How to become a self-taught UX designer — 3 Steps Without Going Back to School

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

Creating your own curriculum, networking when you know nobody, and making what you need to get hired.


Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash


4 years ago I quit my job, learned how to code, built a design portfolio, and became a UX Designer at a top company. I tripled my income that year.

I didn't go back to school, I didn’t sign up for an expensive bootcamp. I was scrappy and figured out how to make it work. The goal of this article is to help you do the same.

You can even grab a mentoring session with me if you want some more personalized help.

Let’s jump right in:

The biggest benefits of being self-taught:

  1. Saving money (or even staying out of more debt like I wanted to after my undergrad experience)

  2. Saving time (bootcamps are less of a commitment than a Masters, but they’re still a good chunk of time. Save years of your life potentially by trying to get some experience before you commit to a career)

  3. The ability to curate your own education (No more spending time on classes you can’t get motivated to participate in because you might not be able to see how they directly impact your future career)

  4. People find you to be an extremely motivated problem solver and human being if you can do it well on your own - and that’s great for getting your foot in the door. (Something I learned from my interviewers turned peers, after getting my first job.)

 

Picking up where we left off…

Once I had that initial overview of the field that came from massive content consumption, I needed to focus on creating a solid learning plan, a personalized curriculum. I needed to know what a solid learning plan for this field even was.

I knew that in the real world, it was more than just what you knew, but it was also about who you knew. The right people are invaluable when it comes to learning about opportunities to take advantage of, and getting feedback along the way.

After all of that, I would also need to convince people that I knew enough to get a job and get paid to keep learning. That would take some serious effort in all things personal branding.

Based on what I learned from my own successful experience, this is what I’d suggest:

1.) Creating a curriculum

If we are hoping to replace (or even temporarily augment) a $10,000 — $60,000 education here, we need to know what exactly they’re teaching in those classes. So get your google doc ready for a lot of copy & pasting. Take a look at degree programs, bootcamps, certifications, and courses to see what their education tracks are. You aren’t paying for this and don’t need to get admitted, so AIM HIGH! Check out Georgia Tech, Harvard, Stanford…why not?!

Even better, see if you can get your hands on their current or old syllabi. Generally, you can find an overview of topics and course requirements for the program at any given college. Type in those course names and look for PDF’s to see exactly what the students would be doing in those classes along with reading lists, projects, and other notable info from the Professors & teachers that you can use to your advantage (Below is an example of this from my alma mater, UF).


Sometimes, the classes are even offered for FREE online if that’s something you want to do.

Take a look at the best job postings out there for your desired job, and see what they want you to know and have experience in (aim high here too). Take a look at people on LinkedIn that already have the job you want, and see what skills people have listed on their profiles. Reach out and ask for their favorite resources and books.


You should have a good amount of overlapping info now, and now it’s time to work backward. There is zero guesswork here at this point in terms of what you really need to know to get where you want. You’ve seen firsthand what your future peers know and what the job listings want! This will be your guiding source for where you need to fill in gaps, go deeper in your knowledge, and spend time practicing in your projects.

Speaking of: Projects are extremely important here, not only for you to learn and digest along the way, but also for the last step in this process: making what you need to get hired.

How do you do that though? Make up your own projects, work on some ideas that you’ve had, ask friends and family if they need help, reach out to small businesses. Do anything you can to get hands-on experience. At the end of it, you’ll have a substantial amount to show.

Start small, and document everything. Grab pictures, write up your thoughts and experiences working through what you’re doing, don’t be shy to give a critique of your own process at the end so that you can improve next time, and ask for reviews if you do work for other people along the way!


 

2.) Networking when you know nobody

You’re starting to learn exactly what you need to know, but how do you get to know the people that you want to be your peers? You find ways to step out of your comfort zone and make those connections. Check out meetup.com and find some local events similar to what you’re interested in. If that fails, google local or virtual events coming up and throw them on your calendar!


Local meetups for UX Design on meetup.comI wanted UX, but in the city I was at in the beginning, the closest thing was a front-end dev meetup at the time…so I went. I talked to people about my goals and background, they gave me names and contact info for places and people that might be interesting to reach out to. I later moved to a bigger city and found a more relevant Meetup where I met other UX’ers and was invited to a slack channel that was an invaluable resource for keeping a pulse on all things design.

I took advantage of the advice these people had for newbies, participated in mock interviews and asked for feedback on my resume and portfolio. This became an important early source of networking and content. I’m still in touch with many of these people!

Repeat this process, and keep going to events and branching out. It was honestly really hard for me to get up the courage to walk into a room full of people I didn’t know, that all had jobs in the Tech industry (for almost longer than I’d been alive in some cases), but the only way to get to know them is to start getting out there. It gets easier, you get more confident, and you’ll be grateful for the relationships and experiences it gives you.


 

3.) Making what you need to get hired

So how do you put it together and get your foot in the door so that you can get paid to keep learning? It feels like a catch-22 that you need experience to get experience. You could just start blindly applying and hoping that you hear back, but take it from someone that’s done that: You don’t get many responses.

A much better approach is to showcase what you know so that your peers and potential employers can trust filling their open role with you. From their perspective, hiring is an expensive and time-intensive process; and it’s even more expensive to get it wrong. Help them to know that you’re the right fit by having a great resume and portfolio. They don’t have to be fancy and visually complex, they just need to show that you know your stuff, and they need to show your growth over time.

Resume:

Since you aren’t going the traditional route, we have to find a way to portray your education without that relevant degree sitting on the top of your resume. Some ideas here: include meetups that you regularly go to, organizations that you’ve joined in the new field, favorite top books that you’ve read on the subjects, free courses you’ve taken online, and definitely give some brief summaries on the projects that you want to highlight in your portfolio.

Portfolio:

This is where you’ll be using those projects that I suggested you document during your learning process. Showcase the work that you’ve done, include those reviews from friends, family, and businesses you’ve worked with. This shows that you aren’t actually starting from scratch in this new position.

This is going to be surprising to hear, but many people from a traditional background won’t always have the sheer number of projects to showcase that you will if you’ve purposely built it into your learning process from the very beginning!

For UX specifically, don’t be shy about documenting every piece of your design process and talking about it. Even if they’re messy sketches on napkins, strewn with sticky notes, or cut-out pieces of paper…do it! This is exactly what you would be doing on the job at the earliest stages, and we NEED to see it. These are the projects that you’ll be taking people through in your interviews, and being able to talk through your process is a lot easier when every aspect of it is sitting on the screen in front of you. If you can show how you took those early napkin scribbles and turned it into a mid/high-fidelity prototype we can get an idea of what you’re really capable of.


 

Last thoughts

From my experience interviewing people and asking Senior Designers around me, they care far more about what you’ve done than your educational background (especially when you’re just starting out in the field). Use that piece of knowledge to your advantage.

Once you’ve gotten these things together, don’t forget to utilize the new network that you’ve built up! There are so many people that are genuinely excited about helping out newbies, so there’s no shortage of peers willing to give feedback on your resume and portfolio. Most of those people have been through at least a few job interviews and have also been the ones doing the interviewing, use that to get valuable feedback and iterate on them before applying for internships and jobs.

I’ve kept an old version of my resume and portfolio in tact so that you can see how imperfect these things can be in the beginning. These took so much of my time and effort in the beginning, and I’m proud of where I was on my own at that point. Knowing what I know now, these would be a lot cleaner, less cluttered, and more to the point. But it got me in the door and talking to people about what I’d done, and THAT is what you care about in the beginning. THAT is what you need.

You can check them both out here.


Front page of my old portfolio


 

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