From UX-ling To UX Swan – How To Make It In UX With No Experience

First things first; if you are new to UX, (User Experience) then you are a UX-ling. No, no! It’s not supposed to be patronising. It’s an affectionate name; honest! Secondly, if you are a struggling UX-ling, then I am hoping that this article will help you keep the faith. Because let’s face it, it probably feels like trying to make it in UX with no experience is harder than trying to make it in Hollywood. (All illustrations by : Dilla Ismail)

Speaking of which, (not Hollywood) everyone seems to be talking about UX nowadays. Companies have realized that their users actually matter. So a manic search for the next best UX person has ensued.

So that’s all good for us seasoned Ux-ers, but where does that leave someone who wants to learn more but has no practical experience? Well, not in a very good place.

Companies can pick and choose who they want to recruit. I know this from experience because despite having 8 years under my belt, I had to have a short break from things, and when I wanted to return I initially found it difficult. It was not so much that the industry had changed, but rather the people.

So even though I was not quite a complete UX-ling back then, I do get it.

In view of this scenario, here are 4 tips that I would like to share with all of you; especially those of you who might be struggling to get an opportunity.

1. Don’t Give Up

You just need your passion to reach the right people
You just need your passion to reach the right people

When I first started to write this article I thought about having this tip as the last of my four points. I figured it would round things off nicely. But whilst these guidelines are not being presented in any order of priority, I have intentionally placed it at the very top. So should you only read some of what I have written, you are at likely to read this one tip.

The interesting thing about what is going on in the digital space, is that there are now more jobs to fill than there are good UX candidates. Very experienced practitioners have their pick of companies and employers know this. It also makes more sense for businesses to hire in experts on a permanent basis; but UX-ers are smart cookies, and so many will continue to work on a lucrative contract basis.

If you have no practical UX experience and are facing continuous rejection, it may feel like you will never get there. But that’s not rational, because for every hundred rejections you receive, there will be at least one that has piqued the interest of someone out there. They may write to you to thank you for your application, but explain that they need someone with more experience. If this happens, you should request to add them on LinkedIn, or ask whether you can gain some experience as an intern, or whether you can be mentored.

You must remember that we all have dreams and ambitions, and that includes the people you are applying to work for. For example, asking someone to mentor you also looks good on their own CV, portfolio and dare I say it, massages their ego a little (or a lot as the case may be).

But the long and the short of it is that you will eventually get to where you want to be if you put in enough work; and when your application results in what I call ‘a magical connection’, where your passionate cover letter lands in the inbox of someone who remembers what it was like many years ago when they struggled to make a career change… you’re laughing. Because this someone vowed to give another person an opportunity should they one day be in the position to do so. There are lots of people I know like this in UX, so do not give up.

2. Read A Lot But Apply Your Understanding

Reading is more valuable if you apply your learnings
Reading is more valuable if you apply your learnings

You have probably been told to read a number of books by the good old heroes/veterans in User Experience; and so you should. But you need to do more than just read.

You see, reading books, articles or papers is awesome, but applying what you have learnt is a different matter. If you’ve been applying for work through recruitment agents, it is likely they have told you that employers need to see practical examples of work, or at least something that outlines your thinking. This is difficult for someone who wants to work in UX but has no practical experience. You want to take on a role so you can learn the ropes or improve, but you cannot get a ‘UX rope-learning-opportunity’ unless you have learnt the ropes! It’s a catch 22.

But there is a way around this:

If I were to ask you what UX is about, you would probably tell me it is all about the user; but it’s much more than that. It’s about experience, and you and I live that experience every day. So, think about the bad design in the world that drives you bonkers. For example, I ordered something online from an eCommerce website last week, and instead of letting me know that my order had been placed, I was met with silence. I was forced to call them up to establish whether I had ordered this thing or not. There was a waiting time on the call, and I was very fed up and I felt the company had failed me online. All I needed was a confirmation email – that’s not asking too much, is it?

So ask yourself the following:

  • Has something similar happened to you?
  • Have you been on a website that has almost driven you insane?
  • If so, how would you re-design or tweak it?

Story-telling is a big part of UX, so how about telling your own story detailing your own online experiences? You could then present or send recommendations to the company you want to work for.

I have suggested this approach to a couple of UX-lings and have found that some companies have been intrigued by their honesty and drive, and so have given them an opportunity. (By the way, you need guts and honesty to work in UX in order to defend your informed design decisions and stand up for users when businesses don’t)

3. Avoid bad recruiters

There are goodies and baddies in the world - the same applies in recruitment!
There are goodies and baddies in the world – the same applies in recruitment!

Most UX recruitment agents are fab, but those who reside in the not-so-fab crew can make a UX-ling feel pretty rotten if he or she is not careful.

When you are job hunting, really wanting an opportunity or career change but find yourself facing rejection, a bad recruiter can make you question whether you will ever get a chance to work in (what may seem like) the distant and mystical world of User Experience.

But while this fear is understandable, all you need to do is recognize the goodies from the baddies.

Many decent UX recruiters care greatly about their candidates. They will work with both their applicants and their clients in an ethical fashion and can be trusted wholeheartedly. But of course, there are those not-so-fab recruiters who purely care about money. These types will place anyone anywhere, regardless of suitability. They don’t know their Designer from their Developer and think a Mental Model has something to do with Janice Dickinson. Oh yes, avoid these ‘UX Recruiters’.

The good lot will be thinking longer term for the welfare of the candidate and the employer. The bad lot will tell you they have an opportunity but never get back to you, while the good will keep you updated, regardless of the outcome.

Even more importantly, great recruiters give UX-lings practical career advice. Conversely, bad recruiters will ignore emails and only contact you when they want something, which always strikes me as strange because even a purely money-oriented recruiter should possess enough commercial nouse to appreciate the value of investing in new starters. At some point, that driven UX-ling might grow to be a well respected UX Swan; and what a Swan they’ll be when they need to recruit for a whole team of UX people! Most definitely they will be very choosy about which recruiter they turn to. It is mind-boggling to me how we talk about demonstrating ROI (Return of Investment) in UX – but what about ROI in UX people?

By the way, I know a great recruiter who works on a ‘business Karma’ basis. This means that if he can help you he will, and doesn’t ask for anything in return.

So if you are feeling a bit fed-up or frustrated, make sure you only stay connected with the good guys who won’t injure your self esteem or stall your motivation; and avoid the bad.

After you have completed and applied your learning you will be able to spot the difference because, any good UX recruiter will actually understand UX too.

4. Adjust your Mentality & Network like crazy

Define your dream and go for it.
Define your dream and go for it.

If the people who brought you up when you were a child never told you that you could be whoever you want to be when you get older, let me sort that out right now.

You, my friend, can do whatever the flipping heck you want to do. You will be a User Experience Designer, and you will ignore anyone who tries to tell you any different.

All you need is the determination to do it, the support of positive people around you and the willingness to learn.

I am sure we have all met people who have tried to bring us down.

Here is my story:

When I was looking for an office for my little consultancy years ago, I visited a space in Shoreditch, London. We were going to be sharing with another agency, and the first person we met there was really nice. But a week or so later, we met the other partner, who wanted to question me senselessly about what I did (and not in a nice way). During one of our conversations he began to interrogate me about my background. I mentioned that I had a law degree and that in my spare time, I had recently qualified as a Personal Trainer. I explained that I had ‘fallen’ into UX during my law degree over 10 years ago. Personally, I think it’s a funny story, but I remember being met with a cold look before he provocatively suggested ‘So basically, you are really a jack of all trades then, aren’t you; but master of nothing’.

It definitely was not a question.

A few days later, I spent some time reflecting upon our one-sided ‘conversation’. I went over and over what it was I might have said that resulted in such hostility, and in hindsight, I realized I was hurt by the experience.

I concluded that this man felt more comfortable in the presence of sheep.

That is to say, he had his own idea of what a User Experience Designer was. This was someone who ticked his own boxes and had no diversity in background. In his own mind, I was less of a designer because I hadn’t followed convention. But more importantly, I concluded that this was his problem and not mine.

Suffice it to say, we didn’t take the office space.

So if you are really interested in UX and are determined to design amazing experiences, it really doesn’t matter if you don’t come directly from a UX or design background. You are likely to have the necessary understanding or a transferable skill set to even be aware of the concept of UX in the first place. There will always be a number of small minded companies who will solely hire on the ‘sheep basis’! But who wants to work for anyone like that? Any company worth its salt will be more interested in your thinking and process; basically- who you are today. As long as you can demonstrate these things (ideally through story-telling) then you will be on your way.

To Conclude

I realize what I have written may sound ‘fluffy’ or like a fairy-tale scenario; especially if you are feeling like giving up on your dream. But I know that if you follow some of the advice in this article (together with reading, learning, applying, ignoring negative people and networking with the positive) you will eventually reach your goal. I personally know several employers who are more interested in the person, providing they can showcase their thinking. My own sister-in-law (albeit not in a UX hiring capacity) once told me that when recruiting she always considers the person who seems to want the job the most, shows the most passion and enthusiasm over someone who simply ticks boxes but does not care much about the opportunity being offered.

Finally, I mentor UX-lings by involving them in some of our projects, particularly through our research phases. I’m not protective over my skill-set and I’d much rather help someone learn to do things properly. It’s my responsibility as a designer; and our clients love meeting people from different backgrounds as it can bring a refreshing perspective to a project.

Mentoring and involvement can happen remotely as well as locally so if you are interested in learning more, contact me via my social media channels below and let’s see what we can make happen.

I was also a UX-ling once.

  • stef miller

    Great post Leigh! Who needs sheep anyway? Especially appreciate your point on not giving up. I think that there are just a ton of opportunities for someone starting out to learn the details on the job – technical skills, creativity and passion can get someone a long way (even if they don’t have a two-page resume).

    • LittleL

      Cheers Stef. I actually love sheep – just not in people 😉

  • Simon

    I come from a visual background but I figured I can do more with UX so I created a research project that eventually got 2 thumbs up from the board and the CEO to roll out. Still I was told that I shouldn’t expect much to follow from it as I’m more useful making presentations. Articles like this give a lot of inspiration to keep my eye on the ball. Thanks a lot Leah.

    • LittleL

      I am pleased, SImonBa. I don’t have a visual design background, but am actively learning more, especially as I have a keen interest in persuasive design. Apologies for the delay in getting back to you :)

  • Ray

    Hi Leah, I thoroughly enjoyed your perspective about this topic. As a UX-ling (coming from full-stack web development with an econ & accounting background), I do feel the challenge of getting my feet wet in this industry but I remain persistent. I genuinely appreciate it.

    • LittleL

      Hi Ray! I am pleased. I believe that technical experts, such as yourself, can add to an experience in a way that some designers can not. So I like to work with developers or designers with a development background right from the beginning on projects. Never throw the technology over the fence 😉 Apologies for the delay in getting back to you :)

  • Claire Durrant

    Fab post – I too fell into UX having previously been a Training Consultant; that transfer happened due to a mix of passion for end users, determination, and sheer dumb luck. Most people I’ve spoken to find that fascinating and actually a credit to me, and it sounds like the man who looked down on your diversity of experience was indeed just trying to make himself feel superior.
    I totally agree with your point 2 – UX-lings should remember that they don’t need to work for someone to design something! When I was looking for work with about 1.5 years under my belt, I decided to supplement my portfolio with my own work. I did several online courses with and Coursera, and also went through my phone and computer looking for apps and websites to redesign. I found one that I felt was particularly poor, and without any time constraints from a business I was free to apply my “perfect” UX method in redesigning it. Of course it was never build, but I still keep it in my portfolio even now.
    Another point for newer UX-ers is to consider permanent roles. When I was new to the scene I was lucky in that my first gig was a contract which – as you say – is pretty lucrative. Unfortunately, when that finished I just didn’t have the experience to get another contract so I decided to go perm. This was a great move – when you’re a permie, companies are far more likely to invest in your development, and after a year spent under the wings of a couple of very senior designers and researchers, I’m now far better equipped to go back to contracting. Yes I took a pay cut – but now I’ve gone back on the contract market a LOT better off for it.

    • LittleL

      Hey Claire – thanks very much, and I am pleased you enjoyed it. I read your experiences with interest, and it’s great to hear that you made it through determination and strategy 😉 Yes, Mr Shoreditch took it upon himself to look down on me, but that says more about him than it does me, huh :) And I agree – permanent roles are awesome, because employers can invest time and effort into UXlings, and UXlings can grow with the company. The hardest part is getting the first job, hence why the demonstration of thinking is so important. Apologies for the delay in getting back to you :)

  • Henry Wu

    This is a great post. Thanks for sharing! Any advice to a UX-ling who is already in the strategy/design/IA industry looking to transition into a more UX centralized role?

    • LittleL

      Hi Henry. Thanks for your positive feedback! Hmm…a UXling who is already in strategy/design/IA doesn’t sound like such a UXling to me. 😀 I see all those things as part of UX. Do you mean that you are looking to move into more of a research focussed role? Apologies for the delay in getting back to you :)

  • Raghu

    Hi Leah, truly your article is a ray of hope for me. Each point mentioned is so true to me. I’m a visual designer and UXling now. I hope to succeed one day.