Having helped many people switch careers and get into UX, I thought I would share some tips and lessons from some of the people I have helped.

If you prefer to watch a video instead of read about this, you can also watch my free Introduction to UX course.

I largely taught myself the basics of UX design as, when I started my career in UX over 20 years ago, there were no UX courses. I started a Masters in Human Factors but ended up not completing the whole program as it was largely not relevant to UX design. So I taught myself, read key books, articles, forums and listened to podcasts. I also learnt a lot through trial and error when I applied what I had learnt to the real world.

Having said all that, I would not recommend my approach as it is a slow and inefficient way to learn. I had the luxury of working in environments when the industry was immature and where my bosses and clients did not understand UX. So I just had to stay two steps ahead. This meant that if anything I tried didn't quite work as planned I could kind of get away with it and learn from the experience. Unfortunately, the same is not true for people entering the industry now and the industry is much more competitive - with a lot more trained UX designers.

While I have four degrees and believe that academia provides an excellent foundation and teaches you skills such as critical thinking, the majority of UX skills I use on a daily basis I have learnt on the job.

I honestly believe the fastest and most efficient way to change your career and sidestep into UX is to skip university and follow these 6 key steps.

Step 1 Understand what UX design is

If you are reading this, you probably already know what UX design is but if unsure, do a little online research to learn some of the basics or watch our free Introduction to UX course. You need to understand:

  • What UX design is and what it is not
  • The difference between UI vs UX vs CX
  • What the user-centred design process is and common methods

Step 2 Understand if a UX design career is right for you

The what:

I encourage you to talk to UX designers in the field, at meet-ups or online. Most of us are a pretty friendly bunch so don’t be daunted. Understand what UX designers do, their background and what a typical day looks like. You can also watch our interviews with UX designers: A day in the life of a UX Designer.

The why:

UX design is a relative high earning job with a high average wage (~$120,000 in Australia and $126,571 in the US in 2024). However, money should not be what gets you out of bed every morning.

A successful UX designer needs to be in the role for the right reasons, not just to earn a good buck. Ideally you should be an ethical person who is keen to improve the world through human centred design (which is our mission at PeakXD).

I spoke to UX employers and analysed what they valued then came up with 6 important personal attributes that make up the DNA of a good UX designer. These are:

  • Empathetic
  • Curious
  • Analytical
  • Problem solver
  • Collaborative
  • Engaging

Take our UX career quiz to see how you rate on these attributes.

Step 3 How to learn UX

Look for an UX design course that will give you both theoretical and practical skills and experience. Things to look in a course:

  • An industry focussed course that teaches you all the basics of UX design so you can industry certification such as the globally recognized UXQCC CPUE Foundation level endorsed by the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).
  • A coach or mentor to hold you accountable and guide you through online learning: You can learn the theory by yourself but most of us aren’t self-disciplined enough to do this without external accountability.
  • A course where you can gain experience working on a real client UX project to build your portfolio. More on this below in step 4.
  • A course where you can collaborate as part of a team. In the real world we are only one cog in the wheel and often work with other designers and researchers. It is great if you can work independently at a pace that suits you but also have opportunities to collaborate.
  • A UX course where you can get one-on-one coaching and feedback from a senior UX designer with at least 10 years’ experience. If you apply your new theoretical knowledge to a real project, will you know if you made mistakes? Will you know if you asked leading questions or experienced ‘confirmation bias’ in your research? You might realise some of your mistakes but likely not all. That is why it is super important to also have a coach or mentor who reviews your work and provides feedback. Watch out for UX training companies who advertise for coaches with only a minimum of 2 years of UX experience!

Step 4 Gain experience and practice your skills on real project to build your UX portfolio

Learning theoretical principles and methods is not enough. You need to gain experience working on real projects and demonstrate your understanding of UX methods in your portfolio to get a UX job.

Try to find a real project that is meaningful with a reputable organisation as this will be the basis for your UX portfolio. You can approach organisations and volunteer your time or look for a UX training provider that offers a real client project as part of their course.

One of my PeakXD UX Accelerator students said to me “Tania, the video lessons make perfect sense and are easy to follow. However, when I work on the project, that is when I really have to think - which is much harder, but this is when I really learn”.  I like to say that when you apply the theoretical knowledge to a real world project is when “the rubber hits the road” and the true learning happens.

It is well documented in the ‘cone of learning’ that when you listen to a lecture, you only retain approximately 5% of that knowledge. If you read something this increases to 10%. But when you practice what you have learnt that retention rate increases to 75%.

Practicing your skills on real projects not only  cements your learning but also enables you to build a portfolio to help you get a job. This is why it is really important to work on real projects rather than fictitious projects, as real projects introduce real challenges which often don’t exist in a ‘made up’ project. Real projects for well-known brands or organisations also look much better on your portfolio to prospective employers.

Step 5 and 6 Final steps to getting a UX job

Once you have completed steps 1 to 4, you will be ready to enter the UX job market.  There are a 2 more steps you need to go to land your UX job and build your confidence. I have outlined these in our free Introduction to UX course which also covers everything I mentioned above but in a bit more detail and in video format (if you aren’t a big reader).  

When you’re looking for a course, I also recommend looking for a training provider that will review your CV/resume and UX portfolio and provide you with feedback and tips to help you get a UX job.

Good luck and hopefully this inspires you to consider a career in UX. My team and I are always happy to talk to people interested in a career so feel free to book in for career discovery call if you’re interested.

PS: We are excited to announce in 2024 that as part of our UX Accelerator program, we able to provide our students the opportunity to work on our newest real client project with Greenpeace. If you are interested in changing both your career and the planet, and working on a meaningful project while gaining skills and experience, find out more about the UX Accelerator program.