Apr 13, 2023 Written by David Barlev

Switching careers to Product Design: Success stories and tips

Almost three years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic completely changed the job market. I, like many others, started reconsidering my career towards jobs that could be done remotely. Naturally, my search started within the IT sector, which has been gaining popularity in Armenia for quite some time. After dismissing a bunch of coding-related professions, I decided to dive deeper into product design, which at that point had become one of the new hot career opportunities with many of my friends working in UX.

Revisiting my own experience of switching careers, as well as seeing people around me being interested in product design, but still doubtful when it comes to pursuing it, I decided to interview several designers at my current company to get honest feedback on what it’s like to become a product designer if you have no prior experience in the tech industry. I hope this article will help you clear your doubts and answer some questions you might be having before making your big move.

1. Can anyone become a Product Designer?

The short answer is… Yes! Although some careers are going to advantage you a lot more than others. If you come from marketing, you’re going to have a head start in understanding the strategic aspect of product design. Similarly, if you come from any design-related background, you’ll easily get the hang of the visual side of it.

Here at Goji Labs, we have people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds, from marketing to graphic design to architecture and construction. So, at the end of the day what really matters is how you can apply your previous experience when making the transition to product design.

Previous Experience Helps

Brandon, an ex-landscape architecture designer turned product designer, remembers his process of getting into this sphere. “I was trying to keep my old skillset relevant, while also trying to take in all these new skills that I was acquiring. Luckily, there was a lot of overlap, since my previous job was design related. Although, product design has this other, more technical side, where problem-solving and in-depth strategic thinking are more important than anything. And I can see how people from other, non-design-related professions can easily get into this, especially if they had experience with problem-solving or thinking through complex puzzles in the past”.

Fill In Your Gaps

April, a lead product designer at Goji, used to do multi-media freelancing before getting into product design. “I think if you’re someone coming from any sort of art background you will have an advantage in understanding basic design concepts like color or composition. Or, if you are coming from a psychology background, you’ll have a really good way of empathizing with the users. I think in general it’s important to understand where your gaps are and try to fill in those gaps during your transition process.”

No Prior Experience Is Not A Blocker

Sage, one of our junior product designers, didn’t have any prior design experience when switching to product design. Sage used to work in the construction industry and her work setting was very conservative, which is why she was looking to switch to something that would involve more creative freedom. “A lot of my friends work in tech, and I was always interested in it myself, even though I thought that the only way of getting into it was by doing coding. When my partner told me about UX design, I thought that it can be something that I might be interested in. Another thing that I was considering at the time was psychology, so when I learned that empathizing and connecting with users was a really big aspect of product design, it made it a lot easier for me to connect to this new career path”.

2. Where should I start?

Completing a UI/UX Bootcamp is the typical response you’re gonna get from anyone who’s been on this journey before. However, when asked about this, Sage had a slightly different take on the question. “I think if you are really interested in doing a Bootcamp, the first thing you need to do is read as much as you can about product design, talk to people already working in UX, and really see if this is something you want to do before you make that commitment”.

Sage herself took a short Udemy course prior to her Bootcamp to get familiar with the concept of product design in general and see if this was something she was interested in. Brandon, on the other hand, mentioned that his Bootcamp was structured in a way that students had to take a design course before diving into the Bootcamp itself and mentioned that the course was really useful for people, who came from a non-design-related background since it helped them understand the basics and ultimately realize what they were in for.

3. How do I choose the right Bootcamp?

I think it would be best to rephrase this particular question to “How do I choose the right Bootcamp for me?” There are hundreds of courses out there, some of which focus on certain aspects of UX design, while others cover the entire UX process and typically last from 6 months to a year.

The prices for the Bootcamps vary as well, however, courses that are priced higher are not necessarily better in quality or guarantee in any way that you will find easy employment after graduation.

Make Sure the Price Fits Your Budget

April remembers her frustration when it came to choosing the right Bootcamp. “I had a choice between doing an offline course and an online Bootcamp, but at that point, I was over school and didn’t want to get back into a classroom, so online seemed like a more reasonable option. Also, the price points were very different, and I wasn’t sure if spending a lot of money is going to be worth the value I’m going to get, and honestly, a lot of those courses were clearly out of my budget. I remember ending up choosing something closer to the lower price point in the end and was really happy about my decision”.

Choose Your Design Track Wisely

“I really liked the way this particular Bootcamp presented itself and the way they made it crystal clear what the course was going to be like and what were the lessons we were supposed to be taking, — continues April, — They also did two tracks — a UI track, which focused a lot on visual design, and a UX track, which rather focused on the whole UX process. I chose the second track because I knew that I would pick up the visual aspect more easily given my background in multimedia design and that I really needed to fill that gap I had when it came to design thinking.”

“One thing I do regret that I wish I had done differently, — says Sage, — is dismissing a lot of product-strategy-related stuff during my Bootcamp. I genuinely thought that it had more to do with marketing rather than product design but being in this field now I do realize how important this aspect was and how many junior designers do not focus on this enough”.

Having studied Marketing during my university years, I similarly ignored a lot of the strategy-related materials during my Bootcamp just because I thought there was going to be a lot of overlap with what I studied back in the uni. Needless to say, how important that information turned out to be when I started working in product design and had to learn to work through the entire UX process from scratch. There will be moments during your Bootcamp when you will think that a certain class or a certain topic are unrelated to Product Design, however, I would still recommend taking the time to understand these and also try to implement them when working on your practice projects to really understand these concepts in-depth.

Don’t Underestimate the Role of a Mentor

Something that two of our designers mentioned as being the main advantage of their Bootcamp experience is the mentor they worked with. “I think that I got really lucky with my mentor. He really encouraged me to keep on going and helped me a lot when it comes to understanding the UX process in general”, — says Brandon. “My mentor made it very comfortable for me to ask for critique, which I think many junior designers have difficulty asking for”, remembers Sage.

I myself was not as fortunate with the mentors I worked with, and I think this slowed down my learning process in general. I had to rely a lot on self-study and really try and utilize all the online resources I could find to fill in the information gaps I realized I had after graduating. April thinks that the role of self-learning is important regardless of how good or bad your Bootcamp experience is. “I read a ton of books along with my Bootcamp. I also read Medium articles every day. I really tried to absorb any type of knowledge and information that I could get, and I really think it helped me accelerate the overall learning process.”

4. Will I be able to land a job after the Bootcamp?

It’s similar to asking if you’ll find a job after you graduate from a university. Truth is, tech industry has become very competitive in recent years, so there are hundreds of candidates applying for each position. This makes it difficult for some novice product designers to find easy employment with some of them having to search for jobs for months in a row.

Finding a Job Can Be Challenging

“The job-hunting process was pretty brutal, — remembers Brandon, — At first, I thought it was going to be fairly easy since there are many jobs out there, and there is also high demand for product designers. At the end, though, I ended up applying for over 300 positions and out of all of them, I got maybe 50 interviews. There were a lot of times when I got really far in the interview process but got shut down last minute. I used a lot of trendy websites like OTTA or Angel List, I also applied a lot on Linkedin. Surprisingly, I got my first offer from a cold application on Linkedin, which was strange since my profile looked quite empty. I was also one out of over300 applicants, so I really didn’t think it was going to work out. All in all, the job-hunting process took me about 6 months, and I guess the moral of the story is that in the end, it’s really important to be in the right place and at the right time.”

Although, It’s Not Always the Case

Unlike Brandon, it took April only a month and a half to land her first job as a product designer. “Right after the Bootcamp, I took some time to polish up my case studies and make my website look really professional. I also gave myself a couple of additional sprints just to make sure that I understand the UX process outside the Bootcamp. I landed my first job fairly quickly, so overall, I wouldn’t say the process was too stressful or difficult”.

“I mostly used Linkedin, — says Sage, — I would usually apply for jobs that required under 3 years of experience — everything else I knew I’m most likely not going to qualify for. I also tried networking and reaching out to people who worked on the design teams in different companies. Overall, I think I was very lucky in my experience of landing a job so quickly (1.5 months) and I think that it’s pretty unusual too given how long this process can take for many junior designers.”

5. Anything I need to keep in mind as a junior designer?

Curate Your Portfolio

“I would say curating your portfolio is super important. Initially, my website had a lot of content that was not directly related to product design. I had a lot of photography pieces, graphic design projects, and illustrations and I feel like my product design stuff was practically getting lost among these other projects. Surprisingly, I came to realize that showcasing more work is not always a good idea and as soon as I decided to take all that additional content away, I started to get a lot more traffic on my website and a lot more offers as well”, says April.

“I designed my portfolio on Webflow, — remembers Sage, — But I do think it’s a very difficult website to host on and there are so many platforms out there, like Squarespace, that can help junior designers come up with visually appealing portfolios without putting in so much effort. First, I tried to be really creative with my portfolio, but in the end, I settled for more of a wireframey look. I think for junior designers I would recommend keeping it simpler, but also adding a bit of your personality which will definitely help you stand out”.

Always Have A Back-Up Plan

“Another advice I would give is — test it out before you completely quit what you’re currently doing and commit to this full-time, — adds April, — If you have a full-time job, try to research UX design on the side and allocate time after work to do some self-learning. It’s definitely much safer than changing your career right away. In general, success in this field definitely comes to those who have a hunger for knowledge and want to keep learning and growing all the time. And hey — if there’s an option to do the Bootcamp within 6 months don’t wait for a year to complete it!”

Networking Is Important

“I would say networking is super important too, — says Sage, — As I mentioned before, I really tried to reach out to a bunch of people working in this sphere on Linkedin and I would say one out of five messages I’d get a response back. I guess one piece of advice that I could give when networking is try and make your message as unique as possible. Let them know why is it that you’re interested in working with them or their company in particular. Avoid generic networking messages, because those people get them all the time and it’s really not a good idea if you are trying to stand out from a crowd.”

Stay Positive and Try Your Best

My advice is that an open mind and a positive mindset are going to do wonders for you. There are many novice designers out there who easily get discouraged when taking their first steps in the industry and end up quitting halfway through their Bootcamp or right after when the job-hunting process turns out to be more challenging than they initially expected.

It’s important to understand that each unsuccessful interview, offers that didn’t come in and emails that were never answered are only stepping stones as you embark on this journey and an unavoidable part of your learning curve.

There are lessons to be learned and notes to be taken from every rejection that ends up in your mailbox. You should be constantly asking yourself: “What can I do better next time?”, “How can I grow?”, “How can I challenge myself?”. If you take critique or disappointment too close to heart you will never truly belong in this industry, since both of those things are going to be your constant companions in your everyday life as a product designer. Just keep in mind that the Tech industry is huge and the challenges within it are infinite just like the opportunities, all you have to do is find yours!

This article was written by Elen Gevorgyan, a Product Designer at Goji Labs.