I’ve been having some great conversations recently with many UX designers about how doable it is to train great UX designers. In particular, whether it’s possible to go from zero experience to getting hired as a UX designer.

And I think for the vast majority of people, it is possible. But having the right approach and mindset is really important.

I’m writing this post from quite a specific perspective, and that’s for those people who are not necessarily in a position to go to University and start an expensive, full-time HCI degree.

This isn’t a comprehensive roadmap or a flawless set of instructions that’s going to guarantee you a job. Nor is it the only way to get become a UX designer–there are so many different routes to getting hired. I think it is, however, a solid starting point which can help you to understand how to get onto the bottom rung of the ladder.

Most importantly, as you start to learn more, it’ll be far easier to spot UX opportunities, and it’s those opportunities that will help you turn this learning into a role as a full-time UX designer. From there, it’s all down to you to make things happen.

If you’re looking to make the jump, but don’t quite know how to go about it, this post should help.

Everyone is a part of UX design

UX design is pretty unusual in that it has a surprisingly low barrier to entry. It’s easy to be a part of the UX design process.

Ultimately, UX design is about designing effective interfaces to allow users to interact with a service and serve their needs. That interface is not necessarily a visual one, or an application design. An interface is anything the user faces, which means it can also be an email, or even a customer service phone call.

UX design is a very broad role. It’s T-shaped. A UI designer is not doing every aspect of UX design–they’re not a ‘complete’ UX designer–but they are designing the user experience in some way. Likewise with a copywriter. They are all part of a great UX team.

When we’re talking about working on the web, that means that everyone who wants to, can, and should, pick up at least a working understanding of UX design. Because each of those people are capable of improving the user’s experience with the product or service they’re working on.

But while it might be easy to do some UX design, it’s very tough to become a great UX designer. Becoming an expert takes a deep drive and curiosity to learn as much as possible about how we can better interact with users. Whitney Hess (a very well-known UX designer, who also writes a lot) has written a great post about this. She says:

The best user experience designers practice UX because they love getting to know people on a very personal level. Their passion in life is connecting with other people and understanding them in ways others don’t. At the most fundamental level, a first-class user experience designer is obsessed with other people’s happiness and has chosen this career in the hopes to change the world. Not because it will make them famous or rich or powerful or get them attention in any way, but because they have the desire to make people’s lives better — and this is the best way they know how to do it.”

And that’s why really talented UX designers are so in demand from clients. Incredibly, I’ve heard of some organisations where UX designers are earning more than CEOs. It’s hardly a surprise that lots of people want to grab a slice of this tasty-looking pie.

Okay, so where should you start?

A couple of years ago, Whitney also put together a great list of resources for UX beginners. It has barely aged at all, and is still a great starting point for someone looking to get into the industry. I’d definitely recommend working your way through it as you get started.

There’s no way around this–if you want to get good, you’ve got to be consuming as much knowledge as possible, from people who are more experienced than you are.

Books and expert blogs are great, but I know that sometimes they can feel hard to get in to as a beginner. You can be working your way through them, but never feel like you have a clear idea of how much progress you’re making.

So, before you tackle Whitney’s list, how about kicking off by working through each of these free online resources:

  1. Consume the 52 weeks of UX, which is co-written by one of the senior designers at Twitter.
  2. Work your way through The Hipper Element’s UX Crash Course
  3. Read through the simple step-by-step UX overview at UX Apprentice
  4. For fun, read through all of the tutorials at User Onboarding–they’re really fun, and you’ll learn a lot.
  5. Enjoy some other fun sites, like UX Myths and Little Big Details

And when you’ve made your way through those, and are reading through Whitney’s list of resources…

Start to learn about the guiding principles of UX

Don’t forget, UX design is a design discipline. Again, I’ll leave the explanation to Whitney, because she covers this really well in another blog post.

A lot of these guiding principles will come up in the reading you do elsewhere, but it’s also important to take the time to learn about how design works. These are all totally absorbable, and will really help you to improve as a UX designer if you can begin to use them.

You might want to consider getting some formal UX tuition

I know, I know–I just said that this post was written for people who aren’t in a position to pay for an expensive UX degree. But that’s not the only option. It might be worth considering some of the following options.

There are a whole bunch of HCI degree courses to choose from if you want to study at a real-world university (just fire up a Google search for “HCI degree courses”), but to try and keep this advice accessible and fairly inclusive no matter where you’re based, I’m going to suggest a few alternate options.

Having proper, formal tuition isn’t something I personally consider essential when I’m hiring designers here at Hanno, but there’s no doubt that if you do have a qualification, it can only be a positive thing.

Free:

Paid:

  • There’s a simple UX basics course on Treehouse–easy to sign up to and work through, and it should give you a simple way into more structured learning.
  • Friends of mine have taken General Assembly courses in the past (not the UX ones, unfortunately), and I’ve heard great things from them. GA has a UX design course which has some positive reviews. From what others have told me, the GA experience seems to be very much about getting stuck into lessons, and then supplementing this with a ton of solo work around your studies. It’s intense, but if you have the time to do it, it could pay off. A lot of people get hired right after they complete the course.
  • I’d consider Hyper Island to be one of the top design schools in the world–definitely one to be aware of. Their UX options aren’t really targeted at beginners, but they might be worth a look for some. There’s a short UX and Design Thinking lab which I would imagine is potentially a good option if you’re looking to switch from another field to become a UX designer.
  • There’s also a MA qualification in UX design (which requires a bachelor’s degree or equivalent work experience, to join). This one is a 25 week course, followed by 12 weeks out in the industry, and this combination is how HI helps to train really awesome graduates.
  • There are also a ton of other UX courses out there (like this one, and this other one), from other companies, and also some interesting looking options with mentoring. I have no personal experience with these, though.

The world of online courses for web-related skills is a very lucrative one at the moment, and there are sure to be a few companies setting up to exploit that and to part you from your money, without necessarily delivering a great quality of teaching. So be sure to do your research, and hunt around for opinions before signing up to anything.

Personally, if I was going to do any of those paid courses, I’d learn how to code beforehand. I’ll talk through this in a second, but first…

Start writing, and learn how to communicate

So much of UX is about communication–becoming a good writer is an important skill which will allow you to communicate with your team, your users, and your clients (if you have any). If you can’t argue for and convince people of your ideas, you won’t be able to make it. I’ve written elsewhere about designers writing more–I think that advice applies here, too.

And it’s easy to get started:

  • Start a blog and document what you’re learning about, and how you’re progressing. Nobody cares if you’re starting from zero–we all started somewhere, once upon a time.
  • When you post to that blog, get it to post to your Twitter account. Tweet about what you’re learning, too. Others will have suggestions and be able to help you.
  • When you learn about new techniques, or discover a new insight, write about it! The process of writing will help you to get better at understanding what you’re talking about, and to develop your expertise.

Don’t worry about your writing not being at the level of epic, industry-changing posts. I’ve always found that it’s better to write for yourself first, rather than for fame or popularity. In time, you’ll get more experienced, and your writing and insights are likely to become more useful to others.

Teach yourself HTML and CSS

This one is slightly more controversial, but it’s something I firmly believe. A lot of UX courses will talk about learning to use tools like OmniGraffle, Axure and Balsamiq–tools to wireframe and map out your ideas. These are important and are great to learn. And a lot of UX designers never touch a line of code, since UX is a very broad profession and there are so many different types of UX that you can get into.

I know all of this is true. But I still believe that as someone with zero UX experience, you’ll have a much better chance of getting hired if you can code. I’ve written before about how, for me, designers need to be learning how to code in order to be as effective as possible within a small team or at a startup. Even if you might be able to get a job without knowing how to code, I’d say it still massively boosts your chances of getting hired.

From my own experience, I’ve seen that if you can’t code, you’ll be restricted to trying to find yourself a job in a larger team where there are coders who can implement your ideas. It’s possible to find a job like this, but it rules out your chance of being hired by a lot of smaller teams. That’s because these teams (and many startups) often need someone who’s more versatile, so they can’t hire someone whose skills are heavily focused on theoretical UX, and less versatile. That restricts the number of teams you’ll be ‘hireable’ by, and can make it tougher to get a job.

Knowing how to code is only going to count in your favour. With 6 or so people on our team at Hanno, we just wouldn’t hire a UX designer who couldn’t code, and wanted to solely work with mockups and wireframes.

The great thing is that it’s very easy to learn to code via online courses. Here are a few:

  • Treehouse has a good Web Design track. It requires a paid membership, but I find that it’s great for beginners, and is really easy to get into (and tons of fun!).
  • CodeSchool also has an Frontend Foundations course, which might be worth a look.
  • Codecademy has a free course which might be helpful if you’re based somewhere where Treehouse is prohibitively expensive.

I’m not saying that becoming a great frontend developer is easy–it’s not. But it’s not that difficult to get yourself a decent grounding in HTML and CSS. I’ve seen people get from zero code knowledge, to being able to build simple sites of their own in a week or so, using Treehouse. I’ve also seen an illustrator, who had no coding experience at all, work his way up to comfortably building complex sites (with a high standard of frontend code) in about 2 months.

You never know–once you get started, you may turn out to love coding, and it might affect sort of UX design specialisation you want to do in future. I’ve seen it happen time and time again, where people get hooked on being able to build things, and decide that this is really where they want to focus. At the very least, having a better understanding of how code works will allow you to be a far better UX designer.

And on top of that, knowing how to code, allows you to…

Build stuff in the real world

Iteration is a really important skill to get experience of. We never get things ‘perfect’ first time around, and we always need to launch, test, analyse and improve. That’s the way things work in the real-world, and it’s a big part of UX design. Building real things, working to improve them, and putting your UX learnings into practice, is a fantastic way to improve your skills.

This sort of experience is also a big draw to anyone looking to hire you, because it demonstrates that you’re proactive and have some real-world experience before you join them.

Of course, we all know what open source software is. But opening up the website for a project like WordPress and thinking “how can I get involved with this” can be massively daunting for a beginner. Plus, WordPress is actually a pretty mature, and complicated project. It would take even an experienced designer a fair amount of time to figure out how to get started with contributing.

So where to find those projects to get stuck into? Well, the first option, if you have a friend who is a developer, would be to get together and build something with them. It can be anything, really. It’s just a matter of getting started and getting more experience–it really can’t hurt, and there’s no need to treat it as the next Facebook. Start small, learn by doing, and see where things go.

Freelancing is a great idea, and obviously finding paying projects is something that a lot of people are trying to do. But while I’m against the idea of working for clients for free, sometimes keeping your day job and finding unpaid work in the evenings to practice on, can be really valuable. The experience you can get from working on your own projects can often be way more valuable than the $200 that you might be able to earn by customising your mother’s friend’s brother’s plastic flower business website.

The Assembly homepage

One of the coolest ideas I’ve seen recently is Assembly–it’s essentially a site where people post ideas for products, and then try to get enough people to volunteer to work on a team with them. If those products turn out to be successful, the team also shares the profits. It’s an awesome idea, and you can check out the currently available projects here. Since some of the project teams are larger, you could definitely find a way to get involved, even as a less experienced UX designer, and it’s a great way to work on something fun and build your skills.

One big thing to remember is that UX design requires you to be testing and monitoring the work you do. It’s not the same as being a visual designer. As others have said, you’re not a UX designer unless you’re testing what you build. So working on slightly bigger real-world projects allows you to start doing this more. It’s tough to do proper user testing on your portfolio site that has 3 visits a day.

Get to know some UX designers

Working on real projects is a great way to begin exposing yourself to more experienced designers (although, please try and cut down on the nudity). You’ll be able to absorb some of their insights and experience and start to understand what the community is talking about. Check out this list of 20 UX designers worth following on twitter. Sure, some of these people are ‘web celebrities’, but there’s some great experience in here.

Once you get going, I’d suggest that you start looking to attend real-life events. This UX Meetup directory is a good starting point for finding local ones. Don’t worry if the event isn’t massively UX-focused. You’ll often find that general design events have plenty for you to learn from. If there are enough events happening where you’re based that you can get to 1 a week, you’ll start to learn much faster.

As an inexperienced designer, you’re far more likely to get into a decent position if you start building these sort of connections with real people. If someone has met you, had a conversation, and likes you, there’s a much greater chance that they will take a bit of a gamble on you if you approach them to ask for a job or a referral.

That’s much less likely to happen if you’re ‘cold emailing’ companies to ask if they’d be willing to hire you. If you’re getting yourself out there and meeting people, you’re much more likely to be able to…

Find an apprenticeship

An apprenticeship is not the only way into the industry, of course. But if you can find a programme, it could well be worth applying for.

Jon and Arnas doing a rare ‘real life’ pairing session in KL

Sometimes, people email me asking if we’re looking for interns, or running an apprenticeship. But a lot of them are doing this with zero experience. I can totally understand why it’s appealing to try your luck and contact people: it’s hard to find a way into the industry, and getting a company to teach you would be the perfect way to learn.

But I think it’s critical that you don’t ask for an internship just because you’ve heard of UX design and think it might be fun to try it out. You need to show the team you’re asking that you have been exploring UX design deeply before you do–in short, work through all of the stuff above, before you try and get an apprenticeship.

A few companies like fresh tilled soil offer UX apprenticeships–you’ll tend to find that it’s the bigger teams who have the resources to put together a strong apprenticeship programme. Other smaller companies might be looking to do something similar but not advertising it as widely.

In Malaysia, there’s a great scheme called ALPS–people are starting to notice the lack of full-stack developers and UX designers, and trying to do something about it. There might well be similar programmes elsewhere.

You might also have luck with approaching designers who are more experienced than you, and asking if they’re willing to mentor you.

But regardless of the route you go down, if you’ve put in serious time into trying to learn as much as possible before you contact people, you’ll have a far better chance of getting them to give you a shot.

Work hard and keep learning

Here at Hanno, we have a cultural value that we call “never settle”: it’s a desire to never remain stationary, and to constantly push ourselves outside of our comfort zone so that we can get better at what we do.

For me, that’s a really important value, and the ability to do this is one of the best things about becoming a UX designer–or any designer, for that matter. There are always opportunities to learn and improve, and the people who grab those opportunities are the ones who become most successful.

If you’re considering trying to make the jump–good luck! And say hello if you’ve got any comments or suggestions for amazing resources that you think I should have shared here.