When transitioning into a UX career, learning the fundamentals is just the start. During our research, we’ve surveyed hundreds of candidates, hiring managers and recruiters, to discover the key competencies that will make you stand out from the competition and get you hired.
Depending on which phase you are in your career transition journey, there are different areas you need to focus on. Once you’ve learned the UX basics and obtained some hard skills, getting real experience and strong case studies are key next steps for becoming a highly hirable UX job candidate. (This article focuses on these two crucial aspects of the UX career transition journey. If you would like to get a high-level overview of the entire UX career transition roadmap, you are welcome to check out the featured article on our blog.)
The good news is that you can get that without having to risk everything and quitting your job. In this article, you’ll discover the best practices, common mistakes, and our guidelines when getting real experience and case studies for your portfolio.
Bonus - Free Training Video: to help you navigate the whole process of landing your first UX role, we have created a comprehensive 2-hour free training video. The training covers the entire UX career transition journey in detail and will help you understand how exactly you can become a highly marketable candidate, avoid the common costly mistakes and master your UX job search. Once you read this article, you can request access to the free training here.
When following the conventional approach to starting a new career, people often pick up some UX skills and do hypothetical projects but don’t build any real experience before starting their job search.
While learning the basics and obtaining some hard skills is an important part of the process, when looking for jobs, real experience is listed on the vast majority of the job descriptions (even “entry-level” ones), making it a crucial component of becoming a highly hirable candidate.
Being able to show that you’ve done the work in real life for another organization shows companies and hiring managers that you’ll be able to hit the ground running and do the same for them.
Trying to market yourself to potential employers without any real experience is typically quite ineffective and frequently results in lots of time (and money) being wasted without landing a job and seeing much progress.
Instead, a better way is to think from the standpoint of an employer and gain the skills and real experience the employers really look for prior to commencing your job search. This will make your UX career transition much faster, more effective and less frustrating.
While going from learning straight into job search is a common conventional way to start a career, not dedicating any time to building real experience and just applying to jobs and sending resumes for months without seeing any progress is typically quite ineffective.
Avoid doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result and get real experience that will help you make progress and stand out from the other candidates.
Doing small and hypothetical projects is useful when learning the basics and practicing your skills. However, showcasing many of these small projects in your portfolio won’t be very effective and can get you stuck in your job search for a long time.
Building experience, on the other hand, will stand out in your portfolio and improve your chances when competing with other candidates. It makes you look more professional and provides evidence that you are able to tackle real UX challenges in the workplace.
While these options are not perfect, the good news is you don’t have to have a full-time job in UX to get valuable experience that will make you a highly hirable candidate. Here are some options for building the experience you need to transition into your new career.
Contacting organizations to offer volunteer work can help you get relevant experience and improve your skills. It might be difficult to get but if you are motivated and keep reaching out to organizations and companies to volunteer for, it can be a great way to build up real work experience.
Doing pro bono work can be hard if you’re just starting out because the organization might not know much about UX or be able to support you when solving UX challenges. While this is not the best option for beginners, it is still doable for highly motivated individuals.
The advantage of both volunteering and pro bono consulting is that you typically get a lot more freedom in shaping the project because you are not constrained by an organization’s budget.
While internships can be effective in getting you real experience, it can be challenging to find good ones that will allow you to do interesting work that involves multiple phases of the UX process and provide a strong case study for your portfolio.
Frequently, quality internships are only available to students from top colleges. Quite many internships will also only let you work on menial tasks and won’t be that useful for your portfolio.
Looking for freelance UX gigs as a beginner can work but can also be challenging since many UX roles are in-house and often require more expertise. However, offering your services on freelancing job boards can potentially get you some hands-on experience with real clients.
This is a less common option but in case you started a company and did some UX work, you could potentially turn that into a case study. What is also good about this option, is that you can ensure that the case study covers the key phases of the UX process.
You don’t have to risk everything and quit your job to start building real experience in UX - gaining experience part time is totally fine. In fact, such part-time engagements are likely to have longer overall duration, which will look great on your resume and LinkedIn.
When gaining experience with a real client, you need to ensure that you know the essentials and have the skills, which will provide value for them (prior to pursuing such opportunities).
Even if you’re not getting paid, the company is likely investing a lot of time in you, and you are getting new learning opportunities and benefits for your career. You don’t get these when working on hypothetical projects.
If you do well, you’ll gain strong case studies for your portfolio along with great referrals, and might even end up getting hired in the end.
On the other hand, you need to ensure that your work involves an interesting and sizable project that covers various phases of the UX process, along with the key deliverables. That way, it will be a strong addition to your portfolio.
If the work doesn’t provide you with great experience and a solid case study, it is better to look for another project that will.
This is why doing pro bono work can be more beneficial in the long run than trying to get a paid gig right away. When you are not getting paid, you have more leverage in shaping the amount and type of work you do on the project than when the company pays you and is in full control.
Confirming this in advance and, ideally, in writing is important to ensure that you can get the benefits you are looking for and prevent wasting your time.
While hypothetical projects will help you practice when learning the basics, they will usually not be enough when it comes to getting hired.
Showcasing a few sizable and comprehensive projects that cover the key UX process phases and deliverables will be more effective than featuring many small hypothetical case studies.
Since UX involves much more than just visual / UI design, featuring UI-only small projects in your portfolio will not be enough to get you hired into a UX role.
According to our research, it is recommended to have at least three case studies to be successful and land your first UX role (there are exceptions, of course, but it would be wise not to count on that).
The next step is to make sure that the featured case studies are at least one-two or more months in duration, depending on how much weekly work you’re putting in. Larger projects look better on your resume or LinkedIn when recruiters or hiring managers evaluate your experience.
Small design exercises and projects can be useful when you need to practice your skills but it is very important to feature case studies that cover at least a few phases of the UX process. This helps you showcase that you understand the whole design process and can undertake a project from start to finish.
If you would like to avoid wasting many months (or even years) of your time while searching for your first UX role, showcase more work with real clients rather than hypothetical projects. (Sometimes, one real client case study can be sufficient but we highly recommend having two such projects if you really want to have a competitive advantage in the job market filled with many recent bootcamp or college grads).
Working with a team is much more challenging than working by yourself and if you want to demonstrate that you also have the soft skills that employers are looking for, collaborating with a team is crucial.
If you don’t document the what, the when, the how, and the why as you go through the whole process, it will be much harder to remember afterward, which will make putting the case study together way longer and more painful.
Building up real experience and having at least three sizable case studies are only two key components of what makes you a highly hirable candidate when transitioning into a UX career.
To help you navigate the whole process of landing your first UX role, we have created a comprehensive 2-hour free training video. The training covers the entire UX career transition journey in detail and will help you understand how exactly you can become a highly marketable candidate, avoid the common costly mistakes and master your UX job search. You can request access to the free training here.