When my husband’s employer transferred us to the US, it meant a big move from Ukraine to New York City. I had to leave my role as a UX designer for EPAM Systems, a digital transformation company in Kyiv, and wanted to find a position with an American company. Job searches are always challenging, but searching for a UX design job when I was new to the country was especially tough. There are additional obstacles when you’re navigating a new culture, language, and city all at once.
To keep myself from getting overwhelmed, I divided my efforts into three phases: the search, the interview preparation, and the post-interview follow-up and reflection. The process took several months, and I learned valuable lessons that I want to share with other designers pursuing a UX career in the US or with US-based companies.
Laying the Groundwork for a UX Design Job Search
Before you plunge into the UX design interview process, work on the basics like networking with fellow designers, practicing your language skills, and curating a standout portfolio.
Networking is the No. 1 way people get jobs, so it’s important to connect with others, either online or in person. Make sure you have a profile on LinkedIn and join relevant communities like LinkedIn’s User Experience group. Participate in design-oriented discussions on Twitter. Join one or several design associations, and reach out to people you’d like to learn from or get to know. In addition to helping you find opportunities, networking will help you stay positive and motivated, since the job search can be lonely.
I moved to New York City just before the COVID-19 lockdowns, which made it difficult to connect with other design professionals. But I joined conferences and sessions virtually and met several connections that way. Since things have opened up, I have been able to attend local networking events in person, such as the Tech and Startup Networking Mixer.
Develop Cultural Competencies
During a job search with American companies, those of us from Eastern Europe or elsewhere outside the US face a common challenge: communicating effectively in English and understanding American culture. The preparation phase is the time to get comfortable with this.
Practice Your English-speaking Skills
Speaking in English with Americans was an adjustment for me, but I was lucky, because in Ukraine I regularly used my English at work when talking to clients, and I had several American friends. Still, when I moved to the US, I discovered that the culture and communication styles in America were different from those in Ukraine.
For example, when an American asks, “How are you?” they are simply extending a greeting, not looking for an account of your day. Also, in Ukraine I was pretty direct with my feedback to colleagues, but in the US direct feedback can sometimes come off as too blunt. I also find that Americans use a lot of idioms, so I ask for clarification when I don’t understand something, and most of the time people are nice and don’t mind explaining.
I recommend connecting with a speaker of American English—online or offline—and talking to them about day-to-day topics. I do CrossFit workouts, so joining classes was a good way for me to meet people and work on my English skills.
Immerse Yourself in the Regional Culture
America is an enormous country, and communication styles vary from state to state. When I visited Southern California, people were so open and friendly. It was actually almost overwhelming. In New York City, on the other hand, people are more reserved until they get to know you. It’s busy and fast-paced. Because of these differences, I recommend familiarizing yourself with some of the distinguishing factors of the regions where you’re applying. Beware of stereotyping or overgeneralizing, of course, but gaining some insight into regional context can be helpful.
Perfect Your Portfolio
Your portfolio should reflect a strong personal brand. It’s worth taking the time to define this for yourself: Consider what your design philosophy and aesthetics are and examine how you want to be viewed by others. Your portfolio should also show your process, since employers not only want to see finished projects, but also how you resolved problems, workshopped or tested different iterations of a design, and interacted with stakeholders. I like to put my process in a scheme that includes the steps and activities each project entails. I show how I came up with various solutions throughout a project. There is no one way to document your work—you can be creative, as long as your processes are clear.
Be sure to have an “about you” section and include personal details like where you’re from and what you do for fun. This section can spark conversation and build a bond between you and a potential employer. For instance, I included that I speak four languages, and that I enjoy teaching and mentoring others in UX design. I also volunteer for an organization that works to preserve the orca whale population.
When I launched my job search in the US, I reached out to a friend who worked at Google, figuring a referral would improve my chances of getting a position at the tech giant. I had no real understanding of the hiring process or even how to sell myself and failed to land a job there. Had I applied to smaller companies first to become acquainted with hiring practices and to work on interviewing, I might have been hired.
Don’t Be Afraid to Follow Up
When I moved to the US, I thought that if an American employer didn’t respond to my cover letter within a week, that meant they didn’t like me. Not necessarily true! A few days after contacting an organization, you should call or email the human resources department to follow up. In some cases, hiring managers may be evaluating candidates on how proactive they are or how interested they seem in the position, so following up can move your résumé to the top of the pile.
Once You’ve Landed the Interview
You’ve sent out dozens of resumes, built relationships with fellow UI/UX designers, and made sure your portfolio is pixel-perfect. You’ve heard back from a recruiter or hiring manager, and now you have an interview on the calendar. Here’s how to prepare yourself to ensure your UX designer interview process is a success.
Practice the UX Interview
When I began interviewing, I conducted mock interviews with a friend and recorded them. It was only then that I realized I did not sound engaged or excited; my voice was monotone and overly serious. In general, I find Americans are often more animated in conversation; I worried that I was conveying a lack of enthusiasm about the job, and that I would be perceived as rude. I immediately began working on this. Recording yourself can pay off big if you’re looking to improve your interview speaking skills. If you record yourself using video, you can also get a good sense of your posture and facial expressions. The recording may show something you didn’t notice about yourself, and if you are brave enough to face that, you will improve greatly.
Prepare to Discuss Successes and Failures
Ask the friend who’s role-playing with you to ask you about a favorite project. Then have them ask you to talk about one that was especially challenging. Employers will want to hear how you handled a failure or disappointment. My friend Anna—also a designer—did this for me, and because she knew my work, she could point out details I’d left out, or areas where I was selling myself short. Afterward, I asked her to critique me. Was I clear? Did I emphasize my strengths and sell myself? Her feedback helped me see where I could improve my voice and tone to better demonstrate my excitement about the job. She also helped me construct a more sophisticated story about myself and what led to my various transitions to new roles throughout my career.
Pro tip: Although relevant experience in a particular field can be beneficial, some companies are looking to disrupt the state of things, so previous experience may actually work against you. Prepare for this eventuality during your UX interview prep and get ready to talk about how your experience can help in disruption efforts.
Your demeanor should demonstrate that you’re eager to land a new job. In my case, that took practice. Even when I was excited about a new opportunity, my voice sometimes told a different story: I was often nervous and busy translating the English in my head. I had to really work on projecting confidence and conveying my enthusiasm in interviews. That turned out to be a crucial way of demonstrating my competence and getting that call back.
Share Your Career Story
Storytelling may be one of the most important skills for landing a job. An authentic story that demonstrates your passion will give you an advantage over other applicants. It should be honest; don’t say you always dreamed of becoming a designer if that’s not the truth. Personally, I have a background in architecture, and I never thought of becoming a UX professional. When I interviewed for jobs in the US, I told the story of how, when I tried UX design, I unexpectedly connected with the process.
I also share how the things I did prior to becoming a UX designer shaped my vision, goals, and priorities. For example, I learned English while working as a bartender in Ukraine, because my boss spoke only English. It’s a good story because I didn’t realize at the time how that job would help me gain the language skills that would become so valuable in my work as a designer. Connect the dots in your life and tell your own story. Even if the story is about a failure, if it shows how you became the person you are, tell it!
Don’t Be Afraid to Take Credit
Design is collaborative, so you must demonstrate that you can partner with fellow designers and stakeholders, give and accept feedback, problem solve, and share the spotlight. That said, you also need to be able to talk about your personal achievements. Be prepared to point specifically to your own contributions that positively affected a process or product. I’ve noticed that many of my fellow Eastern Europeans tend to underestimate themselves and avoid pointing out their own strengths. This may be something we absorbed culturally; however, when applying for jobs in the US, you need to go outside your comfort zone and be able to articulate what you bring to the table.
Reflecting: Wrapping Up the UX Design Job Interview Process
After an interview, especially if it included multiple rounds and a design assignment, you might be tempted to relax, believing you’ve done everything you need to do. Yet there are still steps you can take to maximize your chances of landing the role.
Send a Thank-you Email
Email a brief thank-you note within 24 hours of an interview. While a handwritten note is nice, mail can take too long, especially if your potential employer wants to fill the role quickly. If a recruiter facilitated your call and you don’t have your interviewer’s email, send a thank you to the recruiter and ask them to forward it.
Reach Out Once More
If you haven’t heard from a company for two weeks, do not be shy about sending a polite message to your interviewer asking if they have made a decision yet. Offer to provide anything else they need. Do this to emphasize that you are serious about and still interested in working for them.
Learn From Your Rejections
Being rejected is disappointing and can affect your motivation. Give yourself time to sit with your emotions, then reflect on what might have happened. Consider reaching out to the recruiter or manager who interviewed you and ask for feedback. They may not be willing or able to provide it, but occasionally they are. One design manager I interviewed with said she did not have concerns about my technical or design skills, but felt I had room for improvement in connecting my work to the value it brought the business.
Her advice was to take another look at my case study and try reframing it around impact. She suggested organizing it like a story, highlighting the overall narrative, starting with the problem and segueing into how we solved it. She felt I needed to improve my storytelling and persuasion skills, because her team included many colleagues who didn’t understand the design process well.
Get Clear on What You Want
You can be so focused on getting an employer to say “yes” that you may not have considered if you actually want the job. They may have to choose you, but you also have to choose them. It’s crucial that the company you work for supports your career growth and your overall life goals. In the end, it’s about you finding the right fit. By familiarizing yourself with how the UX design interview process works in the US and investing the time and effort to practice and prepare, you can discover the perfect opportunity while demonstrating that you have the skills and talents to excel in the role.