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So You Want to Be a UX Designer?

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There’s no doubt that UX design is one of the fastest growing fields in recent years. Breaking into such a hot market might seem attractive, but the thought of a new career has probably left you asking questions:

  • Can you really make a career out of UX design?
  • Do you have to go back to school?
  • Is it sustainable?
  • How do you transition from a different field?
  • What is UX design anyway?

Let’s start with some definition. The term “UX” refers to the experience a user has when – you guessed it – using a product or service. With such a vague definition, it’s not surprising why so many people struggle to start a career in it. The common question “How do I become a UX designer?” is where the confusion begins.

You Can’t Have a Career in “UX”

You can’t design “UX” for a living because user experiences aren’t tangible and can’t be created in isolation. For example, good UX on a website involves writing copy that is engaging and appealing to draw the user in. The page layout and visual design must encourage them to navigate through the content. The code must make the interactions smooth and seamless during the users time on the website. So if you’re looking for a career in UX, you’ll have to be more specific.

UX is deeply integrated into everything we create. Interior designers can create a good user experience in physical spaces. Graphic designers can create a good user experience through visual communication. Web designers can create a good user experience for people using the internet. Game developers can create a good experience for the person playing the game by writing good code. The user experience is a pinnacle focus in all of these careers, but UX is not the career itself.

Narrow Your Focus

To become a UX designer, you’ll have to narrow your focus and determine what users, specifically, you want to design experiences for. UX design is most famously associated with wireframing, a common method of prototyping and testing a solution before designing it. Wireframing is often a single phase within a larger creative process that includes research, strategy, visual design, development, and marketing. All these phases directly contribute to the user experience.

ux design example

However, UX is not limited to visual design. Developers also have a massive impact on the user experience. Everything else can be perfect, but if the code causes the website to run slowly, the experience is still ruined. Creating good UX for websites and apps means focusing on either design or development. It’s difficult for one person to do both.

Understand the Job Market

If wireframing, prototyping, sketching, and user testing get you out of bed in the morning, there are plenty of jobs available for you as a UX designer. Most of them pay between $60k – $120k salaries, but the role of a UX designer is evolving.

ux design salary

According to Joe Baz, the CEO of  above the fold, “A UX designer is responsible for understanding both customer problems and business goals, crafting testable hypotheses, designing the solution and then vetting the solution with customers.”

Highly focused UX positions are becoming less common in startups and small businesses. User interface or “UI” designers can often produce the same wireframes because they require similar skills and follow a similar process. There is also little need to hire a UX designer if each member of a small team understands how they impact the user experience.

Where UX designers thrive is within bigger companies. Products made by Google and Apple demand a deeper focus on UX as it relates to design and development. Entire teams of UX designers can be tasked with a single project, but only when the product requires it and the company can afford it.

Consider this job description for a UX Engineer on Google’s website. It has a heavy focus on development even though the fundamental goal is to create an excellent experience for anyone using Google’s products.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get a UX job at a smaller company. It just means you need to pay close attention to the job description. Since “UX” has become such a buzzword, the job may be closer to that of a UI designer or developer.

Transitioning into UX Design

Before you quit your old job, think of some ways to improve the experiences of users in your current field. You might not need to switch jobs at all if improving experiences is you’re only goal. But if it’s a pay increase, a more satisfying work environment, and an improved lifestyle you seek, let’s review your options:

From a Related Field
Transitioning into a UX design from a related field such as graphic design or web development won’t be too difficult. You’ll have most of the experience you need and enough of a resume to make the job hunt fairly easy. Reading articles on the topic, practicing on the side, or taking an online course should help you transition.

From an Unrelated Field
Transitioning into UX design from an unrelated field such as television production or real estate will be much more difficult. Most inexperienced people trying to enter this field are seeking a pay increase and a healthier work environment. The job market is grim for many people and the (UX) design field is hot right now. If that’s you, consider what UX design really is and whether it’s a career worth investing in long-term. It’s important to understand that becoming a UX designer means becoming a designer.

So if this is really what you want, how do you actually do it?

Research and Learn the Tools

First, you’ll need to do plenty of research and reading not only about UX design, but the design field as a whole. Google “How to Become a UX Designer” and read every article on the first 3 pages. Start following UX and UI designers such as Bill Kenney and the FocusLab team. Read articles on UX Booth or UX Movement and soak up as much information as possible.

You’ll also have to learn to use some creative software such as Sketch, Photoshop, and InVision as well as flowcharting software such as MindNode or Gliffy. Don’t forget your sketchbook either. By learning how to use design software, you’ll have something marketable to put on your resume.

Get Your Hands Dirty

Next, you’ll need some experience and, ideally, a small portfolio of work. You can do this by tasking yourself with personal projects, finding freelance clients, or taking an online course. Personal projects don’t have to be big or cumbersome. Don’t start by re-designing an entire product or application. Instead, take a single component such as a navigation menu and find a way to improve it. Then, use design software to create a visual demonstration of that improvement.

You can even start out by recreating existing work. Dissecting existing designs and reproducing them on your own is a great way to learn the tools and sharpen your skills. Don’t take credit for someone else’s idea, but if you can understand what decisions directly impact the UX, you’ll be more prepared to be a UX designer and make those decisions on your own.

Take an Online Course

Taking an online course is a fantastic way to get real, valuable experience. It’s not required to become a UX designer, but if you have the means, I recommend it. CareerFoundry and General Assembly offer 10-15 week courses for $3,000 – $4,000. Other programs and online schools such as Springboard accept $250 – $500 monthly payments. This UX career track by Springboard even offers guaranteed job-placement upon completion.

If you just got sticker shock, remember that a new career will require some sacrifice and investment. Going back to college or trying to get a high-paying job with no experience could be far more time-consuming and costly.

Make a Decision

The job market for UX designers is hot right now, but it’s not for everyone. You should have a full understanding of what a UX designer actually does before you change careers. So forget about the money and the cool office and ask yourself if you’re passionate enough about UX to do it every day. Are you willing to invest in a design career to create better experiences for people?

Last updated on April 10th, 2020

About Matt Olpinski
I've been freelancing since 2009 and have worked with over 100+ clients including some of the biggest brands in the world. I later started my own company Matthew’s Design Co. and now teaches 50,000+ freelancers each year how to succeed through his personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers.