How to start your promising career in UX design

Paul Boag

When thinking about a career in UX, focusing on qualifications is not the answer. But a solid grasp of techniques and principles is essential.

This post is sponsored by Interaction Design Foundation.

Once again, this last week, I received another email from somebody asking me what qualifications they need to get into user experience design. That has become a regular part of my inbox recently. I find it a tricky question to answer because I disagree with the premise of the question.

I don’t believe either those breaking into the field, or employers, should focus on qualifications. Instead, they should be focusing on experience and a solid grasp of UX design techniques. For me at least, a piece of paper proves little.

I am not criticising those who email. After all, it is an incredibly exciting time to get into the field of user experience design. We are very much in demand with job opportunities increasing by 13% over a ten year period and salaries topping $100k in hotspots like San Fransisco or New York.

The demand for UX professionals is increasing, as is salary.

UX Professionals are in demand, which works well for you

It is the very factor that we are much in demand that makes me less inclined to focus on earning qualifications to get into the field.

It is hardly surprising that companies are investing in design so much. Design-led companies consistently beat the competition. In fact, businesses that invest in exceptional design outperformed the S&P 500 Index by 228% over the past ten years.

Design-led companies have outperformed the S&P 500 Index by 228% over the past ten years.

But, as an employer, it will be hard to find candidates to fill your UX positions if you focus on qualifications. There are simply not enough people out there.

Many employers are choosing to take people from related fields and train them on the job for UX positions. That is, of course, great news for those looking to get into the field and makes choosing to spend years studying at University harder to justify.

University is great, but.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great UX degrees out there, and there are lots of reasons to go to University beyond job prospects.

University is a great opportunity to grow as a person, meet lifelong friends and learn softer skills that are often not easy to learn in other ways. Skills like justifying your work or critical thinking.

Although still small, the number of UX University courses is growing rapidly.

In fact one of the things I have often struggled to find are employees who can justify their work to clients. That is one of the reasons I have started offering training in this area.

But there is a danger of choosing the University path right now. A risk beyond the obvious cost associated with getting a degree, or the years out of employment.

The danger is that by the time you graduate the current demand for UX professionals will have passed. I have seen this before. A need arises, and lots of students rush to get qualified. By the time they reach the market, the demand has either passed or been more than satisfied by the sheer number of graduates suddenly flooding the sector.

So, if not University then what? Well, there are other training options available. They might not give you a degree, but they will teach you all you need to work in the field.

Other training options

There is no shortage of sites offering training in UX design, from the cheap and cheerful like Udemy to the hugely expensive and intense like General Assembly. But how do you know which of these options will increase your chance of breaking into the field?

Beware platforms with a poor reputation

Personally, I see little value in the likes of Udemy. To me at least they feel like the fast food of education. They give you a sense of being full, but don’t teach you very much. With what you remember from these causes being so low, they offer little long-term value.

Indeed as an employer, it would mean nothing to me that somebody has completed a self-learning course of this nature.

Budget can be a challenge

At the other end of the spectrum, there are courses like those offered by General Assembly. From an employers perspective, these are certainly a lot more appealing. Normally consisting of a 5-15 week intensive course carried out in person, this is going to give a potential employee a much better grounding in the basics of UX.

But things are not quite as straightforward for somebody thinking of attending this kind of course. If you already have a full-time job, finding 5-15 weeks to take that sort of program is challenging. But on the other hand, if you don’t have a job the price tag for this kind of training could well be out of reach.

Focus on credibility

There is, of course, the middle ground. There are self-learning courses that allow you to fit them around your schedule, yet are not so expensive as to be prohibitive.

Again, there is no shortage of courses like that out there. The question now comes down to one of credibility. Is the course you choose going to be one that provides quality education and going to be taken seriously by employers.

IDF’s combination of not-for-profit status, well-respected tutors and long standing credibility will get the attention of employers.

One example of an organisation that fits the bill is the Interaction Design Foundation. For a start, they are a not-for-profit, which instantly adds to their credibility from my perspective. They aren’t just out to make a quick buck.

They are also the oldest and largest operator in the field of UX, with well-respected tutors such as Don Norman. That specialism in UX makes a huge difference from my perspective at least. They aren’t a ‘teach me anything’ learning platform. They are specialists with all of the associated credibility that comes with that.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to training. Ultimately, you are going to need to find the right solution for your situation, and that means asking the right questions.

Questions to ask when selecting training

Let's boil all of this down to some questions you should ask yourself when considering getting training in UX. When looking at a training offering, ask yourself the following:

  • Is this within my budget?
  • Realistically, do I have the time to complete this course?
  • Are they specialists in design and UX or just a learning platform?
  • Does the tutor on the course have a proven track record in the field?
  • Does the provider offer any formal certification?
  • Do employers respect this platform and consider its teaching to be high quality?
  • Do those who complete this course go on to find employment?
  • How long has the provider been teaching this field of study?

How you weight these different factors is up to you and your circumstances. But I can tell you one thing; employers will weight experience above qualifications every time.

Experience is everything

Don’t get me wrong, a solid education in UX principles matters a lot, even if a qualification does not. But nothing is going to beat a proven track record as far as an employer is concerned.

Of course, this leads to a catch 22. If you need the experience to get a job, how do you get a job to earn the experience?

That is where we come back to the current demand in the industry. I would encourage employers to consider taking on people with less experience and then paying for employees to complete courses like those offered by the Interaction Design Foundation. For many companies, this makes a lot more financial sense than paying the ever spiralling costs of hiring somebody with more experience.

IBM has taken to training new UX designers itself in an attempt to fill 12,000 new positions worldwide.

As someone looking to break into UX, I would make that case to employers. Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs where you don’t have the experience. When you do, make the argument that there are many advantages to hiring a more junior member of staff. Not only are there financial benefits, but they also get somebody who has freshly learned the latest techniques and is ready to be moulded to the working practices of their company.

You will be surprised at how many employers might just be open to the idea after weeks of struggling to hire somebody with more experience.

About our sponsor

The Interaction Design Foundation (IDF) is the largest, and oldest, provider of online UX Design courses. Their courses consist of beginner, intermediate and advanced level UX Design courses and are all self-paced – making them perfect for both students and working professionals. As a non-profit organisation, the IDF provides all of this at a very affordable price – you pay once for annual membership and are free to take as many courses as you wish!

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