Dear Designer,

How to break into the field when you don’t have any real world experience?

Here’s another question that a lot of you asked:

I would like to understand how to go from personal projects to professional real projects it's hard since i don't have experience how to implement what i have learned?

How it’s supposed to get experience in the field if no one wants to give you the opportunity to work with them because you don’t have experience. So how you get that experience without being able to enter to any company, because of the lack of experience?

I’m a late-career transitioner, been in a traditional engineering world for over the last decade. I freelance logo/brand design on the side. What would you recommend for career-switcher (with or w/out design background) to showcase they can do the work in UX?

Hi Tony, nice to e-meet you! I am newly graduated in June this year and currently in the job market to find a company that takes a chance on me. I received calls from time to time but not so often during this Summer. From my experience, recruiters usually told me that I don't have enough experience in the UX industry experience even for a contract research assistant position at the end call or receive many rejections. Also, I realized that they don't weigh too much on school projects, except for internship interviews. I've reached out to people who were in my shoes, they told me to keep applying. However, it is a rare opportunity to find a UX entry position with 0-3 years of experience, maybe 3-5 is more common. What is your recommendation for job seekers with no UX industry experience but school projects?

Which approach is better for someone with no industry experience in UX: apply to as many jobs as possible or apply to fewer jobs with time spent on tailoring the resume/cover letter/try finding a human to talk to in the company?

I am honestly not surprised to see this question asked by so many people, when I do portfolio reviews for recent and soon-to-be graduates this is almost always one of the questions they raise. It makes sense, when you do get feedback on a job application (a rarity these days) as an entry level person looking to break in, “We were looking for more real world examples” often comes back. It’s become a cliché at this point. There are really a few reasons someone might give you this feedback and those reasons are the key to knowing how to deal with it. Sadly, like everything else in life “it depends” is the short answer here.

When “More Real World Experience” means “We don’t really know what we’re looking for but we didn’t like you enough to decide you were it.”

I put this one first because it is fairly common and also super straightforward. Do not be fooled! This does not mean it’s the most common case, it’s just one of the easiest to explain. The sad reality of the UX world right now is that some large chunk of UX hiring is being done by people who have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t know how to evaluate a designer or researcher. They haven’t set up any criteria for candidates to meet to be deemed “acceptable.” They swear they’ll “know it when they see it.” It’s anyone’s guess what they’re actually looking for in the role, it’s probably not anything like the job description they wrote (or copied from a company one of them used to work at or they aspire to be.) If you’re applying for jobs with startups, especially startups that are pre-B or C round of funding you’re likely to run into this scenario.

So what can you do if this is the situation you’re in?

This isn’t a scenario where you can do much of anything about it. Make sure your portfolio tells really tight, focused stories and keep practicing while keep applying for more stuff.

When “More Real World Experience” means “We’re actually looking for experienced folks willing to work for entry level wages.”

This one might be the easiest one to explain. It’s kinda self-explanatory. “X years of experience” where X > 0 means that isn’t an entry level job.

So what can you do if this is the situation you’re in?

If the job title is “Junior” or “Associate” then that’s on the hiring company and there really isn’t anything you can do. If you’re applying for senior roles with no experience, don’t.

When “More Real World Experience” means “You actually need real world experience for this role.”

Every time I’ve ever opened a senior role I have 100 people with no experience apply for it. All of them get turned down because the role actually requires experience working with the other humans who are involved in making software. In these cases the thing I’m actually looking for is the experience to know where things usually go wrong with the other people involved and how to avoid or quickly fix those issues. If you’ve never had that experience, you’re not going to be successful in the job and I don’t want to put either of us in that situation.

The sad reality is that most design schools, be they colleges and universities or bootcamps, do pretty much nothing to teach you all the people skills (aka political skills) you need to be a successful designer or researcher. And, as a teacher, I can’t honestly think of a good way we’d do it in a classroom. It’s not an easy problem to solve. This is the main thing entry level roles are for; getting you the experience you need working with other people who: have conflicting goals or incentives to yours, who may have more power than you do, and/or who may only sorta understand what it is you even do. Sometimes you can get this kind of experience by working with non-profits or otherwise agreeing to work for free, but honestly the experience of working as a volunteer is not the same as working for money. If I’m paying you I have a certain set of expectations about how you will perform. If you’re volunteering for me, most of the time I will just be happy you showed up again today because, as a volunteer, you may decide to stop at any time for any reason with no consequences.

So what can you do if this is the situation you’re in?

  • Try to find freelance or contract work. Short projects for pay are still projects for pay. Contracting is also a great way to network.
  • Do you have experience working with “other people who have conflicting goals or incentives, etc, etc?” from a non UX job? Write up a case study about those experiences and really show off those people skills. Make sure to call it out in your portfolio and in any messages you send to the recruiters and hiring managers. It may be enough to put you over the edge and get an interview. This is especially true for career switchers.
  • Try to find an apprenticeship. They are rare, but a small number of companies are trying them out.
  • Keep looking for real entry level jobs. Yeah, sorry, this one isn’t super helpful, I know.

When “More Real World Experience” means “I’m a recruiter with a hiring manager who is a nightmare and I’m just trying my best to guess what’s even going through their minds today”

This one happens more often than you might think. Recruiters have a hard job, a lot of it involves playing the world’s worst game of telephone with people who have absolute authority over the process and are only half paying attention to it. All the while, the process must move forward, and sometimes this type of “feedback” is one of the random, conflicting things the hiring manager is telling the recruiter about the candidates that is making the recruiter tear their hair out behind the scenes.

So what can you do if this is the situation you’re in?

Be nice to your recruiters, they have a hard job.

When “More Real World Experience” means “Your case studies were all over the place and we have no idea what you do”

This one is the most likely reason you’re getting this feedback. I would bet money on it. I’d double that bet if you attended a bootcamp and used whatever portfolio template thing they provided you. I’ve said it in other answers, but I will say it again here (and probably a few more times in this one): A case study is not a history report, it’s a sales pitch. And far too many of you, Dear Designers, have a portfolio full of history reports. You’d be shocked how many fresh out of school people I’ve interviewed because their portfolios were focused stories about them, and I felt confident enough in their skills to give them a call and learn more.

So what can you do if this is the situation you’re in?

Revise those case studies! I wrote about this is more detail in What should my portfolio look like?. tldr; Review each cases study and make sure it:

  • Is telling a story about you and your skills, not about the product or thing you designed/researched
  • Is telling a story about how you are a professional with the skills to do the job, not a student who was in a class doing a group project with other students
  • Is telling a story about you doing the job in a specific role, not how you can do research and interaction design and visual design and coding and balance a checkbook and whatever else — pick a focus
  • Is telling a story about the role relevant things you did and why you did them, not a story about everything that happened during the project

Please note: Under no circumstances, at any time, at all, EVER should you present a school/bootcamp project as paid work. Just don’t. This is lying and those of us who are experienced designers and researchers can always spot it. Anyone who tells you to do this does not know what they’re talking about and you shouldn’t take professional advice from them.

When “More Real World Experience” means “Your case studies make it clear you need more practice”

Similar to having case studies that are all over the place because you’re recounting every step of your school assignment or trying to explain how you can do everything in the process yourself, some of your case studies may be telling a story that makes it look like you don’t know what you’re doing. I have found this one to be the most common among bootcamp grads, people who liberal arts instead of a fine arts program in design, and career switchers. The thing all of those different paths to UX have in common is that they are very short. When those experiences are the total of your experience: you aren’t ready to be applying for jobs yet.

Yikes, that’s harsh, right? No, it just means you need more practice. Doing a few projects (here lets conservatively say “a few” is less than 15) and putting them into a portfolio template is not enough to be ready to start working as a professional designer or researcher. If you’ve ever thought “Oh wow, I need to have 4-6 case studies? That’s a lot, I don’t know if I have enough projects to write that many” you need to do more projects. When I graduated from a BFA design program back in the day I had over 40 projects to choose from to build a portfolio of 8 examples, you should be in a similar situation when you’re building your first portfolio if you’ve practiced enough.

So what can you do if this is the situation you’re in?

This is tough to do on your own, so it’s best if you can find a tutor or someone more experienced than you to help make sure you’re not practicing bad habits. That said, the best thing about being a designer is that you can just design things. Think about what skills you need/want to practice more, and then come up with something to practice them. Need more IA practice? Find a meaty website, decide on a redesign goal for the IA, then do that design. Notice how you just made up a goal? That’s totally fine. Doesn’t have to be realistic, in fact its best if you are just upfront about the fact that it isn’t realistic. Notice how I didn’t say you need to do a bunch of research and testing? It’s practice, in real life you aren’t going to do rigorous research, build personas, and run usability studies for every project you do, and you don’t have to do all of that in practice either. Do a lot of smaller, focused projects, then you can even come back and redo the school/bootcamp project prompt after you have a bunch of practice under your belt and apply those things you’ve learned, or approach it differently.

Researchers, I see you. I don’t see this problem as often with researchers, usually because the majority of you seem to be coming out of college programs that have more rigorous standards for methods and practice than a lot of companies hold their User Researchers to. If you find yourself in this situation, the same advice applies. Pick a method you want to practice, pick a question that lends itself to being answered with that method and then do the research.

When nobody has told you you need “More Real World Experience” but you feel like you need “More Real World Experience”

Maybe you just feel like you need some/more experience even though nobody has actually said anything about it. If you are just feeling unprepared and overwhelmed you need to be really honest with yourself when you’re investigating why you feel that way.

So what can you do if this is the situation you’re in?

Real entry level jobs do not require you to have real world work experience, but they do require you to have skills at a sufficient level to pass as an entry level professional. If you feel like you need more experience, ask yourself why you think that?

Do you just need more practice? Follow the advice from that section above. If you don’t have any formal training at all, considering signing up for a few classes. It’s hard to do self study if you’re not even sure what specifically to study.

Do you not feel good about the case studies you have? Read through them and really be honest about how clear and focused a story they’re telling. Remember: A case study is not a history report, it’s a sales pitch.

If you just feel like you need experience because “everyone” says you need it to get your first job, keep in mind that most of the loudest people talking about what you need to land your first UX job are people trying to land their first UX job, and one of the things they love to talk about is how you need to do “real work” to land one. It’s not true. Most of the time what entry level candidates need is more practice and a better presentation of their skills. Really be honest if yourself, is that what you are afraid you need too?

Until next time 🤙