How To Break Into UX Design — According To 5 People Who Did It


It’s easy to look at a specialized career like UX Design and think there’s no way you could break into the field if you didn’t study it in school. But actually, the UX world is one that really values diverse perspectives and backgrounds.

UX stands for user experience, and it involves figuring out the best way for users to interact with a product. People in UX spend a lot of time with users, interviewing them and conducting research to discover their preferences and pain points. Then, they work with developers to implement the feedback and improve the product’s overall design and function.

Whether you’re a teacher, an architect, or even an astrophysicist (yes, really), you might be surprised how your work experience can transfer to UX. “You can take any profession and find a way to connect it to UX,” says Taylor Green, Product Designer at Codecademy. “Don’t be afraid to make the switch.”

Working in UX takes a combination of creative, analytical, and interpersonal skills to help build quality products. Getting to interface with users directly and think up creative solutions is what makes working in the field so rewarding.

“To know that the product you’re working on is making a big impact — reading customer quotes and just seeing how these products change lives for the better — it’s really awesome,” Taylor says.

Ahead, Taylor and other Codecademy Product Designers share their tips for people who want to switch careers and get into UX.

Tip #1: Learn how to use design tools

If you plan to work in UX, you’ll need to learn how to use design tools to create apps and user interfaces. The most popular one these days is Figma. “Figma has become the industry standard,” Taylor explains, “and I think it’s here to stay, so that’s probably the first place to start.”

A 2021 survey from UXTool ranked Figma among the most popular tools for building prototypes and user interfaces, whiteboarding, and managing design systems.

In our Introduction to UI and UX Design course, you’ll get free access to Figma and learn how to use it to create wireframes and prototypes.

Then, once you’re comfortable using Figma, Taylor recommends recreating some of your favorite websites and apps for hands-on practice. “That’s the best way to learn the tool,” Taylor says. “Just do it every day until you get used to it.”

Stephen Song, another Codecademy Product Designer, recommends browsing Figma’s community and exploring other people’s  sample projects, widgets, and design systems. “You can look into them and reverse engineer how they work,” he says.

You’ll also want to learn how to use Miro — a digital whiteboarding tool used for brainstorming, mapping, research, and designing — which we explore in our Learn User Research: Generative and Learn Design Thinking: Ideation courses. (They’re both free!)

Tip #2: Tap into your empathy for users

Codecademy Product Designer Stacey Peterson explains that working in UX means you’re the one advocating for your users. You’ll need to know how to figure out their tastes and preferences through research to be able to build a product that suits their needs.

Being a good listener and empathetic teammate will make you stand out as a well-rounded UX candidate. “Ten years ago, you could get a job because you could make cool icons or really fancy designs,” says Mat Stevens, another Senior Product Designer at Codecademy. “Now, you need to be a research expert, an accessibility expert, and a Product Manager, to an extent.”

To get some practice, Stephen suggests looking for UX prompts online to find common problems that can be resolved with software. Once you’ve found one you like, take a look through the websites and applications that already exist to address that issue. What do they do well? What could be done better? Use these insights to make your own project.

You can use these projects to build a technical portfolio, which you’ll need once you start applying for jobs. In a UX job interview, you’ll have to walk your interviewer through your projects and the thought processes behind your solutions, Taylor explains.

“Companies are looking for designers that think in terms of projects that have users at the center,” says Tamar Yadin, Codecademy Senior Product Designer. “They have to understand the problem space, the project’s goals, and how to come up with a detailed solution to accomplish them. That gives them the confidence that the designer can tackle a problem and know how to fix it.”

Tip #3: Utilize your insights from other industries

Even if you’ve never worked in tech, you can leverage your knowledge and skills from your past roles in UX. For example, Taylor majored in psychology and neuroscience, which gave her insights into human behavior that allow her to better understand users.

Stephen studied computer science and engineering in college, and Tamar went to school for illustration. Mat and Stacey worked as Graphic Designers before realizing their passion for product design and building helpful tools. The key is to figure out what you, specifically, could bring to the table: “Finding a valuable way to take what you already have and including that into your practice is one of the best ways to start your career,” Stephen says.

Tip #4: Explore your options

UX is still a relatively new field, and Mat explains that getting your foot in the door can be challenging due to limited entry-level opportunities. But persistence is key.

“You have to keep trying until you get that big break,” Mat says. “I’ve never known anyone who tried forever and didn’t end up getting a job.”

Newcomers to the field may have luck finding work with larger companies with robust UX teams, since they’re more likely to have the capacity and resources to take on and train junior designers. But UX Designers at smaller companies are often given a broader range of responsibilities, which can help you figure out what you’re most passionate about. There’s also always the option to pursue freelance UX jobs to dip your toes in the water and build up your portfolio before applying to something full-time.

“UX is a wide field,” Stacey says. “You don’t need to know what you want to specialize in at first because it can (and probably should) change as you grow. Learn it all, and start wide.” If you want a quick primer on UX careers, check out our recent blog post that gives an overview of the field.

Tip #5: Learn from other stakeholders

“UX isn’t an island,” Stacey says. UX designers and researchers often work closely with other departments, like engineers and product managers, and are in charge of managing lots of different stakeholders’ expectations, Taylor adds.

This means that UX Designers need to have good collaboration skills, which can take practice. To get experience working with groups, sign up for local hackathons where you can collaborate with other developers and designers and learn new perspectives and approaches to problem-solving, Stephen suggests. You can also try looking for volunteering opportunities with organizations or early-stage startups that need UX support.

And while it’s not a requirement, learning how to code can help improve your communication and collaboration with developers and engineers. Plus, it’ll also help you stand out as a designer. “Everyone loves a designer who can write some code,” Mat says. Taylor recommends starting with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Tip #6: Immerse yourself in the UX community

The UX community is tight-knit, and there are lots of ways to get in touch with and learn from other folks in the biz. Check out UX Collective on Medium for advice and articles about the world of UX design, Stacey suggests. Or, if you’re into podcasts, she recommends downloading The Design Review, Design Details, and Experiencing Data.

Along with reading articles and listening to podcasts, you’ll also want to network, because breaking into UX requires an “element of hustle,” as Mat put it. Stephen says staying active on Twitter helped deepen his understanding of UX and all it has to offer. “When I started out, I was really on Twitter, trying to meet up with other designers to get inspired,” he says. “That was one really big way I started to see what’s possible in the design career.”

Mat and Stephen recommend finding UX groups on Slack, Facebook, and Discord, and they also point to sites like Meetup and LunchClub, where you can connect with professionals in the field.

And don’t be afraid to contact people directly on LinkedIn, Taylor says. “A lot of people are very open to giving feedback and advice,” Taylor says. “If you see someone doing something really cool or working at a company you want to work for, don’t be afraid to reach out.” She also points to ADPList, where you can find a mentor to help guide your development.

And of course: Like other careers in tech, there will always be opportunities to learn more in UX. “Learning is continuous,” Stacey says. “It’s not something that ends with a certificate or a job offer.” Staying current on the latest goings-on in the field will help you find new opportunities and sources of inspiration.

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