Getting Started in UI/UX: How to Pursue Your Career

Published May 02, 2018 by Jane Portman
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Getting Started Illustration

UI/UX is trendy and lucrative these days. The demands are growing, too! Every day I meet more people who are just starting out in UI/UX — moving in from other design industries like print or web design, or coming in from development or product management.

This roadmap will help you pursue a professional career in UI/UX, from day one to your first paid client project and beyond. It’s definitely opinionated, and I’m sure there’s a thousand other ways to achieve your goals.

For more reading, you can explore the entire content guide, but it can be quite overwhelming for those who are new to the industry. Instead, let’s get you started in nine actionable steps!

Step 1. Pick a product type

Being a sub-industry of design, UI/UX is still a very broad term. To be successful, pick a niche. What products will you be working on? Among others, here are the most promising industries:

In my opinion, business web applications have the most money in them. Mobile apps are our future, without any doubt, but monetizing standalone mobile apps at the one-off price of $2.99 is extremely hard — so they often exist for free to complement well-paying web apps. Website design also relates to UI/UX, but it’s not exactly product work, and is also highly competitive and generally underpaid.

Step 2. Pick your expertise

Roughly speaking, product design flows through these stages:

Development is then followed by other implementation stages that lead to a live product. Then the cycle starts over with user research and testing.

You should know the basics of each stage, but it’s very hard to be a true master of the entire process. You can safely pick any two adjacent stages (or even one) and focus your efforts on them. Think what you can do best and what correlates with your existing skills. For example, if you come from product management background, then user research and wireframing will be a good choice. If you’re great at visuals, then you might enjoy wireframing and visual design.

Sidenote: I didn’t dedicate a separate stage to prototyping because it’s a slightly different dimension. A prototype means that your wireframes, high-fidelity layouts, or even live coded screens are linked together into a clickable model that simulates the product behavior. As you see, it requires very different skills depending on your team’s process.

Step 3. Read up on the UI/UX basics

There’s plenty of free learning material available out there! Companies producing design tools invest enormous resources into education, because it increases their ultimate customer base (also brand awareness and loyalty).

Among others, I love resources by InVision and UXPin. They’re competitors in the field of prototyping and UX, but I’m personally loyal to InVision because I wrote a course for them called Fundamental UI Design (it’s free and worth checking out, too). Smashing Magazine is another great resource.

One of my books, The UI Audit, will help if you’re planning to work on web applications — you’ll learn to approach UI/UX from the standpoint of product strategy.

Focusing on the tools is one of the biggest mistakes you can make in your learning process. As you’ll understand quickly, using your tools well is just a small part of overall design expertise. It’s more important to understand who you serve, what product decisions you need to make, what the stakeholders need and want, and many other challenging questions.

Don’t worry about formal certification either. Having a degree or a diploma is great, but these days it doesn’t matter as much as your skills and experience.

Step 4. Get an eyeful of great design

Designers often classify themselves as creatives, but in reality UI/UX has much more to do with everyday problem-solving. Hardly ever you’ll get to invent new exciting patterns — most likely, you’ll be reusing the same patterns over and over. That’s why you need to have a good understanding of modern software, how it works and looks.

Common advice is to go to places like Behance or Dribbble, but I can only recommend that for visual inspiration. The best examples live in the wild! We all know products like Dropbox, Intercom, MailChimp, Stripe, Calendly, Zapier, and dozens of others (there’s a number of trendsetters for mobile design as well). These companies spend millions of dollars to design, build, and test their UI/UX.

By using and understanding quality software, you’ll build better taste, expand your “mental library” of design patterns, and become a better designer overall.

Step 5. Build your portfolio

Of course, theory won’t get you too far. “Designers grow from doing,” says Andy Vitale, one of my podcast guests.

But don’t wait for qualified work to fall into your lap magically! If you’ve been doing print (or web) design before, then you’ll keep getting the same kind of work unless you’re actively organizing new opportunities.

The best way would be to take up real side projects that match your new UI/UX profile (product type and expertise as we discussed above). You can do these at a discounted rate — or even entirely free! — but it’s still better than imaginary projects. You’ll get to work with real businesses and solve real problems, which is the core of the UI/UX craft. Ask your friends if they need services like that, or use freelance marketplaces. Sidenote: please don’t get used to them, it’s not the sweetest place to get work.

Rebuild your website and portfolio to include only the desired kind of work. Ultimately, no portfolio should include too many projects: 3–5 is a perfect number. These slides will give you an idea how to organize your website better: What Should Your Sales Website Say And Do?

In the UI/UX world, “just pictures” won’t sell well anyways. You need to write longer case studies, explaining how exactly you solved the problems and brought value to the table.

Step 6. Read up on the business side of things

Large part of the UX craft is understanding the entire software business — not just the product development process (from research to testing), but also the financial side of things. How they make money, attract customers, what goals and metrics the founders are going after, etc.

Here’s a recording of my free webinar at InVision called Indispensable Business Knowledge for Designers that will give you a good idea of all these things. If you’re going after SaaS companies (i.e. planning to do UX for web applications), then this guide by Patrick McKenzie is a fantastic place to start.

Step 7. Improve your client soft skills

If you’re planning to work independently as a freelancer/consultant, then you’ll need another set of skills: writing sales copy for your website, marketing yourself, pricing, interviewing clients, and a whole lot of other things to keep your business afloat.

I highly recommend Double Your Freelancing by Brennan Dunn, where you can find amazing free articles on the business of freelancing. The following podcasts are also great for leveling up your game: Freelance Transformation by Matt Inglot, and Ditching Hourly by Jonathan Stark.

Productized consulting is a great model to escape hourly billing and sell your work as value-based, fixed-priced packages. I recently published a “paint-by-numbers” book on this topic — Your Productized Consulting Guide — and you’re always welcome to learn more there.

Step 8. Start building your authority

You’re just starting out, and talking about authority seems so premature. However, you won’t have it instantly when you have enough skills! Building your public presence is a slow, organic process — and it’s never too early to start. There’s a range of things you work on and gradually improve: your personal website, blog, mailing list, books, podcast, video channel, or anything else. Social media is also important, but more like another business card.

The “minimal” authority setup includes a website, a blog, and a mailing list. You’ll be sending out articles once in a while, practicing your authority muscle, and nurturing your mailing list.

Slowly, public assets like articles or books will make your portfolio less important for clients, and can replace it entirely with time. For example, I haven’t had a public portfolio in the last 5 years.

Also don’t forget about conferences and events! You won’t make it too far without friends, and online friendships solidify wonderfully when you meet these people in real life. Merely being out there at conferences adds to your credibility and increases trust levels dramatically. However, make sure you talk to people and have fun! Just sitting in your chair and drinking coffee doesn’t work.

Step 9. Improve and iterate

Your first client gig will be terrifying; the second — less so; and slowly you’ll feel yourself more confident in the chosen UI/UX field.

Use your experience from these projects! Process the feedback, build new case studies, improve your sales copy, and polish your client process. Also don’t forget to raise your rates regularly! Ultimately, high rates are the best indicator that you do quality work and are confident enough to charge accordingly.

Closing Words

Now you have a better understanding how to approach the industry of UI/UX. These steps above are not easy, but definitely doable. I wish you good luck in conquering the new heights.

Stay bold, brave, and curious!

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