A woman sits at a desk with a computer. The screen reads "Designers should always keep their users in-mind."

Three ways to get UX experience when you have none (and two things to avoid)

career development, professional, ui, ux

It’s the Catch 22 of the UX design field: to get a UX job, you need UX experience; to get UX experience, you need a job.

For those getting their feet wet, it can feel like being asked to swim the English Channel.

So how do you get UX experience?  Here are three things to do (and two things to avoid) to help get UX experience on your resume and in your portfolio.

Do: Create Your Own Projects to get UX experience.

A design notebook open with pencils laying on it. Use all the tools at your disposal to get UX experience.

Get out your tools. This is going to be great.

Everybody has a problem to solve.

In 2009, I took at job at Nordstrom’s (a high-end fashion retailer) credit card call center.  Credit is a very highly-regulated industry.

There were certain things you had to say in some situations.  Some were things you couldn’t say in others.  There were strict procedures to follow, lines of authorization to navigate, and an endless sea of phone extensions to find.

The way we, as call center reps, were meant to divine all of this information was by using what Nordstrom referred to as a Quickbook.

The Quickbook was a randomly-grouped, alphabetically organized collection of links and information that was more difficult to navigate than downtown Boston.

At least in downtown Boston you can get GPS – which may or may not prove helpful.  The Quickook had no search functionality.

I had some design and development experience.  I spent the 10-30 seconds in-between phone calls writing a better tool to help us do our jobs.

At first it was just a collection of commonly used links.  Then I added in some JavaScript to quickly create commonly used notes for accounts.

At this point, I started doing UX before I really even knew what UX was.

As call center employees, we always talked a lot about our biggest gripes with our systems.  Instead of just listening, I took notes and looked for ways to address the most common issues.I spent my lunch break showing my site to fellow employees to get their thoughts.

I found a way to use my computer as something of a server to so that other employees could access the page, and give them access to it on condition that they’d give me feedback about what I could improve (note: my Internet Security team was not pleased by this.)

Over the course of a few years, I added more and more functionality.  My IS team found out what I was doing, and told me to shut it down and stop working on it (I didn’t). In fact I was told in no uncertain terms a half dozen times to give up on the project.

An angry man in a suit pounds on a table

My IS team, probably.

I didn’t.

Eventually, I was able to get the ear of some of the right people in the organization. The tool that I eventually created started to get some buzz.

I was given the chance to pitch the idea to our C-level team, who liked it so much they promoted me to the role of UX Engineer and charged me with implementing it for the entire organization.

My story might seem a bit extreme.  However, many of my friends got their start in the UX world but creating technical solutions to user-centered problems at their workplace.  It was almost never their job to do so.

Everybody has a problem to solve.  You can be the one to solve them.  And it can make a great answer to your “tell me about you” interview question that you’ll inevitably face in the future.

Pros: Every company has something that could benefit from improved UX, especially if they use enterprise-level tools.  If you find the right pain point, you can fast-track yourself to the notice of people who are in a position to promote you into a technical role.

One of the big benefits of working on in-office tools is that you have a captive audience.  Want to do some user interviews?  Would some ethnographic study help?  Your entire test group is all around you.  Literally.

Cons: This can be risky.  Putting a bee in the wrong person’s bonnet can get you fired.  Your work may never get noticed or appreciated.  Your IS department may threaten to fire you if you don’t stop working on your project.

Pro Tip: This route can be tremendously rewarding, but it’s fraught with tricky technical and political landmines to navigate.  Tread carefully.

Don’t: Work for Free

A cardboard sign that reads "Will Work for Exposure." Never work for free to get UX experience.

You can’t pay your bills with exposure.

It’s so tempting to do pro-bono work in exchange for building up your resume to get UX experience.


Seriously, just don’t.  I’ve taken a few free jobs over the years, as have many of my friends in the design industry.  Whether it was for friends, family, or someone whom I owed a favor, clients who don’t pay for their services often feel the most entitled to perfection – without having much knowledge of how to explain their needs to or work with a designer.

The worst of these types – the Exposure Bro.  “I can’t pay you anything for your work, but you’ll get a ton of exposure,” is the mating call of an Exposure Bro looking to hookup with an unsuspecting designer.

Don’t fall for it.  You can’t pay your bills in exposure, and these self-centered egotists are never worth the time and effort you’ll put into managing their expectations and producing what they consider to be satisfactory work.

When we work for free we drive down the price and perceived value of our services for the industry as a whole.  You’ve worked hard to get to where you are, and so have the rest of us.  Do us all a favor and step back from that ledge, my friend.

The only exception I make to this rule is…

Do: Volunteer Your Services for Nonprofits to get UX experience.

A volunteer helps a nonprofit organizer at a computer. Working at nonprofits can be a great way to get UX experience.

A good deed is its own reward, but can also have the nice benefit of kickstarting your UX career.

When most people think of volunteering for nonprofit organizations, they think of handing out food to the homeless, building houses for low-income families, or helping to clean out cages and walk dogs at the pet shelter.

And while all those services are definitely needed, nonprofits are usually running on a tight budget and don’t always have the best technical or design capabilities.

While I’m a huge proponent of the “don’t work for free” philosophy of professional development, volunteering your time for a nonprofit you care about is an exception.  It’s a win-win for everyone, and what you lack in pay you’ll gain in experience and the knowledge that you’re helping to serve a cause you’re passionate about.

Pros: You get to help your community by working on something that’s important to you.  You also get to pump up the portfolio, get UX experience on your resume, and gain references who can speak to the quality of your work.

Cons: You’re likely not going to be paid for this work. Some nonprofits have no understanding of technology or design, and trying to convince or persuade them about the efficacy of what you’re proposing can be tough.

Pro Tip: Search for local nonprofits that you’re passionate about.  Most will have contact information and usually an “About” page that will list the head of the organization.  Spend some time to get together some talking points about what you’d like to do for them, call up the organization, and ask to speak to the person listed as the head of the organization or in-charge of volunteer coordination.

If that feels like a bridge too far for you, you may have some luck finding sites to volunteer with over at catchafire.org to help you get UX experience.

Don’t: Re-Design High-Profile Websites

The Apple company's logo hangs on a building of glass. Redesigning Apple's website won't help you get UX experience.

Apple doesn’t need your help… yet.

We’ve all been there.

United Airlines has hacked me (and others) off by having the answers to their security questions come in dropdown-list form.

he process I went though to verify my identity with AirBnb was mishmash of taking photos of documents, strangely long upload times, and cryptic errors.

The inability to find and apply a neck size filter when shopping for dress shirts on Amazon made it impossible for me to buy any shirt with confidence (curse my currently somewhere-between-medium-and-large body!)

But as much as this might irk us, resit the temptation to redesign an existing site.

Why? Because UX is founded on the notion of working with business stakeholders to understand business needs, and working with users to understand and solve their problems.

These type of redesigns almost never afford for the type of user research you should be doing for such a redesign.  They certainly don’t allow for any interaction with business stakeholders.

This is no way to get UX experience.  Trying to pass this off as a UX project will get you nowhere with UX hiring managers.

Another consideration: many UX bootcamps have taken to having students redesign big corporate websites as part of their portfolios.  In some areas of the country, it’s easy to pick out a bootcamp graduate – and even what bootcamp they attended – just by looking at what major corporate redesigns are in their portfolios.

These do nothing to set you apart, particularly from a UX perspective.  Save your time and energy for something more productive.

That list includes nearly anything else you can think of doing.

Do: Just Ask

Two women having a conversation about how to get UX experience.

You’ll never get a yes if you can’t risk a no.  Sometimes the best way to get UX experience is to ask.

You can’t get something you don’t ask for.  Sometimes, the best way to get your first UX job is to simply ask for it.

Option 1: Propose a Solution

If you’re in a position to find a problem in your organization, you’re in a position to propose a solution.

And if you’re in a position to propose a solution, you’re in a position to propose that you are the best person to help implement it.

If you’re going to take a run at asking your higher ups to put you in a UX role, come prepared with:

  • A specific problem that needs to be solved, along with reasoning of why it’s important to solve it.
  • A plan on how you’ll help solve it.
    • Define what steps you’d like to take, a timeline, and a budget.

Schedule some time to talk with your direct manager (no more than 45 minutes) and come prepared to give your pitch.

Option 2: Propose a Role

Sometimes you don’t have a problem in particular that you’d like to solve. Proposing the UX or design role itself can be a good first step into the UX world.  This works particularly well if the company is smaller and new to the benefits of UX design.

Schedule some time to talk with your manager (again, no more than 45 minutes.)  Come ready to talk about UX, how UX is a zero-risk investment, and why you would be the right person to start the UX team for your organization.

Pros: If you’re in good standing at your job and a manager that’s open to listening to new ideas, this might be the easiest step up into the UX world.

Cons: If you’re not in good standing, or your management team is resistant to change, this can be an uphill battle.

Picking the right people in an organization to help you on your career path can also be tricky.  Having a good relationship with your manager is helpful.  Making connections higher up the chain is difficult but also tremendously valuable.

Depending on your standing in the company, you may need to spend some time building bridges before you can cross this chasm.

Final Thought: Don’t Give Up

A man in a blue suit stand, looking pensive, in the middle of a long set of stairs on his way to get UX experience.

No matter how many stairs you have to climb to get UX experience, keep going.

It’s hard, working towards a better future and constantly feeling like you’re stuck in-place.

No, hard isn’t the right word.  Maddening.  Infuriating.  Soul-consuming.  Especially when you see your peers and mentors moving up all around you.

Don’t. Give. Up.

There is no such as an overnight success.  Everyone who’s stepped into this career has faced this challenge.  Every single person you see with a UX job title had to solve this problem.

And if they can, you can, too.

Stick with it.  Don’t give up.  And let me know when you succeed.

One thought on “Three ways to get UX experience when you have none (and two things to avoid)

Leave a Reply