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From Zero to UX Hero: How to Get the Experience to Land Your First Job

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Disclaimer: This article is not a guide to getting a quick buck for showing up. If you as a junior feel entitled to a pay check from day 1 post-graduation – this is not for you. However, if you’re focused on long term career development – read on.

By now it’s a UX industry standard that entry-level jobs require some experience. I know how intimidating this can be. You’re trying to get started in the field but all the starter roles require 1-2 years experience. What now? How can you get this experience?

This might seem like it’s a chicken and egg problem but it’s not unsolvable. In this article I’ll give you ideas of ways you can hack your way around this requirement and into your first UX role. I’ll cover the exact ways I got experience without having any job opportunities, and because I now recruit and coach junior designers, I’ll also give you a few tips for success if you already are in your first job.

Path 1: Hustle

Alright, this is the dirtiest of ways to get experience.

When I was studying Multimedia Design and Communication almost 7 years ago, I wanted to get into the industry to shorten my learning curve. The only way I could achieve this in a mid-size city in Mid-Jutland, Denmark, was by finding every digital business and emailing them.

I emailed at least 10 businesses every day. Sound like a lot? It should be. As a striving designer with zero experience, focussing on getting these emails out distracted me from any self-doubt. And the more I did it, the better it felt.

Now please note that the emails I sent weren’t just a hundred versions of the same template. I tailored each email to the needs of the specific business I was reaching out.

Days went by and some of the companies replied. However the only company that wanted to proceed further with a meeting was Secoya.  Now, I don’t know what they saw in me, because I had none design experience and only a hunch for UX. I assume what sold me was my eagerness and boldness – I was hungry to learn. I didn’t even think about getting paid for my work, because I expected my output would be awful.

I got so much out of this experience. Months of being humbled by new learnings, the sanding of my ego, but also importantly learning to perform to business expectations and learning about users as well as how they used the products I worked on.

Path 2: Shadow and learn

This path can be built onto the other strategies I talk about in this article. The basic premise is to form connections and find mentors using the tools you already have.

The best tool for this is LinkedIn. In particular, its advanced search for specialists in your area (i.e. people you’d want to job-shadow).

For example, search by keyword such as ‘UX’ narrowing it down by industry, location, etc. Don’t be too picky though. At this stage it doesn’t matter what company you’d like to shadow for. What matters is the specialist.

See if any of your 1st, 2nd or 3rd connections have the title of a UX designer. You’ll want to contact 1sts first. Meanwhile, for 2nds and 3rds you can ask your joint connection to introduce you. I’d recommend that you go for specialists who have experience managing juniors, such as a senior, lead or principal. These are the people who know how to source the right talent and are, most importantly, ready to ‘give back’ to designers like you who are just starting out.

Create a spreadsheet with the list of specialists who could, based on this search, mentor you. The longer your list the better, because you’ll have low conversion on responses.

Now you can reach out them via LinkedIn messages or emails. Make it personal and short.

A couple of other things to note:

  • When messaging a specialist don’t expect anything. They might not even reply to you, and that’s totally fine. Follow up in a few days and if you don’t get a response after that, just move on.
  • Have an ask or at least be clear about any benefit for them. For example, you might send something like:

Example – clear ask

Hi Vytautas,

I just wanted to say thanks for writing the article on X – it’s so helpful! Can I ask if the XYZ thing you say there really is true from your experience? I’ve only ever done it the YZX way myself (fresh UX graduate, nice to meet you!). Would really appreciate any advice on why XYZ has worked for you better than YZX.

Thanks & all the best,


Example – benefit (favour first approach)

Hi Vytautas,

Just wanted to say thanks for writing the article on X – it’s so helpful!

I also wanted to let you know about this recent article that further expands on my favourite point from your article: that ZYX is XYZ. I found it very interesting and hope you do too.

Thanks & all the best,

Notice how short and to the point these examples are. Avoid cliche phrases or long introductions (“I’m X – I live and breathe design”). Your aim should be to show that you’re a promising designer or mentee, not to say it in clunky, forgettable words.

Note, that both email examples are just a start to the relationship. Think of it this way: if the person is interested and has resource to coach you – they will reply, if not, then so be it. Once you get a first reply it’s much easier to follow up, give them value and eventually ask for feedback. Through this process the specialist will come to mentor you, even though you’ve never formally asked them.

The arrangement of this job-shadowing is totally up to you: do you want to spend 3 months shadowing a specialist full-time in their office or just a few hours a week over a coffee? Consider their availability first.

Don’t expect this path to lead to a job or even pay. You’re not even an intern. You’re doing this to learn and give your 100% to this experience. Do observe and take in everything that goes on around you. Even if you’re asked to help with dull things (e.g. documentation work or research), any experience will help you later on.

With this in mind, you should look for companies that are either busier than standard or slightly understaffed. The people there are likely to need an extra hand for tasks that are beyond the typical intern/admin fare.

Path 3: Join an early stage startup

The last and probably most powerful way to gain experience in the field is to join or help out at an early stage startup. A company that’s either developing their MVP or are validating / improving it and haven’t raised any serious money yet. These companies can’t afford many hires and are very often welcoming to young people who show enthusiasm, ambition and boldness to ask for the opportunity to help.

Know that getting paid will probably be out of the question, but you might get some equity if everything goes well. Even if not, you’ll have acquired real-world, hands-on experience in every stage of product design and development.

Now – how can you find these startups needing help? Look on AngelList or startup job boards. Don’t get too distracted by what they say they’re looking for – in small startups, you’ll often be asked to help out on a whole range of tasks. Often outside of what your role might be.

Before you go:

  • Check out my article on how you can become a better UX designer. I wrote about books, courses and other necessary daily practices.
  • Have a question I didn’t answer? Just write a comment below and I’ll try to help out.

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