How to Get Real-World UX Experience without Going Back to School

How do you obtain UX experience when you can’t quit your job to go to school? What are some ways to gain real-world experience in order to build a UX portfolio?

If you want to go back to school or enroll in a UX bootcamp, I won’t stand in your way. However, I don’t believe a degree in human factors is the only path to a career in UX. UXers come from all areas of study, so don’t let anyone tell you that your BS in Biology is holding you back. Any bachelor’s degree is a strong foundation for the soft skills you’ll need (e.g., critical thinking, communication). To gain hard UX skills (e.g., wireframing, researching), there are many, many courses and reputable UX certifications like Human Factors International and Nielsen Norman Group.

If you insist on earning a master’s degree, I recommend studying business. Understanding the fundamentals of business—economics, statistics, financial modeling, business strategy, marketing—will set you apart and help you speak the same language as your clients and business stakeholders.

How I Gained My UX Experience

In early 2000, I was working for a company that I just knew had a terrible website. I didn’t have any education or training in UX—heck, I didn’t even know that discipline existed. I just kept asking (begging) my boss to implement my ideas to improve the site. The answer was always “no.” (Because it cost money to pay the web agency to make my recommended changes.)

But then a few months later, I suddenly had a new boss. We clicked immediately about what changes needed to happen, and then was given the reins and access to an in-house web developer. Persistence prevailed!

The 2 of us rebuilt the website from the ground up over several weeks. I found books about website design (blogs didn’t exist yet), and followed the authors’ advice.

After the site relaunched in 2002, I continued in my role as a web producer (a job title that I don’t think existed yet?), and gradually took on more and more responsibility making usability improvements to the site. No one gave me more responsibility—instead, I saw opportunities, created solutions, and then pitched them to my boss. More often than not, my idea would move forward to implementation. (At the time, no person or team was actively managing the website. Why not me?) Around 2003 I convinced my boss to let me conduct my first usability study after reading Steve Krug’s book multiple times. I’ll never forget the wonder I felt the first time I saw the website through someone else’s eyes—the usability issues were suddenly soooo obvious!

If it’s not totally clear—I didn’t know what I was doing in those early days. I squashed my fears, frequently asked for forgiveness instead of permission, and just kept pushing myself forward.

See also: How I Changed Careers from Journalist to UX Researcher
See also: UX Resources for Beginners

16 Ways to Gain Real-World UX Experience

Your turn! Here are some ideas to apply or adapt:

Volunteer at Work. Volunteer for stretch or special assignments at your current employer. If your company has an existing UX team, volunteer to help out during a research project or working session (e.g., take notes, greet research participants, conduct competitive analysis).

If there isn’t an existing UX team at your company, then take the initiative and create your own opportunity.

Choose one of the following research projects to work on during your lunch breaks and after hours, and then present your findings and recommendations to your boss, leadership team, or as a lunch-n-learn for relevant teams. Use the feedback you receive to improve your ideas and presentation.

Affinity Map. Reach out to someone willing to help you from the customer service team. Listen in on several customer service calls (or get transcripts, if available) and then read through the customer service log (i.e., a record of reasons customers called or contacted the company). Create an affinity map to show themes and sub-topics. Pick one to solve.

Experience Audit. Conduct a service safari for one customer or employee journey at your company (e.g., making a return, calling for technical support, signing up for health benefits as a new employee). Map your findings into a flow chart or create a storyboard that highlights key opportunities. Pick one to solve.

Heuristic Analysis. Conduct a heuristic analysis for the company’s website, intranet, or software. Repeat for competitors for added context and insight. Pick one issue to solve.

Mixed Methods. Talk to an executive or data analyst to find a business problem that you could work on. Find out what solutions have been tried in the past and why they didn’t work. Determine what information you need and draft a list of research questions. Document your process, roadblocks, findings, recommended solutions, and reasonings in a case study. Include the pros, cons, and risks for each solution.

Usability Study. Conduct a usability study on your company’s (or competitor’s) website, software, app, intranet, or physical product. Get permission to contact local customers to participate in the study at your offices (e.g., invite them via email, social media, Craigslist). You don’t need any special equipment—a laptop and web conferencing software (e.g., Zoom) will do. Identify the top 5 issues and create wireframes or mock-ups to illustrate your solutions.

Mind Map. Read what people are saying about your company on social media. Create a mind map to show the themes. Color code the themes by sentiment (e.g., positive, negative, neutral). Pick one to solve.

Ideas Outside of Work

If you’re not working or working in a role that would allow you to volunteer for a special assignment, here are some other ideas.

Non-profits. Contact the program director about volunteering your time. Briefly describe and propose no more than 2-3 potential projects you would like to do. Make it clear you are not seeking any compensation or selling anything. Also be prepared to explain what you do and value you bring, as they may not be familiar with the concept of UX or instinctively understand how you might help.

Or, look for organizations like Taproot that connect non-profits to professionals.

Hack-a-thons. Sign up for a hack-a-thon to redesign a non-profit website or build something new. These types of events usually require an entire weekend commitment.

Internships. If you’re financially able, drop back to part-time hours temporarily to free up the time needed to complete an internship. Many companies have formal internship programs—but most do not. Inquire or propose a project if the company doesn’t include internship opportunities on their website.

Networking Events. Put yourself out there. Does anyone need any help with a laborious task or need an assistant for an upcoming project? In case no one has an immediate need, be sure to have your business cards with you.

Or pick a topic and use the event to conduct research about a specific problem (disguised as regular conversation, of course). Choose a product or situation that is relevant to a lot of people (e.g., calendar apps, travel booking websites, food delivery services). Find out their top pain points and how they’ve attempted to solve these problems in the past. Use your findings to design a solution—either fixing an existing company’s product or to create your own product.

DIY. Pick a product or recent experience that you’re passionate about, and figure out a problem you want to tackle… then solve it! Think creatively about how you can gather data to evaluate the problem and/or your proposed solutions.

Competitive Analysis. Pick an industry, and then conduct a competitive analysis. Read annual reports and listen to investor calls for additional insights about what the company is focused on. Organize your findings into themes or a matrix. Design a concept based on your findings.

Context Map. Pick an industry, and then look for case studies, trend reports, and other publicly available data to identify themes about where the industry is headed. Design a concept based on your findings.

Get a New Job. Are you a big risk taker? Find a company that has an established UX team, and then apply for a job that you are qualified for (and can tolerate). At the appropriate time, schmooze your way onto the UX team.

Bonus Tip: Go on a Creative Side Quest

If you’re someone who wants (or needs) a structured process, I highly recommend checking out Andy J. Pizza’s class “Make Creativity Your Career: Six Exercises to Create a Successful Side Project” on Skillshare. In his 6-step process, Andy demonstrates how to set a realistic side project, and then work toward getting hired by your dream client.

(Note: I don’t have any affiliation to Andy or Skillshare.)

Bonus Tip: Participate in a Design Competition

What if you could list winning a design award on your résumé? Here are a few design competitions to check out. Even if you don’t win (or enter), having a real problem to solve might just be the inspiration you need to create a project for your portfolio.

Final Words of Advice

To break into this field, there are 2 must-haves that cannot be learned in a course or a book. They must come from within.

First, you must have tenacity. If you want real-world experience that is portfolio-worthy and that you’re proud of, it takes a lot of effort, time, and the willingness to seek and apply feedback from others.

Second, you must have a compelling story. If you’re confident, articulate, and can communicate your ideas well—lack of experience is less important. Spend the time crafting your back story and portfolio presentation. Rehearse aloud to a friend or family member how you describe your professional background, UX process, and examples of your work.

Good luck!

See also: UX Career Options

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Author: Kristine Remer

Kristine Remer is a CX / UX researcher and strategist in Minneapolis. She helps drive significant business outcomes by finding and solving customer problems. When she's not creating customer journey maps and conducting diary studies, Kristine is either kayaking, trying new recipes, or acting silly with her house full of boys.