it details a great process for solving big problems. Sprint takes all of the design process and condenses it into just five days. You'll learn everything from understanding the challenge to coming up with out of the box solutions, prototyping and testing all within one week. We're huge fans of this book at AJ&Smart. In fact, we use it with our clients all the time - all of our projects follow this methodology and we totally swear by it. 

That’s right, this book is brought to you by us! In this book we share all our best tips, tricks and hacks for breaking down your workload, generating strong ideas for products and designs and getting you to reach your maximum productivity. This book is FREE and a quick read packed with value. 

So there’s everything to get you from where you are now to landing that Junior UX role! You don't have to worry about Googling the resources, which setup to use first or any of the rest - you just have to focus on following through these six steps, showing up everyday and doing the work and you’ll be designing good products before you know it! Good luck!