UX Career Guide: Qualifications, Skills, Career Paths

I consider becoming a UX designer the second best decision of my life. It comes right behind marrying my girlfriend, but this UX career guide doesn’t cover that.

What makes me so confident? In this article I’ll share why I love UX, how I became a UX designer, and my advice to people who want to start their UX design career today or want to find out what’s next on their career path. 

If you’re considering becoming a UX designer, you’ll find plenty of great advice here. If you already work in the field, I’ll show you some UX career paths that you can follow.

What you’ll learn in this UX career guide

Why do I love working as a UX designer?

No other profession in the world can provide the same benefits.

Design in the digital world makes for such a fulfilling job. You can use your creativity every day. You’ll solve problems and help other people. You might make a positive impact in the lives of thousands. With a bit of luck, millions could use your design.

Working in UX puts you at the forefront of technological development. You can try new things all the time. You’ll work with brilliant people, the best of our generation. UX designers work halfway between technology and humans. You’ll learn a lot about new tech and also have to talk and communicate with many different people all the time.

And yes, UX design comes with the great salaries of the tech industry.

How I became a UX designer

Had I lived in the 18th century, I would’ve worked on steam engines. I don’t know why, but new technology and everything on the horizon for humanity has always interested me. For some time in high school, I thought myself weird. To my surprise, I then met with many like-minded people at university.

Back in those days before the release of the first iPhone, we considered the web the coolest thing ever. And I honestly still share this excitement about it. Those days I thought about becoming an engineer, software developer or someone who worked with websites.

Later I realized I should go another route. Although I still like writing code (still a hobby), doing it all day can get mind-numbing. I also realized that the code I write doesn’t form the most important part of the product. People won’t visit a website or use an app because it has great code under the hood. They’ll use these digital interfaces for their good design, utility and ease-of-use. At that point, I turned to UX.

UX provides me the perfect profession. In it, I can use my love of technology as well as my people skills. Today, I’m running a 35-person UX design studio. We have a small startup within the team we call UXfolio, for this tool that helps you build your UX portfolio.

So what does UX design hold for the people who decide to join today?

Career outlook for UX designers

Over the last decade, UX design has become an established profession. Now we have mature methods and tools. Many schools and universities teach our craft. People have even started to specialize into different fields of UX.

In the old days, a software team of hundreds of engineers would include one or two designers. The last few years, big tech companies have started to hire designers en masse. The best companies now have a designer for every five coders, a much healthier ratio.

So UX design as a profession has reached a new stage. The field has gained recognition while still growing fast. Companies are opening up positions all the time, putting UX designers in high demand. This means designers can choose from many great UX job opportunities.

Overall, UX designers have a great outlook. As respected members of tech teams, they have opportunities to learn, grow and build fulfilling careers. Demand for UX designers will likely keep growing.

Computer screen showing a wireframe.

What background do you need for UX design?

Many people think you need artistic talents to be considered for user experience jobs. Today, anyone can learn design if they put in the effort. In our company, we have people with very different backgrounds working as UXers.

Many people from psychology or sociology (and other connected fields) switch to UX. They often work as UX researchers because they have the skills to test digital products and collect insights about how humans are using them. The impact they can have in a short time in a digital product team often surprises people from these fields. That becomes even more obvious in comparison to clinical psychology or academic research.

Some people with engineering backgrounds transition to UX like I did. We enjoy staying closer to humans as designers while still working with high-tech stuff.

I saw many people from business schools and economic studies start designing in their free time then switch to UX as full-time designers. For them, UX holds the opportunity to stay close to business decisions while doing something more creative than sales or finance.

Many designers from other design fields now turn to UX. Graphic designers usually start as UXers to earn more money. Later they discover a whole new world behind UX and plenty of new things to learn. Many people from advertising are also escaping to UX. They want a more stable, less stressful environment than the media industry can provide.

Last but not least, after graduating from design schools, many young designers choose UX as a cool new area where young people also get the chance to make a difference.

UXers come from many different backgrounds. Whatever you do know, if you work hard and learn new things every day, you can turn into a UX designer in a few years. Let’s see how!

Build a UX career without qualifications or a design degree

The best UX designers I know taught themselves. They don’t have design degrees, so don’t you worry about papers – just start learning! Show your passion and put in the hours to learn and master the needed skills.

The best recipe successful UX designers use to jumpstart their UX careers looks simple:

  1. Decide you really want to become a UX designer.
  2. Start reading a lot about UX: Follow blogs, check out other designers’ work, go to conferences, and meetups.
  3. Start designing imaginary websites and apps in your free time.
  4. Once you have three or four great projects, put together a portfolio (use UXfolio) and apply for junior positions.

The third point holds the most importance. If you want to work as a designer, start designing immediately and do it every day. Your first designs will look shitty, but who cares? Everyone starts somewhere. Just keep going! Check out other designers’ work you like and steal ideas. Copy what they do. Do tutorials to learn design tools. 

If you don’t have enough enthusiasm, you’ll easily find excuses. I know you have to work a lot on your day job, or you have many assignments at the uni. Maybe you have a family, kids, whatever. Those who have enough passion to do it on the side will become great designers. Those who don’t… Well, they’ll do something else.

You have to start designing on the side. That way you’ll become a designer.

Of course, you can also read UX design books, do internships, look for a mentor, apply to a design school, participate in a bootcamp or do online courses. They all can speed up the process.

But you can’t skip the third point. You have to start designing on the side. That way you’ll become a designer. And there you’ll learn the most.

If you insist on collecting a paper-form qualification, you might want to consider a UX course. However, most UX courses are designed to give you experience with the addition of personal feedback. At the same time, you can get both from other sources for free.

Does UX fit me as a career?

You should definitely pursue a UX design career if you have:

  • Empathy for humans and would love to understand how they think and behave
  • Enthusiasm for new technologies
  • An eye for detail
  • The ability to present and explain complex ideas and concepts clearly to different people, and enjoy how you can make them understand things
  • Desire to solving problems 
  • The ability to learn by yourself and try out new things every day
  • The ability to collaborate easily with many different people
  • Curiosity and passion!

Naturally, you shouldn’t judge yourself too harshly. If many of these fit you, try working as a UX designer. So now let’s check out the list of skills you will learn.

Banner showing a screen with an open portfolio

Essential UX designer skills

UX comprises three main areas: UX design, UI design and UX research. Each requires many different skills and UX covers a broad field and many disciplines.

Shocking as it may come to read about all the skills UX designers have, never fear! You can learn them all – just start! To start designing for yourself and learn things as they come provides the best way. You will get there sooner than you think. And don’t try to learn ten different things at once. Do them one-by-one. No need to hurry. Many of these you will learn during your first, second or third job in your UX career.

Three ladies with computers laughing around a table.
As a designer, you’ll have to talk with many different people, such as stakeholders, developers and end-users on the same day.

1. UI design skills

You need these skills to draw beautiful and easy-to-use digital interfaces (websites, apps, etc). Knowing the building blocks of digital products and the conventions and best-practices of their use makes up one part of this skillset. These blocks come in the form of anything you can see on your phone or computer: navigation elements, forms, buttons, headers, footers, plus the common layout schemes we use to display them. Get to know them and understand the usability background of each (eg, how to make a form field easy to fill out).

Creating visual hierarchy

Consider creating a visual hierarchy on the screen one of the most important UI design skills. This means the individual elements not only need good design but also the ability to create a whole. Visual hierarchy drives user attention and helps highlight the most important elements first, then uncovers the details. Many techniques can form this hierarchy (sizing, colors, white space, positioning). It also takes some time to learn how to make page elements work well together.

Aesthetics and UI

Finally, UI design deals with aesthetics. A UI designer has to understand how to make something look good so people will say “Wow!” This will take a lot of practice. You have to learn color theory, look at lots of designs and try to copy them before you become a strong visual designer.

Designing a small piece of UI every single day makes for the best method to learn UI design. You can try UX challenges like the 100-day Daily UI challenge or The Daily Logo Challenge.

2. UX design skills

While UI design deals with how things look, UX deals with how things work. UX designers create a high-level plan about how the product will work and what will happen on each screen. Since they hold the responsibility for the whole user experience, they spend a lot of time thinking about usability.

UX designers need the same knowledge about the digital building blocks as UI designers. They also need good sketching skills on paper so they can visualize new ideas quickly.

A huge part of UX designers’ job comes from building wireframes and prototypes. They use them in meetings to present and discuss ideas and on user tests to validate them as well. They often need good writing skills too because copy plays an important role in design.

3. UX research skills

Involving the end-users in the design process to create a useful and easy-to-use product stands as one of the main principles of UX design. UX research methods help us gather these insights.

The first group of research techniques uncover the problems and challenges a given target group faces. If we get to know our audience and deeply understand their issues, we can create a product that solves those issues. Most commonly, we use the interview method. Anybody can start it easily, but it will take years to master.

Testing prototypes or existing solutions to find out if they work well with real users makes up the other main group of research techniques. We most commonly apply usability testing, but you can use plenty of other research methods.

After learning these research methods, you can provide invaluable insights to your product team. Doing research and analyzing results need many soft skills as well, like empathy and patience.

4. People and communication skills

Besides the UX, UI and research skills, UXers need great people and communication skills. As a designer, you’ll have to talk with many different people. You may often meet with stakeholders, developers and end-users on the same day.

During your UX career you will commonly run meetings, do interviews and tests, and facilitate workshops. Workshop facilitation is gaining in importance as techniques such as design sprints become more popular in tech companies.

5. Do UX people need to code?

That evergreen question always comes up. I believe that UX people don’t have to learn coding. They certainly shouldn’t do coding as their daily job. Sooner or later, however, every UX designer should learn at least some coding on the side. It will help them understand feasibility as well as what’s going on under the hood. Learning some coding can also help you communicate better with developers.

With all that said, if you want to get your first UX job or work as a junior designer, you shouldn’t focus on coding. Focus on your UX skills because that makes up your main job. Product teams will always include developers and they will have responsibility for the tech.

Two people coding at a computer
Some coding on the side could advance your career in UX.

Different positions within UX

UX covers a broad field including many different positions you can take during your UX career. 

Some companies separate UX designers, UI designers and UX researchers. Others make one product designer responsible for all three. Still others have a UX/UI designer work with a dedicated researcher.

In addition to the main UX fields come many specializations.

Some companies have UX writers who copywrite for the products. They make sure users understand every little piece of information they see. Sometimes a few words on the right button or a great headline on a website can make a big difference.

Motion designers craft the animations of digital interfaces. It feels much better when something happens when you click on a button, right? Motion design can help explain how an interface works (for example, different sliding panels represent different types of information). But motion has an emotional effect too: It can help cheer people up as well!

Visual designers and illustrators usually focus only on the aesthetics of the design. They make things look awesome and build emotions through great look and feel and cool illustrations. 

Information architects help if you want to plan a complex product or website. They figure out the main structures so people can find everything easily and follow different flows such us sign-up or check-out.

People working in design or research ops provide the necessary tools for other designers and researchers so they can do their jobs well. They also help internal communication run better and keep the design plans coherent. Usually operations people take care of the company’s design or research system (a library of reusable design artifacts and an organized directory of common research results).

Most designers I know resemble UX generalists who know many fields within UX and happily learn new ones.

I’ve surely missed some fields and new ones pop up every day. UX has many exciting areas. Most designers I know resemble UX generalists who know many fields within UX and happily learn new ones. If you choose, you can specialize in one narrow field.

UX designer career paths you can follow

So after you’ve got your first UX job, you could follow one of several career paths.

Naturally, you’ll need the first three to five years to practice, going from a junior to a mid-level, then senior designer or researcher. In the meantime, you can specialize in one of the narrow fields listed above. Start as a generalist and try many things first. You’ll have time to specialize later. Even if you do, you’ll still need a broader perspective as well.

At senior level

As you become a senior, you’ll face a chance to shift to management. Big companies have many design management roles. People usually start as a design or research lead, responsible for three to six other colleagues’ work.

Above that, you will find design managers, directors, VPs and the head of design or a chief design officer (CDO). These high-level types usually make sure of the design viewpoint representation on all levels in the corporate hierarchy. They often spend most of their time talking with other leaders or crafting company-wide strategies.

Becoming a product manager

Becoming a product manager is a natural career path for many UX designers. They hold the responsibility for a whole product – not just the design, but the development and often marketing as well. This gives designers a chance to take on more responsibility and have a say in making the most important decisions.

Continuing as a designer

And of course, many great designers just love to design and don’t want to a different career path. They stay on as individual contributors, the true masters of their craft. Many of them love what they do and live fulfilling and happy lives with many exciting problems to solve and many nights spent sketching or pushing pixels around.

However, if you choose UX, you’ll find brilliant people and exciting opportunities. In the last line of this article I can only wish you good luck. I hope you find your path and your dreams come true!


What all UXers need is an online portfolio

Regardless of the stage you are at right now in your career, you must have an up-to-date portfolio. A portfolio has more purpose than landing you a job. It showcases your expertise and your achievements to potential clients as well as your colleagues. What’s more, it can also inspire new UXers.

Start creating your portfolio with UXfolio right now! Our product has all the necessary tools to help you build an impressive portfolio with convincing case studies. Also, you can do it fast, without coding! Furthermore, the guiding questions and example sentences will help with copywriting. And last but not least, you can take advantage of our review features before you apply for your next job.

Founder and CEO of UXfolio and UX studio. Author of the book Product Design, TEDx speaker, one of Forbes 30 under 30. Enthusiastic about self-managing teams, new technologies and human-centered design.

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A typical mistake I see in UX portfolios is lack of content explaining their contribution to the effort, the images are only the final product and not the process to get there.

UX is very much about strategy and if the person is not showing how they got from A to B, they appear to be another UI trying to move into a UX role.

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