Computer Science

How Do You Become a User Experience Designer?

How Do You Become a User Experience Designer?
UX as a discipline is still relatively new. More and more companies are making the strategic decision to prioritize the user experience, but a lot of them are still in the process of figuring out what that looks like. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry March 20, 2020

An app that's annoying or hard to figure out won't last long in the app store. That's why there's an entire class of professionals—UX designers—whose job it is to make sure games, websites, and applications are not just beautiful but also intuitive.

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People spend hours each day on their devices, but very few ever think about how human-computer interaction impacts their lives. And yet, the user interface of an app or software suite can make work and play easier or really, really frustrating.

Consider these examples of bad UX design:

  • You’re trying to subscribe to an email list. You enter your address and hit submit. The page simply reloads, and you’re left wondering whether you subscribed.
  • You’re in the middle of booking a flight. The airline automatically adds flight insurance to your order, and it’s not clear how to opt out.
  • You fill out a form and hit submit, but it won’t process because you did not complete unmarked mandatory fields. You have to start all over again because the form is now blank.

These are relatively mild examples of bad user experience design, but they illustrate why good UX design is so important. Smooth and intuitive user-centered design inspires people to read more articles, make more purchases, sign up for more lists, and spend more time playing games. It can even inspire brand loyalty.

Bad interaction design can be such a turnoff that it tanks a product or company. There’s a reason we’re not listening to music on our Motorola ROKR phones or watching movies with our Eyetop Wearable DVD players. Remember the Google X icon-laden interface? Most people don’t because it was live for just one day before the company killed it.

UX designers are experts in usability. They take concepts from behavioral psychology, information architecture, flow theory, graphic design, and interaction design to make sure that the experience users have when interacting with systems, services, and products is a good one.

In theory, making sure that an app won’t drive users crazy should be easy: just conduct usability testing and make adjustments based on beta testers’ feedback. In reality, UX design can be very complicated. Sometimes there are hundreds of user personas to consider. Product managers, web designers, graphic designers, and other stakeholders may have needs that are different from those of users. Technology has limitations that can lead to imperfect UX and UI design.

Becoming a user experience designer can involve not only flexing your UX design skills and creating interactive prototypes but also negotiating with other people working on projects, advocating for good design, and solving puzzles. There are many paths you can take to develop the skills and knowledge you’ll need to do all this and more.

In this article about how to become a user experience designer, we cover:

  • What does a user experience designer do?
  • What skills and qualities do you need to be a user experience designer?
  • What education do user experience designers need?
  • Can I become a user experience designer without a degree?
  • Do you have to know how to code to be a UX designer?
  • What are the job opportunities for user experience designers?
  • How much do UX designers earn?
  • Is UX design a good career?
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What does a user experience designer do?

User experience designers are employed by all kinds of companies that produce products with an interactive component. That means UX is a multidisciplinary field that can encompass:

  • Industrial design
  • Information design
  • Interaction design
  • Service design
  • Visual design
  • Web design

A UX designer’s job can vary significantly from one company to another. In general, however, a user experience designer is responsible for determining what kinds of experiences users have when interacting with a product and for optimizing those experiences at various points throughout the design process.

UX designers spend time:

  • Participating in concept development
  • Conducting user research
  • Creating user flows
  • Creating user personas
  • Writing detailed user stories
  • Sketching out scenario maps
  • Building sitemaps and mapping out apps
  • Working with the product design team
  • Sketching out content blocks
  • Designing user-friendly navigation pathways
  • Determining how interactive elements will function
  • Prototyping and creating wireframes
  • Validating and testing with users
  • Collaborating with developers, QA, and product managers
  • Brainstorming ideas with marketing

Keep in mind that UX as a discipline is still relatively new. More and more companies are making the strategic decision to prioritize the user experience, but a lot of them are still in the process of figuring out what that looks like.

When you become a UX designer, you shouldn’t expect to have the final say when it comes to how users interact with a product. UX design typically involves a lot of back and forth AMONG product managers, visual designers, marketers, interaction designers, engineers, and other stakeholders.

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What skills and qualities do you need to be a user experience designer?

Soft skills are critical in UX design because the discipline involves so much collaboration and putting yourself in users’ shoes. User experience designers have to be good listeners: patient, empathetic, and creative.

Most UX designers also need to have core hard skills in research, wireframing, prototyping, information architecture, and analytics. Also, when you become a UX designer, most employers will expect you to be able to use the following UX design tools.

Research tools:

Wireframing tools:

Prototyping tools:

Be aware that you probably won’t learn to use these tools in college (more on this below), so one of the most essential qualities you’ll need to succeed in UX design is drive. The majority of user experience design experts pick up the skills they use every day by taking online courses, reading books, and learning by doing.

What education do user experience designers need?

There is no optimal educational pathway designed for UX designers. A survey of user experience professionals conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group found that while almost all UX designers have university degrees, very few major in UX-specific topics like interaction design or human-computer interaction (HCI). UX designers are much more likely to have earned bachelor’s degrees in:

UX designers who go to graduate school are much more likely to choose master’s degree programs focused on UX-adjacent topics like human-computer interaction, information science, or information design. Some colleges and universities with related degree programs offer students the option of choosing a UX concentration. Schools offering related degrees include:

There are almost no programs focused exclusively on UX design outside of Kent State University at Kent‘s Master of Science in User Experience Design (UXD) and Thomas Jefferson University‘s MS in User Experience and Interaction Design. The results of the Nielsen Norman Group survey seem to suggest that employers don’t care what subjects their UX designers studied, as long as they have a degree.

Can I become a user experience designer without a degree?

Technically, yes. There are plenty of UX designers working without degrees in the world today. There are also lots of relatively inexpensive and even free UX courses online that can teach aspiring UX designers the basics of user experience design and help them create an impressive portfolio.

So, why get a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree? Sure, you might not learn UX design in a college degree program, but it’s pretty clear that employers prefer to hire designers with degrees. Plus, UX designers with undergraduate and graduate degrees have access to valuable alumni networks and professional networks. And going to college will give you opportunities to learn about business, management, marketing, product development, and other topics that will make you more employable and make it easier to transition between industries throughout your career.

Do you have to know how to code to be a UX designer?

If you work for a company that makes digital products, you should know how to code. Roughly two-thirds of UX designers have no software engineering experience, but don’t let that stop you from studying programming on the side during your undergrad years. You don’t need to be a superstar coder to find work in this field after or even before graduation. Still, it definitely helps to know programming languages like jQuery, JavaScript, HTML, and CSS.

It’s not just about impressing hiring managers. When you have a basic understanding of the technology that goes into building digital applications, you’ll have an easier time communicating with front-end and back-end developers. You’ll also be less likely to propose UX elements that won’t work with the technology they’re using. Finally, you won’t have to wait for developers to bring your ideas to life because you’ll be able to mock them up yourself.

What are the job opportunities for user experience designers?

Not every UX design expert works as an all-purpose designer. Some larger companies have entire departments devoted to user experience design. At those firms, an employee with a UX design background might work as a:

  • User researcher
  • Usability analyst
  • Interaction designer
  • Information architect
  • Visual designer
  • UX developer

Advancement in UX design typically involves moving up one of three ladders. UX designers who never want to stop making intuitive, beautiful products might become principal UX designers before advancing to senior interaction designer, UX lead, or director of UX positions. Some strike out on their own, becoming user experience consultants who help companies solve specific problems related to user experience design. Other UX designers want to lead and look for opportunities to advance into roles that involve less design and more strategizing. These include UX manager, vice president of user experience design, design ops manager, or Chief Experience Officer (CXO).

How much do UX designers earn?

UX designers at all levels earn quite a bit. Glassdoor collects information about the average user experience designer salary at different levels of seniority and has found that entry-level user experience designers who have recently graduated from college can earn as much as $70,171. Mid-career user experience designers with seven to nine years of professional experience can earn $91,748, and late-career UX specialists with 15+ years of experience can earn more than $100,00.

That’s just the average, however. You can boost your earning potential in this role by putting together a stellar portfolio, learning about in-demand platforms and information architecture, honing your graphic design skills, and learning as much as you can about UI design.

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Is UX design a good career?

The answer depends on your interests and how you like to work. It takes more than solid programming chops and an eye for design to create great user experiences. If you’re not that interested in learning about other people’s wants and needs, you’ll probably be happier working as a web developer or front-end programmer.

This also isn’t a job for anyone who likes to work independently. UX designers collaborate with people from just about every team involved in the creation of a product, and they usually don’t get the final say when it comes to design decisions. Sometimes budgetary constraints, technical limitations, or even the whims of executives lead to products launching with obvious UX flaws.

If, however, you’re a self-directed people person with a knack for picking up new tech and identifying new trends quickly, this could be the perfect job for you.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.


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