UX design is increasingly central to tech, and designers are more in demand than ever before. A recent survey of top designers, for instance, found early-stage startups had a design to engineer ratio greater than 1:5, whereas it used to be less than 1:15.
And companies are getting smarter about what they’re looking for in a designer. A pretty portfolio just isn’t enough to get hired.
Pursuing that dream job is a design problem in and of itself — how do you present yourself, being the product, in a way that relates to the needs and experiences of the user, the potential employer.
User Research First
There are a few things that every potential UX hire needs to have mastered before they can expect to land that dream job.
The most important is knowing how to understand who you’re designing for — including an understanding of how people think and behave and what their needs are, says Irene Au, former head of design at Google and now a partner at Khosla Ventures.
That starts with recognizing who your users are and clearly defining the problem your design efforts are going to address for the company. Sketching, leading workshops, and creating communicable artifacts are some of the core skills needed for the job. It’s also important to be able to prototype, to make those ideas tangible, and to iterate repeatedly based on feedback.
“This is the essence of human-centered design,” Au says.
Beyond mastering this design process, “soft” skills — strong communication, empathy, being able to facilitate meetings with other people — are critical. Particularly because this is a field whose primary goal is to understand and connect with people’s needs.
Similarly, the ability to take feedback without getting defensive is especially important in the design process, where iterating, refining and sometimes finding out your great idea just didn’t work are integral parts of the workflow.
The T-shaped Designer
There are many different aspects to the user experience, and every position and company are going to have different qualities they’re looking for in any particular UX hire.
Since there are so many different design disciplines and corresponding job titles — the GrowthX survey found that the 118 UX professionals held an improbable 210 different job titles, from Visual Designer to Usability Researcher to Interaction Designer to Web Developer — mastering one area can take you further than being just okay in all of them.
Au looks for “T-shaped” designers who have deep skills in one or more relevant areas and broad skills spanning other UX-related abilities. “I’d rather find someone who is excellent in a particular area than someone who has mediocre skills across all matters related to UX,” says Au. “Usually, a great candidate will be really strong in one area and have decent adjacent skills in others.”
For example, she says, the designer could have a really strong background in interaction design and user research, complemented by a working knowledge of visual interface design and low-fidelity prototyping skills. Those complementary skills are important. The GrowthX survey found that three-quarters of respondents performed 16 different UX activities in their jobs. More than half did 25 different activities.
Show Off the Right Way
A UX designer’s resume could be very broad. It might include degrees, coursework or experience in everything from graphic design to computer science, from anthropology to behavioral sciences, or even storytelling and animation. The strongest signal to a potential employer will be some type of hands on experience you have as a UX designer, either through an internship or through a short-term assignment on a real-life UX team.
Hiring managers will also be looking at how you present what you’ve done.
“Your portfolio should do more than show pretty pictures of mockups. It really needs to go into more depth and detail,” says Au.
Use your portfolio to address questions like: Who were you designing for? What was the problem that you were trying to solve? How did you approach the design process? Be sure to also include any prototypes developed along the way.
The portfolio reflects the person — in more ways than simply what you have experience doing and have specialized in. “It’s going to reflect what kind of thinker you are and how you approach problem-solving,” Au explains.
That means if your portfolio is all surface-level, matter of fact, here’s my work, hiring managers are going to assume your design work is also like that—flat. On the other hand, if it’s overly focused on whiz-bang flashy graphics that are so distracting they make it hard to navigate the portfolio, that probably also says something about the kind of designer you are. It is better to find the right middle ground — express yourself and show off your strengths while not being so edgy that you scare anyone away, or give the impression that you won’t be able to suit your work to their needs.
Similar to users trying out a new product for the first time, potential employers will be paying attention to both your strengths and weaknesses. Acquiring the skills and background they will be looking for well ahead of time will, in design terms, save you from having to do too many iterations of your job search.
At GrowthX Academy, we’re teaching students human-centered design and equipping them with the knowledge, skills and practical experience to jumpstart their careers.
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