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Hey 👋🏼 I’m Geronimo and I’m a digital product designer currently working at Nava PBC. I have 8 years of HCD research/strategy experience and 5 years of UX/UI experience. Before breaking into digital product design, I was working in nonprofit and international development spaces as a design strategist.
In 2016, I decided to turn my design thinking skills into tangible design-doing skills and ended up participating in a UX/UI bootcamp in San Francisco. After the program, I worked with a few hyper-growth startups and later landed my current job working in civic tech. For the last 2 years, I’ve been mentoring and coaching people interested in breaking into the digital product design space. With a couple of years under my belt, interviewing 100+ designers, and coaching a handful of folks in securing jobs — I have a couple of insights I’d like to share with you.
Before I begin sharing how I would approach this process, I wanted to extend some gratitude to you for beginning to take this courageous leap. I’ve been in your shoes and I know how challenging it was for me and my peers — and I’m learning that it’s getting even harder to break into this career space as it continues to grow. It won’t be easy, but I will tell you that making this transition was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. While I’m not personally committed to staring at screens for the rest of my life, the design skills I get to practice in this career extend beyond the job itself. I’ve become more self-aware, intentional, and holistic in my personal life because of the skillsets I get to hone each day. So keep going, even when the going gets tough!
Treat the process like a design project
Whether you’re transitioning careers or breaking into the industry after school, treating the process like a design project will help you approach your goals with more clarity and confidence. Just like design, you’ll want to put intention behind every action and decision you make in this process. Starting with a clear strategy will help you create goals that you can further break down into action steps. Beginning with a systematic approach will help you better track your progress towards your goals and see which areas need more development to improve your performance.
I’m a strong believer that design begins in a document and here is a template you can use to help you flesh out some ideas.
Construct your narrative
The first order of business in this journey is building a cohesive narrative about why you want to break into UX/UI design in the first place. Having your story straight can serve as your north star and can also help people better understand where you want to be. You don’t want to be stuck in a situation where you can’t describe the context and reasons as to why you want to become a product designer. Here are some questions you can use to guide your reflection:
- Who are you and what’s your background?
- Where are you coming from and why do you want to break into UX/UI design?
- What are your values and how have they guided you to this point in your life?
- What are you looking for in your next role in regards to the industry, learning, collaboration, and the impact you want to make?
Hey, my name is Geronimo and I’m a UX/UI Designer with a background in social impact and business strategy. Prior to digital product design, I was working in nonprofits and international development using design thinking to develop product and business model strategies. I transitioned to UX/UI because I wanted to turn my design thinking skills into design-doing skills by turning insights into tangible products. I love thinking through business and user needs to create thoughtful product experiences.
Growing up my father worked in hospitality and my mother worked for the government. From a young age, they instilled in me the values of hosting great experiences for people and remembering to root my contributions in service to my community. As a UX/UI designer, I love designing technology that facilitates seamless interactions between users and helps them better engage as community members.
In my next role, I’m looking to join a small to medium-sized company that is building a marketplace application in the food space. I’m looking to join a growing design team that cares about user research and including developers in the discovery and design phases. I’m looking to contribute to a growing design system and in developing the design culture of the organization.
Tailor your skills and experience
Now that you’ve got some clarity on who you are and what you’re looking for in your next role, the next step is to create a targeted strategy towards where you want to be. As much as possible, you’ll want to tailor your skills and experiences that are aligned with the kind of designer you want to be. Here are some examples:
- For consumer apps: focus on developing skills/experience around mobile apps, purchasing/booking/browsing experiences, visually captivating UI, and brand
- For business or enterprise apps: focus on developing skills/experience around operational tools, web applications, data visualizations, complex user flows, app integrations
- E-commerce: designing product pages, checkout flows, listing flows, marketing landing pages, content strategy
As you can see, depending on what types of problems you want to solve and what types of products companies are building, certain skill sets can be more valuable than others based on the fact that you’ve spent more time thinking through similar problems. This is valuable to hiring teams and managers because you’re already thinking on a similar wavelength. In the beginning, it may be difficult to get the exact design experiences you want, but you can begin thinking about the problem spaces you want to engage with and what kinds of product/service interactions exist in those spaces.
Gaining real-world experience
The absolute best way to build a strong case for your first UX/UI role is to create a portfolio of real-world projects. What I mean when I say real-world projects is that you have a client or organization that needs UX/UI help to achieve certain business outcomes. During my bootcamp, our program had us work with startup clients pro-bono on real business problems. This was helpful for the startup clients because this was a low-risk and high-value proposition for them. And this was helpful for the students because we got to work on projects addressing real business needs with up-and-coming technology companies (many of which are now multi-billion dollar tech companies).
With that in mind, I’m not simply recommending that you do free work to build your initial portfolio. The idea here is: How might we provide a low-risk, high-value service for these organizations? Here are some approaches that can help you secure some real-world project opportunities:
- Provide non-profits with pro-bono or low pay UX/UI services
- If you’re lucky, find a paid internship or contract with an early-stage startup
- Scout around for some small businesses that could use some web design services
- Contribute to open-source projects
My big piece of advice here is that you will want some mentorship from an experienced designer and/or community of designers as you approach these projects. This is because they can help you with receiving feedback on your design process and ensuring quality in delivery in a situation where you are most likely alone. Approaching these client projects without a support system as a newbie will be very daunting. However, there are TONS of design communities you can reach out to and designers out there who are willing to help you out.
Grad School vs Bootcamp
Many of the designers I coach often ask whether they should attend a graduate design school program or a UX/UI bootcamp. The answer is: it depends.
I’ll start here because this is what I participated in myself. What I loved the most about joining a program like this was that it was cohort/community-based, provided me real-world client projects, provided some career coaching, had us work on weekly challenges to hone our skills and provided a structure of accountability. With my learning style, I found a lot of value in having a cohort and community of peers with a shared purpose. It was an intense 3–4 months where I focused on nothing else but developing my skills, building my network, and creating a portfolio of real-world projects.
Key features: short term, cohort-based, cheaper
I can only speak about this anecdotally through my friends who have attended grad school programs. Grad school can be great for folks who want to experience more range and theoretical depth in this learning phase. You’ll have more time dedicated to focusing on various design skillsets like design research, interaction design, design theory, content strategy, information architecture, etc. You’ll also be able to tap into the school’s network with organizations that may make it easier to secure internships. Although school programs are generally designed to be community-based, I can’t imagine them being as tight-knit as a design bootcamp cohort of 12 people.
Key features: longer-term, more expensive, potential network opportunity, can hone in on research/specialty
Some resources to get you started
Read and watch
- 18F Method Cards (read through each card and the description for an overview to get familiar with common UX techniques)
- Good Designer, Bad Designer (a brief introduction to adopting the right mindset)
- 13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations
- Tony Fadell on design (TED talk)
- Tristan Harris on the problem of designing addictive products
- UX and the civilizing process
The journey to landing that first UX/UI job will be a challenging one but I can promise you that it will all be worth it. The learning and growth in this process will be exciting as this will ultimately be a phase of self-discovery. Before you know it, you will be designing digital products that delight users or improve how businesses operate.
- If you enjoyed this issue, hold the like button and I’ll keep similar ones coming!
- In March 2021, I’m opening up 2 slots in my design career coaching program (people with 0–4 years of experience). We’ll develop a personalized career coaching plan and my partner (a Product Manager) and I will support you with resume/portfolio review, interview practice, and telling your story. DM me on Twitter if you’re interested in learning more!