Any advice for how to transition from UI dev to UX career?

13 Oct 2013 - 8:47am
2 years ago
8 replies
8345 reads

I am at a crossroads in my career. I have been a UI Developer for 15 years and I am a capstone away from graduating with a masters in HCI. Should I look to internships as a way to get into a full time UX position or should I apply for entry level UX positions (as long as I can show related experience)? Internships seem like a great way to get introduced to a company, but I am worried that internships are only for people in their 20s. I am in my late 30s and the clock is ticking. I am also worried that people who hire seasoned UX professionals will ignore people who don't have the standard UX job title in their resume. I practice and advocate UX methods in all my projects (where it is a good fit within time constraints). However, I feel that there are many gaps in my practical experience in which an UX internship would be quite beneficial. Which route should I go? You can take a look at my <a href="">public LinkedIn profile</a> to get a feel for my experience. 



13 Oct 2013 - 11:14am
Josh Seiden

There are a lot of small companies / small teams / startups that would be delighted to find a UX person with FE dev skills. So another option for you would be to look for a place that would value your range of skills, not just your (relatively new) UX skills. 


13 Oct 2013 - 1:05pm
Larry Tesler

I concur with Seiden. Sadly, most companies will value your engineering skills more than your UX skills, no matter how advanced they become. Happily, most companies will value you more for having and applying both skills. If it makes sense in your company's structure, you could offer to serve as engineering's liaison to UX or as UX's liaison to engineering. You could offer to build functioning prototypes for usability studies. You could offer to cover for a UX person who is on vacation. You could persuade the UX team and management to let you experiment with alternative UI's between a product release and the start of your next project. You could offer to fill a vacancy in the UX team on a temporary basis. But think twice before accepting a drop in salary in order to switch from one well-paid profession to an entry-level position in another. 

15 Oct 2013 - 4:09pm

I am honored that Mr. Tesler took the time to answer my question in this forum. I took a class in which I had to study all his contributions to this profession back when it wasn't even called UX. I want to personally thank you for playing such a big role in modern computing.

13 Oct 2013 - 2:51pm
Fredrik Matheson

Considering your background and assuming that you're a great UI developer with a master's in HCI, an internship seems like an odd step down.

If possible, try to find a position at a consultancy that is great at agile and works closely with clients to create/measure/optimize their products and services.
Here, you could do user research and concept development as in a junior role in collaboration with more experienced designers, and then prototype, test, build, improve the stuff you're building. Being able to build your own prototypes is a huge boon in early concept work.
If that's a difficult move, try getting a role where you'll primarily develop UIs but do some design work, and then gradually increase the proportion spent on design. You might also want to do some freelance design work or pro bono work for volunteer orgs etc to gain experience and build your portfolio. BTW, it looks like your portfolio needs an update: the one on stops at 2011 and the mouseovers don't work :-(
In any case, a great designer who knows how to code well will never be unemployed. Make sure to build the design (not just HCI) part of your portfolio and keep building your network on Twitter. Don't forget to post your own work there, too.
Best of luck!
- Fredrik
15 Oct 2013 - 9:54am
Fred Beecher

Hi Thomas,

Lots of things to say. First, I agree, an internship would be a step down. Internship is for people who are trying out a career, and it seems like you've already commited to UX since you paid for a master's in it.

Second, I'd love to say another option would be to find an apprenticeship. However, those opportunities are currently pretty limited. I run an apprenticeship program at The Nerdery in Minneapolis, and Geordie Kaytes runs one at Fresh Tilled Soil in Boston. Beyond that, any other apprenticeship that has happened that I'm aware of has been pretty informal. Hopefully this situation is temporary and after my Interaction14 talk everyone will run out and make their own apprenticeship programs. : )

Finally, in my experience recruiting apprentices, I've struck out for the most part when looking for master's graduates. Why? Because many master's programs work with companies who end up recruiting these students right out of school. My advice would be to try to get recruited by an agency/consultancy so you'll get exposed to LOTS of different kinds of projects. So work with your program's advisors to find the companies who typically do a lot of recruiting from them, reach out, and go from there.

Good luck!


15 Oct 2013 - 2:24pm

I think a good deal depends on what you want your future career to be. If you want a blended work experience then go for that, but recognize that people will want you to use those development skills. You may end up not doing anything that advances your UX career.

I had this problem since I came out of a traditional software engineering background. I did a fair bit of UI development and eventually decided that the career I wanted was not as a developer. I had to be clear about that in the jobs I chose to apply for and in working with my managers in those jobs.

If you really want a complete break then it's going to be harder and an internship isn't necessarily a stupid idea, but if you do that then it needs to be a specific project and you put it on your resume as a project/contract engagement. Internships of that sort aren't likely to lead to great jobs, but can give you something solid to show potential new employers how you've used your UX skills. Also be prepared to talk about why you wanted to change career directions and how you can still make use of your experience without spending all your time coding.

15 Oct 2013 - 4:08pm

Thanks for the great advice. Right now, I am the UX team of one at my workplace. I have tried to get it more prominently engrained in the company culture by choosing the right UX methods in projects. The success stories from those projects sell the value of UX. However, motivation at the workplace to excel and improve is very low. We are all state of Minnesota employees and the only thing that affects salary is your tenure. UX should be a strategic focus coming from the top, but it clearly isn't. I am looking at other career options rather than staying where I am. I feel it may be a lost cause to build something great there. In other words, my career growth as a UX professional is limited substantially by staying where I am. I feel I am just beginning, and I learned a lot since 2009 when that journey began. It appears internship is out of the question. However, I do like the idea of an apprenticeship. The Nerdery is definitely a place I am interested in. I live in Minnesota and would like to stay in the region (if possible) to continue my career. RIT is based in NY and many of the companies they refer students to are based there. I have relatives (spouse's) in Boston area, so a move to that region may be a possibility. Even Seattle area may be a good fit. I would prefer to stay in Rochester, MN, but my options are limited to Mayo Clinic and IBM, and few small startups. I will look at updating my portfolio on my website, but time is a factor as I am fully booked at work and also doing my capstone.

15 Oct 2013 - 4:26pm

Given your background, I do not think you are jr. You have a related career already in UX development...this is not that far from UX design, given that you are  implementing UI. Most of the move in the industry is going towards rapid prototyping using CSS and HTML to prototype UX designs,  rather than doing wireframes and specifications, so you are ahead of the curve. UX is a lot of different things: its following UX methodology, but it's also designing products, doing user research and usability testing and doing UI prototyping/UI development.

Given your background, as a hiring manager, I would want to know about your actual product design experience (where you designed a UX vs. implementing one, and how in your job and on projects you've used various UX methods and improved UX/customer satisifaction. If you could demonstrate conceptual design skills, you'd be very attractive a potential employer due to your development background because you could do prototyping, implementation and design. You'd be able to speak the same language as the developers and understand the limitations of the technology they are using to implement. I don't think you will have a problem finding the job that you want, I think your biggest concern is finding the job you want in MInnesota.

There's many aspect to UX design....and employers are always looking for people who have more than one skill... and UI development skills tend to top the list. The mythical UX unicorn is the person who can ddesign the UX interaction, dothe  visual design and code the design. If you had the portfolio and job experience to demonstrate this, and the degree, I think that many employers who be very interested in you.

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