While a decade ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at a company with the title of UX designer, today, user experience has become an integral part of pretty much every product. So it’s no wonder that more and more people are asking:
How do you become a successful UX designer this year (and beyond)?
Let’s start with a simple truth: there’s no magic bullet or ‘fast track’ to becoming a UX designer. Like any career path, mastering UX takes time, curiosity, and above all else, determination.
Yet, the results are definitely worth the effort.
UX designers have one of the greatest jobs in the world. Every day, you get to combine creativity and craft with the satisfaction of solving real problems for people you care about (not to mention the salary, perks, and job opportunities!)
After 10+ years of practicing and teaching UX design, we’ve heard the same questions and concerns from aspiring designers and decided to answer them all in one place.
If you’re curious about how to start your journey, learn UX, and land your first job, this guide is for you.
UX (which stands for User Experience) is the process of making any product–digital or physical–useful, relevant, and meaningful for the people using it.
Your job as a UX designer is to deeply understand your users’ needs, motivations, and problems and then craft experiences and flows that solve them. More specifically, a high-level breakdown of the UX process would be:
Spend time deeply understanding the problem you’re trying to solve
Ideate on several ways to solve the problem by creating low-fidelity wireframes
Turn those wireframes into ‘user flows’–paths that take users through the entire journey
Test those experiences to ensure the designs are usable, relevant, and delightful
Once you’re happy with the experience, move onto making it more visually pleasing and consistent with the rest of your designs/app/site
UX design involves technical skills like user research, sketching, prototyping, and usability testing. But just as essential are ‘soft’ skills like communication and critical thinking.
That might sound like a relatively vague description, but that’s because UX design can apply to pretty much any product, company, or industry.
On any given day, your job as a UX designer might involve:
Talking to users and customers to understand the problems they face
Align with your teammates on the exact problem to be solved
Conducting competitive research to see how other companies have approached similar problems
Sketching ideas (a lot of ideas!)
Building prototypes to test and running usability tests
Presenting concepts, designs, and reports to your team
Crafting high-fidelity visual designs
Collaborate with developers to implement your designs
It’s this range of responsibilities and tasks that make UX designers love their jobs. And if you’re the type of person who’s excited about tackling new problems, talking to real people, and finding creative solutions, you’ll love it too!
What about UI design?
If you’ve been curious about how to become a UX designer for a while now, you’ve no doubt also heard about UI design (or seen job descriptions looking for a ‘UX UI designer’).
UI design (which stands for User Interface design) refers to creating interfaces that make interactions with a product usable, cohesive and delightful.
In other words, UI designers ensure that each part of the interface supports the overarching user experience. They’re also responsible for making the interface delightful—which can be achieved through the design of visual, auditory, and/or touch elements.
There’s so much confusion between the two roles because they aren’t always treated separately. Yes, there are UI design specialists. However, in many cases, UI is simply part of the UX process.
The main thing to know is that UX isn’t on one side with UI on the other. Both practices are intertwined.
Over the past few years, there have been fewer UI design roles on the market as UX designers are expected to also take care of the interface design.
Who can become a UX designer? What skills do you need?
The good news is that pretty much anyone can become a UX designer (there are stories of everyone from project managers to dentists switching careers to UX!)
You can learn the technical skills of the UX design process over time. However, what you need to ask yourself at this early stage is: What ‘soft’ skills and motivations drive your interest in UX design?
Empathy: Do you love talking to people and trying to understand their needs?
Curiosity & critical thinking: Are you passionate about solving business problems and want a career that’s constantly changing?
Creativity: Are you a creative person who’s tired of overly subjective feedback? (i.e., you’re a graphic designer who’s tired of getting feedback to ‘make the blue less blueish’?)
Collaboration/Communication: Do you love being in a collaborative environment and get along well with others?
These soft skills are the foundation of UX design–empathy, curiosity, creativity, and collaboration/communication. In many cases, these are skills you already possess or have picked up in your current career!
Understanding the skills you have and the ones you need to build up is the first part of learning how to become a UX designer. So, where do you learn the skills you’re currently lacking?
The 3 ‘typical’ UX designer career path: Pros and Cons of each
There’s no single path to becoming a UX designer, which can be confusing and frustrating for anyone looking to make the leap.
Lawyers go to law school. Business consultants get an MBA. But UX designers don’t have a clear-cut path to take. Instead, most designers follow one of three paths:
There’s no shortage of resources for learning the basics of UX design on your own. From books to podcasts to YouTube channels.
If you need a place to start, pick up Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. It might be over 20 years old, yet Krug’s advice rings true for any aspiring UX designer:
“Your objective should always be to eliminate instructions entirely by making everything self-explanatory, or as close to it as possible. When instructions are absolutely necessary, cut them back to a bare minimum.”
Tons of free resources to choose from
You can learn at your own pace
No restrictions on the projects you take on
Lack of mentorship and networking opportunities
Conflicting resources can make it hard to know what’s right
On the other end of the spectrum is taking a full-blown University program.
You’re unlikely to find a ‘UX Design’ program at your local college (or anywhere, really). Instead, you’re more likely to see degrees in software development, computer science, human-computer interaction (HCI), web design and development, or information technology.
While any of these degrees can help you become a UX designer, you’ll be taking the long route to get there.
A structured learning environment can make it easier to stay motivated
You can take advantage of other complementary courses at your school
Good opportunity to network and meet interesting people
UX is an ever-changing industry, and universities are only now starting to offer dedicated programs. This means courses are often overly theoretical and can be hard to put into practice once you get a job!
They can take a long time to complete
Hiring managers rarely care about a formal degree
Did we mention it’s expensive?
UX bootcamps and courses
UX bootcamps are the happy medium when it comes to learning how to become a UX designer.
Bootcamps come in all shapes and sizes, from self-paced to months-long intensives, onsite or online, pre-recorded or mentor-led.
The best UX bootcamps are tailored to your experiences and needs. For example, we designed our program, UX/UI Expert specifically for graphic, web, visual, and UI designers who want to become kickass UX/UI designers.
Fast-paced without being overwhelming
Access to industry professionals as mentors
Small-to-mid-sized classes and regular feedback
It helps you to build your initial network
You’ll finish with a unique UX portfolio and the skills you need to get hired
Requires self-discipline to keep up with the course load
Not all bootcamps are the same (and there are tons to choose from!)
The path you choose will come down to your specific situation and needs (financial, proximity to campus, availability, etc.) However, just because you started on one doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t switch.
Many people get an undergraduate degree, decide it isn’t right for them, and then take a UX bootcamp to break into the industry. It’s that range of experiences that will make you a more well-rounded designer!
How to become a UX designer with no experience in 8 steps
Learning how to become a UX designer takes time. But every great designer starts from the same place. Even if you’re coming into this monumental career shift with little-to-no knowledge, there’s a well-worn path you can follow.
After a decade of practicing and teaching UX design, this is how we would approach becoming a UX designer this year and beyond.
1. Get immersed in the world of UX design (through podcasts, videos, books, and blogs)
Think of your UX education as painting a picture. You start with an idea, paint some broad strokes and background colors, and then add more and more detail until you’re ready to sell it for $1 million. (Ok, maybe not that much!)
Start by immersing yourself in content designed for beginners (like this guide!) and anything that can help explain the UX process and what it’s like to work in the industry.
The goal here is to enjoy your time learning about UX. So be sure to pick the medium you find most comfortable.
Along the way, you’ll most likely come across a lot of terms and methodologies you don’t understand. But don’t worry! The key to learning UX (and everything else in life from cooking to carpentry) is to believe you can figure it out as you go along.
Too many people get overwhelmed early in the process and give up. But if you keep reading, watching, listening, and learning, you’ll start to see the outline of a UX career take shape.
2. Master your understanding of the UX process (and find which parts of it excite you the most)
Next, it’s time to take those broad strokes and add some more detail.
UX is a discipline that’s still evolving, which means different people and companies have different ways of describing it. This can be incredibly frustrating for UX beginners as you’re never sure who to listen to or if you’re learning UX the ‘right’ way.
Over our time in the industry, we’ve found the easiest way to understand the UX process is to break it up into four steps:
Research & understanding: This is where you learn about your users, their issues, and then ‘frame the problem’ you’re going to try and solve.
Information architecture & wireframing: Next, you use your research to plan your designs and develop a ton of solutions you can test.
Prototyping & usability testing: With a few good potential solutions, it’s time to build a prototype, come up with a test plan, and see how your users interact with your solution.
Visual design & handoff: Finally, based on everything you’ve learned, it’s time to bring your designs to life with fonts, images, and graphics.
This is just a quick breakdown. But the goal at this stage is to start to understand which parts of the process you’re most excited by, as these can change the path you eventually decide to take.
If you love talking to customers and finding problems, you might want to become a UX researcher.
If you’re more into visual design, you could specialize as a UI designer.
Or, if you’re more interested in helping users through your words, you can even become a UX writer.
3. Learn the most common UX methods and tools
Now that the picture is starting to take shape, it’s time to switch things up.
At this point, you should have an understanding of UX as a career and the process most UX projects go through. However, actually going through that process requires a few more tools.
The core fundamental of all UX design is the idea of user-centricity. Your job is to design meaningful and useful experiences for users while also keeping business stakeholders happy.
This balance isn’t always easy. But over the years, UX designers have come up with a number of fundamental skills and methods to help you.
The best place to start learning these is with our free UX design course for visual designers. This series includes in-depth videos on the UX fundamentals to help you understand them (and see if UX is right for you!)
The fundamental skills you’ll be learning as a UX designer are:
User research: This includes interviews, surveys, and analysis.
Business analysis: Understanding your business goals and how changes in user behavior will help you achieve them.
Information architecture: Organizing and structuring content in a way that’s intuitive and enjoyable.
Content strategy: Coming up with the best copy and page structure to help guide users through the experience you’re crafting.
Interaction design: Creating wireframes and interactions that users love.
Visual design: Making your experiences beautiful. While you don’t have to be a talented artist or visual designer to get into UX, some basic sketching and design skills will give you a huge advantage. (We’re also firm believers that graphic designers make great UX designers and even built a specialized course just for them!)
Finally, you’ll also want to start to grasp the tools you’ll use daily, such as Sketch, Figma (current industry leader), Adobe XD, and Protopie.
One skill you won’t see on this list is coding.
A big debate in the UX world is around if UX designers need to know how to code. The answer is… no (at least not at first). Getting your first job in UX won’t require you to learn how to code. So don’t let that hold you back.
4. Pick your path: Bootcamp, self-taught, or university
Now, it’s time to get serious about your UX education.
As we wrote above, there are three typical career paths for new UX designers: self-taught, UX design bootcamps, and University degrees.
We’re big believers in the bootcamp model as it gives you more structure and guidance than being self-taught while providing the depth of a University degree without the insane costs and time commitment.
Even the bootcamps that offer “Job Guarantees” use legal language so loaded with requirements that 99% of people are ineligible for them.
Instead of baseless guarantees, look for a bootcamp that matches your experience level, background, and needs.
If you’re considering a few options, here are our must-haves for a successful UX bootcamp experience:
In-depth education on all UX and UI principles (many courses gloss over UI design or don’t go deep enough to help you in the real world)
Industry professional mentors giving you regular feedback (at least weekly, but ideally more)
Small class sizes (15-20 students max)
The chance to build a unique UX portfolio made up of your own case studies (not just pre-canned projects that everyone in the cohort works on.)
Tailored to your background and unique skills (if you’re currently a graphic or visual designer, we built the UX/UI Expert just for you!)
5. Build a UX portfolio full of projects you actually care about
Your UX portfolio is your personal expression of why UX matters to you.
It’s also the best (and usually only) way to differentiate yourself from the thousands of other aspiring UX designers going after their first job.
So how do you build a UX portfolio that stands out above the rest?
It comes down to three factors:
Treat your UX portfolio like a UX project: Follow the process you’ve just learned. Conduct research with your target market of hiring managers and recruiters. Come up with a ton of ideas and explore how other people are showing their work. Create a prototype and test it with friends and mentors. And then only start building when you’re confident about your choices!
Showcase projects you actually give a sh*t about: Your UX portfolio should show both your skills and your personality. If you can’t describe why you think the work you’re doing is essential, it’s going to be hard to get a hiring manager excited about it.
Help hiring managers understand your process: A UX portfolio must clearly communicate your thought process and how you went from problem to solution. This also means it’s essential to show what went wrong. All hiring managers know that the UX process is a bumpy ride. Just showing what worked will come off as artificial and surface-level.
6. Learn to communicate your designs
One of the missing skills in most UX education and portfolios is learning to communicate your design choices, research, and process properly.
But with tens of thousands of people coming out of UX programs with similar portfolios, how you tell your story can be the difference between an interview and being just another resume in the pile.
Because in the end, UX design is all about communication. You need to show how you can articulate your decisions, present work with clarity and conviction, and handle challenging questions with tack and thoughtfulness.
Not to mention all the user surveys, feedback docs, reports, and even copywriting you’ll do as a UX designer!
In every UX case study you present either on your portfolio or during an interview, make sure you answer:
The problem you solved
Your role in the project (as well as anyone else you worked with)
Your process from research to learnings, wireframing, ideation, and testing
Whether on Twitter, Slack communities, or through your bootcamp brethren, your designer network will help you when you need it most.
Maybe it’ll be a referral. Or a connection at a company you’d love to work for. Or even just encouragement when the going gets tough.
Networking can also help build your confidence. No matter how many articles you read, UX courses you take, or portfolio projects you work on, you’ll never feel like you ‘know it all.’ But here’s the truth: we all feel this way!
UX design is a field that is constantly changing and growing.
By being an active part of the community, you’ll start to feel like you’re progressing and learning whether you’ve landed your first job or not.
8. Write your narrative to find your dream UX job
The path to a career in UX design is never a straight line. In most cases, people come to UX later in their career after working other jobs in tech or elsewhere!
It’s this vast and broad appeal that makes UX design such an exciting career. However, it’s also what makes it so competitive to land your dream job.
With so many different people coming into the industry, the key to getting hired is in writing your own narrative:
Who are you? What products do you love to use? Why?
What path did you take to get to this point?
How does your previous career inform your approach to UX?
What problems did you notice that led you to explore UX design?
What problems or industries are you genuinely passionate about?
For example, maybe you were in sales and learned how to interview leads and learn about people’s motivations. Or perhaps you’re a graphic designer with great visual chops, but you wanted to get over the subjectivity of design feedback!
All these stories help hiring managers understand and empathize with you.
Showing your work through a UX portfolio will get you noticed. But telling your story is what will make you stand out.
So, where are the jobs?
Your first UX job can come from several places: referrals from your network or bootcamp mentor, UX Slack communities, LinkedIn connections, Twitter, or job boards like Dribbble and AngelList. Get comfortable with all of them.
Bonus: Transitioning from graphic design to UX design
While anyone can learn the fundamentals of UX design, we genuinely believe that graphic designers are incredibly well-equipped to make the transition.
That’s because graphic designers already go through several steps in the UX process.
You understand the business needs of your designs, structure content in the most intuitive way, and then create awesome visual designs, just like the best UX/UI designers.
So why make the switch?
More control over the product. Instead of just working on visuals, you get a seat at the table and can influence critical parts of the product strategy. You’ll become a decision-maker, not just a pixel-pusher.
More ways to counter stakeholder subjectivity! You get to take advantage of your visual design skills and creativity and use data and tools to defend your decisions.
A larger purpose at work. You get to take on more responsibilities, make real decisions, and talk to the people using your design.
More career options (that you’re uniquely suited for). Graphic designers have a natural advantage over the thousands of other aspiring UX designers. You already understand what makes a ‘visually appealing’ design.
Ready to switch careers? Applications are now open for UX/UI Expert–the only UX design bootcamp explicitly created for graphic designers. You’ll come out of it with a unique UX portfolio and the skills and confidence to get hired.
Why starting a career in UX is a great idea this year(and beyond!)
At this point, you might be thinking: “Becoming a UX designer is a lot of work! Is it really worth it?”
We think so.
But beyond our opinions, there are some hard facts about why UX design is a great career choice for the future:
Job opportunities: UX designers can work in almost any field, from digital to physical products. This means you can apply your skills to an industry you care about.
Career progression: Many companies have clear structures and support to help you progress from junior to senior/lead UX designer.
Creative freedom: UX design is a creative career without the typical constraints of ‘being a creative.’ Because you’re following a clear process and using user research and data to inform your decisions, you won’t be stuck getting overly subjective feedback.
UX is only getting more important: The number of apps, sites, tools, and products launched every year has skyrocketed. UX design is one of the only ways to differentiate a company and can only grow from here.
9 things every new UX designer should know before taking their first job
While learning the fundamentals of the UX process and creating a portfolio of awesome projects will get you your first job, that’s only the beginning.
The real education starts when you start designing experiences. But those first few months as a UX designer can be stressful.
We might be getting ahead of ourselves here, but if you’ve been lucky enough to land a junior UX designer job, keep these best practices in mind:
Pick and choose your battles. You won’t always agree with every decision. But collaboration and teamwork are keys to a successful UX career.
Learn to really listen. To users. To stakeholders. To your team.
Get a second (or third) opinion. A team lead might say something can’t be built, while a developer thinks it can. There’s no universal truth. Ask for different opinions.
Always be learning. About your company, your team, and UX as a discipline.
You don’t have to code, but you should understand the limitations of coding. Get a feel for what’s possible in both backend and frontend development.
Find someone you can ask ‘dumb’ questions. You want to look good, but you’re also still learning. Find your confidante!
Don’t jump to a solution before you understand the problem. Stakeholders might try to give you a solution rather than a problem. Always stick to the UX process you’ve learned.
Do speak up when you think something critical is being overlooked. Your opinions matter. Make sure you’re heard when you feel it’s vital.
Learn to take feedback early and often. Don’t wait until it’s ‘perfect’ to get feedback (it never is). And try not to get too attached to your designs (it’s hard not to).
The easiest first step to learning how to become a UX designer
There are so many different paths and approaches to becoming a UX designer. But the best thing you can do on your journey is to just start.
Browse some blogs. Listen to a podcast or two. Take a free course (like our free UX design course!) And start to understand if this is the right career for you.
Once you’re ready to go, this guide will take you through everything you need to master the fundamentals, learn UX, and land your dream job.