Switching Careers to UX Design
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“The decision sure didn’t come easy. I put in a ton of hours to make sure it was going to be a worthwhile career change. I look forward to where this career will take me!”
That was said by Mike, one of the 20 designers I interviewed about switching careers to User Experience Design. Each of the designers came from a unique background: teaching, architecture, marketing, event planning, and more. The paths they traveled were equally diverse—some spanning many years, and others only a few months.
Just as important are the people I’ve met who gave up on their job search. These individuals pursued promises of job placement and exciting new careers—usually in the form of a bootcamp. Unfortunately, not all programs are created equal, and many people lose money and give up.
There are few User Experience opportunities within higher education. Many people in the industry are migrating from another field. Most switched into UX from another area of study, education, or employment.
If you’re looking to switch careers to UX (or mentoring someone who does), I’m sharing what I learned from these designers—some seasoned with experience, others only beginning their careers—and their secrets to success. I’ve synthesized my findings into five themes. I ranked each theme starting with the options that require the least risk and life changes.
- Things to keep in mind
- 1. Switch within your current company
- 2. Learn how to pitch your past experience
- 3. Start a side project
- 4. Get a university degree
- 5. Attend a bootcamp
- Make the switch!
Things to keep in mind
Many of the UX designers I interviewed learned valuable lessons along the way and would have done things differently. I tried to summarize those insights into brief, simple principles. As you begin weighing your options, keep these principles in mind.
Networking: Remember that your best resources are people. Make an effort to stay close to colleagues and acquaintances already in the field. Focus on who you are interacting with as well as what you’re learning. Attend events, join communities, sign up for webinars, and get to know other professionals. The best companies hire people, not resumes, so help them get to know you as a person and a professional.
Ask for help: This transition doesn’t need to be done alone. The designers I interviewed who reached out for help moved faster, learned more, and eventually achieved their goals. Consider searching for a mentor or community that can offer this help.
Finances: If possible, consider saving up enough money to float for 6–8 months. This can protect you when you’re in a transition period, having trouble finding a job, or spending significant money on a certification or degree.
Self-teach: Because most educational institutions haven’t caught up with recent trends in the technology industry, many designers find their way into UX through their own hard work. There are endless books, podcasts, tutorials, and other materials to help you sharpen your skills. Show your future employer your thirst for knowledge by learning everything you can.
Keeping these ideas in mind will help you make the most of your transition. Not all designers made the switch easily. Time and money might be necessary to develop the skills and portfolio that will gain the attention of recruiters and hiring managers. Every designer I interviewed eventually found their way into their new role as a UX designer through one of the following methods, and I’m sure you can too.
1. Switch within your current company
Do you like where you work? You might not have to leave to become a UX designer. Depending on the size and resources of the organization, they might be open to helping you transition into a new role you will be more passionate about. I’ve seen people move both in and out of the UX department within a company. If you’re on good terms with your company, there are many benefits to moving internally:
- No job searching! 🎉
- You’re already familiar with the products, culture, and processes within the organization.
- The company doesn’t have to spend time and money recruiting new designers.
According to one designer I interviewed, Josh, this seems to work best when the company is just beginning to build a UX team. Expectations are still low, and you might be the easiest way for a company to jump start design. If your company doesn’t have a UX team, you could be the first one!
You might also be able to leverage your current role to take on UX-like responsibilities. Are there any opportunities to identify product improvements? Use data and analysis to drive decisions? What about customer interviews and surveys? Try to stay close to these opportunities to sharpen your UX-related skills.
2. Learn how to pitch your past experience
One designer who made the switch, Di, recommends that you “learn how to share your past work experiences with a User-Centered Design mindset. . . . Your soft skills are more important than you might expect.” She’s one of many designers who have unlocked the problem-solving and user-centric skills that are already present in their current roles. Other designers successfully switched from fields such as market research and architecture using this approach.
Depending on your current job responsibilities, you may already be prepared for UX design. UX encompasses many different skills and areas of expertise including research, interaction design, usability and accessibility, web development, prototyping, and much more.
Remember that you won’t get far without a strong portfolio. Find creative ways to showcase your work that involve problem solving and facilitating communication between many interested stakeholders. Here’s a pro tip from former architecture student, Colby:
“As long as I could talk to someone on the phone or in-person I was able to demo the crossover and the way I think and design. Getting past the resume submission was the tricky part.”
Transitioning designers did everything possible to utilize their hard work from the past. After exhausting these resources, it was time to create new opportunities.
3. Start a side project
Whether or not you believe that side projects are the new resume, they can be a great way to showcase your skills outside of your current professional environment. What would you make when left entirely to your own devices?
Truthfully, very few designers I interviewed spoke about side projects. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You don’t need to run an entire business or learn software development to make something worthwhile. With tools like Webflow you can create a fully functioning website for yourself in a few hours.
A great example is Benjamin Grant. He created a simple daily feed of images called Daily Overview that exhibits a new photograph of earth from space every single day. He wanted to offer his viewers a new perspective of their planet. Not only is Benjamin’s project viewed by thousands of people every day, but it also bought him a spot on the TEDx stage where he spoke about what it’s like to view the earth from space.
When you create something, you know more about your users, followers, and potential customers than anyone else. Interview them, analyze them, and design for them. Then create a case study around what you accomplish for your portfolio. If you’re able to create and market something people want, you can showcase the strong business understand designers need.
4. Get a university degree
Attending university to receive more education is the traditional method for switching careers, but it’s not an easy decision. When you complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree, you receive national (or international) recognition that sets you apart from the crowd.
Several designers I talked to came from master’s programs in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and have emerged from school with a strong understanding of user-centered research. Demand for these classically trained designers varies depending on the organization and its resources.
Attending a university is comparable to doing a UX bootcamp with a few nuanced differences:
University professors (especially for master’s programs) are subject to rigor and certification to become a professor. Bootcamp instructors may have varying levels of expertise.
Universities have decades of strong alumni relationships and networks. They might have more resources to help students land relevant jobs.
Very few universities actually have a dedicated “User Experience Design” degree. Some students seek related areas of study like HCI or “Interactive Digital Design.”
Universities are subject to regulations and red tape that can result in several years before making changes. Bootcamps can move quickly to adapt to the needs of a rapidly changing tech industry.
Speaking of bootcamps…
5. Attend a bootcamp
Bootcamps are a reaction to a slow-moving educational system failing to keep up with fast-paced industry. They’re rapidly becoming a preferred method for switching careers.
Looking to try a bootcamp? Here’s some friendly advice by Katie, a UX designer that sharpened her skills at a bootcamp:
“Save up enough money to live on for 6–8 months after graduation from a bootcamp. Being financially prepared would have saved me a lot of stress and anxiety.”
She recognized that might not be a possible for every aspiring designer, but it’s worth the effort if you can manage it.
After speaking to many designers who have recently graduated from bootcamps, I’ve collected some of their opinions and suggestions here:
Prioritize programs with strong mentorship opportunities (this isn’t just for bootcamps—this is good career advice).
Look for a bootcamp that works with local businesses to host real projects. Anyone can dream up a student project, but they perform poorly when critiqued in an interview. Real life projects are subject to budget constraints, timelines, and (most importantly) real human motivation.
Consider aiming for an internship rather than a full-time position after graduating from a bootcamp. Your bootcamp can get your foot in the door, your internship can get you real experience, and your experience can land you a new role.
Remember that a bootcamp won’t get you a job, but a portfolio will. The focus of your bootcamp should be making a portfolio that accurately showcases your skills.
Make the switch!
Every day designers create new experiences to meet the goals of customers and, hopefully, improve their lives. I don’t blame you for wanting to leave your past behind and start a new illustrious career as a UX designer! There’s nothing better than seeing your idea become a reality.
Please make sure you don’t actually leave your past behind. Chances are your job today is full of skills and experiences that will make you a better UX designer. Evaluate your options, keep what’s good, and make the switch.
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