Freelance UX DesignerElisabeth Mayr

UX Design

How I'd try to get into UX Design in today's landscape

I’ve seen UX Designer roles range between £35,000 and £90,000+. Not bad. On top of that, it’s a job you can do from anywhere which opens up tons of opportunities to live and work remotely. As a UX Designer myself, I see why so many people are trying to get into this field.

In the last view months I’ve been asked a lot about how I got into freelancing and UX. And because I don’t like repeating myself I thought I’ll write this article so I can just send it to people.

Feel free to scroll further down if you aren’t interested in the backstory of ‘How Elisabeth spent her first year alone in London’ and just want to learn about how I’d try to break into UX today.

How I got into UX Design back in 2015

I had no idea or even heard the term UX until about 6 years ago. I was in my mid-twenties and only just moved to London. I’ve already had a job before which didn’t challenge me. So studying advertising and doing an exchange year abroad should be my career change into something I actually enjoyed doing: Copywriting — at least that’s what I thought.

Not being an English native made it hard to get a job in that field and I was running out of money. I had about 3 months left of savings and was too proud to ask my parents for financial help so I could stay in London for longer.

Never underestimate the power of your portfolio

Our university had an exhibition spot at D&AD New Blood and a few people from the industry would try and find new hires there. I had little hope to find a copywriting internship, but I’ve put my portfolio on top of the pile when nobody was watching. And then this guy came along.

He asked about my copywriting portfolio and who designed it. I said it was me, because you can’t just print a word document, and that copy and visuals have to work together. He had a closer look, we exchanged business cards when he said “I’ll give you an internship” and left. I checked his card. His name was Dan and he worked for a digital marketing company.

We were exhibition stand 7 or something out of I don’t know how many. So I assumed by the time he’ll be done looking at everyone’s work, he will have forgotten about me. The next day I got an email if I could come in for an interview.

How I got the wrong internship

I spent so much time learning everything I could about that digital marketing company. And when I finally had the interview, we barely talked about my copywriting portfolio. All they asked was “When can you start?” and “Are you okay with minimum wage?” and I had the job. I even remember high-fiving the receptionist on the way out.

I couldn’t believe it. This felt too easy. But I was just so relieved that I would finally earn some money and that I wouldn’t have to move back to Austria.

On my first day, they sat me next to their copywriter. I was so excited to learn from him.

Then Dan introduced me to everyone as the new design intern. Design intern? What the heck! The whole time we’ve been talking about copywriting. But I tried to pretend that I wasn’t surprised, I needed an income to stay in the UK, so I just played along.

Learning design basics

In hindsight, I was super lucky that I got the wrong internship. It was actually the perfect internship for me. My task was to design emails for Debenhams and Talk Talk which were their clients back then. And with emails, there’s only so much you can do: Image + text spread across 1 column or 2 columns. That’s it.

So I learnt the basics of design, all the shortcuts, how to best crop images etc. It was a great crash course. Once the internship period was over, they offered me a full-time role. Just to take the offer back the week after because they had no budget to pay me properly. Instead, they wanted me to extend the internship for another 3 months.

Always negotiate

I didn’t want to do that. My rent at the time was £650, travel expenses around £140 and I was earning just over £1k. I also started to get bored of the job. So I negotiated to earn the same as my internship salary, but to only work three days a week instead of five. They agreed.

For the other two days I found myself a new internship. That one paid me an incredible £20/day. I also had to invoice them, so technically I was a freelancer. No pension contribution, no paid annual leave, no national insurance cover. But hey, I had the other internship to cover for that.

Two steps back, one step forward

The new internship was for a startup that has recently got funding. They developed a parking app. My tasks included to help out with social media and marketing. I finally got to write some copy, even if it was just for a few tweets. I also designed graphics for the newsletter, which was my new “expertise”.

The team had an amazing woman working at the marketing team, Kristina. She had a look at the app data and said that the users weren’t using the main features. They simply panned on the map and clicked on pins, but they didn’t use any of the features to find the cheapest or nearest parking.

The CEO wouldn’t believe her. He was so sure the app he designed was obvious and intuitive to use. Kristina wanted to proof him that data doesn’t lie and invited some of our most heavy users.

Doing UX without knowing about UX

Kristina organised some research sessions and I helped her with creating a questionnaire and tasks. We got some Franco Manca for everyone and observed how they used the app. To the CEO’s surprise (not ours) they did exactly what Kristina assumed. None of them were using the features. When asked “How would you improve the app?” the users requested features that were already built into the app, but not discoverable.

What can you do today that you couldn't do a year ago?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

We then took their feedback and made changes to the UI. I didn’t even know what UI was, but I made some tweaks in Photoshop. Yes, you read that right, I used Photoshop. But again, I didn’t even know what UX or UI was. I also had no clue that inviting those users and observing them was ‘User research’.

Talk to the right people

I don’t remember who I talked to, if it was one of the people we interviewed, one of my friends or someone I met on Tinder. But that someone asked me what I’m doing for a living and when I told them, they said “Oh, so you’re doing UX?”

So I went home, googled UX and realised that all the tasks I actually enjoyed at that internship were part of the UX spectrum. I started to browse for jobs that had UX in the title but they included tasks like wireframing, prototyping, using Sketch and all sort of things that sounded like a foreign language to me. So I didn’t apply. Yet.

Unpaid work

One random house party I met Luca who had an idea for an app but no budget. I voluntered to design it for him. After a few meetings, lots of googling and designing, I sent him the designs and he loved them. He hired a company to implement the designs and I had my first case study.

With that, I felt more confident to apply for UX roles. I must have sent easily over 200 applications until I got my first interview. It lasted 3+ hours. And I got the job.

Butterfly effect

This is how I got my first official UX job. If I wouldn’t have snuck my portfolio to the top of the pile, I wouldn’t have gotten that design internship by accident. If they wouldn’t have taken back their offer to hire me full time, I wouldn’t have applied for the internship with the parking app. I wouldn’t have had interest in designing an app for a friend and therefore wouldn’t have had a real life case study. And I would have never applied for a UX role. So after all I consider myself very lucky that Dan got me that first design internship.

Today’s UX Landscape

Today’s UX landscape isn’t easy to get into. If you have experience, great! People will chase you. I get so many messages through Linkedin and even my website directly from recruiters and clients who send me job specs or ask for my availability. But as someone who has no prior UX experience, it’s very hard to get your first role. There are so many cookie cutter boot camps out there, recruiters get overwhelmed and don’t know who to hire, so they’d rather hire someone with experience.


One year after I had my first official UX role, my manager left the company and I took over his role. The company published the same job ad on the same platforms to hire another junior designer — 300+ people applied.

I asked my previous manager how many people applied when I joined a year ago, because I couldn’t imagine that someone with as little experience as me would’ve been able to compete against so many applications. He said there were around 14 applications. From those he interviewed 4. That’s when I realised how lucky I was with timing.

How I’d try to get into UX today

I love UX, it’s a job that will keep on challenging you. Even after working as a UX designer for about 7 years, I’m not getting bored of it. So yes, I’d still try to be a UX designer today. Here are the routes I’d take with what I know today:

I love UX, it’s a job that will keep on challenging you. Even after working as a UX designer for about 7 years, I’m not getting bored of it. So yes, I’d still try to be a UX designer today. Here are the routes I’d take with what I know today:

Option A — The internship route aka the slow route

If you actually read the whole story above (Thank you for reading all of that, I appreciate it. I know there’s a reason I didn’t become a copywriter) you know that I got into UX through the internship route.

I’d recommend to get a job at a start up that develops software. That can be an app, desktop application, video games — anything that will need a UX designer to improve their product.

You don’t have to apply for a UX role, it can be as a copywriter, marketer, developer, basically anything.

I suggest start ups because in small companies you will do a little bit of everything. You will not just do the task they hire you for but will also be able to dip your toes into design. But clarify that before taking the job, let them know that this is what you’re interested in.

But would I work months and months in companies where I’m being underpaid? Probably not now that I’m in my 30s. So I’d choose:

Option B — Bootcamps

There are so many courses on UX out there. A lot of them are free or cheap. But let’s admit it: How many free or cheap courses have you signed up to and actually finished? Exactly.

Dribble did a great list about available courses out there. The one I’d sign up to is actually the course from Dribbble themselves. Brad Frost teaching about Atomic Design alone would be worth the money for me, but they also have a former Google HR person knowing what it takes to get to the interview stage.

I’ve recommended that course to so many people that I’ve reached out to Dribbble to see if there is an affiliate link. And there is! So this is the course and here’s a link which will get you 40% off and I will get something out of it too. Win win!

So that’s the route I’d take today, take that course and apply for jobs after. But my financial situation might be different from yours. With today’s cost of living crisis, I’m aware that it’s not in everyone’s budget. So here’s another option if you’re currently low on cash:

Option C — Learning by doing

I’m aware that not everyone has a budget to invest into a UX course. If you do have the budget but don’t feel like it’s worth the money, you probably need to shift your mindset. Because you’re indirectly telling yourself you’re not worth the money. But if you seriously don’t have the budget, you can also learn by doing.

There are so many free tutorials online. Download Figma, it’s free. Take a screenshot of your favourite app and try to replicate it in Figma. If you don’t know how to do it, google it. YouTube is your friend.

Read about UX principles, Nielsen Norman will teach you loads. The site looks a bit outdated but their teaching is the UX bible. Get acquainted with Google’s Material Design and Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines.

Ask your friends and family if they know anyone who needs a website or has an idea for an app. Design it for them. You’ll learn more from working on an actual product end to end than doing small individual tasks.

General advice

It’s important to figure out which part of UX you’re interested in. How do you want to shape your expertise? I’d recommend to aim for T-shaped knowledge: Broad on UX in general but deep in one specific UX area.

Are you curious and interested in human behaviour? Then it’s probably research.
Do you like to execute things and have an eye for visuals? UI will be your thing.
Do you want to be challenged and find solutions to problems? Learn about flow charts and wire framing.

You’ll get a job in the end. If you didn’t, it’s not the end

Whichever route you decide to take, the most important thing is not to give up. You will get your first UX role if you continue working on your skills. Keep improving your skillset, write case studies for your portfolio and don’t get discouraged.