Victor asks: I’m just about to finish my portfolio and start applying for jobs as a junior UX designer. I don’t have a design (retail) background and I’m relying on my portfolio alone that isn’t extensive. I have only two case studies and, as of last month, I’m doing seven different courses with the Interaction Design Foundation. What are my chances?
For an entry-level gig, your chances are as good as anyone else applying for the position. And I can assure you that you’re not the only one in this situation! Twice a year a slew of people graduate from Universities and online programs, and they don’t have any experience either.
That said, not having on-the-job experience does make your life a little tougher. You’re going to have to work that much harder to convince that recruiter or hiring manager or organization that you’re worth the risk and the time they’ll invest in getting you up to speed.
Can that be done? Yes.
Is it easy? No.
In addition to filling out your portfolio with projects (we’ll get to that in a minute), you’re going to need to demonstrate your ability to solve problems and improve the use, usefulness and potential profitability of an app, site or system.
Don’t underestimate that last one. One of the biggest mistakes I see from UX job candidates — from newbies to experienced pros — is a failure to communicate how their skills will help that company or their clients make or save money. Yes, your job is to help users. But companies don’t care about doing so unless there is an equal, valuable, measurable benefit to them in doing so.
So any time you talk about making life better for users, you had also better be talking about how you’re doing the same for the business behind the product.
So — armed with that knowledge — your task is to show what you know, what you can do and most importantly, how you think. And as I said, because you’re inexperienced, you’ve got to do that across multiple channels:
- Social media posts: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. Instagram if you have time, but the glorified art galleries most people post there do absolutely nothing to further their careers. Write posts that illustrate a UX/business problem with an existing service or app you use, explain how it might be hurting its owner and how improving Design or UX would benefit everyone. Side note: if your current social media accounts are full of selfies and song lyrics and funny memes, create new ones for your professional life.
- Blog. Same as above. Having your own blog under your name shows you’re serious about this stuff. That you care about it, that you’re a professional, even if you’re young.
- Portfolio. Of course, you’re going to need a portfolio, and you’re going to need more than two projects/case studies. So let’s talk about how to get more.
There are three things that will make your portfolio worth looking at, no matter how much experience you do or don’t have.
1) Answer the recruiter’s most critical question. Immediately.
The question a recruiter, or an employer, or even a potential client is asking from the word go is, “Why YOU? Why should I hire YOU? There are 80,000 other people out there looking for jobs.” And that’s true, there are more UX folks looking for jobs right now then there have ever been. There is also an equally large expansion of available UX jobs. But when someone looks at your portfolio, they also have anywhere from 10 to 40 other portfolios to look at in the next hour and a half. So they’re asking: “Why YOU?”
So instead of a big blank home screen that says “Hi, I’m Victor. I’m passionate about designing better User Experiences,” tell me what you can DO for me. Tell me something beyond what your personal passion is. As an employer, as a recruiter, as a client, I don’t care what you love. I’m looking at your portfolio purely for the perspective of “How’s this person going to help me achieve what I already want?”
That’s what that first sentence — and every single sentence and image after it on every screen — needs to speak to.
2) If you don’t have projects, find (or create) some.
If you don’t have examples of app or website improvement, then you need to come up with some. Look to your personal network first, people you know. Maybe you have a friend who’s a musician trying to get his music out into the world. Say, “Hey, I’d like to redesign your website.” Treat it like a UX project: detail what he’s trying to accomplish, what the site needs to communicate, what the benefit will be. You may not even have to do finished UI; detailed wireframes often show more about how you think and demonstrate that you’re all about finding the right solution.
Maybe it’s a small, local business that you go to all the time, who also happens to have a really crappy website. If you find yourself thinking “they could have more customers if….” make that sentence reality; detail it in a case study. Pitch them and say, “I’d really like to redesign your website; I think it could really improve your business. Give me free coffee for six months and I’ll redesign it.” And of the redesign does actually boost business, now you’ve got a result you can showcase — and a possible client testimonial — as well.
Or you go to a non-profit, charity organization. Or, you take an established product, an established website, an app on your phone. Detail what’s wrong, why it’s hurting users and the business and what you’d do differently. And then do it and tell the story.
You don’t need anybody’s permission to do that. What’s important, what people need to see, is how you think, how you work through problems. So new or not, there’s a way for you to tell compelling stories that display what you can do for an employer or client.
3) Give away the ending.
For every single project you showcase in your portfolio, you need to lead with the conclusion, the outcome. Even if that’s only an expected or projected outcome. That’s because your goal with your portfolio, with every single screen, is to keep people from leaving.
Forget the pretty pictures and the glorified art galleries Dribbble is littered with: tell me something that matters, and tell me that FIRST. In other words, lead with “here’s what the work I did will — or did — achieve.”
Tell the story of how you identified the problem or problems involved, how you figured out what was worth solving and why what you’ve done will solve them. But you have to start with something important enough to the viewer that’s going to keep them looking.
You need to lead with a problem they recognize, one they have, one their clients likely had, one they know they’ll need to solve. If, for example, you say “evidence points to a possible 3X increase in revenue by enabling online ordering,” now you’ve got someone’s attention, at least for the next sixty seconds. You’re always trying to prove that the next couple minutes of that person’s time are well spent. That’s your job, to convince them to stick around and keep reading.
If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.
But as I’ve said already, you’re operating at a disadvantage with no real-world experience. So if you want the gig, you’ve got to work that much harder to prove you’re worth a shot.
The good news: you can DO it.
But expect it to be tough, expect to have your emails and calls go unanswered, expect it to take longer than you’d like. Expect to be rejected. Likely more than once. But that’s the deal here, and there is no way around any of that tough stuff. The key to eventually landing a job is — along with doing all that I’ve detailed here — refusing to quit. Keep improving, keep working at these things, keep applying. Don’t be intimidated by job listing or qualifications — if you think you can do the work, APPLY.
Be persistent, be diligent, and believe in what you’re capable of. Now get to work!