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Break into UX design with these 7 critical skills

From the behavioral study of animals (gorillas to be precise) to UX Design, Irene No shares her career path along with the 7 skills you need to start your career in UX Design.

Behind the scenes

Last updated

18 Aug 2022
Interested in becoming a UX designer? Here are the skills you need to make it, plus tips for creating a stand-out portfolio for an upcoming interview.

User experience (UX) design has become an increasingly popular career. Brands are looking for problem-solvers to map out delightful customer experiences and ultimately improve the journeys people have on and off their websites. It was never my plan to become a UX designer, but all paths have led me to where I am today: Senior Product Designer at Hotjar. 

How I got into UX design 

My career has been anything but linear. I started off studying biology but never graduated. My major was ethology in zoology (which is the behavioral study of animals). I specialized in gorillas but did still study apes, including chimpanzees, but my specific focus was gorillas.   

The plan was to move to the Congo, but health issues put a stop to that. I decided that if I couldn’t continue to study gorillas and chimpanzees, I didn’t want to do biology anymore, so I quit and began working in visual design. It was an industry that wasn’t particularly big at the time—nowhere near as big as it is now. 

But I didn’t like digital design at all. It wasn’t for me. I loved materials and the printing process. My first job was what I call 3D UX because I ended up working in museums and exhibitions. You get a budget, they provide you with resources, give you a space, and then your job is to figure out how people are going to move through the space and experience it. 

This was the first time my brain started to link behavior and design together. I ended up moving to China. I arrived with no savings and no job but worked for two years on market research in an engineering company which gave me the understanding of how markets and companies connect as well as the impact it has on company strategy. 

After three-and-a-half years in China, I moved to London to work in luxury interior design and then finance. At the finance company, I was working in visual design and found it incredibly boring. But there was a product design team there who were doing something very different. They weren’t designing pretty banners—they were designing how humans would connect with machines. That caught my interest. I started to interact with the product design team and decided I needed a career change. 

General Assembly, a career development school, was running a night course in product design that I attended for 10 weeks. Then I found a job at a startup as a product designer working alongside engineers. This was a huge change coming from a visual design background—it was all about hardcore strategy. It broke my ideas about the design world and encouraged me to start thinking about constraints and making functional things. 

My journey was not fast or linear, but each experience I had, paired with my pervading interest in behavior, brought me to where I am today—working in product design for the payments and monetization segment at Hotjar. 

All this to say, there is no one route into user experience and UX design.

Hotjar’s hiring and interview process for UX roles

I’ve been on both sides of the table at Hotjar. I’ve interviewed, and I’ve been interviewed. Hotjar’s hiring process is one of the most respectful hiring processes I’ve ever experienced. 

I was lucky enough to be contacted by them through LinkedIn, but there are plenty of ways you can express interest, including applying directly from LinkedIn or responding to ads on the Hotjar site. 

Regardless of how you apply, every candidate goes through the same interview process: 

  1. Conversations with team members: aspiring product designers are introduced to the Head of Product for a short, informal chat. If that goes well, you’re put through to an interview with the manager or leader you’d be working with. 

  2. Paid task: applicants are then given a task to complete. The task varies, depending on the type of work that you’d be doing, but you will always be paid for the workable days you put into it. Hotjar gives product designers two weeks to complete a three-day task so you can work it around your other commitments.

  3. Company communication: during the paid task, you’re embedded into the product team. You’re in full contact on Slack because, as much as you’re being interviewed, you’re also deciding if you want to work at the company. This approach gives you time to consider whether you’re comfortable with the way Hotjar works and whether you like working remotely, using Slack, and the type of projects you’d be working on.  

  4. Task analysis: once the task is complete (or the two weeks are up), candidates are invited to analyze their contribution. This is your chance to highlight whether you did too much or too little and to explain why you carried out the task in the way you did. Hotjar is realistic in knowing that the outcome will be the result of only three days’ time allotment and limited resources.

How to become a UX designer: 7 Important skills every good UX designer needs

Humans don’t create, they discover. 

That’s our position as product designers. We’re not artists in the traditional sense. We can be artists in our free time, but as product designers, we have to work with budgets, constraints, and tight deadlines. We’re working with the benefit of the user in mind and are tasked with connecting the dots. 

It helps to have a few key traits in addition to understanding the practical elements of UX design:

1. We’re problem solvers, not pixel movers 

We need to juggle individual users’ needs, product parameters, budgets, time constraints, and what we’re physically (and digitally) capable of doing. We need to do all this and create a wonderful experience that solves a problem for our users. 

The solution isn’t always obvious. In fact, sometimes it’s not even screen-based, and this is something people forget about. We’re not pixel movers, we’re problem solvers, and I think this is an important phrase to remember when you’re trying to get into a job and choosing which company to work for. You’ll get more satisfaction out of a job where people understand you’re solving problems, not designing a screen. 

2. We need to be humble 

There are many ways to solve a problem. 

To figure out the best way, you need to listen a lot and communicate consistently with the end user. 

You also need to communicate with internal teams and different departments. These other teams have a ton of knowledge that can fuel your solutions. They know what can be done and what can’t be done, but they might also have insights into what the problem is if you haven’t yet worked it out. 

As UX designers, we’re linking all this knowledge together to create a solution that is the right fit for our users. This is why being humble is crucial. Something you worked on might not solve the problem. The problem you thought was the problem might not be the problem at all, and it’s important to acknowledge this. 

3. We’re observers as well as listeners

Listening is a big part of understanding what users want, but observing is critical. 

Users might not tell you the truth. They might tell you what they think you want to hear. Observing fills in the gaps and taps into actions rather than words. Data is pivotal for this, so it’s important you can understand data or are at least beginning to grasp it. Users might be telling you one thing, but if the data is saying something different, it’s up to you to discover what’s really going on. 

4. We have to stay open-minded 

UX designers have to be resourceful with the contradictory information they get, and it’s crucial to be open-minded to really understand what’s going on–especially if you’re working on a global product. Different people process things in very different ways.

I’ve tested with users in South Korea, and they tend to behave very differently from the users I’ve tested in Brazil. You need to be open-minded to understand how you can factor all these different behaviors into one solution.

Irene, No
Senior Product Designer at Hotjar

5. We use our past experiences to stay ‘street smart’

My career went in circles, and I’ve experienced a variety of different jobs. Some people go and study product design and replicate the same process again and again, never getting to the bottom of the problems they’re trying to solve. They’re not asking why enough times. As UX designers, our past experiences are incredibly valuable in helping us find solutions.

For example, just last month I was working on a complicated project across multiple platforms and teams. I used a process that I learned in biology for analyzing the process of digestion to identify how we process things on different platforms between Hotjar’s internal team and external stakeholders. When I was learning this in my biology class, I never would have imagined using it in this capacity, but you never know when your past experiences might play a part in what you’re doing today. 

6. We’re always experimenting 

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Hotjar provides a very safe space to do this and welcomes product designers to experiment and play around with problems and solutions. When an experiment doesn’t work, we can pivot to something else. This is where we can get creative too—maybe something from a past job role will spark an idea, or maybe our grandma had a really great way of solving a specific problem that we can bring to the table. 

7. We don’t have to know it all 

The best skill a UX designer can have is not knowing it all.

You don’t need to know all the platforms, all the upcoming trends, or all the fancy words. Sometimes thinking you know everything can put you at a disadvantage because it closes you off to learning new solutions and new ways to identify problems. Our job is to connect the dots, not know everything there is to know. Plus, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with technology. 

I don’t know about animation. It doesn’t stop my career, though. I have team members who do know about animation—or automation, or the latest artificial intelligence (AI). Growing your skills as a UX designer involves being part of a team.

You can’t excel at everything, there are just too many parts. Instead, reach out to the right people who can work with you where you fall short.

Irene, No
Senior Product Designer at Hotjar

How to build a UX portfolio if you haven’t worked in UX before

I hadn’t worked in UX before I started working in UX. It’s the same for a lot of people who find themselves in UX roles. However, having a portfolio that shows your abilities can be really helpful in landing you the UX job of your dreams.

So what if you don’t have any past projects to show? What do you do then? 

  • Stick to what you’re good at. Don’t try to be a master of everything. Stick to what you’re good at, whether it’s app design, website design, or something else. Find entry-level freelance projects or do small jobs for friends and family that fit the bill. 

  • Create your own project. Figure out how to solve a problem you can do yourself. Come up with a budget and write a brief. For example, if an app frustrates you, re-do it on your own terms. 

  • Explain your process. If part of the project involves working with other teams but you don’t have access to them yet, explain how you would work together to solve the problem. Specifically, highlight how you would work with users and talk about what roles engineers, marketers, or visual designers would take in your hypothetical project. 

Whatever you do, remember to focus on your strengths. You will also develop new skills in any role you take on.

I love the problem-solving aspect of UX design and creatively thinking about ways to improve the customer journey. It combines all my interests and past experiences. If, like me, you’re interested in the entire user experience and not just the visual aspect, UX design might be the career path for you.

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