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  • Writer's pictureAriana Shives

How to Become a UX Designer

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Spoiler alert: you do not need to spend thousands of dollars on a “bootcamp”.


UX is booming right now—and for good reason! It’s a fun, dynamic field with great job prospects and fairly low barriers to entry. You don’t need a college degree, a fancy computer, or years of mastery to snag a job, or even to be good at UX.

You do need:

  • A basic understanding of graphic design principles

  • Familiarity with UX tools, methods, and requirements

  • A portfolio

  • Practice


Photo shows a white desktop with color swatches, pens, a pencil, markers, doodles, and two white, male hands simultaneously using a laptop and a trackpad with a stylus.
Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

1. Learn the fundamentals of graphic design

It is important to note here that UX and UI can be split into different jobs, where UX covers the functionality, organization, and usability of a product while UI covers the visual design. However, I firmly believe that an understanding of graphic design fundamentals is vital for a few reasons.

  • UX designers are being pushed to take ownership of more and more parts of the design process, often including visual design

  • Understanding visual design principles will inform your architecture and structural designs

  • If you have any interest in becoming a product designer, you’ll need a good understanding of both UX and UI

  • Even if you want to strictly stick to UX design, knowledge and expertise in visual design will set you apart

All that being said, I strongly recommend taking a graphic design class before jumping into UX courses. I would steer clear of ones that focus on specific tools. For example, there are a bunch of graphic design courses that focus specifically on learning Adobe programs. As you begin your design journey, you’ll have the chance to try lots of different tools and you will be bale to make a more informed decision about which one(s) work best for you.


Great graphic design courses:

Skillshare (1 month free, then $10/month)


Image depicts a screenshot of the course page for a SkillShare course called "Graphic Design Basics: Core Principles for Visual Design"
Graphic Design Basics: Core Principles for Visual Design course on Skillshare.

If you’re looking for a very quick introduction to graphic design, this class fits the bill. Running only 36 minutes, the instructors touch on the fundamentals and then send you on your way.



Image depicts a screenshot of the course page for "Graphic Design for Beginners: Learn the Fundamentals through Poster Design"
Graphic Design for Beginners course on Skillshare.

This is another quick but valuable one. Smitesh uses a tangible example (designing a poster) to teach graphic design principles across 10 short lessons.


Udemy ($14.99-$200/course)


Image depicts a screenshot of the course page for Udemy's "The Complete Graphic Design Theory for Beginners Course"
The Complete Graphic Design Theory for Beginners Course on Udemy.

At the time I’m publishing this article, this course is available for $24.99. This is a highly rated and easily digestible course that covers even more than the basics—this is one of the only ones I’ve seen that goes into the legality of design and does a deeper dive into logo design and branding. For that reason and the current price, I would definitely recommend checking this one out!


Coursera ($39/month)


Screenshot of the course page for Calarts' "Fundamentals of Graphic Design" on Coursera.
Fundamentals of Graphic Design course on Coursera.

This is the course I started with — it’s put on by CalArts and delivered via Coursera which makes it a very affordable option. I love creating tangible things, so this was a fun class for me, but it is the longest and most involved of the courses listed here— according to Coursera, it takes the average learner 15 hours to complete.


2. Learn the Fundamentals of UX Design


Image shows a stack of blue, red, yellow, and white books with their spines to the viewer. All have titles related to UX design, including "Design Systems", "The Design of Everyday Things", "UX Research", and "The Elements of User Experience". The book stack sits next to a few colorful post-its with a green highlighter.
Photo by Mohamed Boumaiza on Unsplash

Once you have some design knowledge in your toolkit, it’s time to move on to UX-specific knowledge. This is where things can start to get overwhelming, but don’t panic. I’ll walk you through some courses, books, and resources that will get you well on your way to a career in UX.


Taking a UX course or completing a UX bootcamp will not get you a job. Unfortunately, employers don’t care about your certificate or where it came from. For that reason, I recommend taking a couple of fundamental courses or even a short certificate. By doing this, you’ll build your knowledge and kickstart your new career without spending thousands of dollars on a bootcamp. Doing this will not only save you time and money, but will also keep you from getting complacement. Too many bootcamp grads rely on their education to get them a job, when experience is far more valuable and important.


UX courses

Start your journey with courses and supplement it with the rest of the resources in this article.

The market for UX courses and “bootcamps” has become crazy saturated. I am here to tell you that you absolutely do not need to spend more than a couple hundred dollars to learn UX and anyone telling you otherwise is trying to profit off of you.


When it comes to learning UX online you should aim to complete some kind of path or certificate, rather than just a single course. UX is a complex field and you won’t be able to learn everything you need in a single course.


When taking a less expensive route (spending a couple hundred dollars instead of a few thousand), you will need to put in some extra work outside your course. If you are someone who learns best with an extremely structured or immersive course or you aren’t willing to put in extra work outside of the program you’ve chosen, a more expensive bootcamp might be the way to go. But spending thousands of dollars (and sometimes even a chunk of your first year’s salary) is not a requirement to become a good UX designer.


Coursera ($39/month)


Screenshot of the course page for Googles "Google UX Design Professional Certificate" on Coursera.
Google UX Design Professional Certificate on Coursera.

This is the exact resource I used to learn UX and to be honest, I didn’t even complete the certificate. It has drawbacks, like its low-quality peer review system. Overall, though, it does an excellent job of covering almost all aspects of UX over the span of 7 courses.


I love that this course provides introductions to various tools and methodologies, like when you’re tasked with designing in both Figma and AdobeXD. By the end of the course, you’ll have multiple portfolio-ready projects. It’s only $39/month for as long as it takes you to complete it. Coursera lists the average completion time as 3–6 months, and each course offers students an opportunity to apply for a scholarship that covers the entire cost of the course. It is also offered in languages other than English.


Pros:

  • Self-paced

  • Breadth and depth of tools and methods

  • Real-world portfolio projects

  • Lots of time spent on fundamentals

  • Scholarships available (potentially free)

  • Peer connection and support via discussion boards


Cons:

  • Peer review of projects



Screenshot of course page for Learn UX Design path by Interaction Design Foundation.
Learn UX Design path by Interaction Design Foundation.

As I mentioned above, I think the Interaction Design Foundation (IxDF) is an awesome UX resource. This is their “UX Designer Path”, which includes 13 total courses in four phases (Foundation, Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced).


Pros:

  • Multiple industry expert lecturers

  • Student discount

  • Low monthly fee gets you access to all courses + IxDF content

  • Deep dive into design thinking, an important framework

  • 13 courses means touching on more areas


Cons:

  • No peer support or connection

  • Courses fill up and aren’t always available right away


Memorisely (currently $3,450)


Screenshot of the enrollment page for the UX/UI Design bootcamp from Memorisely.
UX/UI Design bootcamp from Memorisely.

I want to preface this one by saying that it’s out of the price range of the courses and certificates I was planning on including in this article. However, Memorisely was started by a guy named Zander Whitehurst specifically because he saw new UXers getting scammed into paying thousands of dollars for bootcamps.


Zander has done a great job of creating bootcamps and single, more specific courses at fairly reasonable prices and he’s a great resource in the UX world. I have not taken any Memorisely bootcamps or classes, but I’m a huge fan of his and think this is worth mentioning as a viable option.


Pros:

  • 100% completion rate

  • Super highly rated by those who have taken it

  • Live online zoom component

  • You’ll build a portfolio during the bootcamp

  • Alumni network

  • Limited class size

  • Experienced teachers and lecturers


Cons:

  • Figma-focused

  • Pricey


UX books


Depicts the cover, red with white writing, of Don't Make Me Think (Revisited) by Steve Krug
Don't Make Me Think (Revisited) by Steve Krug on Bookshop.
Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

Steve Krug is widely regarded as the “godfather of UX design” and this book is one of the most highly recommended resources for UX designers of all levels. Steve covers the basics of usability, intuitive navigation, and information architecture, all fundamental pieces of good UX design.



Depicts the cover, yellow with a large red teapot and black writing, of The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman on Bookshop.

Another design classic—Don Norman is another hugely influential figure in the design world and is often credited with perfecting the design thinking (also called human-centered design) process. This book covers all kinds of products but is so effective and applicable to UX design.


Other resources for learning UX

YouTube is awesome if you are a visual learner or already into other subjects and channels. I personally learn better by reading, so I’ve included some resources below for other readers!


This is a pretty comprehensive list of great UXers on YouTube. They’ll show you everything from Figma tips to better user research frameworks — completely free!


Twitter

Twitter is pretty big in the design world, so I highly recommend creating an account and engaging with some of the people on this list. I want to note that almost all the YouTubers listed above also have great Twitter accounts, as do the companies who put on the courses I’ve listed, so please consider finding them in addition to the people on this list!

@skrug — Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think!

@leeloowrites — Lisa Angela loves to push the envelope when it comes to UX design — she’s a fun and educational follow!

@erikdkennedy — a great UI designer who shares tons of thoughts and tips

@kailavansumer — shares advice from her journey to becoming a successful product designer

@nicolefranq — Nicole shares tons of advice and also has a great YouTube channel!

@theDavidWenk — a B2B UXer who shares lots of knowledge and starts loads of interesting conversations!

@ArianaShives — Me! I post inspiration and resources for up and coming UXers every day


Medium

Rather than focusing on individual writers — although there are lots — here, I want to direct you to a few great UX publications. I get daily email digests from a few of these and they are always full of awesome articles!



Instagram

@ZanderWhitehurst — Zander Whitehurst, founder and CEO of Memorisely, is by far my favorite UX follow on Instagram! His page is dedicated to teaching tips and tricks in Figma and Webflow. He’s funny and kind and keeps his posts snappy and easy to follow.

@ux.edward — Edward is funny and knowledgeable and drops lots of great Figma knowledge

@design.laine — Elaine is a great follow if you have any interest in product design

@ux.forthewin — Trina shares awesome knowledge and resources on UX and inclusive design!

@ArianaShives — Me! I share insights on design thinking and UX every day


3. Create a portfolio


Image depicts an open laptop sitting on a wooden table in what appears to be a hotel lobby. On the screen is a message that says "I design and develop experiences that make people's lives simple." in black text on a white background.
Photo by Ben Kolde on Unsplash

Your portfolio is essential to beginning your career in UX. A portfolio is made up of 3–5 of your best projects and serves as a way to showcase your skills and expertise to future employers, as well as to inform them of your value. A great portfolio will help you sell yourself and convince recruiters and employers that you’re worth hiring.

Document everything

As you begin learning UX, document everything. I keep a daily work log where I dump all my thoughts, accomplishments, meeting notes, etc. in addition to individual design documentation, where I keep all my thoughts, research, analysis, decisions, and miscellaneous ramblings. I write down as much as I possibly can so that when I go to formally document things, it’s easy to pull together.

Create mockups

As you begin to design screens, apps, and products, learn how to create mockups. Mockups, in this case, are renderings of your designs that showcase them in action — like on a computer or phone screen. You can create mockups in:

Mockups like these will level up your case studies, making them look better and giving anyone who views them a better idea of what your designs will look like in the real world.

Start simple

Begin by uploading your work to Behance or Dribbble. You can create free, simple projects in Behance or “shots” on Dribbble by uploading mockups and images and even embedding Figma files. This is a great place to publish your work in simpler but viewable formats while you write up more formal case studies. If you decide you need or want to share your work prior to actually building your portfolio, you’ll be able to share these links.

Write case studies

A UX case study showcases your design work in a way that tells readers what you did and why.

Your case studies should include:

  • A well-defined problem

  • Who you worked with and what your role was on your team

  • Your timeline

  • The tools, techniques, and frameworks you used

  • How you approached the problem (what was your thought process? Why did you attack it the way you did?)

  • The processes you used to overcome the problem (this includes: user research, competitive analysis, user personas, user flows, storyboards, wireframes, prototypes, user testing, and visual design)

  • The final outcome — showcase your designs and document the decisions you made, explaining why you made them and how they solve the problem(s) you identified

Design your portfolio website

I want to preface this by saying that you do not technically have to have a portfolio website. You can get away with sharing your work on sites like Behance and Medium without ever compiling it into a professional website. However, having a professional website allows you to introduce yourself, customize your language, and market yourself directly to the recruiters and hiring manager who you want to notice your work. A professional website is a way to show off your design skills and a bit of your personality and, when done well, will elevate your work by presenting it in a professional, polished manner.

  1. Choose a platform. There are tons of portfolio options out there, ranging from simple and free (UXFolio, Adobe Portfolio — free with a creative cloud subscription) to paid, drag-and-drop platforms (Wix, Squarespace) all the way to fully-customizable (Webflow). Any of these are completely viable choices . You can pick one that either you’re already comfortable in or one you want to become comfortable in. Either way, your choice should be one that fits within your budget and feels right for you.

  2. Buy a recognizable domain. The simplest and most easily-findable domain is one that includes or is just your name. Buy one and keep in mind that you’ll be giving it out to potential employers.

  3. Gather your content. You will need: a powerful, eye-catching headline, a detailed “about” section, a link to download your resume, thorough case studies, images and mockups, contact information and links to any additional projects (blog, social media, etc.)

  4. Design and develop your site. I always design in Figma first, even when I’m creating or updating my own portfolio. You may want to do that or you may want to jump right in to developing on your chosen platform.

Portfolio tip: design your portfolio site with your user in mind! If you are hoping to gain freelance clients, tell them why they should work with you. If you want hiring managers at emerging startups to notice you, tell them how you’ll make their jobs easier. Your portfolio is just as much a UX project as the ones in your case studies.


4. Practice


Depicts yellow neon signs on a black wall. The signs read "Go up and never stop" above an arrow pointing upward.
Photo by Fab Lentz on Unsplash


Complete UX challenges

This is one of my favorites because each challenge comes with related resources to help you learn. This doesn’t have as many total challenges, but each one is very representative of real-life projects.


This is a great resource from WeWork that details some of the exercises they use during their interviews. Don’t count on these specific challenges being used in your interviews, but they’re great practice and will give you an idea of what a UX interview might look like.


This is purely a list of potential UX problems and doesn’t contain added resources or direction, but if you’re looking for more challenges this is a good list!


This is a great resource and the challenges can be fun. However, it should only be used to supplement the others on this list. These challenges ask you to design a single screen at a time, which will give you some good practice in UI and visual design and will place you in scenarios where you’ll design a lot of new things you might not otherwise. However, none of these projects are replacements for full portfolio projects, and none of them are representative of the kind of projects you’ll work on in a UX job.


It is also important to note here that UI and UX are different. UI, or visual design, is vital and goes hand in hand with UX, but they are not the same concept and require different skill sets. Practice UI, but never put it before UX. You can read more about how careers in each one differ here.


Conduct UX audits

Conducting audits of existing products is a great way to challenge your beliefs and assumptions about UX design and exercise your skills. Chances are, the majority of your UX career will be spent improving upon existing designs, so practicing design critiques and enhancements is an important and practical way to improve your design expertise.


The purpose of a UX audit is conduct comprehensive observation and analysis to identify what is and isn’t working for the users of a product so that it can be improved. Take your audits one step further by designing to solve the problems you identify.


Please note that this is a version of a UX audit that works in this particular scenario — when conducting audits for products you own, the process will look a little bit different because you’ll have access to and ownership of more metrics and resources.



  1. Understand the business objectives. While UX design almost always focuses on users, in the case of a UX audit it is important to understand the goals of the business behind the product being audited. Why was it designed the way that it was? How does it make money? What are the business’ goals and how is the product accomplishing them? The easiest way to gain this insight is by interviewing the stakeholders at the business, but when this isn’t possible you can often find the answers through observation and deduction.

  2. Understand the users. The most crucial part of UX design is understanding your users and that’s no different when conducting audits. The easiest way to gain insight into a product’s users is by interviewing them — so think critically about your own experience with a product and see if you can talk to anyone else who uses it. Gather as much information as possible about the people who use the product and why. Does it solve their pain points? Does it frustrate them? How much time do they spend using it? Why do they use it as opposed to another solution? Think through these questions and use them to create user personas.

  3. Create user flows. Determine (1) the current flow that users go through when using the product and (2) the ideal flow that users would go through when using the product. How can the current user flow become more efficient? Where do users get confused or abandon their session? How can you fix that?

  4. Complete a heuristic evaluation. Use the steps listed in this article . Which of these elements does the product do adequately? Which areas need improvement?

  5. Analyze your findings and provide recommendations. Think through what you discovered in steps 1–4 and analyze the data you collected to determine how the product is being used, where users run into difficulties, and what areas need improvement. Document this in a way that clearly and concisely informs the project stakeholders of the objective issues with the product. Then, provide actionable recommendations on how to make improvements. Document each recommendation in a way that gives a clear implementation plan and outlines how it will improve the product and the business.

  6. Create new designs. Since you’re working on this audit on your own, take it a step further by implementing your recommendations yourself. Redesign the product so that it takes into account all of your findings and document the ways in which you’ve improved it. How are you better solving user pain points? Why did you make the changes you did?

If done well, you can turn a UX audit into a great case study for your portfolio. Present your work, analysis, and design decision documentation in a complete, constructive write up. This will give you a unique case study and give your future employers insight into talents that can directly benefit them.

Volunteer

Find a volunteer design position with CatchAFire during your job search. You’ll have a chance to build your portfolio while working on real problems with real people and stakeholders and doing good for people and organizations in need.

Learn new skills and tools

The ability to learn new skills and adapt to new technologies is a crucial part of being a designer. Start early and make this a habit by learning and growing wherever and whenever you can.

Some great ways to keep learning include:

  • Master different tools or features within the apps or programs you‘re already using — learn AutoLayout in Figma or conquer the pen tool in Illustrator

  • Try to recreate existing designs in Figma, Sketch or AdobeXD. Not all of design has to be creating something new — you can master skills and learn new methods by trying to recreate the sites and apps you’re already using

  • Watch YouTube videos or playlists to familiarize yourself with the frameworks and processes used by other designers

  • Try out new tools and programs

  • Take courses, read articles and watch videos from more experienced designers in your spare time

  • Curate your social media feeds so that you’re following people with cool, fresh ideas and content

  • Participate in daily challenges where you design across a variety of industries, devices, site types, and goals

  • Take notice of the sites you love and the ones you hate — think through how you would improve them or what you love about them



So… where do I go from here?

Once you’ve taken the steps to get started in UX, there are tons of career options and paths forward.

My path into product design began with freelancing and I recommend that to every up-and-coming UXer I get a chance to talk to. Freelancing allowed me to start making money while I improved my design skills and learn to work on real-world projects. I was able to develop my expertise, learn terminology, make mistakes, and gain experience before moving into a full-time role. Then, when I did move into a full-time role, I was comfortable waiting for an ideal company and salary because I felt I could provide tremendous value. Some (traditional and not-so-traditional) paths you can take:

  • Freelance on sites like Contra, UpWork, and Fiverr. These are great because they do a lot of the work for you — you don’t have to start an LLC or do all your own marketing. However, they are pretty saturated and it can be really hard to get traction.

  • Start a business. Freelance on your own terms by starting your own business. You’ll have to market yourself and get all your own clients, pay self-employment taxes, and learn the ins and outs of running a business, but in return you’ll have total freedom over yourself, your time, your clients, and your work.

  • Get a 9–5. The job market is full of UX design positions right now. Utilize Twitter and LinkedIn to find the right one for you. There are tons of candidates right now, so you’ll have to be persistent, but if you brand yourself well and have a strong portfolio, you’ll find the right place for you.

  • Work with an agency. UX agencies specialize in creating valuable UX for various companies. These agencies hire UXers and then consult for companies who can’t or don’t want to hire in-house designers. Agencies can be a great way to have a stable income while getting experience working in various roles and on various projects.

  • Mix it up. Find a combination of things that works for you. The beauty of the current work climate is that there is so much freedom to create a schedule and a set of income streams that work for you. I spent many months working 20 hours per week as the Head of Product Design for one company, 10 hours per week as an Entrepreneur in Residence for a university, and 10–20 hours per week freelancing and running a small business on Etsy. I had a blast, the combination got me to my ideal income level and I didn’t switch until I was ready.

Tip: you are now a designer. You are not an “aspiring” designer or a “junior” designer. You have completed courses and designed products and learned skills that other people do not have. You are a designer. Brand yourself accordingly.


Bonus: learn no code

No-code has become a hugely helpful tool for everything from building fully functional websites and apps to streamlining workflows. I use no-code to build websites, but my current favorite setup is a Tally form I fill out every day that sends my work log to Airtable, where I keep track of my accomplishments.

No-code rests on the premise that technology should enable creation rather than prohibit it. Prior to no-code, designers were forced to hire or work with a developer to bring their ideas to life. Now, tools like Webflow, Bubble, Buildbox, and Voiceflow enable designers to craft beautiful, usable products, websites, and apps without any coding or external development. Many tools, like Notion, Zapier, and Tally take no-code in another direction by crafting useful, practical tools that enable us to create documents, automate tasks, design forms, and collect data in new, cheaper ways.

No-code can help you set yourself apart as a designer, or even become a developer! As a freelancer, I offer no-code development services and nearly 100% of the clients who hire me for UX design ask me to build their sites as well, which means a 2–3x in revenue for me.


Bonus #2: learn to write

Writing is a hugely underutilized skill in many professions, but is something that can particularly level up your career in UX. Being able to write well will:

  1. Allow you to communicate your designs and design decisions effectively, making them more impactful.

  2. Ensure that the copy on your site is clear, concise, and actionable for your users. If you can write well, your buttons will always take users where they’re expecting to go and your copy will be impactful and effective.

  3. Make you a more multi-faceted, well-rounded designer. Being a good writer will help you improve your communication skills and become a better storyteller. Storytelling is important to ensure that your work focuses on the users’ needs and the value you want to give them.

  4. Set you apart from your peers. In a world where the UX market becomes more saturated every day, it is more important than ever to set yourself apart and a great way to do that is by developing UX-adjacent skills like writing that will benefit both you and your future employers.

Writing can take on many forms — Tweets, LinkedIn posts and articles, Medium articles, blogs, in-depth case studies, and more. Choose whatever format is most appealing to you and write as often as you can.


Did you find this article useful? Check out my ebook How to Become a UX Designer for a much deeper look into the information here and extra tips and tricks on getting your first UX job!


 

Sources

In addition to each of the resources listed in this article, the following sources were used to gather and write the material you read.


https://medium.com/r/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fuxdesign.cc%2Fdaily-ux-ui-challenges-finding-a-way-to-train-my-skills-daily-1df24139c42


https://medium.com/r/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fuxplanet.org%2Fno-code-tools-and-their-democratizing-power-for-designers-641f2b065e69


https://medium.com/r/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fcareerfoundry.com%2Fen%2Fblog%2Fux-design%2Fhow-to-become-a-ux-designer%2F


https://medium.com/r/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fuxplanet.org%2Fhow-i-learned-to-conduct-ux-audits-in-2-minutes-fe5cb83b7490


https://medium.com/r/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.interaction-design.org%2Fliterature%2Ftopics%2Fux-case-studies


https://medium.com/r/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fcareerfoundry.com%2Fen%2Ftutorials%2Fux-design-for-beginners%2Ftips-for-your-first-great-ux-portfolio%2F




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