How do you go from being interested in UX, or graduating from a UX based program, to making a full time salary as a UX designer?
There is a simple method to gain some valuable UX experience, while getting paid at the same time (this also works for getting freelance UX work). Yet, this is still the most frequently asked question I get from readers of my blog.
Many people in this position are either working as web designers, developers, or have just graduated from a program like human computer interaction, data research, or psychology.
The thing is, there are a lot of UX jobs available now, and the demand continues to increase, but you’ll never get hired in those position if you don’t have any actual work experience.
It’s the age-old catch 22…
“I can’t get hired because I have no experience, and I can’t get experience because no one will hire me…”
So how do you get that experience?
Simple. Just do the work anyways.
The method I explain in this post can also be a great way to transition yourself from working a full time gig to making a living as a freelance UX designer (or just making some cash on the side).
Do you think if you wanted to get hired as a portrait painter, you’d only paint when people paid you to do it?
No way. Because guess what? No one would ever hire you, because you wouldn’t be any good. Even if you read all the art books in world, and went to the best art school, you still wouldn’t have the experience.
If you want to be a painter, you need to paint every single day, for years and year and years. Then, once you can actually prove you know how to paint, you can you get paid for it.
Now how do you think you’d sell your first painting?
Would it be by telling everyone you “totally really know how to paint you should totally pay me I can do an awesome job I promise also I’m poor and I need the money so plllllllleasssse…” ?
No way. You paint a picture of someone, show it to them, and say “Check out how good this painting of you is… wanna buy it?”
That’s exactly what you’re going to do to get some UX experience. Do some “UX work” to solve a problem for businesses that you don’t even work for, then you’re going to show it to them.
This is the 6 step approach I’m going to teach you for getting UX experience.
The great part about this is that you already have access to a ton of free digital products, so there’s nothing stopping you from starting right now.
(This approach is heavily based on this post by Bryan Harris of VideoFruit. When you have a minute, check it out and see how well it has worked for one of Bryan’s readers who is doing conversion rate optimization.)
Now are you ready to get on your way to landing a UX job?
Bonus: Download my list of 25 UX goal ideas for pitching businesses that will give you the best chance at getting a response (and getting paid). You can find them at the end of this article.
The goal of this step is to pinpoint businesses that will actually be interested in getting some help from you.
For example, Twitter, Facebook, or Google won’t be interested in your suggestions because they already have brilliant teams working on this stuff day after day.
What you’re looking for is:
There’s a few criteria you want to watch for when choosing a business to target:
My advice is to start with something like a small eCommerce businesses. There are a lot 1-2 person shops popping up using platforms like Shopify to build their store and sell their own products.
Do these people have any clue that they’re losing sales because of a misplaced button? A broken link? A buggy checkout process? Probably not.
Secondly, I’d target small startups, especially ones that are free, or offer a free trial (so you can get access to the product).
Because the friction to sign up is so low (initially), a lot of these companies will lose people during the signup process once things start to get a lot harder (eg. bloated signup forms).
It’s important to note that the above examples contain metrics that are easily measurable, and have huge benefits to the business owner.
The key benefits here are:
If you can show a business how to do something like this, they will most definitely be interested in your proposal.
Bonus: I put together a list of 20 highly converting ideas like these ones which you can download at the end of this article.
This step is all about determining exactly what it is you’re proposing to fix. As I mentioned above, these are things like “increase sales” or “increase completions of sign up process”.
Deciding what this is is important, because using data to show that you actually had a positive impact on a business’s problem is the best kind of experience you can get.
No one will hire you because you “made the UX better.” They hire you because you increased checkouts by 45% by including testimonials and other social proof on the checkout page.
This will show people you had a direct impact on actual business goals, which is something that often gets lost in UX and visual design conversations.
If you think you see a potential usability problem on a business’s site, ask yourself…
“What impact is this having on the business?”
Turn the answer into a goal that you can measure (and is probably already being measured).
For example, a “Help/FAQ” link being buried in a website’s footer probably means that users who run into trouble can’t easily find a way to get help.
It increases support costs. When a user is stuck and can’t figure their own way out, they send an email, or a tweet, or make a phone call to your support department. That costs money (because you need to pay the people helping them).
Therefore, giving users easier access to better help will decrease monthly support costs.
You can’t always look at a product and just “see” a problem, so sometimes this goal will change once you start user testing. That’s ok, but it’s still good to focus yourself on a business goal to begin with.
Potential problems with a product might be easy to spot for you, but they aren’t easy to prove to a business owner. You can’t just tell them there’s a problem, you need to show it to them.
The goal of this step is to prove to the business owner that they actually have a problem.
Luckily that’s fairly easy to do through user testing.
For example, if you notice that upon signing up for a free trial, the process is sloppy, hard to understand, and has a ton of fields asking for too much information? There’s a pretty good chance that sign up process has a lot of people leaving before finishing it.
Set up a few simple user tests and ask the participants to go through the signup process.
Record everything, including the screen and their voice.
An easier and much faster way to perform these tests would be by using the online testing service UserTesting.
Saving all that time means you can produce more and more of these “UX pitches” and increase your chance of landing some actual work and experience.
UserTesting also offers a free 5 minute service called Peek. It doesn’t let you assign tasks, but it can be a free way to “test the waters” before committing to a full user test.
I won’t lie to you, this is going to be the most difficult part of the process. If you’re trained in anything even remotely close to UX, there’s a huge chance you know nothing about sales.
But don’t be discouraged. The worst that can happen is you send off an email and never hear back. And that’s okay. This is all about getting experience.
You’re gaining insights on problems through user testing, and this is going to prepare you for your future responsibilities in larger organizations. None of this is a waste of time.
Now, this might seem kind of crazy, but you’re actually going to show these businesses exactly what they need to do to fix their problem… for free.
Why? Because this is all about proving to someone you know what you’re talking about.
I’ll break this down into steps of it’s own since many of you will struggle with this part.
Create a short video by recording your screen, and your voice, and walk them through exactly where the problem you’ve identified is. This is as simple as navigating through their website and talking about why a user will get stuck, or drop off, or whatever the problem is.
Once you’ve explained the problem to them, you need to prove it. Either edit in a clip of the user struggling during the user test, or explain to them there’s a link in the email to users struggling.
Don’t go overboard here, but aim for something between 3 – 5 minutes, depending on how much you have to say.
Be sure to talk about the pain this problem is causing them (the business owner). Express the fact that they are losing out on revenue, or users, or repeat customers, or whatever matches the situation (but don’t lie).
In the same video, introduce your proposed solution, and walk them through the benefits they’ll get from this solution. Explain to them the reasoning behind why making this change is a good idea.
You can make this easier by doing a quick mockup in an image editor using a screenshot of their site, or even browsing to an existing site that uses the design you’re talking about.
Once again, don’t forget to focus on the business benefits. Not that it will “make it easier for the user to sign up” but instead that “it will decrease drop off rates during sign up and increase number of sign ups per month.”
This part tends to scare people. They think it will seem annoying or spammy or that it’s a stupid idea. If you can’t get past this mindset, then this method isn’t going to work for you.
The thing is, a lot of cold emails are annoying and spammy and stupid. Why? Because they don’t contain any actual value. Most of them are just people saying “we do design services you should use us get in touch bla bla bla”.
The email you write won’t be like this. It will talk about their business instead of yours. It will give them free advice, and solutions to problems. It will prove your value to them.
I’m not going to explain how to write a great cold email, since that’s another topic altogether. For more info on that, Bryan Harris has a great cold email template in this post.
A quick guideline for your cold email:
Just a quick warning, a lot of these people won’t get back to you. That’s okay. This is a numbers game. Don’t think you can just do this once and get a response.
You need to put in the time and effort to get what you want… real experience.
Don’t be afraid to follow up with the person a week later. Ask them if they got your email and what they think. Sometimes they might have been planning to get back to you and just forgot.
If they do respond favourably, ask them if they’d get on a Skype call with you to discuss some other problems you’ve noted about their product.
Don’t say… “let me know what time works for you…”. This doesn’t work.
Propose a few times in the next few days. You want to make this process as simple as possible. There is an art to this. For some amazing information of how to build leads like this, check out Workshop’s advice section.
The goal of this step is to explain to the business owner that UX is an ongoing process, and that constantly split testing and user testing is sure to have a huge impact on their business goals.
Tell them that you’ll do this as a monthly service for “x” amount of dollars.
Pricing is another ballgame. For more information on that, check out The Three Pronged Pricing Technique.
So let’s say everything has gone according to plan. You got a response, they implemented your changes, they may or may not have paid you, and their goal has been reached…
Put it on your portfolio!!!
The biggest mistake I see people make at this step is just putting up wireframes or how the design changed from A to B.
No. You have a story to tell.
You want to start with the problem the business owner was experiencing. Chances are, it’s a common problem, and when other people read it on your portfolio, they will instantly feel like you are the best candidate to help them with their problems (the same problems).
Talk about how you made a hypothesis about the problem, how you tested and proved that hypothesis, why you proposed the solution you did, and what the awesome result of that solution were.
You only need to have a few of these case studies on your portfolio before you’ll be on your way to landing a UX gig, even if it’s just an entry level role, with your dream company.
But with all that monthly income rolling in, will you even need to anymore?
That’s my simple way to create your own experience with UX instead of just accepting your fate as someone who can’t get a job.
Don’t forget to ask yourself… “how does this affect the business?” when you think you’ve pinpointed a problem. This is an important question, because it’s one you’ll be asking yourself over and over for the rest of your career in UX.
It’s also important to remember that your pitch is only as valuable as the goal you’re trying to achieve.
To make this part easier on you, I’ve put together a list of 20 business goal ideas you can target that will give you the best chance at getting a response from business owners.