If you’re curious about how to become a UX designer, you’ll soon learn that there’s no perfectly mapped-out path to this career. UX designers come from a wide range of professional backgrounds, and the roles they fulfill differ from one company to the next.
But, don’t let that intimidate you. The fact that UX design professionals have such divergent career paths is one reason why there’s a relatively low barrier to entry into the field. If you’re proactive and willing to absorb a lot of new information, you can reinvent yourself as a UX designer within a year.
The evolution of digital design
For a long time, digital designers were mostly responsible for the ‘look’ of a product. Whether the task was creating a new brand logo, a software icon, or a website color scheme, the designer’s job was to make it appealing.
Today, the role of the digital designer has evolved into something more complex. They’re now responsible for both the look and feel of websites or apps. It isn’t enough to simply create an attractive or functional website. Skilled designers have to consider what users are thinking and feeling as they explore a product and anticipate how users will navigate the product based on those motivations.
As a result, the digital design field has branched off into several niche careers that all handle different aspects of user interaction. To better understand this field, we’ll need to discuss two terms that are often used interchangeably: UI design and UX design.
What is user interface design?
Picture going online to pay a bill. Consider the many actions you have to perform to complete this seemingly simple task — from logging into your computer to confirming the payment.
Every step of the way, you use different interfaces to accomplish your goal. The physical buttons and displays allow you to communicate with the device. You log in and use the OS commands and menus to decide what to do. Then, you use the browser interface to navigate to the correct website. And once you’re there, you rely on the website interface to tell you how to complete the transaction.
Simply put, a user interface (UI) is the mode of interaction between a user and a computer or application. Common examples of a UI include:
- Physical devices used to transmit commands, such as laptops and mobile phones
- Operating systems used to perform interactions, such as Windows, Android, or macOS
- Software applications used to perform a task, such as Adobe Photoshop or TikTok
- Websites used to find information or perform tasks, such as Facebook or Marketo
User interface design is the visual layout and appearance of the systems and applications a user interacts with. A physical interface involves the components you use to view and input data, such as responsive touchscreens, keyboards, and monitors. When it comes to software or websites, the interface is the visual layout and style of navigation, such as menus, buttons, and voice activation.
User interface design vs. user experience design
When we discuss the ‘feel’ of a website or app, what we mean is the functionality and experience it delivers to the user. So, how does this differ from UI design? Let’s revisit the example of paying a bill online.
How do you know which commands to input or how to navigate to the correct webpage? In most cases, you’re either prompted to log into your account, or the login section is located somewhere easily accessible. Then, you browse the website menu to reach the Billing & Payments section. You choose a payment-processing option, input your information, and submit the transaction. Easy, right?
In order to make this process fast and seamless for you, designers have to think about your reasons for visiting the site. They design the entire system to serve the users’ needs, anticipate their goals, and eliminate obstacles. In other words, the user experience (UX) is the combination of how different design elements work together, how users interact with them, and how this interaction shapes the user journey.
What does a UX designer do?
A UX designer’s job is to make the user experience as simple and intuitive as possible. And to do this, the designer needs to understand the core goals a user is trying to accomplish when interacting with a product.
While we’ve established that UI and UX design aren’t the same, these skills and many others are frequently combined into one role. In larger organizations, you may find the individual elements of UX design broken down into separate roles. Learning as many skills as possible is the best way to break into the industry as a novice. This will help you build a versatile career and develop a stronger portfolio.
As you learn more about the field, it’s a good idea to decide which types of UX designer jobs you find most interesting. Here are some job titles that fall under the umbrella of UX design.
- UI/UX designer
- Visual designer
- UX consultant
- UX researcher
- Product designer
- Creative designer
- Web/app designer
- UX analyst
UX designer roles and responsibilities
The actual job responsibilities of a UX designer vary depending on the company, title, and type of product. Researchers and analysts conduct market research to gain in-depth insight into the needs and behavior of potential customers. They collect data and perform user testing to refine how interfaces function.
Designers evaluate the market research data, client requirements, and organizational goals to create product roadmaps and wireframes. A wireframe shows exactly what a site or app will include and how it functions, free from distracting color or imagery. Using diagrams, sketches, and whiteboarding, designers collaborate with stakeholders to develop better versions of their designs.
Once approved, design teams move on to building the website or product architecture. Some UX designers strictly stick to wireframing and designing the functionality, while others are involved in coding the system interface. UX Copywriters and Information Architects also aid the finished product by structuring media and content in a way that appeals to user behavior.
UX has made the field of design more complex but also more methodical. And people from all kinds of professional backgrounds are now wondering how to become UX designers themselves. If you’re ready to become a UX designer, read on to discover where to begin, what to learn, what to read, and who to follow. You’ll need all of these tips to succeed in today’s market.
How to get into UX design
1. Do your research
Before registering for courses or ordering books, make sure you fully understand what the job entails. The Interactive Design Foundation website and UX Planet are packed with useful resources for beginners. Stay current on industry trends by looking up UX design podcasts — perfect for listening to while driving or walking the dog!
Read real job postings to understand what skills and credentials employers are looking for. Job sites like Indeed.com have everything you need to know about typical salaries, requirements, and job descriptions.
Seek out opportunities to chat with a few established UX designers, so you can ask questions that are specific to your situation. Every person’s entry into the UX design world is a little different. The more people you consult, the more you’ll know what to expect. You can either request referrals from personal contacts or request informational interviews from professionals in the industry.
Once you feel sure about pursuing this path, it’s time to start making concrete plans.
2. Plan your journey
‘Become an awesome UX designer’ is a pretty daunting and ambiguous goal. To reach your destination, it’s more effective to divide your plan into smaller, more manageable tasks. These smaller milestones will give your journey structure and help you stay motivated.
First, compile a list — or syllabus — of every skill you want to master. Start with the skills that are most prominent in job postings, which will make you a hirable candidate much sooner. Then, break down each skill area into the particular books, readings, or courses you’ll need to learn them. Finally, create actionable and time-based goals for each.
One popular goal-setting methodology is what’s known as SMART goals (which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound). SMART goals help you both organize what you want to achieve and evaluate your progress along the way. Defining metrics for success and reviewing your progress along the way will keep you focused and help you self-validate to stay on track.
3. Read far and wide
Absorb as much information as your brain can hold. Usability.gov is a leader in the industry and should be one of your first stops for learning design basics. You’ll also find loads of UX designers sharing their stories and ideas on Quora and Medium.
Twitter and Instagram make it easy to find relevant UX content: just type ‘UX design’ into the search bar to explore more user profiles and conversations. You can also search and follow topics on Instagram via hashtags — here’s a list of the most popular UX-related tags being used at the moment.
And last but not least, stock up on essential UX books. For starters, we recommend Susan M. Weinschenk’s 100 things every designer needs to know about people, Jeff Gothelf’s Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience, and Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.
The more widely you read, the faster you’ll get a feel for the kinds of challenges, subjects, and questions UX designers are currently discussing. Other good resources include UX design case studies. Look for businesses in the tech industry that publish studies about software development, web design, or user journeys.
4. Practice, practice, practice
Ask any pro how they got there, and they’ll likely tell you two things: immerse yourself and practice.
Apparently, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. And while scientists are skeptical about this fact, the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ does hold true. The more you practice and refine your craft, the better your work will be.
If you’re in the very early stages of your career, you’ll struggle to find professional assignments. But, don’t let that get in your way. Make up your own projects and use them to create a UX designer portfolio.
While creating projects out of thin air may feel weird, it shows that you’re proactive and enthusiastic. It also means you’ll have something tangible to show prospective employers, so they can properly evaluate your potential.
Don’t forget to document your thinking along the way. UX design largely depends on data and use cases. By providing the reasoning to back up your designs, you can demonstrate your skills as a researcher and analyst. As you get further along in your journey, consider investing in dedicated diagramming software to ensure your finished products are neat and professional-looking.
Tip: If you’re drawing a blank while trying to think up a project for yourself, check out Briefbox. It’s full of practice briefs and loads of invaluable resources for budding UX designers.
5. Join a community
Get involved in online design communities as soon as possible. Not only can they steer you toward more resources, but they can help you decide the best way to focus your efforts. Once you become more skilled, these communities provide opportunities to network and meet people who can help you find employment.
We’ve already mentioned Briefbox as a place to find briefs and resources. But, it’s also an excellent platform for sharing your work and seeing what others are working on. Dribble is another popular site where you can submit work and receive feedback from beginners and seasoned pros alike.
Following and interacting with people on social media is another great way to learn from the pros, meet other designers in the community, and get feedback on your work. Here’s a list of must-follow accounts on Twitter and Instagram to get you started.
Becoming a part of the UX community is a great way to get inspiration, solicit feedback, ask questions, and learn from your peers at various stages in their careers. As you become an expert, communities are also your chance to give back and contribute to the general knowledge of those around you.
6. Find a mentor
The next step up from joining an active community is finding a mentor. A mentor can be a colleague, people from local interest groups, or a designer you’ve spotted on social media.
The key to picking a mentor is choosing someone whose ability surpasses yours and whose work you admire. You should also respect them and feel respected. It’s their job to help you grow, and at times, this will be uncomfortable. But if you have a strong relationship, then they’ll feel comfortable critiquing you, and you’ll feel happier knowing they have your best interests at heart.
Having a mentor helps you grow as a designer and prepares you to be a mentor yourself one day.
7. Design degree: essential or not?
A design degree is helpful but not absolutely necessary. On one hand, a formal education gives you a foundation in web or software development and provides immersion in a dedicated community. On the other hand, it requires a substantial time and financial commitment that might not align with your goals.
For many aspiring designers, a more accessible option is to use a combination of low-cost online courses and self-directed learning. Lynda, Udemy, and Skillshare offer classes on all elements of UX design, some of which feature influential teachers right from across the design spectrum.
Taking a UX designer course is beneficial for people who value structured learning. You’ll have guided assignments that offer a clear understanding of the tasks you’ll need to perform in a real job. Look for courses that specifically help you develop a portfolio.
It’s worth noting that many UX design people transitioned from other careers without any formal education. Computer networking, database management, graphic design, marketing, copywriting, banking, visual arts, and data analytics are just a few careers that provide relevant, transferrable knowledge.
Whether or not you pursue structured education is ultimately up to you. If properly motivated, you’ll be able to give yourself the same education as those who go to school. You can even look at college websites to get inspiration from their curriculum plans.
Remember, not only do you need to prepare for how to become a UX designer but also how to thrive for years to come. Follow the advice we’ve discussed here, and you’re on your way to becoming an influential designer yourself.