The Pro Guide to Becoming a UX Designer

It’s a hugely exciting time to work in UX. As a maturing industry, user experience is becoming less siloed, with senior executives now acknowledging its importance in gaining and retaining a competitive advantage.

And when you couple this increased appreciation and understanding of UX with the emergence of new technologies such as touch, AI, voice, VR, and AR, it’s easy to see why so many people are hoping to become a UX designer. However, with this increasing awareness come a number of new challenges for those looking to break into the field of user experience.

“When I discovered the field of UX design way back in the early noughties, the Web was a pretty unusable place,” explains Andy Budd, Founder & Managing Director at Clearleft. “As such, a basic knowledge of site-mapping, wireframing and usability testing was generally enough to get you through the door.

“Jump forward 15 years and both the quality of digital experiences, along with user expectations, have risen dramatically. It’s no longer enough to have knocked up a few prototypes in InVision, and run them through usertesting.com. Instead, most employers expect years of experience. The question is, how do you get that experience in the first place?”

In this post we’ve tried to address this question and more, bringing together leading UX practitioners Andy Budd, Jennifer Aldrich, Trenton Moss and Rich Clark, to try and address some of the biggest challenges facing today’s aspiring UX designer.

Q: How do you get a break?

Andy Budd: One simple way is to work for a company that doesn’t yet have a user experience practice, but realises those skills are increasingly important. Plenty of visual designers and front end developers have transitioned into UX this way, doing research, building prototypes and mapping out complex user journeys because nobody else in their company understood the value. Sadly, as more and more and more companies jump on the UX bandwagon, these opportunities are becoming few and far between. So if you’re unable to cut your teeth where you are, one of the few ways to gain experience is through study.

Jennifer Aldrich: When you’re trying to break into the UX industry, attending a least one conference early in your career is incredibly important. Folks who are new to the industry often can’t swing paying for a thousand dollar conference ticket, so they give up as soon as they see the price tag. My advice is to reach out and contact conference organisers, because they often need volunteers to help set up rooms, give out swag, and function as session tour guides. Those volunteers are typically paid in discounted or free event access.

And these conferences give you the opportunity to learn from peers who have been in the industry for years, get inspired, and most importantly network. I’m still in close touch with people I met at the first design conference I ever attended years ago. (And be sure to exchange social media info with the people you meet!)

 – Events such as UX London, Clearleft’s user experience conference, are great places to make contacts

Rich Clark: I agree. Conferences can be a great way to meet people and learn more about the industry. You might come back from your first conference with your mind slightly blown, but soak it all up, keep learning and you’ll be fine.

“Bring UX into your psyche by analysing everything you interact with…”

 Trenton Moss: Look for UX all around you. There are countless UX problems in our lives day-to-day – doors that need pushing yet have pull handles; taps that are totally unintuitive, buttons that are illogically placed. And so much more! Bring UX into your psyche by analysing everything you interact with – once you get going, you’ll begin to realise just how many products have been designed without any customer-centred thinking. Once you’ve thought through lots of problems, you can start to think up solutions. Sketch out what better products and interfaces could look like and do some rough and ready usability testing with friends to test out your ideas. Then, read a bit about business and try work out why your ‘obvious’ solutions haven’t yet been implemented. Doing all this will (a) develop your UX thinking; and (b) give you something a bit different to talk about (and show) in job interviews.

Q: Is it important to get formal training?

Andy Budd: The vast majority of courses aren’t worth the paper their loan applications are written on. As such, going to university to study UX is less about the course itself, and more about the time it gives you to build out your portfolio and study on your own. If you do choose to head to university I would look at the background of the faculty, talk to past graduates and check out the end of year degree shows. Are the lecturers practicing designers? Do they have a good network of mentors and visiting lecturers? Are the degree shows full of commercially relevant case studies, or is it all IoT nonsense? (There’s nothing wrong with the Internet of Things, but there are very few folks hiring designers in this space.)

“The vast majority of courses aren’t worth the paper their loan applications are written on.”

In my experience the quality of degree level UX training in there UK is embarrassingly poor, so you probably need to go somewhere like CIID in Norway to be guaranteed a good grounding. If a year in Scandinavia isn’t appealing to you, the other option is to consider a short course from somebody like General Assembly. Their 10 week UX intensive course is typically led by practitioners and focus heavily on building out a credible portfolio. And while I wouldn’t go as far as saying the course was good, we have taken a number of interns off that course, and have always been impressed with the results.

– Check out the 10-week intensive UX course from General Assembly (https://generalassemb.ly/education/user-experience-design) if you’re looking for a course

Rich Clark: You could find a relevant user experience or HCD type degree, but I don’t think that’s essential. Hyper Island run some fantastic courses, if you don’t fancy the traditional degree route (https://www.hyperisland.com/programs-and-courses). In addition, there are free courses online developed by companies like IDEO focussing on Human Centered Design (http://plusacumen.org/courses/hcd-for-social-innovation/), which providing you can find a group of people to do it with can be massively beneficial.

Q: What advice do you have on creating a portfolio?

Trenton Moss: You need to work out how to sell your work when talking through it. Generally, talking about process is dull, whilst recounting anecdotes of user insight are incredibly interesting. So get good at storytelling—by all means show shiny deliverables, but explain the user insight that led to some of the design decisions. Tell the process, but do so quickly—don’t give a War and Peace rendition of what you did.

Andy Budd: Having a credible portfolio is important, as it allows a potential employer to see the breadth of your experience, and how it relates to the type of work they do. Think of your portfolio as evidence that you can actually do all the things you claim you can do on your CV. Say you’ve done a diary study before? I want to see an example of the output in your portfolio. UX portfolios differ from traditional design portfolios in where to put your focus. While most graphic design portfolios focus on what the final solution looks like, UX portfolios should tell the story of how you got there. So explain what the problems were, how you went about solving them, what challenges you faced, and what the final outcomes were. In that sense, it’s a little like sitting a maths test. You get so many points for getting the answer right, but you get even more for showing your workings.

“…it’s a little like sitting a maths test. You get so many points for getting the answer right, but you get even more for showing your workings.”

Rich Clark: When it comes to looking for a job, the first thing you’ll need to do is put together a solid portfolio. For me, it doesn’t need to be full of flashy graphics. I’m not interested in a pdf full of pictures of websites, I’d much rather learn about the problem you set out to solve, the constraints you were working within, the techniques & process you used to get to a solution & ultimately what you learnt along the way. Was the change successful & how do you know? What would you change if you did it again. It’s clearly not always easy to get a portfolio together when you haven’t got much experience, but completing something like the Acumen course will help build up the body of work you have available.

Q: Is it possible to transition into UX design?

Rich Clark: If you’re thinking of transitioning into UX from another discipline (say UI design or Front-End Development) then that’s entirely possible. In fact, many UX designers likely have a similar background, so ask them what they did, and how they got to where they are. For more senior positions I used to look for candidates who were ’T-Shaped’, meaning they have an in-depth knowledge of one area, say information architecture, but they also have knowledge in other areas, too. I recently saw this extended to look for square shaped people, which is now something I look for in new hires. (https://medium.com/@uxmuch/ten-skills-you-need-to-be-a-ux-unicorn-f7ec555981b0#.olluz95vm & https://medium.com/i-m-h-o/square-shaped-is-the-new-t-shaped-ea6d04c03294#.zf3a1nvzn)

Jennifer Aldrich: Absolutely! There are VERY few seasoned experts in the field. The entire community is made up of self-starters with a passion for expanding their UX knowledge and skill sets. Most people have gained their UX skills in a baptism of fire manner, and people who are new to the community shouldn’t be overwhelmed by how much others know, they should just stay hungry and consider each day an opportunity to learn something new.

“Most people have gained their UX skills in a baptism of fire manner…”

Q: Would you recommend a mentor?

Andy Budd: One way to augment learning is to find a mentor. However, this doesn’t have to be some next level, Mr Miyagi type shit. The best mentors are people a few years ahead of you in their careers, who you’ve built up a friendship with, and are happy to meet up every now and again for a chat. So reach out to people you’ve met at conferences like UX London, or who you follow online, and offer to buy them lunch. See what comes about.

Jennifer Aldrich: Mentoring is incredibly important for people starting out in the UX field. When some people hear the word “mentor” they immediately envision sitting at the feet of a person who has been in the industry for decades. Because of this mindset, most designers feel incredibly under-qualified when they’re approached about becoming a mentor. The thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need 20 years of experience to become a mentor. Even if you’ve only been in the industry for a year, you’ve had experiences you can share that will help a newbie navigate their own first crazy, overwhelming year in the business.

– Finding a good mentor can be one of the most useful and rewarding things a new UX designer can do

Q: What other advice would you have for an aspiring UX designer?

Trenton Moss: Surround yourself with the right people. You need to live and breathe UX so surround yourself with people that do proper UX design. Joining a start-up is exciting but if you’re the only UXer then who have you got to learn from? You may enjoy finding your own way and learning from your mistakes, but you’ll improve so much more quickly if you’ve got people to learn from.

Rich Clark: Learn the business angles. If you’re working in-house, rather than for an agency, you’ll really need to be able to speak to stakeholders in business language to help articulate why having a great user experience and having a customer centric culture is worthwhile.

…you’ll really need to be able to speak to stakeholders in business language to articulate why having a customer centric culture is worthwhile.

Jennifer Aldrich: A couple years ago I was speaking at a UX conference and asked the audience, ‘How many of you had the UX skills you currently utilize included your job descriptions when you were hired?’ Out of 75+ session attendees exactly three raised their hands. Three. In total. People in the room glanced around wide eyed—even I was a little shocked. So remember, while UX isn’t a “new” field, it hasn’t caught on as a popular career path until very, very recently.

Andy Budd: With demand for UX skills vastly outstripping supply, it is possible to pick up a job somewhere like GDS with more passion than experience. Just make sure that wherever you go you surround yourself with more experienced practitioners you can learn from and can help show you the way. I’ve met lots of folks over the years, many with impressive sounding job titles, who have hit a brick wall and have stopped learning. So in the early part of your UX career I’d priorities learning over fancy job titles and high day rates.

Our Panel

Andy Budd

Founder & Managing Director



Andy founded Clearleft with Richard Rutter and Jeremy Keith in 2005 and was one of the first pioneers of web standards. His blog and best-selling book CSS Mastery: Web Standards Solutions, helped set the tone for progressive web-design in the UK. He continues to lead the conversation around design, curating Clearleft’s conferences and speaking at conferences and events worldwide.

Jennifer Aldrich

UX & Content Strategist



Jennifer Aldrich is a UX & Content Strategist at InVision and design blogger at User Experience Rocks. Her career focus has mainly centered on product design, usability testing, user research and content strategy. Jennifer’s writing has appeared in tech publications including Startup Grind, Creative Bloq, A List Apart, Net Magazine, and UX Magazine.

Trenton Moss

Founder & CEO



Trenton is founder and CEO at Webcredible, an amazing consultancy that helps world-leading brands to innovate, transform and succeed in a digital world. Webcredible has grown from Trenton’s vision for a UX agency in 2003 into a customer experience consultancy whose work impacts the lives of millions of people globally.

Rich Clark

Senior UX Manager



Rich is a Senior UX Manager at MoneySuperMarket.com, a leading UK based price comparison site. He’s responsible for leading a team of designers who solve real customer problems and a strong advocate of Lean UX. In a former life he was a Front-end developer and is co-author of Beginning HTML5 and CSS3: The Web Evolved (Apress).

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