Becoming a user experience designer

This time last year I was a web editor. Today I’m a user experience designer. If you’re thinking about making a similar transition then this post is for you.

A word of warning. This isn’t about shortcuts or changing your job title to make more money. This is for people who already love improving things for users, who lap up design theory wherever they can find it and who use user-centred design techniques despite these not being in their job descriptions.

If that still sounds like you, here are the lessons I learned. I hope they help.

Calling yourself a designer is the hardest part

For me, the biggest obstacle was learning to call myself a designer. I can’t create beautiful layouts. My sketches look like a spider fell in an inkwell. I’m red-green colour blind and I last studied art back in 1991.

In my mind I was no more a designer than an astronaut.

But it turns out that design is about solving problems within constraints and communicating the solutions, not creating pretty art. UX designers come from many disciplines - for example, I’m a history graduate (like the Guardian’s Martin Belam), come from a content background (like Jesse James Garrett from Adaptive Path) and spent my 20s as a musician (pick one from many!).

My advice? Get comfortable calling yourself a designer because it’s hard enough to switch to a new career without second-guessing your own job title.

Networking is essential

I’ve had a dread of networking ever since I first heard the term. So imagine my surprise when after forcing myself to attend a UX meetup I found a crowd of kindred spirits – warm, welcoming and passionate about the things that I loved.

Meeting UX designers makes you realise they’re mostly just like you. Talking with people who employ UX designers helps you find strengths and weaknesses quicker than you would on your own. People, even strangers, naturally tell you about unadvertised job openings and their favourite recruitment agents.

And don’t forget existing contacts! One work colleague observed a personal quality that I’d missed completely – and which I’ve used in every interview since. Another convinced me that I had what it took to make the switch.

Treat your CV like a UX project

I’ve always approached my CV in the way that most businesses approach the web, throwing everything possible at it in the desperate hope that something would stick. It was a mess until a close friend put me straight:

Your CV is a record of what you want to do, not of what you’ve done.

This simple advice helped me rethink my CV as a UX project. Stripping out irrelevant experience felt less like erasing my past than leaving space for core competencies to shine. Focusing the entire first page on my last job didn’t feel disproportionate, it felt like establishing a proper visual hierachy. Fitting it all into two pages was the right thing to do for my users, busy employers.

I solicited feedback, iterated mercilessly and got a job on version 17.

Portfolios make interviews easier

Creating a portfolio terrified me. I’d never done one and I didn’t know what it should look like. So I kept it simple: four pages, four projects, each with a description alongside thumbnails of sketches, photos and screenshots. I was trying to show my whole process rather than specific details.

I also took a paper copies to interviews rather than a digital version. This caused a few raised eyebrows but had some advantages:

  • the interviewer can skip around on their copy, scribble on it or read it in detail
  • the higher resolution lets you present a whole project on a single page
  • you get to leave a physical artifact in the hands of your interviewer
  • there is no risk of being flummoxed by technology.

The best parts of my interviews were the portfolio discussions. Rather than responding nervously to questions about hypothetical situations you end up having a proper, substantive conversation about your real work. (This is why you should avoid sending a digital copy in advance – if it works as a prompt to conversation, chances are it won’t work as a standalone document).

Look at my portfolio if you like – but trust me, you’d be much better off reading Jason Mesut’s guide to selling yourself.

No research, no excuses

The worst moment of my experience came when an interviewer asked me what I thought of their recent work. I hadn’t looked. It’s not a mistake I made twice.

Researching a potential employer is easy on the web. I wandered through corporate websites, press releases, trade media stories, products and client work to build up a rounded picture before interviews.

It doesn’t stop there. Companies might check employees out on Facebook, but what about employees checking out interviewers on LinkedIn? Knowing the background and interests of your interviewers is, well, kind of a big deal.

But the most useful research task was evaluating a company’s web products before interview. If the portfolio allows a conversation on your terms, turning up with questions about their design decisions is the opposite – your interviewer can assess your design views in the context of work that they know. Just be careful not to force your opinions on them.

You don’t get what you’re worth, you get what you negotiate

So you’ve convinced yourself you’re a designer, networked furiously to find openings, used your CV to get an interview and solicited a job offer with the help of your portfolio.

It’s time to talk about the money.

Yes, like most Brits I hate this part. But after years of moaning about not being paid what I thought I was worth it was time to try out a strategy. Mine was:

  1. Set a minimum salary in advance – speak to colleagues about what is reasonable, set a figure and don’t go below this whatever happens.
  2. Decide on your opening bid – be prepared with an opening figure higher than your minimum and practice saying it out loud (seriously).
  3. Be ready to walk away – the first time I walked away was awful and made me feel like a loser, the second was easier and the third felt completely normal.

Which hubris brings me neatly to my final point.

Switching career to be a UX designer, or anything else for that matter, requires you to put your humility aside and sell yourself hard. It’s OK, that’s part of the game. Just don’t forget to go back to being humble afterwards.

Feel free to ask questions or tell me what you think on @myddelton. Thanks again to Andrew Travers for incredible advice, Jason Mesut for portfolio wisdom, Matthew Solle for the recruiter tip, Ben Clarfelt for finding my job and Leisa Reichelt for the Peter Drucker quotes.