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Tips for starting or growing your career as a UX Designer

Cinthya Urasaki

This post is also on Medium (October 13, 2017)

As a UX Manager at Google and organizer of XX+UX events in NYC, I often talk to people who are interested in starting or growing their careers in UX Design. It’s an exciting time as the UX discipline has evolved over the years and expanded as new technologies evolve. As a UX Designer who has been working in the tech industry for over 13 years, I wanted to share some of the most common questions I received which hopefully will be useful for more people.


I want to get into UX Design but have little or no experience. How do I get a job without portfolio samples?

The best way to do this is to create your own case studies. Think of problems you would like to solve, maybe it’s something that bugs you in your everyday life, or something you’re passionate about but you never have time to work on. The goal of having a portfolio with case studies is not only to show the work you can do, but to give potential employers a view into who you are as a professional: What is your design process? What kind of things do you consider when working on a project? What is your approach? What is your work style?

Employers want to know who they’re hiring not because you launched product X, but because you would be an invaluable addition to their team.


I have work I can showcase, what is the best way to build a portfolio?

Building a portfolio can get pretty overwhelming so here are some simple steps to help structuring it:

Have one single location to showcase your work. A website, a deck, a PDF, you name it. But please do not share multiple links, folders, or documents. Treat your portfolio as a product that represents “you” as a brand. A good product should be easy to use (i.e. not needing to chase down folders and links to understand what this “product” does) and should be easy to understand, meaning people should know who you are as a professional in the first minute or so.

Present projects as case studies. A case study is a a great way to walk through your thinking and design process.

  1. Set the stage: What is the problem you’re trying to solve? What are the user needs and the opportunity space?

  2. Clearly state your role in the project: What was your contribution? Who did you work with on the project and on each phase of the project?

  3. Walk through your process: This is where you want to showcase your approach to solving a problem. What was that process like? Explain each step of the process, from understanding the problem space to the assumptions you made and why.

  4. Design execution and rationale: It’s important to show quality of the craft (design execution) but it’s also as important to show how you arrived to that solution. Describe the rationale for decisions made which lead you to the final artifact.

  5. Call out lessons learned throughout the process. If it shipped, what would you do as next steps?

Be concise, check your grammar. There’s no need to write at length about every single thing that happened. Write it as if you’re explaining it to your parents. Simple, clear and easy to understand.

Finally, remember that it’s not about the final solution but who are you as a UXer, what kind of professional you are: what is your approach? are you a team player? a good collaborator? Do you have good presentation & communication skills?


Startup, Design Consultancy, Agency, Big company? Where to go?

The good news is UX has become such a strong asset for companies that more industries want to have UX talent within their teams, thus creating many opportunities for UX Designers. When people ask me this I normally respond by asking them what kind of skills and expertise do they want to learn. I’m also interested in learning about their experience to date. By thinking about these things you’ll have a good indication of what type of company and industry would be the best fit for you.

Working at a smaller company (i.e. startup) will help you learn a variety of skills. When working with a smaller team you’ll have to wear many hats and do a bit of everything. This is a great way to see which area you’re most passionate about.

Agencies and Consultancies are great if you are looking to work on a variety of projects. You will learn how to adapt your UX skills and process to a range of industries and user segments.

When working in house at a (bigger) company your role will be more defined. Roles are focused on a specific area of contribution (i.e. UX Design, UX Research, Motion Designer, Visual Designer, etc) mainly because of scale. As a UX Designer working on a product used by millions of people you’re not only designing the UI for one language but for many many languages, you have to ensure it’s accessible, etc. There are many aspects of the product you have to think about therefore the need to have more specific roles.


Seeking advice, Mentoring.

Whether you’re getting started with your career or you are an experienced professional; it’s always useful to seek advice and mentoring as you grow your career. We’re constantly learning new things, from being a strong individual contributor to learning new types of contributions. As your scope expands, you’ll want to learn how to be an effective leader, how to build good team culture, drive for success, etc. All of those were new to me, and I keep learning everyday by seeking advice from peers and mentors.

I like how Ana Roca Castro (@AnaRC) said it at a panel where we met. Find a mentor who is right above you in terms of experience, someone whose steps you can follow. And you should also find a mentor who is much higher level than you. Someone who you aspire to be someday in the future. The types of questions you will have for these mentors are different and are both invaluable. You’ll be surprised how open people are to giving advice and mentoring. Don’t be afraid of asking, you won’t lose anything.


Let go of the “Designer ego”

The first thing I tell people new to the discipline is that we, as Designers need to learn one thing: design is not art. When you work on an artifact that will be used by thousands, millions or billions of people then it’s clearly not art. This artifact (a product, a device, an app, a website, etc) has to be useful, easy to use, work flawlessly and be delightful.

stevejobsquote.png

As Steve Jobs said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works”. It requires multiple people and disciplines to achieve these goals. As a Designer, you have to let go of the idea that you can go away to “your cave” and come back with a showstopper solution. I’ve seen this many times and I’ve learnt this the hard way myself. The best way to come up with a strong solution is to work closely with a multidisciplinary team. A team that brings different perspectives, different expertise and skills. Don’t get upset when someone gives you feedback or a critique, it’s not personal. They are also invested in making that artifact great and want to work with you on achieving that. Focus on building strong relationships with your team members because the success of the product relies on all of you collaborating as team.


Junior vs Senior Designers

A popular topic within conversations. What is the difference between a junior and a senior Designer? Is it years of experience?

I think the answer is not just about years of experience. The main difference I see between junior and senior Designers (or professionals in general) is that a junior person will come to their manager with a problem and ask for help to solve it. A senior person will come with a problem and propose a solution for it. This solution may not be the best or the final one, but the fact that this person is proactive at thinking of solving the problem is what sets this person apart and shows seniority and leadership.


Final thoughts..

Have self awareness of who you are as a professional. Think about your strengths and areas for growth. Visualize where you want to see yourself in 6 months. What are the things you need to do in order to realize that vision? Having a shorter term vision helps track and achieve those goals more efficiently. They’re steps towards your longer term vision.

Always be humble and be willing to do the work needed. Being part of a team of talented and humble people is the best part of working at Google. The incredible talent that surrounds you is humbling. No one is too good to do something. It doesn’t matter what it is. Everyone rolls up their sleeves and do it. To me, that’s the fun part. When you get to do all sorts of things for the success of a project.

Finally, stay focused on the user. It doesn’t matter how much experience you gain as a UX Designer, our main job is to solve user needs.

Hope this helps!