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I will soon be graduating with a BS in computer science with a focus in HCI. My goal is to land a job in the realm of user experience, but I'm not sure where I stand with regards to my experience and skill set.

As I said, I am getting my degree in computer science, so I have a strong foundation in programming. I'm skilled in multiple languages, and have worked on projects for multiple platforms including desktop, mobile, and web.

In addition to programming, I have about eight years of freelance graphic design experience including print and web design. I have held internships in both fields, serving as the sole designer of the website for a local private high school, as well as a software engineer for a large government contractor.

While I have no explicit UX experience, I believe that my extensive background in graphic design has helped me to develop a sense of creating usability, and I have served as the GUI designer on some software projects. I certainly understand that this isn't even half the story of UX, but it's something.

[People keep assuring me] that since I can "speak both languages"...that is, development and graphic design...[I would excel in UX]. I've heard that it can be very difficult to land a position in UX without experience, so I'm getting nervous since graduation is a year out on the horizon. I sincerely think that UX is where I should be headed.

I'm interested to hear the opinions of people who are currently employed in the UX field, and perhaps from people who have experience hiring. Do I have the right skill set for UX, and would I have a snowball's chance in Hell of getting a UX job fresh out of school?


THREE-YEAR UPDATE:

Three years later and I have a couple years of experience as a full-time UX designer! My assumptions were right; I have turned out to be quite a useful asset [to my company...experiences may vary] given my skill set.

My title has been UX Designer for the past year and a half - I actually started in engineering and moved to UX when I realized I wasn't feeling completely fulfilled, and my manager(s) thought the company would be more suited to utilize the full gamut of my skills.

In the meantime, I have already received countless offers for Senior UX design roles. I'm continuing to hone my skills working for a huge enterprise company.

What I've learned:

Everyone wants a job on the West Coast at a sexy tech startup. After having worked on a small design team at a huge B2B enterprise tech company for a while now, I can say that I have learned so much more than I think I possibly could have at a startup or smaller agency. The UI and interaction challenges are innumerable. You learn business practices. The politics of business. You learn how many more fingers are in the honeypot (dev, architecture, QA, sales, marketing) and when it is and isn't appropriate to make design concessions.

But perhaps the biggest reason is a lot of enterprise companies operate on ancient designs made decades ago by developers. No offense towards developers at all -- they did the best they could with the tools at their disposal then, and the product (in-house or consumer-/client-facing) just never got a proper pass. So joining an enterprise level company may give you an opportunity to really make a deep footprint in the business.

Something to consider!

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If you replace the last paragraph with "And that's why I'd like to work with you", that's what you say at your first interview ;-) –  Rahul Aug 2 '11 at 19:10
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Do you want to do UX? If you had three job offers for programming, graphic design, and UX, all other things being equal, which one would you take? –  Patrick McElhaney Aug 2 '11 at 19:25
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UX, absolutely hands down...I guess I wasn't very explicit. I REALLY want to do UX, but it's sounding impossible to get into without at least 5+ years of experience. –  Jon Aug 2 '11 at 19:27
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I know that doesn't mean I shouldn't try, but I'm just trying to gauge what my chances will be with potential employers. –  Jon Aug 2 '11 at 19:28
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@Stephen They've helped tremendously. I don't waste time on designs that I know would be difficult to implement. I have a deeper appreciation for coding constraints, and understand what alternatives to propose. I would be eternally frustrated working in an application environment where I was a designer without any knowledge of how my designs would eventually become developed. It would be a series of endless disappointments from constantly being told my designs weren't feasible. –  Jon Dec 4 at 19:06

6 Answers 6

up vote 30 down vote accepted

You'll probably get some excellent posts about resources etc, so I'm going to post as someone who has sat more on the hiring side of the fence for years.

Regarding resume, cover letter, interview, phone screen, etc etc

  • talk UX, not programming. If you send me a resume for a UX job or if we speak on the phone I'll have specific challenges in mind - I need to quickly know you can orient yourself to them and help solve them
  • talk UX and not graphic design. That's great you have designed GUIs before - but I really am not interested. I am interested in how you made your decisions about the workflow, and about the elements to include (and exclude), and what you were thinking when you broke that paradigm there in the top right-corner
  • "I certainly understand that this isn't even half the story of UX, but it's something". Cool, so make something of it. Understand it and what was relevant about the experience to UX. Don't couch it in terms that mitigate it - something was UX related or it wasn't. If it was - own it as such
  • skill sets: It's one of the great things about being in UX design, that the skill sets are so varied. I've worked on teams where six designers had six completely different backgrounds and academic qualifications - the thing they had in common was an understanding of what UX is and isn't. My current teams are basically the same - if you looked at our academics you'd never see the similarity. But if you heard us talking about the new offices our company just built you'd see where we were coming from - how much space is between the wall and the chair, why are the dryers in the men's room located there, how do they bring in visitors from the parking deck, who the HELL put the display screens on that wall.

It's a philosophy as much as anything else - but do make sure to checkout the many questions on this site about resources and get to know them.

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Fantastic answer. This is my favorite so far, but if it's alright, I'd like to see if anyone else can offer some insight. I fear that people will turn away from a question that is already answered. I'm going to search around and see if I can track down some possible interview questions that might come up. –  Jon Aug 2 '11 at 19:31
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No no - wait it out. We have a lot of experienced folks on the board and I'm sure you'll get more info/different takes from some of them. You may even find - as impossible as it may seem - that someone else posts something even more brilliant. :P –  gef05 Aug 2 '11 at 19:34
    
Haha, I will do that. Thanks for your input, Gary. You've been most helpful. –  Jon Aug 2 '11 at 19:37
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@Gary Spot on. A nice response and it shows what I think is one of the outstanding recurring qualities of the field - passion. As Jesse James Garrett said: "The user experience mindset is an acquired condition for which there is no cure." –  Roger Attrill Aug 2 '11 at 19:41
    
"It's a philosophy as much as anything else" = well put! –  DA01 Aug 2 '11 at 21:09

My experience has been that explicit, dedicated UX positions only exist in companies that are both large and focused on building software products.

Smaller companies, even many smaller software companies, typically do not have the resources or the management structure to create a position with a pure UX focus. The actual UX work is done by employees with other job descriptions, such as the technical lead or the project manager.

Large companies that do not view themselves as software companies may have the resources, but they still do not carve out dedicated UX positions. They may hire a design consultancy for larger projects, but most of the decisions are still done in-house by programmers or project managers.

In practice, it is often the technical lead or the line-level developer that determines the final UX. The technical constraints of the development environment and change management processes for the software determine the cost/benefit tradeoffs for implementing new UX features, and these tradeoffs determine the level of investment the company brass is willing to make. Even when there is a dedicated UX contributor, they are often frustrated by the technical constraints that limit their options, and they are not able to shift the technical staff towards better practices.

Given this context and your background, I would recommend that you take a similar path to mine, and focus on becoming an excellent technical lead. This puts you in a position to guide both design and implementation. You can champion the technical infrastructure that makes great UX possible, and then guide the design to make best use of those capabilities. Choose tools that support great UX -- languages, frameworks, libraries, IDEs that support flexible design and fast iteration.

And the pay for engineers is much, much better....

Of course, having specific credentials in HCI, interaction design, or UX is a big help. I enthusiastically recommend the Master of HCI program at Carnegie Mellon, which I attended. The CS profs that teach in the HCI Institute have been there and done that -- they have built several complete GUI toolkits from graphics primitives on up, and you will do it in class yourself if you choose a technical track. You will also work with professors with backgrounds in psychology, sociology, visual and industrial design, etc., so you will learn how each discipline approaches UX and how to communicate with each of them. It's a significant chunk of change, but it will also be a major differentiator for you. There are other good programs out there, but CMU is the 800 lbs gorilla in the field.

Otherwise, I will echo the other answers: Build up a public portfolio that demonstrates your specific UX competence. Talk about UX in interviews, and how your implementation and graphical skills support that. (If nothing else, you will find out if your potential employer has a clue and will be willing to invest in UX.) Stay current on both design in the wild and the buzz on the blogosphere. Write.

You will get a job. You will make UX decisions and execute on them. Isn't that more important than your official title?

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We are in the same situation :). The others wrote almost everything about the topic, but there is one more quite important thing in my opinion:

  • Blogging: and yepp, you are right, there are tons of UX involved blogs out there, but if you want to work in this field, there is no better way to show what you can do, than a blog. Write relevant things (not the whys' but the hows' - write about usability of specific sites and also mention how you would make that interface better (just like Steve Krug does it: http://amzn.to/uc1G).

Maybe it wont be the most popular blog out there and maybe you won'th have tons of visitors, but you will be able to show it on an interview or include the link in a CV.

As I've already mentioned I'm also trying to work in this field with almost the same experience (diploma in computer science, experience in both coding and design), and I'm also planning to finally start a blog.

Another thing: follow well known UX people and if you have the possibility, try to find a mentor at your school - help her/him in smaller projects if possible.

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Great suggestions! I definitely think I will start some sort of a blog because I'm always complaining about annoyances I have with applications or websites. –  Jon Aug 3 '11 at 12:19
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That's the normal behavior of an UX guy :) Since I'm interested in this field, I can't even use my coffee machine without complaining about how un-usable it is (how bad is the interface :D). UX is everywhere, check this video: UX Week 2009 | Jesse James Garrett | The State Of User Experience –  Csongor Fabian Aug 3 '11 at 13:35
    
Great article about Playing UX Matchmaker on UX booth - it's also about how to express yourself if you want to make a career in UX field ;) –  Csongor Fabian Aug 4 '11 at 8:02

Jon, you are not the first person I have seen who has skills in graphic design (print and web) and a degree in computer science, but with a passion for UX.

By all means concentrate on aiming for a job in the UX field that you desire.

However, do not dismiss jobs in the fields in which you have proven experience and qualifications, otherwise you may be severely limiting the opportunities that may be available to you.

I say this not because I think UX jobs are hard to come by and that a development or graphic design job may be better than no job at all, but because with the right company, you may have the ability to turn things to your advantage.

Many companies these days have yet to be educated of the benefits of considering the user experience. Quite often they become aware, not by suddenly thinking 'Hey, we need some UX doing on this' and getting someone in, but by having someone on the inside who can evangelize on UX.

Who are these evangelists? People exactly like you Jon. Developers with a graphic design interest are eminently more hireable than one developer + one graphic designer, or the option of contracting out the artwork. You have a good skillset to make it into a company and set yourself up to be that company's UX evangelist.

I've seen it time and time again.

The benefits: - you get a paid job; the company gets value for money; you get a chance to learn on the job - and in the real world; you have time on your side; you make yourself a voice and get yourself heard; the company comes to realize they have an asset in you and listen; suddenly you are the company's sole expert on UX. Probably for a while you end up doing three jobs (or more) - design, development, UX. But you make of it what you will, and the more experience you get the more doors can open for you.

The key: being with the right company! So check out the non-UX jobs, go see the companies and attend interviews - interview them - see if one of them looks like they need someone like you. You've got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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This aligns with my experience. I joined a small software org as a QA tester about a year ago, and immediately started suggesting changes to key workflows and interfaces. It wasn't long until I was invited to prepare mockups, create specifications and start formalizing in-house conventions. With persistence and passion, you can make a niche for yourself as the user experience champion - even if you have no prior formal experience (like me). –  Jimmy Breck-McKye Aug 2 '11 at 22:21
    
Awesome answer, and thank you for being so thorough! I like how you've suggested opening UX doors that don't necessarily exist yet, because I think you're very right that many companies don't know the benefits of UX. –  Jon Aug 3 '11 at 12:16
    
having someone who is both designer and programmer is cool because s/he spans expertise across the whole development cycle. A big problem with building software is translating ideas of the designer into working code and a lot gets lost in translation. I'm not saying s/he replaces UX, it doesn't. What I'm saying is that by having a finger in both ends of the pie (wow, some metaphor col), you will be able to progress projects without inconsistencies developing. But this is not a UX issue. –  colmcq Sep 22 '11 at 8:57

I'd say your skills and experience in visual design and computer science would certainly count against the 5+ years experience any place might be asking for. Some things to remember about job postings:

  1. Most of the requirements listed in a job posting is BS made up by HR.

  2. The 'x years experience' usually means 'experience in this OR A RELATED field' and most of the time you can apply relevant experience against that (of which I'd say graphic design and computer science are both relevant to UX).

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I think point number one has always been my biggest concern. I never know who actually writes the job postings and how much influence the department offering the job actually has on what is said in it. I'm still just very much in the "getting into college" mindset where you ARE a number on a page and they WILL throw you out if you don't hit a certain threshold. –  Jon Aug 3 '11 at 12:21

Sounds like you have a strong foundation. Start learning all you can and become active in communities like this one.

Study the Microsoft UX Guidelines and the Apple HIG, as they both offer a great starting point for what users have come to expect when using an interface.

Visit sites like Quince and LukeW's site to brush up on common design patterns and why they are used.

Read a few UX books. Here are some great ones:Must Read User Interface Books.

Then practice practice practice. Get involved in as many projects as you can, whether real or just to tinker.

Then, when you think you have found a job lead, follow @Rahul's advice above and say what you said in your original question, along with some new content of what you have learned since.

It's all about finding the first employer that will give you that chance.

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It's all about finding the first employer that will give you that chance. It sounds like you have the passion and a willingness to empathize with the user. If anything look for a company that will pick you up on your passion or find a company that will let you help with UX while providing development skills. –  MatthewForr Aug 2 '11 at 20:17
    
To add a partly self-serving note, you can always get involved with open source projects. Thunderbird would definitely benefit from some UX input, as would K-9 mail on Android. And being able to show potential employers examples of the work you've done is always a nice bonus. –  bwinton Aug 3 '11 at 12:38

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