As companies continue to launch digital products and services, there’s a rising need for people to create exceptional user experiences for those tools. That’s the job of user experience (UX) designers—and it’s a field that’s experiencing tremendous growth. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that there will be a 3% year-on-year growth in demand for UX designers through 2028.
Interested in learning how to become a UX designer? Below, we explore potential paths to become a UX designer, required skills, possible career trajectories, and the differences between UI UX designers.
The Basics: What Is UX Design?
To put it simply, UX encompasses how humans interact with products and services, such as websites, mobile apps, retail stores, or even physical products, like kitchen appliances.
If you’re interested in learning how to become a UX/UI designer, it’s important to know that there is a difference between UX and UI design. User interface (UI) designers focus on the visual design of a product’s interface—for example, the typography, color palettes, graphics, and buttons. While UI/UX designers do collaborate and may even overlap at times, UX design focuses on the broader user experience.
What Do UX Designers Do?
UX designers think through every aspect of a user’s interaction with a product or service. This can range from how a product physically feels in your hand to how easy it is to accomplish a task (like booking an appointment or purchasing a product) on your website. Ultimately, UX designers aim to create easy and enjoyable user experiences.
What does that mean on a day-to-day basis? On any given day, UX designers may perform the following tasks:
Conduct User Research
User research is a large and critical piece of UX design. User research aims to determine who you are designing a product or service for, as well as their goals, expectations, and pain points. UX designers often hold one-on-one interviews to ask questions and start identifying patterns among user feedback.
“Typically in a usability test, you have two people: one person who’s building the report with the user and asking the questions and the other person just taking notes,” says Mustafa Kurtuldu, a senior UX designer at Google. “The reason for this is, when you’re building up a rapport, you want to really make sure you have eye contact with the person. If you’re taking notes, there’s a high chance that you actually miss really important things, and so that’s why you have the note taker.”
Create User Personas
Based on user research, UX designers often create user personas. A user persona is a fictional character that represents your ideal customer. Depending on your company’s product or service, you may develop several different user personas. If your product is a smartphone, for example, one persona could be a music lover—someone who primarily uses his or her phone to stream music—while another could be a photographer who is more concerned about the phone’s camera quality and image resolution.
Defining that customer (or customers) gives UX designers a clear sense of who they’re designing for and what those individuals want from the experience.
Develop Flows and Wireframes
Next, UX designers create flowcharts called user flows that map out the user’s entire journey while using a product, from the entry point (like the homepage of a website) through the final interaction (like completing a purchase). Creating this flowchart helps the designer understand and optimize the user experience. If the user flow reveals that steps in the process are clunky or redundant, the UX designer can then adjust the flow before moving forward with the design.
Cinthya Mohr, another senior UX designer at Google, says she often does this on paper, rather than turning to a computer screen. By using paper, “it’s really easy for us to be able to test concepts, and also not get attached to a different concept that you have,” she says. “Once you have tested many ideas on paper prototypes, and you’ve learned a lot of insights, and you’re like, ‘okay, now I think that design and the layout for this particular user flow should look like this,’ you can move on.”
Create and Test Prototypes
With the user flow established, the UX designer can move on to creating and testing prototypes. Prototypes are very basic simulations of your product that can be tested before creating the final product. Allowing users to test these prototypes can reveal flaws or inefficiencies in the experience, providing opportunities for further refinement.
Refine and Optimize Designs
Even after a product is launched, UX designers will typically continue their work. Products will always need additional refinements and updates based on new user feedback and testing. UX designers will continue to collaborate with the team to update the product and evolve the user experience.
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What Skills Do You Need to Be a UX Designer?
Learning how to become a UX designer requires a unique set of soft and hard skills. As you consider your path to become a UX designer—whether through a college degree, a UX bootcamp, or self-education—make sure to focus on acquiring the following skills.
UX designers must be able to conduct effective research—specifically user research, which focuses on users’ habits, motivations, needs, and expectations. This research gives UX designers the information they need to create a design that delights users.
To put user research to use, UX designers must have strong analytics stills. They need to be able to craft effective questions to ask during the research phase, as well as to look at the information they collect and determine how to apply it within the user experience.
It is helpful if UX designers are able to put themselves in users’ shoes. They should be able to understand how a user might react to a design, why the user prefers things a certain way, and the pain points that the user experiences. Together with user research, this gives UX designers a comprehensive view of what is needed for a great user experience.
Prototyping and Wireframes
Wireframing and prototyping are critical pieces of the UX design process. While some prototypes and wireframes can be as simple as a hand-drawn design on a piece of paper, they are more commonly created in tools such as Sketch, InVision, and Flinto. To be competitive in the UX design job market, it’s essential to become familiar with at least one of these tools.
Collaboration and Communication
UX designers are constantly in communication with others. During user research and testing, UX designers must work with users to gain their trust and gather critical information. Internally, UX designers work with several other team members—from UI designers to coders to marketers—to empower everyone involved with the information they need to move the product forward.
UI designers typically are more involved in the visual design of a product; however, UX designers can also benefit from visual communication skills and knowledge. By understanding how visual elements like typography, colors, layout, and images impact the user experience, UX designers can create more effective wireframes and prototypes—and ultimately, a better final product.
How Do You Become a UX Designer, and How Long Does It Take?
There’s no one set path to becoming a UX designer. In fact, there are many different options for job seekers, whether you’re beginning your journey immediately out of high school or have been in the workforce for years and are looking for a career move. Here are some of the paths to consider.
If you are currently seeking a degree (or will be enrolling in college courses soon), there’s a wide range of degrees that could be beneficial for the UX career path. Your college or university may offer a specific UX-related degree or something similar listed as interaction design, multimedia design, interactive arts and technology, or motion design.
However, to get a job in UX design, you don’t necessarily need a UX-related degree. There are many other degrees that can prepare you for this career path, including:
- Human-computer interaction
- Graphic design
- Information science or technology
- Computer science
While not directly related to UX design, these degrees provide foundational skills and theory that will be helpful as you embark on your UX career path.
If you want to know how to become a UX designer with no experience, a UX bootcamp may be a beneficial path. Unlike courses that you might take in a UX-focused program at a college or university that teaches UX theory or concepts, UX bootcamps aim to help you develop practical skills—quickly. At the end of the bootcamp, which can run from as little as a week up to several months, you will have real-life UX experience and the skills you need to land a UX job.
Some UX bootcamps also provide additional career assistance, such as mentorship opportunities, career guidance, and even job guarantees. Typically, you can choose from several formats, whether you prefer to take the course full-time, part-time, or self-paced.
If you’re particularly motivated, you may opt to teach yourself the basics of UX design. By reading UX books and articles, taking online UX courses, and learning how to use prototyping tools, you can gain the basic skills necessary to build a portfolio and reach out to potential employers.
What’s the Typical Career Trajectory for a UX Designer?
According to Glassdoor, salaries for UX designers range from about $78,000 up to $158,000, based on level of experience, geographical location, and company size. Overall, a UX designer in the U.S. makes an average of about $110,000 per year.
Where UX Designers Work
UX designers have a range of options for where to work, each with its own list of pros and cons. Here are a few of the routes you can take as a UX designer.
Some of the largest and most innovative companies today hire entire teams of UX designers. Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple—known as the Big Four—have so many products and services that they may require hundreds of UX designers, all working on different projects.
At a large company, you can typically expect a competitive salary, opportunities for advancement, benefits, and a wide variety of projects to work on. You also have ample opportunity for collaboration with other UX designers and more resources available to help you do your job well. However, you may also have less design freedom, tighter deadlines, and other constraints based on the company’s brand.
It’s exciting to work with a company that’s just getting started. As a UX designer, that gives you the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and have a real impact on how products and services are designed.
Because startups often have fewer resources than large companies, you may be the only UX designer on board. On one hand, that can be overwhelming, since that puts all the responsibility of UX design entirely on you. However, it can also give you the opportunity to learn fast, advance quickly, and position you as a UX leader in a short time frame. At a startup, you will likely also have greater autonomy and more control over the design process.
Some UX designers opt to work on a freelance basis. Instead of working as an employee of a company, they offer their services as an independent contractor.
In general, freelancing offers less stability than working for a company. Some months, you may have many projects; others, you may have very few. You may also not have access to the benefits of a company, like health insurance or a 401k.
However, freelancing gives you the flexibility to structure your work the way you prefer—you can take on as much or little work as you want, work from wherever you want, and work the hours you want.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer when deciding where to work as a UX designer. It’s all about your preferences and goals. If you have additional questions about how to become a UX designer, Reddit can be a valuable resource, with a subreddit specific to UX that discusses career questions, portfolio critiques, and more.
There are ample opportunities for UX designers in nearly every industry and type of company. By learning how to become a UX UI designer, you can set yourself up for career success—and make a real impact on users in the process.
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