How to Become a Successful Entry Level UX Designer

User experience design has probably been around for 3.3 million years since Homo Habilis first started creating stone tools (a design that still exists today in the form of the hand axe... or maybe the chainsaw), but jobs with “User Experience” in the title are very much a 21st century creation. All types of organizations, from giants like Google to recently founded startups, are looking for user experience (UX) experts in research, design, strategy, and engineering. In this article we'll look at what it takes to be a successful entry level UX Designer.

Those experienced enough in UX can easily earn big bucks. PayScale, a database of individual compensation profiles, shows a median wage of about $46k for web designers and $72k for user experience designers, that's a difference of $26k! According to Glassdoor, another salary site, a “User Experience Designer” at Google has a median salary of $117,118.

The UX job market is expanding rapidly, at the time of writing there are 12,103 vacancies on LinkedIn for jobs with “User Experience” or “UX” in their title. Plenty of positions to fill and a lot of money to be made.

Money and opportunities aside, what makes a product or service successful? Why does one mobile application have a larger user base than another? Why does one website enjoy more traffic than another even when they provide the same solution to the same problem? In a lot of cases, the answer is that one product meets the needs of the user better than the other competing products on the market.

The ability for a product or service to provide a strong value proposition that satisfies user needs usually results in user growth and continued use. User experience is not just about making beautiful interfaces; it is the process of constant learning and validation of design decisions that deliver value to all stakeholders in a product ecosystem. If user needs are satisfied, they won't look an alternative solution.

Donald Norman is widely viewed as the father of human-centered design. As a prestigious design, usability, and cognitive science researcher, he was the first to explain the impact of user-centered design during the decade of digitization. In the last few years, we have witnessed a tremendous growth in media and interaction rich websites and mobile apps. To survive the cutthroat competition and high standards users expect, organizations need to be design-centric to stay in the game. Good user experience design is a fundamental requirement for any company to stay relevant in the market. For organizations to have a significant advantage over their competitors, they need a stellar UX strategy and UCD at the core of their business.

That said, UX professionals must possess certain qualities and an insatiable urge for learning to be successful in the field. Let's take a look at those qualities.

Qualities That You Should Possess

1. Passion for Work

Ready to get started in the field of user experience? If you want to excel, then the first requirement you must meet is a passion for making others’ lives easy. You need to be self-motivated. You need to be the one who can analyze the needs of users and observe patterns in their behavior. You should be able to deconstruct complex systems and create models/frameworks to help make sense of them. You need to strive to understand why a user will benefit from a system and what motivates them. In the start of your career, you may not be earning a six figure salary. But, don’t lose heart—you can climb to the top of this profession with hard work and sincere effort.

2. Innovation, Vision, and Creativity

You should have the courage to think outside the box and to take risks to design something new. Designing a step ahead of others (considering problems users might face in the near future) is a brilliant way to stand out from the crowd. This type of innovation is part of UX Strategy, an emerging aspect of UX that bridges the gap between strategy and execution.

3. Know New Things

The third quality is relentless research and learning. Research the latest techniques and design principles. Research new studies and articles published by thought leaders in the field of user experience. Read what prominent user experience designers say about the early career steps that led them to where they are now. Look for the latest trends in the job market. You should do research on budding startups and think about how you can help them grow their businesses.

4. Understand the Need for Change

The fourth quality is dynamism. Although we may think the way we perceive and interact with the world is constant, all things change over time. Keep modifying approach to satisfy the changing needs of users.

“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change -” 
― Heraclitus

Design Principles and Techniques

If you think you possess all the qualities of a great designer, then let’s move to the next step: design principles and techniques. An essential step to being a designer is learning the methods and tools related to your profession. The best way to gain the required knowledge for good user experience design is obtaining a degree in Human-Computer Interaction or a related field. Many colleges provide bachelor’s and master’s degrees, certificates, and diplomas. Here are a few examples from some top schools:

A quick Google search for “HCI degrees” or “UX degrees” will yield many more results.

However, according to many hiring managers in the field of user experience design, preference is always given to someone with a great portfolio and no degree over someone with a master’s degree from a top institute and no portfolio. But a combination of both degree and experience will almost always be the top choice.

The skill and commitment of a UX designer is easily judged by the quality of their portfolio. If you are a newbie and don’t know how to build a portfolio without experience in the field, there are many ways to do this. Try to work for experience at the initial stage of your career, not for money. Approach some startups for an internship. Offer to do an expert review and provide design recommendations for a small company website. Avoid presenting your college project and show work with real-world outcomes instead. If you can convince your professor to let you do real-world projects for academic credit, then you can have two birds with one stone.

Tools and Software

Hard work is necessary for success, but working smart will help you climb the career ladder faster. You don’t need to analyze and design from the ground up every time. The following are a few tools and software programs on the market that can make your work easier.

If you’re doing UX research, then you should know how to use MS Excel, Google Docs, and similar tools. I’ve found having good mind mapping software, such as XMind, to be helpful for research analysis, as well. You might want to become handy with SPSS Statistics, Nvivo, Morae, Silverback, etc. (this will be overkill for most small projects, and they cost a lot of money for licenses). There are many cheap/free research tools on the market such as User Testing, Usability Hub, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc. that will be sufficient for smaller projects.

If you're more interested in UX design, it's worth noting that some companies prefer candidates with expertise in specific software packages. This shouldn't discourage you, mastering numerous software packages gives you a chance to compare functionality, and then choose the best software for the project at hand. Some of the most common software include:

Large Corporation or Small Startup?

I am not a mind reader, but I know that by now you might be thinking, “Okay, I have the relevant traits, knowledge, and techniques. Now who’s going to hire me?”

While there a lot of organizations who aren’t aware of the unfair advantage they can gain from having a stellar UX team, there are some businesses out there who focus on driving product development and strategy with user experience rock stars. Here are a few examples of the types of places that hire a large chunk of UX professionals:

1. Tech Giants with Complex Product Ecosystems

Websites are becoming more sophisticated every day, and, as businesses expand, their products need to functionalities to satisfy new user groups. Introducing new features to a complex system comes with the risk of affecting existing parts of a system. That is why we need to gain a holistic understanding of a user’s tasks, the context of use, user needs, etc.

One misplaced button can cost millions of dollars in revenue, at least in the case of major online platforms like Amazon or Alibaba. Moreover, one bad experience can lead to loss of customers and bad publicity. To avoid all these types of situations, tech giants are in a perpetual search for UX experts to build delightful and seamless experiences.

Working at a big company will provide you with a low-risk environment and a chance to work with a variety of people. You will likely have mentorship and supervision from senior UX professionals. However, you may face a lot of bureaucracy, company politics, and projects will sometimes move a lot slower than you want them to.

2. Budding Startups

If large corporations are oil tankers of the tech world, then startups are speedboats. They are always searching for product/market fit in hopes of becoming the next billion-dollar unicorn. For the UX professional joining a startup, this means that the risks are high, work is dynamic, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions is critical. If you have a business mindset and are passionate about building innovative experiences, then go for a startup. You can learn a lot more, a lot quicker than at a big company, but you might not have the same amount of training and mentorship as you’ll mostly be learning by doing.

Startup salaries are usually on par with the tech giants but tend to get lower once you go outside startup hubs such as San Francisco, New York, London, etc. Startups will give you greater responsibility and more opportunity for growth in a shorter amount of time, but this can be risky as 9/10 startups fail in their first year.

The type of company that you choose to work in will depend on your personality and what you’d like to gain as a professional. There’s also the agency route, which will give you the chance to work on a range of projects, but is typically more of a consulting role where you might not be able to get as in-depth compared to designing a product at an in-house position.

Best Online Resources for UX Job Tips

Whether you are a novice or expert, these resources are your best friends for keeping up with the latest in the field of user experience:

1. Usability Counts

The main Usability Counts website is a great resource, but this particular article is written by an experienced hiring manager who describes what he looks for in a candidate. Some extremely useful tips here.

2. Nick Finck

If you are just starting your career in UX experience, then my personal recommendation is not to pass up on this article. This article can give you all the information you need to know before getting started.

3. User Testing

Want to get a job as soon as possible, but a lack of experience is getting in your way? This article was written for you.

4. Nielsen Norman Group

Now onto the more general resources. My personal favorite, this website provides you with articles and the latest research findings in UX. These guys have been in the game for decades and should be read by any serious UX professional.

5. Smashing Magazine

Smashing Magazine is maintained by market experts who themselves are in the profession of user experience design and are guardian angels for those striving to achieve expertise in this area.

6. Usability Post

If you want to discuss various issues regarding website design and usability, then quickly bookmark this link. It is probably one of the best sites dealing with real life problems of designers at work.

7. 52 Weeks of UX

Joshua Porter and Joshua Brewer are prominent UX designers and brilliant bloggers. Their brainchild is 52 Weeks of UX. The blog is maintained personally by them and, according to their readers, is one of the most brilliantly explained blogs they had ever followed.

8. UXPIN Blog

This site contains lots of UI resources and tools, such as responsive web design tips, UX cheat sheets, resources for design patterns, wireframes guides, and other useful articles.

9. Awwwards

This article has a massive list of quality resources. It categorizes thought leader websites into strategy, UI, UX, process, deliverables, tools, psychology, trends, design patterns, and book reviews. In short, if user experience design is your religion, then this link is your Bible.

Conclusion

This article should have provided some ideas about how to start a career in user experience. Add a comment if you have any resources to suggest for this article, or if you have any opinions on anything I wrote. Good luck to all of you just starting out in UX!

About the Author

Nicholas Tenhue profile

Nicholas Tenhue is currently User Experience Manager at Orion Health. He has served as VP, Creative at Capy Inc., Co-founder of RunTroll, Design & Data Viz at Intel, and User Researcher at SCEE. He is also an alumnus of Microsoft Ventures, Founder and former President of EIT Digital Alumni. He also holds a dual MS in ICT Innovation from UCL and KTH. 

Learn More about Nicholas.