By Stewart McCoy


How to get a UX job and what it’s like

I recently refreshed the design of this site, and part of that included rewriting my bio on my homepage, in which I wrote: “I’d love if you emailed me at mccoy dot stewart at gmail dot com.” I’m glad that doing so made a difference because last week I received an email from a graduating high school student who is going to college in the fall and thinking about a career in UX and product design. My response, below, explains what my experience has been like working as a UX designer, what different kinds of opportunities there are in the field, what to study in college, and how to prepare for finding a job.

What is your job like as a UX Designer?

I’ve held two full-time jobs as a UX Designer over the past 3 years. My first job was at Mule Design Studio, a 12-person website design agency with a focus on editorial-heavy websites (like ProPublica, AllThingsD, and The Open Society Foundations). While I was at Mule I focused a lot on producing and maintaining documentation (mostly wireframes, but also user flows, site maps, content audits, and competitive analyses). Mule is a traditional waterfall studio (everything begins with business development, then follows research, information architecture, visual design, front-end development, documentation, and client hand-off support—because we didn’t actually do backend development to get the site or application up and running). Besides wireframes, I also presented work to clients, assisted with user research, participated in design critiques, and wrote blog posts about topics of interest such as mobile design, the nuances of design documentation, rhetoric, and the importance of mentorship.

I joined Opower last October because I was interested in working in-house for a product team where I could start a project and work on it all the way through launch. I now get to work on more complex applications that are highly technical and require lots of face time with engineers and product managers. I work with them to define project goals and functional requirements for the applications that we design, and I also conduct user interviews and user testing to ensure that we’re building software that’s useful and usable for the people who will be using the apps. Working at a start-up means I get to “own” my projects, having lots of autonomy to guide the project in the direction that I think makes the most sense. I currently work with four other UX designers and two UX interns. Each designer has their own product they work on, including mobile, social, thermostats, and outbound communications (which are our paper and email reports that utility customers receive), and we also have one dedicated visual designer who owns the branding and style initiatives for the product teams.

Are there different types of UX Design?

UX Design is different depending on the type of company you work for, as well as what kind of design work is required. At a smaller company you’ll naturally be asked to take on different roles as you move through the project, whereas at larger companies you might be more specialized, focusing only on interaction design or visual design, for example. What’s important to keep in mind is that UX design is not website/app specific and can encompass all customer touch points with a product or service. At Opower we employ UX designers who do work on SMS and email communications, print communications, and phone communications. There are even UX designers who freelance and do projects like designing kiosks for companies like Best Buy or designing interactive displays and audio systems for museums.

Different responsibilities and roles of a UX designer include:

  • Project definition: Talking with people inside and outside of the company who have an interest in the project and learning their goals, motivations, concerns, requirements, and constraints. Depending on what type of company you work at, and your seniority there, or if you’re freelance, you may or may not have much say in this. Either way, you should review the project definition and ensure it makes sense, talking with the project stakeholders to raise any concerns before you agree to take on/begin work on the project
  • Requirements gathering: Talking with people (the business owners, project/product managers) who will be guiding the design and development of the project and coming to consensus on the functionality and features of the application and how that translates to the user interface.
  • User research: Talking with the people who would be using the app after it’s been launched and figuring out what their needs and concerns are and how they align with what was discussed in the requirements gathering. It’s good to get their input on the requirements, even, and see if it makes sense or if there’s anything missing or additional needed. Deliverables from this stage typically include personas and mental models, which are then used to communicate research findings out to the broader team/company.
  • Information architecture: This step sometimes blends with interaction design or sometimes isn’t even necessary. IA is for more content-heavy websites and focused with the hierarchy and structure of information on a website. The typical deliverable for IA is a site map, which are usually starting points only, as IA for websites tends to organically shift over time.
  • Interaction design: This is where sketching and wireframing happens, with the goal of figuring out key screens, UI elements, and flows between those screens or between other applications/systems. Deliverables from this stage include wireframes of low fidelity (pen and paper sketches) to high fidelity (complete, visually-designed mock ups), as well as user flows. Many designers use tools like Omnigraffle, Axure, Balsamic, or even Illustrator or InDesign.
  • Usability testing: The goal of usability testing is to ensure a design helps users achieve their goals as quickly and painlessly as possible, and if you’re a really good designer, helping them actually enjoy the process of achieving their goals. While it’s good to test your ideas early and often to make sure you’re on the right track, actual “usability” testing is better done past the halfway point of the project when you have a high-fidelity prototype to put in front of users to see what sort of UI elements and/or interactions might be confusing or useless.
  • Visual design: This part of the design process is focused on layout, color, typography, information design (for things like charts and graphs). The industry-standard tool is Photoshop, though the visual designer on my team prefers Illustrator because the graphics are vector-based and easily scalable.
  • Prototyping and/or front-end development if you can code HTML/CSS/JS: If you’re a UX designer that’s designing for the web (which is the majority of UX positions), then you’ll have a strong competitive advantage if you know HTML/CSS/JS—for many of the top jobs in the industry, it’s actually required. Knowing code will help you understand patterns in UI design, including what’s possible, what’s conventional, and what’s easiest/smartest to implement. If you’re really good and you can translate your designs from wireframes to standards-compliant, production-ready front-end code, then you’ll be a tremendous asset your company and your engineers will love you because they can focus on backend development (and you’ll also be worth a much higher salary).

What’s the difference between UX Design, Product Design, and Web Design?

All of these roles overlap some what, so it can be tricky to give a concise, once-size-fits-all definition. That said, as job titles, this different roles do have a few important distinctions:

  • UX design tends to be focused on web projects that are more complex, such as application design (making apps like mint.com, Google Docs, Salesforce CRM, and Spotify), or scaled editorial or content design (think of designing for the nytimes.com or for media sites like YouTube). UX designers work as in-house designers, freelancers, at agencies, and at product companies.
  • Product design is the same as UX design, except you’ll probably work at a company or startup that focuses on making one product (like Quora and Foursquare and MeetUp do) or a suite of products (like Google, Facebook, Apple, Nike, and Opower do).
  • Web design is a title that usually means a person works on more content/e-commerce focused sites that sit on top of a CMS like Drupal or WordPress, or something more customized. They are usually focused on visual design and front-end development, and focus less on user research. Web designers typically work in academia, in-house for publication or marketing companies, or larger corporations.

What undergrad degree should I pursue to get into UX, Product, etc.?

Your degree isn’t so much important as the skills you develop in that degree program—skills like advanced writing and presentation skills for communication and persuading people about your ideas and those of your teammates; and interpersonal and social skills for winning over co-workers and stakeholders, as well as negotiating and managing expectations. Regardless of what degree you pursue, and what field you end up working in, the ability to communicate effectively with a broad range of personalities in your profession is the key to enjoying your work, helping others be successful at what they do, and being successful yourself.

Many UX designers, however, have backgrounds in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), Cognitive Psychology, Computer Science, Graphic Design, Technical Writing, Professional Communication, English, Philosophy, and History. There are also specialized programs emerging such as the programs in Interaction Design at the California College of the Arts and the School of Visual Arts, and the Masters in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State. However, I will say that UX is still a relatively new field and most people I know or have worked with are self-taught and learned most of their craft and skills from books and blogs and internships.

What is the best way to break into the field?

Everybody has their own path, but I would do your homework (meaning do as much reading as you feel like you need to do to “speak ux design”, and read job postings so you know what skills and expectations are for different flavors of designers at different kinds of companies), and then start applying for internships or full-time jobs (applying only to jobs that you actually want to do at companies that you actually want to work for).

Above anything else, having a portfolio that demonstrates your expertise in UX and showcases some of your best work (even if you worked on projects that are of your own initiative) is key to getting anybody to take you seriously and consider you for a position. The web is your medium, so you better demonstrate that you can create with it. If I review an applicant who either doesn’t have a portfolio or has a portfolio that doesn’t demonstrate their exceptional skills, then I almost always won’t follow up with them unless they’ve listed a company on their resume that implies a certain level of topnotch work and relevant experience.

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