I began my career as a UX designer back in 2012. This was 4 years after the 2008 housing crisis, and the job market and economy was back in full-swing. Very different look from what we are seeing today.
Although the market was kinder to job seekers back then, I personally struggled landing my first job. A lower-than-average college GPA, a mountain of student debt, and a lack of experience navigating the job market made my situation quite stressful, to say the least.
I was applying to anything Industrial Engineering related — that’s right, I didn’t even have a design-oriented major. With countless hours applications, interviews, and a little perseverance, I eventually landed my first job as a UX designer.
Ten years and six job hops later, I’m consistently being asked in this less-than-favorable job market,
“How do I land a role as a UX designer?”
In the past month alone, I’ve had a the pleasure to meet with a dozen aspiring designers struggling to find a company to give them a shot. This steep tech market downturn has forced me to deeply reflect on my own career journey, despite it not directly impacting my employment status.
I admit that I got a bit lucky in landing my first UX role. I happened to attend a company sponsored event on-campus, mostly because they were offering free pizza. My college advisor nudged me to go, get my slice, and bring a copy of my resume. I needed to eat dinner anyways, right? The company was hiring 50 college graduates to bring in “fresh eyes” on the software they were building.
Within a few months later, I was one of the lucky 3 new UX designers on the team.
So yes, luck played a factor here.
But there were several actions I took (some unintentional) that helped increase my odds at getting hired. Not until several years and dozens of mistakes later did I realize that these actions can be advantageous for job seekers at any career stage.
For new graduates of UX bootcamps or universities, career switchers, or early career job seekers, I know it’s tough out there right now. This list of career suggestions is specifically designed for you.
During my senior year of college, I found an opportunity to partner with a regional gas station company and its CEO to solve a real-world problem. I led a team of 4 to model their gas stations supply and demand, and built a sloppy, but functional application to support the business. I relied heavily on this project when speaking to my design and engineering experience.
For new or emerging designers, try partnering with a startup or non-profit to complete a 1–3 month project with them. Find a design internship, paid or unpaid. Find in-depth freelance work where you can really dig your teeth into and collaborate across other functions. The best differentiator for you would be real-world experience, so I’d suggest to be creative and flexible with how you acquire it.
Why real-world experience? Well, designing a digital product is not a solo project. It requires collaborating with product managers to define the business objectives and how your designs support them. It requires collaborating with software developers to build your designs — which is still a huge workflow pain point in our industry. You don’t acquire these skills from working on your Figma designs for classroom projects. More importantly, you don’t have the results to measure whether or not your design efforts were impactful.
Even after gaining experience, recruiters and interviewers may ask about your “number of years of experience.” Instead, speak to the number of successful outcomes you’ve helped achieve from these experiences — that's what makes you a great designer. If you have more than one, well, less years of experience sounds more impressive at that point.
Also, when selecting a project to work on, think about what types of companies would be most interested in this type of work. Is it Fintech, Healthtech, Edtech, B2B, B2C, startups, or web design? These experiences are setting you up for your job search and the companies you’ll later target.
I can vividly recall several times applying and interviewing for dozens of companies and later frustrated that none of them gave me an offer. The question “Why won’t anyone hire me?!” became a weekly familiar mantra.
After revisiting my spreadsheet of 80 job applications submitted, I was able to make some guesses to why X companies were rejecting me immediately, or why Y companies passed on me during the interview. Tracking this data and making some assumptions helped direct me to target different companies, adjust my interviewing skills, and try different avenues of getting noticed.
When I speak with aspiring designers, here are the most common questions I ask them upfront:
It’s helpful to track the evidence and dig into where you aren’t moving forward in the process, for what companies/jobs, and for what speculative reasons. Only then can you experiment and make adjustments to your search efforts.
Many new designers make the same mistake I’ve made several times in my career — apply to every company under the sun and hope that one pans out. The first time I adopted this method was in college, and it led me nowhere except with a loss of energy and confidence. The job I eventually landed was from finding my niche in engineering software.
I had no formal experience designing software, but I could grasp the engineering domain. I conveyed a passion and understanding for the company, their software, their user base, and that I wanted to make things better. This niche is what made me stand out and got me hired.
I’d ask that designers struggling in this market to define what type of team and company you’d like to work with and prioritize applying to these companies and roles. Adopt a more efficient and effective strategy — target a key list of companies where you might bring specialized skills and experiences to that others might not have.
In essence, answer the question, “What companies out there would be most excited to interview me?” There’s probably more than you initially think.
Remember that college event with the free pizza? Yes, the pizza was good and I was able to turn in my resume. But the event was called “Networking Night” where the executives wanted to meet the senior engineering students.
Without even realizing I was “networking,” I had a 10-minute chat with the company’s VP of Product as I was handing him my resume. I watched him scribble a note on my paper resume during our discussion. One week later, and they called me in for an onsite interview.
Networking is a powerful tool for anyone seeking help. If you’re looking for a role in UX, try starting with networking at the company before applying. Use LinkedIn and schedule a chat with someone that works there.
Maybe you have mutual connections? Maybe the employee was also a recent graduate? Maybe you went to the same college or grew up in the same city/state?
Networking will increase your chances of getting hired ten-fold and show that you are passionate about working THERE, and not just at any company.
It’s a discouraging time for many in the market, but keep making progress and have a positive outlook on your future. People at all levels of their career can find themselves struggling to find their next job.
The best piece of advice I can give is this:
The first person that believes in you, needs to be you.
Your attitude, self-confidence, and self-worth will all show through in your interviews. So stay resilient and persistent. “Grit” is a top predictor of success, and these struggles you’re facing are all part of your success story.