When it comes to job hunting, User Experience (UX) Design is one of the most competitive markets out there. While demand for UX positions continues to grow, so do the number of UX designers on the market. It can be overwhelming for a recent graduate just starting out to get their footing. How do you set yourself apart from the other candidates? How do you know which applications to prioritize? And once you do land that first internship, how can you leverage your experience into a full time position?
To help answer some of these questions I hosted a roundtable discussion with three recent UX alums, each of whom had their own unique trajectory to getting their foot in the door and launching their careers.
Zoe: Thank you all for joining me today! To get started, would you all introduce yourselves?
Justin: Justin X. Hale, spring 2022 graduate of ACC, currently employed as a Software Engineer for Red Hat, but department title is an Interaction Designer in UXD.
Adoree: Hello, my name is Adoree Deltoro. I graduated in the summer of 2022 with a User Experience degree. I interned over the summer for a marketing agency called Merge as a CX [Customer Experience] Strategist, and I have now worked with MERGE for six months as a UX/UI Designer.
Christopher: I’m Christopher Specht, fall 2022 graduate of the Viscom User Experience program and currently a full time Associate UX Designer at UFCU. I also freelance doing wireframes for a local startup.
Zoe: So awesome to see so many UX students finding local opportunities! How did you get connected with your current positions? Adoree, I know that you started out as an intern. Christopher and Justin, did you guys have similar experiences?
Christopher: Yes, I interned over the summer and that got extended through the fall semester. I got hired the same week as graduation.
Adoree: Similar to Chris, I also got hired the week after I finished my degree. I did two internships over the summer and found them incredibly helpful in deciding where I wanted my career to go.
Christopher: Yeah my internship allowed me to figure out what UX discipline I wanted to follow.
Justin: I have a different experience. I worked as a graphic designer and freelanced as a social media manager for 10 years before applying to ACC’s UX program. Because of my background it gave me a few more transferable skills needed for the workspace. So I had enough experience to apply for competitive jobs right away.
I was hired during the career class (I can’t remember the name). But literally the resume, cover letter, and portfolio I made during that class is what I used for applications and during the interviews
Zoe: You mean UX Career Lab!
Christopher: With Josh Baron.
Adoree: Before our internships, we were all in the Career Lab class with Josh Baron and it was extremely helpful in getting a portfolio ready and having some prep before interviews. Justin was one of the first people to get hired out of the cohort; it was great to see! Very inspiring!
Zoe: Josh will be so happy to hear that! Really interesting to hear that your internships were pivotal in helping you decide on a direction. UX does have a lot of sub-specializations, and it can be hard for a student just starting out to know what opportunities are out there. For those of us who aren’t yet part of the UX world, can you each give a little more background on what you do day to day?
Christopher: Currently we are in the middle of redesigning the online and mobile banking app [for University Federal Credit Union], so the majority of the time I am building high fidelity wireframes of screens for different features and functions. I do these mainly in Figma. We work in three week sprints. Every couple of sprints we do usability testing, and for that I help build the prototypes and help as note taker when needed.
Justin: That app needs so much help
Christopher: I know!
We have a department of 7 designers in the UX team. I also spend a lot of time talking to stakeholders (developers and business) to make sure those designs are possible and fit the business needs.
Adoree: I work on a team of UX Designers. There are three sections for the UX team: east, south, and west. Each team has about three to seven members. We overlap with UX work, but what is special about my team (the west) is that we specialize in UX [User Experience] and UI [User Interface] work.
Typically we have resourced projects, and we have a certain amount of time to complete them. Our projects include website redesigns, newsletters, apps, and anything with a screen. We work a lot with hospitals, financial companies, and even just regular chains like Marco’s Pizza. MERGE is partnered with many companies, and we help make their tech spaces great.
I spend a lot of time in meetings, designing wireframes in Figma and talking to clients about what can make their user experience better. Because I started at MERGE as an intern for CX [Customer Experience] strategy, I also got to dabble in strategy projects. We build personas and do a lot of quantitative research. This consists of doing research interviews. This is fun, and I feel like it keeps me a well-rounded designer. There’s an opportunity in any area in which I wish to grow my skills. The beauty of a Design Marketing Agency is that there is an area for everything to build your experience.
Soon I’ll be learning more about combining UX with marketing. Overall, every day consists of improving users’/customers’ day by listening to their problems. I then use Figma, Miro, and Google Slides to help present the solutions to those problems.
Justin: As a tech professional, my focus lies in working with Software as a Service (SAAS) products. My typical day comprises numerous meetings, brainstorming sessions, and design tasks. I concurrently work on two to three unrelated applications, each with its unique requirements. One of my ongoing projects, in which I am the design lead, involves revamping an Angular UI to align with our design system. In contrast, the other project revolves around an open-source upstream initiative aimed at application modernization, presenting a more forward-looking perspective.
Zoe: Justin, I think you lost me.
Justin: Ha! Sorry. I completely understand. These people have me speaking differently. To stakeholders it all makes sense
Zoe: For a student who’s maybe just now taking a Survey of UX Design class, can you define some of those terms, like “Angular UI” and “open-source upstream initiative?”
Justin: Project 1… I’m taking a 10-year-old UI [User Interface] and modernizing it using our design system, Patternfly.
Project 2… working on an open source, upstream project, meaning the people tell us what they want and we make it happen.
Zoe: Ah, that makes perfect sense!
Justin: It’s interesting we didn’t use the term upstream and downstream in our UX program. Definitely a term to learn. At least if going into tech
Zoe: I’ll make a note to add that to my vocab flash cards!
Many UX students are pivoting into UX after already having a successful career somewhere else. Justin, it sounds like your prior experience played a big role in you being able to land your current position. Adoree, and Chris, do you feel that was the case for you as well? If so, how did each of you translate your prior experience into marketable skills for the UX job market?
Justin: One hundred percent. When I started looking into UX, I figured I had to learn all these new skills and such, but as Chris and Adoree mentioned, there are a lot of UX paths. The trick is to learn those paths/titles, see which fits your current skills, change a few words around on the resume, and get your best foot in the door.
Adoree: I ran my own nanny company for nine years creating custom curricula to help parents get their children into the schools of their choice. My experience helped me understand humans and taught me how to problem-solve. During my internship, I know they saw the skills of entrepreneurship and product development as one of my biggest assets. The constant desire to understand why and make products better is what helps me be better at my job. ACC gave me the hard skills to enter the field, but my prior job experience gave the soft skills. Specifically for entry positions, soft skills are very important. As long as you have the desire to learn and actively work on building your hard skills, companies will want to work with you, in my experience.
Christopher: My prior experience was in customer service and retail management. The skills I learned in those jobs translate very well in my day to day. Patience, listening, empathy, problem solving. The soft skills let me stand out as well. Also one of my hobbies is comic book creating, so being able to tell a story with pictures helped.
Zoe: That’s awesome! Many students don’t even realize they already have tons of great skills they can add to their resume. So it’s inspiring to hear that from each of you.
Christopher: It’s those skills that set you apart. A lot of the competition has the same portfolio.
Adoree: Josh Baron encouraged us to put those soft skills on our resume. It helps humanize us!
Justin: Facts. I’ve met quite a few people who have the Google UX certificate, for example, but can’t get a job.
Zoe: Soft skills every day!
Adoree and Chris, what advice do you have for students who are about to start their internships? How can they stand out and turn those internships into long term, paying jobs?
Christopher: Make sure to talk and listen to anyone who is willing to spend 5 minutes with you. The point of an internship is gaining experience but the networking is also crucial. Also volunteer for any job or task, you may be surprised at what things you didn’t think you would like that are actually fun.
Zoe: Any examples of fun tasks that surprised you, Chris?
Christopher: I was unsure of what discipline I wanted to do, so during my first internship I asked to moderate one of the usability tests. It was way out of my comfort zone, but I had fun doing it.
Zoe: What about you, Adoree? Any advice for new interns?
Adoree: Network! Take the opportunity to network! That’s how you are going to make an impression and make connections. I had over sixty one-on-ones during the summer. I talked to them about imposter syndrome, job hunting, skill building, and really anything. My key question at the end of my interviews is, “Now that you know me a little better, is there anyone you think I could benefit from meeting?” This question got me to talk to the owners of MERGE and the CEO. By the end I had real conversations that had everyone pulling for me to get a job. This showed how much I cared about my own career growth. Even if you don’t get a job, those conversations can give you some great insights on what you want to do.
Justin: Wow, that’s a lot of one-on-ones. That would be way too exhausting for me.
Adoree: Oh, I was exhausted! But I got a job! Last summer was the grind that never stopped. Two internships and so many one-on-ones.
Justin: I’m a mentor for the program where we get many, if not most, of our UX interns from. For us, the people who are inquisitive tend to be the ones who get the job.
Adoree: And to echo what Chris said, you should be excited to help with any task. Treat it as an opportunity and know that this will help build your skills.
Zoe: So I think what I’m hearing is to be led by curiosity and a willingness to learn.
Christopher: And be willing to take criticism.
Adoree: Yes, being able to take criticism as a way of growing is so important. Even now after every project I ask for real feedback on performance and use that as a way to keep growing.
Zoe: Asking for feedback is definitely part of curiosity! Ask a lot of questions, even if it might invite some criticism of your work!
Adoree: Oh, this is random, but make sure you communicate and show up on time. I may not always remember what my interns did, but I remember the ones who communicated and showed up on time everyday.
Zoe: A quick little nitty gritty question about networking before we move on to our closing comments. As Justin pointed out, Adoree’s sixty one-to-ones is majorly impressive! With networking being so crucial, do you have any strategies for how to keep track of everyone, and proactively stay in touch? Any tips and tricks?
Justin: I absolutely hate networking and I’m terrible at it, so I don’t have anything of value to add.
Christopher: For me, it’s whenever I am thinking of that person I try and reach out even if it’s a quick text.
Adoree: I have been on the receiving end of Christopher’s messages, and honestly, he always makes my day! That’s great advice.
I also use LinkedIn and follow up with people there. That follow-up message on LinkedIn is just as important as the one-to-ones. Say hi to people. Work on getting to know others, and everything will just flow. We all get busy, but sometimes try and send a “I’m thinking about you, hope you are well!” message.
Zoe: Great advice!
Okay, last question before I let you go. What advice do you have for students who are looking for their first job or internship? A broad question, I know.
Adoree: I think the thing that made my ACC experience special (besides being in a pandemic) was my strong connection with my cohort. It helped normalize the job hunt process and helped with my classes. When everyone is interviewing, you almost get a taste of what to expect. You also get some help with negotiating because you hear what others are getting offered. But most importantly, the job-hunting process is hard on the ego, and it helps to have that friendship!
Community is crucial to have that support. Go out of your way to meet people, and get feedback on your projects and portfolio. Apply for internships that help you answer where you want to go and notice what you like and don’t like from that experience. That will take you far. I know that it’s not traditional but apply to everything! UX has so many random tags, so look them all up! I found my internship by looking at CX. That was the first time I even ever heard of CX. Go into these experiences with a willingness to learn and an open mind, and you will be fine. An open hand always catches something.
- Put yourself out there.
- Don’t get discouraged; I put out over 100 applications and only heard back from a handful.
- Your portfolio will never be perfect or done, just get something together that you can present.
Adoree: 100% on the idea that your portfolio will never be done! Also remember a portfolio can be a pdf of your work. If you need something quick to apply somewhere, just mock up a pdf really quickly. We forget you don’t always need a fancy website.
Justin: Never perfect or done!
- Take some time to sit back and think about what you are good at. What do you do well that sets you apart from others. What kind of working gives you the most fulfillment? Writing, painting, drawing, research, interviews, etc.…now google how what you enjoy most ties into UX.
- Think about what type of company you want to work for, what type of team you would want to be a part of, and how much of an impact you would like to make. Personally, I enjoy working independently and making a big impact in chaotic environments. Working in a department of 200+ designers, at an 8 billion dollar company can make it very difficult to get that type of fulfillment day in and day out. I do seek out those opportunities, but I recognize that if I had taken a job at a smaller company this could be achieved faster. But don’t get me wrong I love Red Hat. The culture is, bar none, one of the best. The resources seem infinite, and the caliber of senior designers is amazing!
- Get a mentor.
Christopher: If not a mentor, then an accountability partner.
Justin: What does an accountability partner do?
Christopher: Holds you accountable. Adoree and I held each other accountable over the summer
Adoree: It helps you stay accountable and ensures that you are working towards your goal and not just wasting time.
Justin: Ah gotcha. I was thinking maybe it was different because I was thinking about it in terms of going to the gym.
Adoree: Same idea, less sweat. May include more crying, though. 🤣
Zoe: To summarize: your connections and relationships can make a huge difference in helping you stay on track, and ensuring you don’t get discouraged. Because you will face a lot of rejection to land a great role.
Also, I want to highlight what Adoree pointed out about how sharing your experiences with interviewing can be helpful when negotiating a salary! Let’s normalize discussing salaries, it’s so crucial to building equity for everyone!
Well, this was incredibly eye opening and inspiring! Thank you all for sharing your experience. Any closing statements? And where can everyone find you?
Adoree: You miss 100 of the shots you don’t take. Just go for it! Feel free to reach out on LinkedIn. I love to hear from new people. Especially from ACC! My name is unique, you can find it pretty easily on LinkedIn. I’m first generation, and if anyone needs help walking that road I would love to help! You got this 🙂.
Justin: Apply, because the worse they can say is no. Find me: LinkedIn.
Christopher: You already have a powerful network with your fellow students, teachers and alumni. Lean into them. You can find me on slack, LinkedIn, the alumni LinkedIn group and the alumni meetup group.
Justin: Didn’t even know there was an alumni LinkedIn group. But I’m barely on LinkedIn.
Zoe: Yes! I try to post job opportunities whenever they come my way so it’s definitely worth joining! Let’s make that the final tip: join the Viscom LinkedIn group!