From One Student to Another: Advice for Beginning a Career in User Experience

I would be lying if I said that the last year hasn’t been difficult. Like most students pursuing an HCI-related degree, I experienced challenges during my transition to a career in UX research—a scary situation given the economic downturn and my student loan debt. For example, this past summer, after working as an intern for T-Mobile, I was hired as a full-time researcher—only to be laid off seven months later as a result of a company reorganization.

Fortunately, positive outcomes can come from bad situations. After my departure from T-Mobile, I received a lot of insightful advice from experienced UX professionals, which, in addition to making me a better researcher, helped me land my ideal job. Here is a recap of the most salient points of this feedback, which might be helpful if you are working to establish yourself as a UX professional.

Network, Network, Network!

Sounds obvious, right? But user experience is a small field and UX professionals tend to be social folks who talk to each other…often. If your name is at the top of someone’s mind when an opportunity arises, they are more likely to call you instead of the faceless person who submitted an application online. In fact, every UX opportunity I’ve received has been a result of networking.

Networking does not mean calling and asking someone for a job. Instead, take advantage of every opportunity to introduce yourself and ask for advice, perhaps over a cup of coffee or at an industry event. People enjoy sharing their wisdom and helping others; I have found this to be especially true of UX professionals. LinkedIn is a great tool for introductions, but remember that employers have varying comfort levels and policies when it comes to social networking sites. Some managers may be attracted to a candidate who proactively reached out via LinkedIn; others might be apprehensive about such a situation.

While still in school, get to know your classmates and work hard to impress them. As they become established in the industry, they likely will become your greatest source of job leads. The worst mistake you can make early on in your UX career is to upset classmates by not doing your fair share of the work in a group project. Finally, while you are still in school, connect with your classmates via LinkedIn or other social networking sites, and keep in touch with them after graduation.

“It sounds cliché, but it is all about who you know—and this is especially true of the UX community. Our field is small, active, and tight-knit—even on a global scale. Every interaction and introduction offers the chance to expand your network. As you build relationships through the various channels, it’s not uncommon to have your next opportunity arise without much effort. In the end, continually nurturing and growing your professional relationships is essential to all UXers’ success.”

—Mary Pat Gotschall, senior UX researcher, WhitePages

Be Confident

I have been told that confidence is one of the top traits that hiring managers seek out in potential UX hires, even in candidates with little or no experience. This makes sense given the persuasive nature of the work we do.

“Confidence is essential for UX researchers given the fact that they work in an environment where everyone has an opinion and pushback in response to design recommendations is a constant.”

—Rick Herder, senior UX manager, IBM

Understandably, confidence can be hard to come by for new UX professionals. But confidence isn’t solely an outcome of how long you’ve worked as a researcher or designer. Instead, confidence can be acquired by learning and growing from past mistakes. My classmates who were successful in acquiring UX positions were those who could describe the research they were involved in, and explain what they did well and the mistakes they made along the way. They also could articulate what they would change if they could go back and do it again.

Confidence comes from a thoughtful, focused analysis of research findings of well-designed UX projects. Naturally, the deeper and richer your understanding of your findings, the more confident you will be in sharing them and advocating for your recommendations. Although this requires hard work and an understanding of applicable methods, concepts, and theories, you do not necessarily have to be a senior UX professional to accomplish this.

“Confidence in the usability industry is tricky. Yes, it is an essential element, but it goes beyond just being confident in yourself—it’s ultimately about being confident in representing the needs and desires of your customers. In this role, confidence and persuasiveness go hand in hand.”

—Scott Kincaid, senior UX research manager, Salesforce.com

However, the last thing you want to do in a job interview is accidentally portray arrogance in an attempt to show confidence. No one wants to work with an arrogant researcher or designer who mistakes coercion for persuasion. To avoid this, actively listen to your interviewers and ask them questions about their experience and professional responsibilities, the company culture, the job opportunity, the ideal candidate they’re looking for (then be prepared to describe how you are that candidate), and the first project you’d be working on.

Volunteer

Completing volunteer projects is another important component of establishing a UX career. Getting a degree and having a stellar GPA is usually not enough to show a company that you are worth the risk of hiring; it takes a lot of time and effort to train a junior UX professional. Volunteering is an effective way to build your experience base, demonstrate your commitment and level of expertise, and possibly network with other UX professionals.

“With just one activity, volunteering gives you two of the most important UX jobseeker traits: experience outside of school and (hopefully) great references. You can use the product/project for your portfolio, and can help build your references and connections, all in one fell swoop.”

—Douglas Pyle, principal partner, 
Dyad Group

Volunteering can come in a variety of forms. For example, you might help a non-profit redesign its website, conduct a heuristic evaluation of a new application for a startup, assist a professor with a research project, or complete an internship. A bonus to volunteering is that you can often use the experience for a school project.

“When I was in grad school, I wrote an article applying some basic psychology principles to game design and put it up on the web for free. Strange as it may sound, that four page amateur article remains one of the most successful things I’ve ever done. It launched my career, led directly to being hired by Microsoft as a games researcher, and was the basis for my first professional talk at the Games Developers Conference.

—John Hopson, user research lead, Bungie

Create an Online Portfolio

In addition to volunteering experience, it’s also important to have a portfolio to demonstrate the breadth of your skillset and the quality of your work. In many companies, a portfolio review is a standard component of the interview process for UX design and research roles. An advantage to being a student is that, unlike established professionals, you are not under a non-disclosure agreement with a company and can generally share the details of your projects.

Your portfolio should go much deeper than a resume in demonstrating how and why you made certain research and design decisions, and the ultimate impact of the project. However, avoid the common mistake of solely including multiple full-length research reports. Just like with a resume and cover letter, you have limited time to make an impact. Include an example of each design and research method you have experience with, and summaries of projects you have worked on. You should also mention your specific contribution to the projects.

“When I hire user experience researchers for the Macintosh Business Unit User Experience Team at Microsoft, a portfolio review is an expected part of the interview process. Being able to present quality research is part of the required skill set of researchers, and a portfolio review is a great way for me to see a candidate’s ability to conduct and deliver research.”

—Yana Potashnik, user experience researcher, Microsoft

Hone Your Business Skills

Being an effective UX professional goes beyond having good design, technology, research, and people skills. It’s also about understanding how a business functions. We must often justify the cost of our work among the competing interests of marketing, customer service, and other departments. Also, as we work with interdisciplinary teams, having an understanding of the mindset, priorities, and language of other organizational groups makes it easier to be persuasive.

You can acquire this knowledge by taking a few business classes while still in school, enrolling in a short-term business certificate program, or spending some time interviewing and shadowing business professionals who work in tandem with UX practitioners. With an increased understanding of how a business operates, you will be better able to explain how you can contribute to the organization’s bottom line by maximizing the customer’s experience.

“Business skills have always been an important part of being a UX professional. The better you are at justifying the cost of user research, tying user research to market realities, or speaking the language of product management, the better you will be at advocating design changes.”

—Rick Herder, senior UX manager, IBM

Conclusion

If you experience turbulence as you enter the UX job market, remember that each opportunity, no matter how small, is a means to build your story and showcase your value or potential impact. Also, take comfort in knowing that challenges you may face are not permanent. I found that positions do exist for those with little or no industry experience, and might be easier to obtain if you adhere to the advice given here by experienced professionals:

  • Network by asking your classmates and industry peers for advice and support as you look for job opportunities.
  • Build your confidence by learning from past mistakes and gaining insights from projects you participated in.
  • Take advantage of volunteer projects to build your experience, and showcase your work through a focused online portfolio.
  • Finally, hone your general understanding of business operations to become a better advocate of UX.

 “Just because someone doesn’t have a lot of industry experience doesn’t mean that they are not going to get the job. Having a mix of experience levels is essential to the team ecosystem. This allows for mentorship opportunities, ascension planning, and easier delegation of initiatives and projects.”

—Scott Kincaid, senior UX research manager, Salesforce.com

As it did with me, following the advice presented in this article might help you land your ideal job!

Glasson, C. (2011). From One Student to Another: Advice for Beginning a Career in User Experience. User Experience Magazine, 10(3).
Retrieved from http://uxpamagazine.org/from-one-student-to-another/

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