In 2012, I picked up “The Lean Startup and the book rocked my world.

“Lean” introduced a new methodology that has since changed the way many startups and organizations build products. As a career coach, I found out that lean approaches can be applied to the job hunt to help designers land their first UX job, internship, or freelance gig. But more on that in a moment.

Lean methodology places experimentation and learning above all else. What is our hypothesis? What assumptions do we need to test? Hence the now-industry jargon:

Fail fast, fail often.

Codified into a process, this becomes a feedback loop for learning: build, measure, learn.

lean feedback loop

How UX job seekers get stuck in the waterfall trap

The opposite of lean is waterfall. Waterfall model means following a logical progression of steps. There’s a strict order of operations.

waterfall method

This methodology works well when we know exactly what we’re doing, the timeline is predictable, and there are ample resources to cover a major change.

We all know job hunting is far from predictable. Transitioning into UX can take months or years.

As a UX coach and mentor, I find that my students are often stuck in “waterfall” mentality.

How’s the job hunt going?

I haven’t started yet

What’s holding you back?

I don’t feel like my UX skills are strong enough yet. Then I need to get experience, build a portfolio, then apply to a job.

The problem is not that UXers lack talent.

The problem is perfection.

the perfection trap

The perfection trap.

Before applying to any job, new UXers often feel like they have to get everything down perfect. Why?

  • Reason 1: Designers tend to be perfectionists. We can’t help but tweak our portfolios endlessly and sweat over the details.
  • Reason 2: Confusion in the marketplace. Job listings are asking for 3+ years of experience even for entry-level UX roles. (Psst… you should apply anyway.)

So how do lean startup methodologies help you kill “perfection”?

Let’s revisit a core idea of lean:

A core component of lean startup methodology is the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The first step is to identify the problem, then develop a minimum viable product (MVP) to see if it solves that problem.

If we think of a career as our own “product,” then we can employ the build-measure-learn feedback loop to make quick progress.

How to apply ‘lean’ thinking to a UX job application process

An iterative approach to your job hunt

A more iterative approach to your job hunt.

1. BUILD: Finish the non-negotiable materials

lean startup methodology: build

Just as startups build minimum viable products, I encourage you to make a minimum viable portfolio.

Start with the end in sight. To get a job, you must apply with a resume and portfolio. Build the “minimum viable” version for these UX application materials. Use a UX resume template and write your case study using a text-first approach before spending too much time making them fancy.

Part of making a minimum viable product is the viable part—you need to have a decent starting point. (There’s no point putting low-quality stuff out into the world). It’s a balance between getting your core ideas together so that you can gather worthwhile feedback, and not burning too many hours perfecting your design portfolio.

Speaking of feedback…

2. MEASURE: User-test your case study and gather feedback

lean startup methodology: measure

There’s great value in getting your work looked at by an external (and hopefully objective) party. This helps you evaluate your work with fresh eyes.

This is like doing your own user testing. Both verbal and nonverbal feedback are useful when presenting your portfolio. Often times it’s not what your audience says (“Oh, good job!”) but rather how they behave (that look of confusion on their face) that gives you the best insights.

By the way, with test participants you should gauge:

  • Whether your content is easy to understand and scan through—is there too much text?
  • If other people can navigate your case study, portfolio, and overall design—where do they pause and have some confusion?
  • What are the main “takeaways” from your audience?

Pro tip: Start with someone without a design background to gauge how easy-to-understand your presentation is. Then get an actual UX designer to critique your work. Even better if a more senior UX designer can review it.

3. LEARN: Apply to jobs and iterate

lean startup methodology: learn

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. WIth your minimum viable portfolio and UX resume, start applying to jobs.

Just as startup teams try to find product-market fit (would people want to pay for their software?), as a UX designer you want to gauge for portfolio-market fit. Is your work getting you job leads, conversations with recruiters, and interviews?

Set up an experiment of applying to 10 jobs, and check for the response rate. If you get some responses, that may be enough—you pass the “job applications” sniff test. If no responses come in, then you may need more feedback and to update to your materials. The build-measure-learn cycle repeats again.

This is the point where many UX designers psych themselves out and don’t apply. “What if I’m not ready for the interview? What if my portfolio isn’t ready yet?”

I would counter that applying makes you a better designer. It lights a fire under you to keep iterating and improving.

If you apply and don’t get a response, at least it forces you to polish up some job application materials.

If you get an interview but don’t get the job offer, at least you get valuable interview practice.

And if you get an offer… well, that’s great! Take it or leave it.

Pro tip: If you have a dream job but don’t feel ready to apply for it, don’t. Instead, apply to your second-choice companies for practice. It also helps you build momentum and confidence.

Getting a UX job comes from building small successes over time

I challenge you to start small, iterate, and apply before you think you’re “ready.”

Working lean is not only reserved for scrappy startups. You can borrow lean methodology to identify areas of improvement, and quickly learn how you can make adjustments to find your fit in the UX job marketplace.

I’ll finish off with some nuggets of lean methodology, applied to the job search:

  • Don’t burn lots of resources up front. Instead of spending hours (months?!) preparing to apply to your first job, apply with the minimum requirements to get in the mindset and momentum of applying.
  • Start with small, cheap experiments to figure out what customers want. This can be as simple as pulling together UX job descriptions and identifying keywords and patterns.
  • Iterate on your job application materials over time. With each phone call or interview, you’ll pick up something new you can optimize. Maybe it’s realizing you need more UX interview practice, or to present your portfolio in a different way.

In essence, don’t try to get it “perfect” the first time. Start with small steps, adjust and improve over time, and apply to that job earlier than you feel ready.

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