Advice from becoming a Junior UX Designer and beyond

This is based on a Girl Geek Sydney talk I did several years ago, but I think the advice is still sound. What do you do once you decide UX is what you want to do? And when you’ve got your UX job, move beyond junior level towards your own methodologies and practice? In this post, I will take you from getting your portfolio ready, to building a network, and the advice and mistakes I made along the way.

How do I get into UX Design?

“How do I get into UX?” – this is the common question on countless forums and slack channels that only a fool would have a simple answer to. When it is asked of me in person, I think to myself first “How much time do you have to hear a harrowing tale?” but then I realised “I got in but I had no idea what the journey would look like or what I needed”. So today I’m going to talk about the seven steps needed to get into, and cope with, the UX world.

When I started in UX I thought I had entered a profession that had sort to make sense of this world. It had answered a burning need within me to fuse together my interest in science and process with my design inclinations. I did a Bachelor of Design Computing at the University of Sydney in order to satisfy this aim. However – this was 2011. Twitter was still seen as a force for good. UX professionals were going to be the product superheroes that would help change the world!

I plunged into this world, went to copious meet ups and every presentation was SLICK. The UX process was clearly laid out, design had triumphed over apathy and old school business mindsets. You had to be crazy if you weren’t on board the design centric revolution! Largely, UX has made the world less clunky, can you even remember when Facebook’s app looked like this?

A Facebook screenshot from 2011 with a button for Newsfeed
From imore

But these talks were missing a crucial factor. How the hell do I break into UX if I’m not some variety of rockstar? So let’s start with getting a job.

Step 1: Get a portfolio with a UX meta layer

Create a portfolio, review it and send it. I’ve messed up all three parts.

I thought that to make a portfolio website I had to make it some amazingly cool slick UI – but the thing about that is, you could spend more time making your portfolio than you might actually getting out to jobs. I say this as someone who has a wordpress for a blog and spent a good amount of time picking a font – this is not time well spent. There are plenty of portfolio options from making a private one (wordpress allows passwords on posts) or more public and using anything from Dribbble to Cargo Collective to Squarespace. I chose WordPress for an accessibility ready blog and I now keep my portfolio hidden – but when you’re starting out, just making something is usually the hardest part. Don’t make it unnecessarily harder by coding it yourself or something else – there are plenty of other options out there to display your work. At first I was intimidated by the really professional folios out there, but then I learned, every agency has crap projects. You’re always just seeing someone’s greatest hits. So show them yours.

But makes sure someone loves it more than your Mum – review the folio! Recruiters are constantly on the lookout for new UX people to put on their books. I met with 3 recruiters and found that none of them wanted me. That was enough of a message to get my shit together and was an invaluable coffee session where I saw example CVs and folios of what they look for. But there are so many more Slack groups and LinkedIn groups with people willing to give advice. Get someone else to see that there is enough information and contextual detail. UX Designers have a lot of skill beyond UI, it’s your job to show off the breadth of your capabilities.

I once sent a YouTube link instead of my portfolio link to a prospective employer with a copy paste mistake. It was an awesome Neneh Cherry and Robyn track but I still don’t feel good about it many years later, be careful! It could’ve been worse.

Step Two: Interview Prep

I’ve interviewed and gone through the resumes of quite a few junior UX Designers and my advice is this: be comfortable and know what you’re good at.

Vera Wang quote "I want people to see the dress but focus on the woman"

What people always say is something a long the lines of “dress for the culture” “dress professional” but what they never say is “Dress comfortable”. When I got my 1st job interview at NICTA, I was wearing a stretchy dress from second hand store. This might’ve been no-no if I had asked a careers counsellor. Previously, I always wore this one dress to interviews that was quite expensive and for a while, I was not getting jobs. Then one interview, for a fairly hefty tech company, I saw, in the reflection of an office glass wall – to my horror – the top button was popped way open. I had gone into many interviews wearing my expensive, fashionable outfit. It shouldn’t matter, but I can’t help but wonder if it did.

So you’ve got the outfit, prepare to pitch why someone should hire you. It’s easy to think when asked why you want to work for someone “I’ve been in university for over 36 months. Isn’t it obvious why I’m here?” When you’re new to the industry it can be really hard to know what you can offer because you just want a start, but pitching your value to the company is an essential part of prepping for nailing your interview. In my time in UX I’ve learned that some people have the best jobs because they even created them themselves – they pitched their skills to a company they wanted to work in and created the UX culture around them. Always keep in mind what you can bring to the company, what skills can be deployed in their projects. It’s only become obvious to me over time what I really want to work in and how to turn down potential offers because they can’t offer me good projects.

Step 3: Don’t be afraid of diversity scholarships

When I spoke to people about my difficulty finding a job and then mentioned that I had got this women’s scholarship I was asked “Do you think you would still get it if you were competing with men?” I was told I was one of 2000 applicants, yet was rejected by a large number of jobs. My advice is only to TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY. A more common question that actually gets asked in companies and events is “Why are there such low levels of people applying for our diversity scholarships?” It’s your opportunity – take every single one offered. Don’t let anyone make you feel lesser for any diversity opportunities that are making the field more equal.

Step 4: Money

Don’t be afraid of talking about money. Some grads get taken for less than they’re worth and can find their friends earning a huge disparity. Ask around and ask your mentors as a common side question I get is “So I got this amazing job but they’re asking me what starting salary I want … I dunno is this enough?” People have rejected companies, as grads, that couldn’t pay them enough. It happens. It’ll be OK. Sometimes the amounts I’ve heard of are shockingly low. My advice is, if you can, don’t accept it. Find another offer.

Step 5: Make a Career Plan

A diagram with a meandering route from Now with a woman flexed over a laptop to Apple to Tesla to Facebook to Microsoft to Google to Y Combinator to the Future? Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women
This is what I don’t mean by make a plan

Career planning is difficult. More recently, I had to abandon a plan I had for higher education and it hurt. But what would hurt more was if I had kept going at that point. Knowing what you want and what you don’t want is half the battle. Once you figure out what you’d prefer to specialise in and make your secret weapon then protect that skill and avoid the efforts that might be made to derail you.

Let’s first talk boundaries. It is very easy to get caught up in everyone else’s needs as the UX designer in a small team. It’s also very common to be given tasks that are not your job. Now I have had the fortune of of getting a great director and UX lead that would tell those in our company who wanted a ‘quick logo’ or some social media graphics to go and out source it. I recommend pushing back softly but firmly. Don’t get caught doing these jobs unless they’re actually leading to stuff you need to do your job. Set boundaries, you’re there to be a champion for the users.

Now we have boundaries, what are your goals? Is there a cool new thing on the horizon that you want to work in? Identifying where you want to do to improve your work or develop new skills are important goals. Is your company going to need those skills in the future? Make a plan with your manager to up skill is really important so you don’t keep coasting. One of my biggest mistakes early on was not asking to be in new projects or to shadow, but it’s possible that the organisation doesn’t know you’re interested. Often it’s a case of being brave enough to ask. Want to be on that project? Ask. Want to work with a particular team? Ask. Get a goal, put a plan into place, and get as much support as possible to keep from getting sidetracked with other activities. Worst thing that can happen is “No.”

So how do we track progress? It can be mind-blowing to see what you’ve achieved in a small space of time but writing about your work and reflecting on it is a very powerful way of realising where you’ve come in your career and where you’re going to go. Who cares how many claps you might get on Medium? Just the act of putting down reflection on paper will make you a better designer and streamline getting feedback from other designers on your processes. Big corporations can also require that when promotions come around, you can communicate your worth on paper. I have done this three times and been successful twice. It takes practice and time.

Talks and crystallising your knowledge are also a great opportunity for reflection. Don’t pass up the opportunity to ask for help getting an interesting topic or getting confident publicly speaking. If you need to take baby steps, do it, I guarantee you’ll get there.

Step 6: Get a support network

Support networks are vital to have someone to go to if you have questions. It is jarring adjusting to working from being at university. Maybe you’re not going to see your friends as often as you used to. Your weekly doses of inspiration will be restricted to your Medium feed and the meet ups you manage to sign up to on time. Maybe there’s not a bunch of people who are as junior as you or working in your field surrounding you anymore. UX professionals tend to be thought and change leaders frequently and can end up a bit isolated. Occasionally there might be people in your organisation that might be resistant to your involvement, sometimes they are outright terrible people and are terrifyingly effective at getting their way and they don’t want you on their project team. Who the hell do they think they are? You worked DAMN hard to get this point!

If this happens make sure you talk to someone in your support network you trust and do it early. You don’t have to prove you can handle being treated this way and the effects of awful workplaces can effect people for years. If you feel the need to leave, know that’s a brave decision, not cowardly. But if it’s a good company, your colleagues can listen and remedy the situation with no harm done to your reputation. The amount of money spent on therapy and wasted time is sometimes not worth it for a place that cannot support you.

I have received advice for situations like this to make myself smaller, be softer, preface my ideas with “It’s just my opinion” but this is terrible advice. No senior person wants to hear something if you preface it with a reason for them to dismiss it. Some actually get insulted that you might be wasting their time. I have outright had a yelling match with a lecturer at university where I ended up crying who later offered me the best advice when I struggled at work. He said “do not let anyone put your fire out. Do not lose it as it’s hard to get back”. The energy and passion you have for your profession when you’re young is very precious and it’s up to you to use it.

I am really fortunate that I have now a big network of women I can turn to. I am incredibly fortunate that I met Renee Noble, of Girls Programming Network fame, my very first day at Data61. I network particularly with women because that is what I’m comfortable with because I don’t need to hear “But are you sure this is a gender bias situation?” I have a finite amount of energy and I don’t have to educate everyone on this. People on the internet really have that one covered. But men can help too. They might not even know they are helping. I watched a fairly early career engineer just say directly without nerves that they were going to do career development activities such as blogging in work time or prepare a talk and the team just nodded and didn’t question. I thought to myself, ‘You can do that?’ Yep, you can initiate what you want to see in the workplace. Remember that “just my opinion” thing? See! Absolute bullshit.

If you’re a more online person, I recommend the Designer Hangout Slack. Make your own slack of people just to keep in touch with the people that you meet and want to have more regular contact with on your chosen subject matter. Are you doing a new course? Make a study group.

Step 7: Accept that sometimes you’re going to be the first to do something and that’s scary..

There are still situations where people are having their first interaction with a UX Designer. These can be difficult if the non-designers were happily just engineering and building features without regard for the user. And there are going to be times where you are the first UX person to get something wrong. If you are any good at your job, you are going to be the first UX person who says something that someone else doesn’t like. The only advice (which I don’t always take) is to have some humility and vulnerability. UX is still very new and change is difficult. Ultimately, people understand that others are flawed only if you show your flaws and own them. We can focus too much on being the perfect designer, on having all the answers and the back catalog of NN/g articles at our fingertips. But ultimately, there will come a time where you don’t know the answer. Where you’re going to have to tell someone very senior that something like gender diversity is important to you and you might think they’re going about it the wrong way. Or if someone proposes a new line of work and the answer to “What is the UX of this? Isn’t there an article?” will be accompanied with “I don’t know, but I could spent some time looking it up…”

There is a lot of advice that you will need that is unwritten, and making mistakes is probably the only way you can learn them. In these times you will need to depend on your network. Not everyone will put their trauma out in blog posts, particularly if it’s work concerned, but they might give you advice over coffee. It’s important to also remember that not many people like being wrong either and don’t want to appear vulnerable where it could hurt. Not many people like change. We are fundamentally very flawed and getting people to accept change or proposed plans is a difficult skill that you might spend the rest of your career developing and it will be slow – my friend Maia Sauren does a much better talk about this type of thing than I ever could.

I think UX is a tough job. It is a fascinating job, it is at an interesting juncture. It is a job that sits somewhere between engineering and the mess of being a human. I hope you make less mistakes than me, but you will probably make them and that is acceptable. I’m still getting over some of mine.

Good luck on your journeys 🙂

Big thanks to Cathy Lill, Hilary Cinis, Renee Noble and Jane Scowcroft for the support in creating this original talk content and to Tom Kerwin for his feedback on this piece.