Expert tips on how to get a job in UX or UI

8 Aug 2016

UX and UI leads are the new hot jobs on the tech scene, but what does it take to land one?

At a gathering of UI and UX leaders in Harvey Nash’s Dublin office, we discussed the sticking points when it comes to these fairly new roles, and the challenges aspiring hires and new recruits might face.

Hosted by Gavin Fox, head of practice at Harvey Nash Technology, contributors to the roundtable discussion included Ciaran Hanrahan, UI designer at Visible; Ronan Fitzpatrick, director of digital and mobile at Aer Lingus; Declan Cassells, UX design lead at KonnectAgain; Gerard Fitzgerald, user experience manager at GloboForce; and Jason Power, former head of design at Paddy Power and now head of brand at KamaGames. (Despite the make-up of the panel, I was assured that UI and UX are not solely for the boys and this discipline enjoys a much healthier gender balance than most in the tech sector.)

We discussed how recruiters can make the most of their UI and UX hires and that advice for employers has been made available here. The panel also had plenty of advice for those either looking for jobs in UX or UI or wondering how to take the first steps on this career path, as well as those already on the route and how they can make the most of it.

Inspirefest 2017

Show your work

At Career Zoo in February, Gerard Fitzgerald got a lot of queries on how to get into UX and UI. His advice? Build a portfolio of problems you see out there and your solutions.

“Get something together. Even if it’s not enterprise or actual live projects out there. Just show what you can do. Show your thought process.”

When it comes to taking your first steps on this career path, this portfolio can serve as a substitute for experience. Fitzgerald confirmed that GloboForce have hired juniors from viewing such portfolio work.

He also noted that, with UI and UX being quite new on the jobs market, there are those with experience in other areas who may have transferable skills. For example, GloboForce has received lots of CVs from architects applying for UX jobs.

However, Fitzgerald advises that these candidates make sure they go the extra mile to represent how their skills apply to the job at hand. After all, he’s not qualified to assess an architecture portfolio, though he has been sent them.

For those with a healthy portfolio of work, it’s good to be selective about what you present to potential employers. “Put all your best stuff in [your portfolio]. One weak thing is going to make you look rubbish,” said Jason Power. “Everybody has done ‘trash for cash’ … [but] it’s not going on your portfolio and it’s not going on your website.”

What to say on your CV

Gavin Fox suggested that there is a growing need to recruit for ‘commercial technologists’. That is, someone who will not only do what is asked of them but also understand why they’re building a product – the reasoning and ambition behind it. “Gone are the days of being able to sit in a corner and just plug in and disappear for a while,” he said.

Think of this when compiling your CV for a role in UI or UX teams. Try to convey your ability to understand a project from a commercial perspective as well as possessing the skills to build and create.

Be explicit about the role you’ve played on teams and avoid vague implications of involvement. “When I see on CVs, ‘Was involved in’, that’s when I get a bit iffy,” said Ronan Fitzpatrick. “This is like the Irish breakfast: the pig was committed, the chicken was involved. Anyone can be involved to any degree in [a project].”

And don’t forget people management skills. This experience is attractive to employers regardless of what they’re hiring for.

“Leadership is a big thing. You’re always thinking in terms of leadership in any organisation,” assured Power.

Education and training

“People weren’t calling themselves UX designers five years ago,” said Declan Cassells, yet, somehow, there are job specs seeking years of experience and qualifications. “There hasn’t been a degree in UX yet,” Cassells added, offering further insight into the exasperation felt at these unrealistic market demands.

In terms of the academic, many leaders in these roles will have degrees in computer science, visual communications or similar, and Fitzgerald is currently participating in the first year of a new master’s programme in UX at IADT.

Indeed, for postgrad students, there are other new programmes cropping up. For example, NCAD’s master’s in interaction design.

Design skills are vital

Power started designing from a young age, catching the bug when had a Christmas card printed at age 14. He attended college in the early nineties, so he was training in design before computers gained prominence.

Cassells, Fitzgerald and Ciaran Hanrahan, though, all started as developers.

“Half of it was realising I had more passion [for design] but it also seemed like there was more money in design, like there was more opportunities,” Hanrahan recalled, to some laughter.

While the money myth was later disproved, Hanrahan remains an advocate for design skills and background, acknowledging that knowledge of the fundamental tenets is vital. “For me, design is like 90pc typography. And the rest is white space.”

In essence, the entire table of experts agreed that it’s easier to hide sloppy development than sloppy design. “That’s not to say that you can put lipstick on any old pig, but you can’t shy away from it,” said Fitzpatrick. “If your design is bad, people won’t even stick around for the rest of it.”

Coding skills are an advantage

According to Fitzgerald, a bit of coding knowledge “helps massively” on two fronts in particular.

“Number one, if you’re on a scrum team and you’re talking with developers, you can talk a little bit more their language, there’s that kind of bond there,” he explained. “And then, because UX works very close with the front-end developers, it helps that they know how stuff is going to be developed.”

Fitzpatrick agreed: “That handshake is so much easier if people are at least conversing in what the other part of the team are talking about.”

“It helps from a design point of view as well,” added Hanrahan. “I think it helps when you’re designing UI and a pattern library to think from a coding perspective, on the strucutre and how it’s set up. You keep a system in your head and it just keeps things more structured.

“It’s not necessarily that designers have to be coding but, definitely, a familarity and a background in it kind of helps.”

Expect to be tested in a variety of ways

Now you’ve got the skills and nailed your CV, you’ve been called up for an assessment. What next?

To get hired with Visible, testing can go on for weeks, during which time the candidate engages with the current team as if already part of it. This is how Hanrahan secured his own position, completing about 40 hours of paid work with the team.

GloboForce does testing differently. “We test every applicant. It’s good because it allows me to see differentiation between a lot of people who are applying for a role,” said Fitzgerald.

These low-fidelity problem-solving tests look for sketches and wireframes and take candidates about two hours to complete. “We’re not looking for them to get back with a full-built app. It’s literally just to see how they think and how they work.”

There are also testing tools for developers where interviewers can review what you coded in real time. Bear this in mind if you try to copy and paste – it will be noticed.

While not all UI and UX employers see tests as the way to whittle down candidates, many do. However, all were in agreement that testing best serves as a complement to CVs, interviews and portfolio assessment.

Always be learning

As with any career in the fast-moving tech world, UX and UI leads can’t be seen to stand still once they snag a role.

“Really what you’re after is somebody who shows enough initiative to keep on wanting to learn,” said Fitzpatrick.

Because of misunderstanding of these roles from the top-down, you may find yourself expected to be capable at both UI and UX simultaneously, so try to know at least the basics of the one that’s not your specialism.

“A good, decent UI designer is well able to fake the UX stuff,” said Power, and, if you’ve worked on projects and teams with a mix of both, it will be expected that you have picked up the basics.

That said, you must know the difference between being capable and being a charlatan, as a talented team will quickly expose the latter.

Looking for jobs in tech or science? Check out our Employer Profiles for information on companies hiring right now.

Wireframing image via Shutterstock

Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke was editor of Silicon Republic until 2023, and is now the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. Elaine joined Silicon Republic in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs. She later served as managing editor before stepping up as editor in 2019. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly pernickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen.

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