Making a career change into UX

By November 3, 2012Posts

I recently received an email from Chris, who read How to get a UX job and what it’s like and had questions about how to make a career change into UX. He wrote:

I’m in my late twenties and am looking to make a career change into UX. Do you have any advice on getting started in UX without going back to school (I’m open to school…but I have a BS in an unrelated field and don’t want to spend the $ if it’s not necessary). I’m completely open to internships or other learning opportunities. Should I create a portfolio? If so, what should it consist of (or what should it not consist of)? I have a very basic working knowledge of html and css. Would it be beneficial to develop my coding skills or focus on something else right now?

You don’t need a special degree

First off, I’ll say that it’s not necessary to go back to school for another degree to get into UX design. If you’re motivated and willing to teach yourself by reading blogs, web design books, attending workshops, and creating your own projects, then you’re more than capable of breaking into field and finding a good job.

You do need a thoughtfully-designed portfolio

You’ll definitely need a portfolio of work to show potential employers. Ideally it’s a website you’ve built* that showcases a select number of your best projects. Each project should provide:

  • an overview
  • who the client was
  • the problem you were trying to solve (which should proceed from user and business goals)
  • the process you used to work through to a solution
  • who you collaborated with
  • documentation that resulted from that process
  • the solution (usually in the form of wireframes or final visual mockups)
  • and any follow-up research determining the success of the project.

*It’s more impressive if you build your own website, but as long as you design one that helps you tell your story then it’s completely fine if somebody else helps you build it.

Make up your own projects if you have to

If you don’t have a collection of work to draw upon to make up this portfolio, then you need to go about doing that work. Start by looking at the best portfolios and paying attention to how they’re structured and what’s communicated. Then carefully review the projects in them including how the designer talks about the project and what story points they choose to highlight. Then you can get to work emulating their portfolios and their projects—as Austin Kleon loves to say, steal like an artist.

Mostly, you need to find a problem you want to solve: redesigning your favorite online magazine, creating a prototype for an app you think will make the world a better place, or creating personas of people who use dating websites, for example.

This was the approach I took. I was lucky to get a six-week paid UX internship at Viget Labs based on a body of work that I was never paid for—it was all stuff I did in my own time. The designers who mentored me provided me with a curriculum that helped me develop a more professional body of work, in addition to attending client meetings to learn how to present work, and participating in design critiques to learn the importance of synthesizing criticism and iterating on my work. Internships are not only a great way to develop work for your portfolio, but also a great way to get feedback on your portfolio from senior designers.

You should teach yourself code only if it interests you

As far as learning to code, that all depends on your career goals. If you find yourself interested in code and web development, then you should move that direction. However, many UX designers never touch code, but only need a working understanding of what’s possible—you don’t want to be designing interfaces that are impossible for a developer to implement.

I love to code and taught myself HTML, CSS, and how to use JS libraries and the DOM while I was in grad school. I’ve even gone so far as to try and teach myself Ruby because I think it’s interesting and I want to have the ability to build what I design. That said, I never code during my day job and they actually prefer that I don’t because it takes away from time where I’m thinking about the user experience—and that’s a full-time job.

Further reading

For more reading on what a good portfolio looks like, check out this Quora post for links to excellent UX portfolios and read this post for a few tips on pulling together a focused and effective portfolio.

As always, if you have more questions about working in UX, I’d love for you to write me at mccoy dot stewart at gmail dot com.

Other posts on breaking into user experience

About Stewart McCoy