Getting started in UX can be daunting, especially with the variety of roles and settings associated to this ever-evolving multidisciplinary field. Those getting started often wonder what a real UX career would look like.
According to Nielsen Norman Group’s survey, there is no single defining characteristic of user experience careers — 210 different job titles were reported in a single study.
That’s why it’s important to have access to a diversity of perspectives, roles and environments in order to understand what a career in UX could potentially look like.
I asked 7 UX professionals, from corporate to freelancers, from big teams to teams of one, some of the most commonly asked questions from those wanting to get into the field.
Meet the Professionals
Monika Khanna is an Associate Design Director at IBM and International Speaker.
I’m an empathetic problem solver based out in Delhi, India with more than a decade of experience in passion of learning and hands-on expertise in user research, usability analysis, need analysis, project planning, resource management, information architecture, wire-framing, prototypes and execution of short to long-term projects, managed and delivered interactive solutions for various industry domains with an eye of balancing user needs with the business goals. In my spare time, I like to write articles on UX and share my knowledge. I love to travel and explore new places.
Alexa Herasimchuk is a Design Community Manager (previously Senior Product Designer) at Zendesk.
I'm a San Francisco based digital Product Designer, Community Manager, YouTuber, amateur photographer, and basketballer.
In my work, I’m committed to designing technology and experiences in order to help maximize human potential.
By day, I lead Design Community for Zendesk Creative. In my free time, I create videos about Product Design, careers in tech, and life on my YouTube channel, create guides for my travel blog called Lifetimes In, and interview my friends about routines on my blog called Make it a Monday.
My approach is to #practicehappy
Diogo Almeida is a UX Designer at Google.
I'm Diogo Almeida, an environmental engineer-turned-UX designer, living in Tokyo for enough time that people start saying it's long, but the pace of this city makes me feel I arrived yesterday. Besides Google, I'm starting my own Conversion Rate Optimization consulting as freelancer. I love traveling all over the world, and keeping a good life-work balance is my priority.
David Afolayan is a UI developer at WithRelay Inc.
I’m currently making customer communication personal again as a UI Developer at Relay. I believe there’s already so much clutter in the world, so I always seek to communicate more with less in my designs. I enjoy working with clients to translate their stories into epic experiences that users love. When I’m not in front of a computer changing the world, you could find me listening to a book, enjoying good music, admiring a delightful photo or being fascinated by exceptional works of art.
Verónica Cámara is a UX content strategist who owns AVO Agency.
Founder and Principal Strategist Veronica Camara brings a background in copywriting and user experience design. Previously, she worked as a content strategist in-house at a Fortune 500 financial, and led content management for SaaS startups. Today, she leads strategy on every project for clients in finance, eComm, EdTech and FinTech. For large projects, you can also get a hand-selected team from our freelance community of UX writers, researchers, and strategists.
Werner Grisel is a UX manager at Dotslash and Brand Experience Designer at Brandflex.
I’m a designer and storyteller since before birth but officially since always. As a Brander and User Experience evangelist, I help businesses, creative entrepreneurs and students grow high-converting businesses and brands through Brand Strategy. I love telling stories; I love getting into the dirt with what makes a user, a company, a client or a brand tick. I am a firm believer that a brand and the end user are the main characters of their own hero’s journey and these paths cross several times. Armed with strategic thinking, making memorable visual identities I will ensure your brand and business stand the test of time.
What does your typical work day look like?
Monika: My day starts with an engaging morning session where the whole design team joins in to share something new like design concepts, topics from a book, project demos, new tool techniques, etc… After that, I look into my client projects, attend brainstorming meetings, help the team with wireframes. Due to COVID, the workshops are turned remotely which was a learning for us and we really enjoyed it 🙂
Alexa: I think a typical day is hard to explain because the day to day work varies so much. I tried my best to explain what a typical day is like for a Product Designer in San Francisco on my YouTube channel, Hello, I’m Alexa!, that I’d encourage you to check out to get a glimpse. Recently on Twitter I discovered there was interest from people in learning more about what a typical work week looks like for someone in Design Operations so I’m planning to create one of these videos now as well. Make sure to subscribe to stay up to date with my new videos!
Diogo: Most of the teams I work with are distributed in Tokyo and Mountain View so most happen in the morning. Usually afternoons are reserved for APAC-only meetings. I am usually the sole designer for 2-3 products at any given time, so there is a lot of context switching – I try to block big chunks of time to design as I need to get into the flow to be more productive.
Werner: It is all over the show.. depending on the day or client. Checking that the pipeline is running smoothly and making sure all teams are in the know of what they have to do.
The “new normal“: My whole perception of a digital agency changed drastically over the last couple of months. Since we are working on people’s and companies’ online portfolios, websites, systems, social platforms, apps or creative strategies we had the opportunities to be very flexible. The role changed from agency to more remote settings. Locations changed, strategy changed, even the time of day that we have meetings and how we run them changed. We are not bound by time or space. Working remotely and for an agency is definitely a rewarding experience and it does also come with its own bag of crazy obstacles. Staying connected with the team was always the fun part, getting input and talking through challenges or just a general pass by and checking in. Zoom has been a workhorse and I think it still doesn’t give that effect especially when I know the person I am talking to is sitting in PJs:) One thing I can definitely say is a must is creating an agency vibe at home or remote. Invest in a dedicated workspace, that comfortable chair or even that crazy overpriced noise-canceling headphones… and stretch!! And most important of all… set work/home time for yourself. There needs to be breaks. At first I was gunning for it but that does not help and burn out is real. Remote work is a privilege. Find the right spot, the right equipment, a great interactive team and you can have fun with agency life as a remote worker in the new normal.
David: A typical day at work for me starts at about 12 PM WAT. Because I work on the EST timezone I usually try to get things I need done for myself before noon then I get to work. Usually, I start off with residual tasks from the previous day or clean up already completed tasks. I try to get all of these done before the stand-up meeting for that day at 2:30 PM WAT.
Following stand-up meetings I get on a call with my creative director (I just decided to call him that, though it’s not a thing at the company) where we review already completed designs and probably talk through the flows and expectations for the next tasks. Most of what follows afterwards is design and code till it’s time to “go home”.
Verónica: As Principal of my small UX content agency, I work across our web and mobile client projects and manage sales for the business.
My day is a mix of: client work, client meetings, supporting or collaborating with my team (UX Designers, writers, admin), and sales.
Katrin: I am sitting too much 😁 but I sit at my desk finding ways of designing with words and user flows to help the users achieve their goals. Sometimes there’s writer’s block. Then I focus on other aspects of the strategy I am working on. Lots of time goes into advocating for the user by presenting user research along with maybe A/B or A/A Tests. I also have to pet and cuddle my cats who love it when I am home to work. When they are close to me, their presence calms me and sometimes looking at them inspires me or lifts the writer’s block. I scribble a lot on my notepad too.
What are some skills that you think are essential to land your type of role?
Monika: The foremost skill required to up-sell in the design industry is being “curious” to solve the problem and passion to understand the reason (WHY) behind the evocation of the problem (WHAT) and then figure out ways (HOW) to solve it. It is also very important to read books not just from the design but the ones covering overall industry standards, new trends, etc… To be a leader, you need to believe in yourself and your team to leverage the healthy collaboration results.
Alexa: I think being a strong communicator is an important skill in being a designer and is worthwhile to practice extensively. The role of a designer is largely about gathering a group of people together to get them on the same page about a vision for a future experience that you’ve designed. That’s a hard task.
A place where I found myself repetitively practicing my communication skills while at university was during weekly design critiques. I likely participated in 2-4 design critique sessions per week with the various studio classes I was enrolled in. It gave me a lot of time to practice talking about my work as well as learning about how to ask better questions when it came to other people’s work. When it comes to landing a job, these skills are going to be essential when you’re presenting your work at an interview.
For Design Community specifically, I’d say an essential skill is to be actively engaged in the design community as a creator. It takes a lot of time and work to create memorable content or a meaningful experience for others, so that would be something I would look for in hiring. I know people of all levels in their career who are actively bringing people together within the design community for something bigger than themselves — it’s truly inspiring.
Diogo: For this role it’s fundamental to work well as a software development team – work with engineers, product managers, researchers. I think it’s very important to have a good grasp of users (needs, usability, information architecture), product (features, product development) and of course UI design skills. Most often than not I’ll be the only designer in a product and have to be an end-to-end designer, including visual and engineering deliverables.
To me personally it helps to have a decent amount of emotional intelligence and knowledge of psychology in order to put yourself in users’ shoes, and I found my previous experience as a user researcher very helpful, to help design the research and get the most of it. I sometimes do my own quantitative analysis to help me get the feel for our product users’ behavioral patterns, but I understand it’s not the norm.
David: For a UI developer, I’d say knowledge of design principles especially in terms of working with dashboards, ability to convert designs to code (HTML/CSS), how to accept and take action on feedback, ability to relate with people on a team level and a lot of patience.
Verónica: Communication and collaboration skills; critical thinking and problem-solving; user research skills; passion for learning.
Werner: Critical Thinking and working in a team setup.
Katrin: Quick mind, lots of experience, empathy.
What type of roles have you had and where do you currently work?
Alexa: I’ve been a Product Designer in the Bay Area since around 2013 when I got my first UX job as a Product Design Intern at a small travel startup in Mountain View called Room77. I was still in college at the time so this internship was around 3 months long over the summer and from everything I remember about it — it was an incredible experience. I went on to have three more design internships before graduating with a BFA in Graphic Design. After I graduated, I immediately started working full time at the American review company, Yelp, as a Product Designer on the Yelp for Business Owners product. I spent about 2.5 years there leading design for that part of the business as well as creating operational programming for the Product Design team which included weekly design critiques as well as monthly meetings with the Yelp marketing design team.
My specific role is in Design Community, where I help build teams, foster connections, and design memorable experiences for the design community. I help create opportunities for our people and the external community we serve, for learning, leadership, and career growth as well as support people in sharing their stories with the greater, global design community. Design Community programs are informed by our team’s personal and professional development goals and aim to attract new people to our teams and products. We focus our efforts on building community where our Creative team members are located which are out of these 10 office locations: San Francisco, Portland, Montreal, Singapore, Melbourne, London, Dublin, Copenhagen, Montpellier, and Kraków.
What would you say are the pros and cons of your type of role?
Monika: My role demands interaction with multi-disciplinary teams, do proper user research, share findings, design concepts with the team. The best part of working in a service industry (agency kind of setup) is the EXPOSURE we get to understand various domains as projects vary from industry to industry and can focus on B2C or B2B but we may not be able to see the complete project cycle that how’s the business is rolling whereas, in a product organization, the best part is you can see the acceptability of your design through METRICS (a way to measure) and a complete picture of whole project cycle but the opportunity to explore may get restricted to that particular business domain.
Alexa: With my role as a Product Designer at Zendesk I’ve really appreciated being able to deeply focus into a problem space and take ownership over the design projects I was tasked with. There is lots of impact here. Working within the part of the product that directly affected revenue definitely had it’s challenges. Not only are there a lot of constraints to design around but the time to ship is also fairly slow. Things can change quickly, so it’s important to be able to navigate that in this sort of role.
Diogo: I’ve done agency, freelance, big finance corporation and consulting. An in-house product role has it pros and cons – in one way it’s quite a big company with many voices and many people working in a single product, and remote work is also naturally harder than face-to-face. On the other hand, everyone is really smart so I don’t have to explain obvious benefits from UX POV each time I propose something, everyone is very kind, easy to work with, and flexible. Product-wise there’s more freedom to go deeper into problems, and improve the product over time, which might not happen in agency/consulting roles due to clients’ budgets.
David: The pro of working in-house for me would be that steady paycheck. Knowing that it’s a constant kind of gives a level of comfort, it’s also a fairly sane environment. You know your duties, it’s almost the same thing every day and even if they change they usually don’t go very far off, well, except if you get a promotion. Lastly for me on pros is working on a team. Even if you’re a design team of one, having to collaborate directly with engineers or managers really slaps differently in terms of motivation for work. The cons, relating to the last pro, comfort. If you’re not intentional about your growth, working in-house can get you to become complacent just doing routine tasks, getting the job done but not growing. Another thing would be boredom, if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t like working on the same thing for a long period of time, in-house might not be for you. Sure, you get to work on different parts or features but it’s inherently the same product. This might be less of a con and more of a soft skill but, be ready to have your ideas disapproved. Depending on your level at the company, you might not always have your way in terms of design decisions and style but if you’re sure about your propositions always try to back them up with data.
Verónica: I’ve worked in corporate in-house, as a freelancer, at startups, and now as a business owner. So I feel confident saying there are pros and cons to all types of work!
Cons: Owning a business is absolutely more pressure and risk than being an employee. It’s also more responsibility than being a freelancer, because as a business owner you employ people and are responsible for their success, job happiness and growth.
Pros: For me, it’s ideal because I have the freedom to structure my life the way that best suits me. This enables me to do my best work and contribute to the world in a way that feels significant. Back in my job, I felt like too often my talent was scaled back due to the scope of my role or the “red tape” of corporate. Now, I get to set the tone and scope of a project. 🥳
Werner: In an agency the learning curve is a sports car… fast and you should be able to adapt. You get to work on a lot of methods, clients and procedures. Can be considered a con as well.
Katrin: I prefer corporate work, for stability and safety. But as a freelancer I am very free and can adjust my work to my circadian rhythm. I am not a morning person, I am most creative at night time. Plus, I totally take advantage of Parkinson’s law and procrastinate until there is almost no time left 😁
How big is your UX team and what's your role in the team?
Monika: We have 50+ UX designers in India studio. I’m leading a team of ~15 designers by being their mentor.
Alexa: The Product Design team at Zendesk is around 50 people or so across 9 offices globally. It’s been really special to be a Product Designer on this team because I’ve been able to work with so many people from such unique backgrounds.
Diogo: Of the 6 projects I’ve worked on so far, 2 of them include other (remote) designers , and for the other 4 I’m the only designer.
David: I’m more or less a UX team of one, but let’s put it this way; I’m the only IC designer with a creative director I report to. So we’re a UX team of two.
Verónica: Project teams range from 2-8 people.
Werner: 4 humans and a mascot.
Katrin: Team of one.
How does the UX team collaborate with other members and teams?
Monika: We collaborate with multi-disciplinary teams including BA’s, content writers, project manager, developers, sales team, etc…
Alexa: Product Designers are members of individual product teams that are typically made up of Product Designers, UX Researchers, UX Content Strategists, Software Engineers, and Product Managers. Every member of the team serves a different role that helps move the product forward which supports business needs and creates better experiences for our customers.
- Product Designers help the team visualize what a newly designed idea could look, feel, and operate like
- UX Researchers inform the team with data and research collected from customers
- UX Content Strategists design and write the content used in the products
- Software Engineers build and code the ideas so they can become a reality
- Product Managers help the team weigh tradeoffs, ensure everyone stays on track to hit deadlines, and measures success of business goals
Diogo: All the time. The trio of PM, Eng and Design has to work closely together to build a successful product for users. I don’t work as closely with marketing (the PM will), but sometimes mediate with the branding team.
David: Most of the collaboration is done through calls, Dropbox paper documents and Slack. It’s not a very big team and since I convert the designs to HTML/CSS, the engineers don’t have to dig into design files.
Verónica: We are fully remote and use tools like Zoom, Slack, Google Drive, AirTable, and InVision.
Werner: In the beginning it was a very lonesome department… “Send to the UX guys”… but we changed up the culture to be in the thick of things first, middle, end and onward. We are well integrated and work well back and forth with other teams. Like a beautiful dance.
Katrin: If I do have a team, we use Zoom, Miro, Emails and Slack.
Thank you so much to these talented and inspiring professionals for sharing their valuable insights and experiences about their design and UX careers.
Starting a career in UX might not be easy, but with effort and dedication is possible — and in my opinion, absolutely worth it.