The Mostly Free Way to Become a User Experience (UX) Designer

by | Nov 17, 2020 | Guest Post, Inspiration

Hello reader! A few years back I changed careers and became a UX Designer. This article outlines how I did that, and hopefully, can help you do the same.

Step 1: Find Motivation

In 2015, I graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering and began work as an environmental engineer at a small consulting firm. I hated it almost immediately. Not to say that I didn’t give it a try, I switched roles a couple of times and worked on a variety of projects, but nothing, I was bored out of my mind.

I picked up a few books on behavioral psychology on a whim. From there I stumbled upon IDEO and the idea of design thinking. Design thinking was a framework I could relate to because it combined highly analytical problem-solving process (what I had learned in college) with creativity. I then continued to read and learn about the world of UX through articles, books, podcasts, and anything I could get my hands on. After a few months, I decided to take the plunge and try to career change.

College graduation day. (Photo: Maya Rhinehart)

Step 2: Figure Out a Free Method

Like many, I had student loans and I couldn’t imagine taking out more to cover a new degree. So, I got creative. I researched existing UX boot camps, stole their syllabi, cross-referenced them, and found information from reputable online sources (like Stanford or MIT) on those topics. I joined every UX newsletter I could find from titans of industry (like Smashing Magazine), followed prominent UX-ers on Twitter, and began consuming as much information as possible to teach myself.

Step 3: Remove Nonessential Work from Your Calendar

I had a timeline of one year because anything longer would require I take an engineering exam to keep my job. In order to make that date, every day I dedicated 2+ hours after work and an entire weekend to study. I canceled plans with friends, studied on vacation, and gave up a track coaching gig I really enjoyed all to make this career switch a reality. This continued for about 9 months and it was not easy. I had a lot of imposter syndrome, wasn’t entirely sure I was headed in the right direction and doubted myself at every turn, but as the title suggests, I did it, and you will too.

Step 4: Team Up With Anyone Who Needs Help

A group of friends from college had created a web startup that didn’t have a great design. I reconnected with them and offered to provide UX & UI advice for free. This was a nice gig because they gave me the freedom to do what I wanted as well as work on my own schedule. This startup among other practice projects was my playground. I could design/ideate, prototype, test, make mistakes, get feedback from UX professionals, update my work, and learn as much as possible. I added all of these projects to my portfolio. It didn’t matter that they weren’t complete case studies. I wanted to show that I could do a range of work to get that first job.

I also attended many workshops and networking events. At each one, I made connections, asked working professionals how to break into the industry, and kept building my network.

Attending a networking event. (Photo: Maya Rhinehart)

Step 5: Find a Career Changer Like You and Take Their Advice

For you, it might be this article. For me, at one of those events, I found someone who had transitioned from pre-med to UX. Since she had career transitioned from such a different industry, she was my first inkling into the fact that I could actually do this. She recommended that I attend a boot camp purposefully to bolster my resume and help me get noticed because the job market is competitive. So, I found the cheapest program at the most famous boot camp I could find and completed the program about 9 months after I had started studying.

The program was very basic, meaning the syllabus was sparse, it was self-paced, and I only had a certain number of meetings with a mentor. For someone starting out on their UX journey this wouldn’t have been enough, but because I had been working towards this, it helped validate that I had been studying the correct things.

Design prototypes.  (Photo: Tirza Van Dijk/Unsplash)

Step 6: Apply to Anything That Will Pay You

I then put that name on my resume, and I applied. I sent upwards of 200 applications within three months. I had a few phone screens, one case study review, but mostly a lot of rejections. One of those applications, however, landed in the inbox of my future manager. After a phone screen, and an in-person interview, I got the job!

This manager was the first person I talked to during the job application process who valued not just my UX work, but my experience in engineering. To that I say, don’t be afraid to leverage your experiences from before career-changing. Those “soft skills”, like communication or customer services, are invaluable in a career track that relies on sharing ideas, like UX.

 Early UI mockups of a weather app. (Photo: Maya Rhinehart)

Step 7: Be Patient, Focused, and Determined. You Can Do This Too.

With the continued innovation of AR, VR, and other experiences UX will only continue to grow into other avenues, and with that the need for more specialized designers. All of the seemingly “random” work you’ve done to get to this point, will only bolster you as a job candidate. Many folks in this industry come from a variety of backgrounds. At my first UX job the two other designers on my team previously worked as an actress and the other has a degree in music.

Your journey might look different than mine, it may take more time, you may decide to get a bachelor or masters degree, or take some other path. Either way, it is possible to accomplish what may seem to be impossible. You got this!

By Maya Rhinehart

By Maya Rhinehart

Maya is a self-taught product designer, artist, ex-civil engineer, mental health advocate, Spanish language learner, and aspiring writer. She currently works as a Lead UX Designer at Athena Health. Over the past few years, she has embarked on a self-compassion and acceptance journey that has led her across the globe. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, doodling, designing + building websites for non-profits, mentoring junior designers, and perfecting her chocolate chip cookie recipe.


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