When Tumblr opened up the messaging feature so any follower could send a question, I got a bunch. Interestingly, most of them were asking the same question: how do I get UX experience if I have never worked in UX before?
Ah yes. The classic dilemma of needing experience to get a job to get experience.
Who hasn’t encountered that in their lives? It’s like when I wanted to be an assassin… but that’s a story for another time.
Luckily, there are lots of ways you can experiment with UX in the real world to build your portfolio/knowledge. For free.
1.) Build and test your own website.
In this day and age, any idiot can have a website. I am proof.
Make a site using a tool like Tumblr or Wordpress, so you can control the design/theme. Tumblr, for example, takes care of all the back-end data stuff, but allows you to control some of the front-end interface stuff. Try to improve something on purpose with your design! Even if you just switch themes every few months, you can compare the differences to see what changes.
Adding analytics to Tumblr is pretty simple too, so you can measure the changes in your design. How else will you know if it worked?
But don’t just fake it. Start a real site! A blog, or a little store, or whatever. That way you can get a feel for the content or the information people want, too.
2.) Be an intern for free. In exchange for not getting paid, ask that they let you measure and test things.
It’s amazing to me that nobody ever considers working for free when they have no experience. When I first started as a designer, I made my prices as low as I could, and only worked for people that couldn’t afford anybody else. I almost starved, but after a year I had LOADS of grateful customers — and experience.
Write a letter to a really good agency, or a small agency that needs all the help they can get. Tell them you are trying to learn UX design, and you are willing to work for free. Even one day per week (or whatever time you have) is good.
You might be surprised at the results! It shows that you are motivated, and if you do good work while you’re there, it might even turn into a job!
3.) Do user testing on another company’s app.
Here’s something you might not have realized: you can do user testing with any app in the app store! Get a user to download and use it while you watch! Give them tasks. Ask them questions. Make notes. Record their screen. But stop there… nobody likes it when the researcher follows you home.
When you have some solid insights, explain them with pictures and notes, and put together a PDF of your findings. Send it to the company that made the app for feedback, or send it to a place where you would like to work. It’s a great example of the way you think, and guess what: that’s real UX work!
In your career you will work on stuff that other people designed, a lot.
Have you ever heard of the book called Learn Python the Hard Way? It’s probably the most popular book for people who want to learn to code, because it forces you to do everything by copying someone who is experienced. It’s not a get-rich-quick plan, but you get a solid introduction to what code looks like in the real world.
UX is sort of the same.
The UX Crash Course is very quick and fun to read, but if you only read it, you’re not really doing UX. If you learn it with the intention of teaching someone else, you will think about it differently. And teaching someone else reveals all the things you think you know, but don’t.
If you do this, I promise you will ace any job interview, because you will actually know a lot. What a concept!
5.) Go to www.whichtestwon.com. Look at every case in the archive.
Which Test Won is a site that gathers A/B test results, and hides the results until you guess which version of the test was the winner. Amazing resource, especially for beginners.
You will be wrong a lot. Even I get it wrong about 20% of the time. UX is not intuitive, like trying to catch a greased pig. That’s what makes it fun!
Part of getting better is training yourself to question what you believe.
Before you guess, write down why you think you are right. When you are wrong, list 5 other things that could cause the results you see, and a potential explanation for why you are wrong. Actually, do that when you’re right too!
The one thing that Which Test Won doesn’t do is tell you why (because they don’t know either), so ignore the comments.
The point of this is not to know the answer. The point is to think of as many answers as possible.
6.) Take simple, common elements in websites or apps and design them so they achieve a certain purpose (wireframes only!).
One of my favorite tests for young designers when they apply for a job is to design something that is very simple by nature. I want to see what they do with it.
The task might be something like: “make a form to enter credit card details”. Simple enough, right?
All that is “required” is a card number, expiry, and CVC code. And a button. Three fields and a button. It couldn’t be simpler. But could you make it “delightful”? Could you make it more intuitive? Could you eliminate mistakes? Could you add features that make it work better? Is there anything you could do automatically? What labels do you choose?
Or the task might be: make a hotel booking UI that only books by the hour.
Technically, that would be two dates, and the number of adults and children. In this case you would need to choose time-of-day as well. Also pretty simple.
Or is it?
Do you use a little calendar pop-over? Or do you choose dates/hours from a dropdown list? What are the defaults? Are the defaults different depending on the time of day it is now? Why would someone bring children to a hotel that books by the hour? Is there anything that changes when you’re booking by the hour instead of by the day? What if I want to book two days at different times?
Find the most common stuff on the internet, change one detail, and spend some time with it.
WIREFRAMES ONLY, bitch. It’s not a beauty contest.
If you find some new insights about it, voila! You just made something for your portfolio.
7.) Help a charity!
All types of designers should talk to charities at the beginning of their career. Catchafire.org has UX projects that you can take on to build your portfolio and knowledge. (Thanks to @uxjake for suggesting this.)
Getting UX experience is surprisingly easy if you’re willing to actually do stuff. So get out there and do stuff, baby!
If you come up with any new ideas for free experience, let me know on Twitter.