With more and more people looking to start a career in the field of user experience, comes more competition on a junior level. With new talent transitioning out of boot camps, graduate programs, and self-study, the competition within the talent market on a junior level has never been more fierce. For many people looking to make the jump from learning theory to working professionally, problems arise when it comes to putting their best foot forward and getting noticed by an employer when they are competing against the ever-growing volume of people also looking to make the jump into industry.
How might a person standout amongst the sheer volume of other junior candidates and uniquely market themselves for the limited number of junior-level job vacancies in an increasingly oversubscribed and competitive job market? This article aims to answer that question through tips, candid insight from industry seniors, and guidance to useful resources to help you with your journey.
Coming away from this article, my hope is that you’ll be equipped with different ways to showcase your strengths and unique perspectives that will get you noticed by hiring managers at great companies.
Tip #1: Have a portfolio with commercial projects & real-world impact
One of the biggest complaints I hear from hiring managers is that many portfolios from junior candidates applying for a position all look the same and are full of group work projects that have no real-world impact. Pretty much every senior professional that is in a hiring position wants to see that candidates have applied their skillset in a way that has lead to some sort of tangible impact, be it monetary, growth, donations, engagement, or other quantifiable outcomes. One of the issues is that many boot camps and short courses encourage learners to use a fairly cookie-cutter format when it comes to showcasing projects. The essay ‘The case study factory’ from UX Collective breaks down this particular problem in depth.
I can't anymore with these, all the same, UX portfolios... I haven't quite formulated this. But it's all the same, the user personas, card sorting, IA, user flows, wireframes, prototyping. Real UX doesn't work like this. These portfolios aren't simulating real UX work.
Many folks looking to make the transition into industry encounter an obstacle; how does one gain commercial experience if one has never held a professional role in industry? To put it another way: how does one gain real-world experience if one has never been given the opportunity to have real-world experience. This is the timeless chicken and the egg problem. But there is a way around this and it involves being proactive and creating your own opportunity. One way to approach this problem is by reaching out to early-stage startups within tech accelerators and incubators near you. Companies hosted in incubators and accelerators are usually still in their infancy and trying to find product-market fit. They’re running lean and usually don’t have many resources. Often times, this means that founders don’t have time for user research or having much of an outward-facing lens on the world in relation to what they are building. This is an excellent setting to apply your skills. By being proactive and offering your time in exchange for portfolio artifacts, you can separate yourself from the competition while gaining real-world experience in a fast-moving tech environment, not to mention grow your industry network. This is like a cheat-code for gaining real-world applied experience.
Earlier in my career, I implemented this strategy with great success. Even with a relevant educational background and a UX internship under my belt from a brand name company, my portfolio and applied experience were still fairly underwhelming and not translating into any great full-time employment options. I took it upon myself to reach out to a tech incubator in my city, introduced myself to founders of an interesting company with a great mission, and offered my skill set and time with the explicit agreement I’d be able able to host a case study with work artifacts in my portfolio. After a short time, I found I was able to rapidly grow my network within the local tech community, gain valuable hands-on work experience, and create a distinctly unique case study that articulated how I was able to deliver real-world impact. After a few short months, I was able to gain full-time employment at a great company.
The biggest insight I came away with is that waiting for someone to give you an opportunity when still in the early stages of your career (usually meaning you have a portfolio of student work and slipshod projects) is usually a losing strategy. Instead, be proactive and think of different ways you can apply your skillset in a real-world setting. I’m not advocating for “working for free”, but even setting aside 10 hours a week of pro bono work in exchange for work artifacts can really serve as a career accelerant if you’re struggling to find that all-important first full-time role. Think of this strategy as a career investment.
Tip #2: Leverage your previous background
Many people looking to start a career in user experience come from different career backgrounds and have a unique educational history. Many people feel as though when transitioning into a career in UX from an untraditional background, they are essentially “starting over”, when in reality often times they could be framing their past experience as a strength which could lead to a distinctive advantage.
The pipeline into a user experience career is usually pretty straight forward for folks that studied directly related fields such as human-computer interaction, interaction design, cognitive psychology, service design, or similar subjects. With that said, having an “untraditional” background can sometimes serve as an advantage if you frame your expertise in the right manner.
A good friend of mine studied early childhood education and after half a decade of working in that field, she was looked to make a career change into working as a user experience researcher. After some time of self-study using online resources, crafting a portfolio, and polishing her LinkedIn, she wasn’t finding much luck. The feedback she was hearing from employers was that her education and professional experience didn’t directly relate to a role in UX research. After hearing this feedback she decided to become more strategic about her job search strategy. She created insightful content on UX related to early childhood development, hosted talks on user experience research strategies focused on children, and was more tactical in her job search by targeting companies within her field of expertise. By leveraging her educational and professional background as well as bringing more of a tailored focus to her job search, she was able to secure a well-paying full-time UX research role at an educational technology company focused on childhood development.
By framing your experience in the right manner, being visible about your expertise, and tactically approaching companies within your field of knowledge, you can separate yourself from the competition in a very distinct way.
Tip #3: Never Stop Learning
Life long learning is an essential mindset as a UX professional. The majority of the time, employers want a signal that a candidate has a strong foundation of theory and can hit the ground running. Unfortunately, a boot camp certificate or list of books you’ve read isn’t enough of a signal to separate yourself from the competition if you’re not working in the field already. Luckily, there is a wealth of high caliber online courses for a very affordable price, or in some cases, completely free.
I’ve previously written an in-depth article on some of the great educational offerings from amazing institutions such as the University of Michigan, Google, University of California San Diego, Georgia Tech, Udacity, and more.
Two particularly popular courses I’d highly recommend are the User Experience Research & Design Specialization from the University of Michigan as well as the Interaction Design Specialization from the University of California San Diego.
If you’re looking to give your resume and LinkedIn a boost in the form of a legitimate UX credential from a prestigious university, as well as a capstone project you can showcase in your portfolio to potential employers, I highly recommend looking into some of these educational offerings.
Tip #4: Have your portfolio reviewed by an expert
Your portfolio is your opportunity to display expertise, tell your story, and let employers get to know more about you. Unfortunately, many people construct their portfolio without having it reviewed or putting it under any expert scrutiny for constructive feedback. A winning strategy is to get candid feedback from people who are in a position which you would one day like to be, in this case, UX seniors.
The following communities can help you get the constructive feedback you need:
UX Coffee Hours is a platform where you can get free advice and mentorship from vetted UX professionals over 1 hour virtual coffee.
Mixed Methods is a community interested in the how and whys of user experience research. This community has over 10,000 members of various seniority and senior practitioners that you can connect with.
The Fearless Community on Slack is focused on research and design careers and feedback. This community has a dedicated feedback channel where you can get some useful assessments of your portfolio.
Sarah Doody, the founder of UXPortfolioForumla, has a wealth of advice and material you can purchase from her platform covering everything on how to create an effective UX portfolio and level up your career.
You can give your portfolio some presentational polish and personalization with tools such as Figma and Webflow. Separate yourself from the sea of cookie-cutter Wordpress and Squarespace portfolios with these powerful and intuitive tools (which, by the way, are quickly become industry standard at major companies).
In an increasingly saturated junior talent market, you need a way to stand out. By using some of the tips in this article, whether it be up-skilling through online courses, being more tactical in your job search, getting industry experts to review your portfolio, or creating your own opportunity for real-world experience, my hope is that you’ll be in a more competitive position to land a great role.
Follow me on Twitter if you’d like: