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No matter how you learned the theory of UX design, it's very important as a new designer to show that you can put that theory into practice, and can handle the challenges that pop up while you're doing it.
The best experience is probably the kind you get while working as a full time UX designer. You're working on "real" problems, by which I mean someone is paying you to design something. But, if you're a new designer, it's not easy to convince someone to give you a full time job, because you don't have the experience you need. A bit of a chicken and egg problem.
I've found side projects very important to flesh out my portfolio, so I thought I'd collect together some methods you could use, as a new designer, to get valuable experience for your portfolio.
If you work for a software company already, there might be small projects you can take part in. Even better if these projects are small enough that no-one is telling anyone HOW they should be done, just when they need to be done by. These small projects can be a great way to practice UX skills, as long as you're able to help with the project.
This is inspired by a Hacker News comment:
Source is here.
Instead of "build something better", design something better. This is a good method, as silly as it sounds, for finding problems in areas that design can improve.
This is similar to the previous suggestion, but takes more effort to find the problem. Pick an industry, and start interviewing people who belong to that industry to find out what frustrates them. Shadow them to see how they work around problems in their systems, if you can.
It's important that the "problem" you work on actually exists, because if you make up a problem and design a solution, it only really shows that you can solve problems you make up, which isn't on anyone's "must hire" list.
Charities have a lot of real problems to solve, and not a lot of money to solve them with. Volunteering for a charity and offering design services is a way to work on problems. However, I've found that charities looking for "web design" help are actually looking for "web developer" help.
If you have a web developer friend who also wants volunteer experience, approach the charity and offer both of your services at once. Either way, check these resources for volunteer opportunities. You can search by "design" and get a few listings.
Open source projects also have no money and need volunteer help. You might find they know what UX is, as opposed to some charities. Go here for open source design opportunities:
I've done this for a fashion brand I made up, but it won't be good practice for some skills. In my case, I wanted to show that I could think about branding, typography, layout, wireframing, responsive design, high fidelity mockups, and creating style guides. In other words, the "visual" end of the design spectrum.
If you want to show off skills on the research/information architecture side of things, another method might be best.
I've found a good way to approach this is to find a website in an area you're interested in, then gather top tasks for the website. This can be done by asking people you know what they've used that website for in the past. However, if it's an obscure website, this approach might not work.
Once you've gathered top tasks, choose the most popular few and carry out user testing on the website. If you identify problems, redesign the sections with the issues, and re-test those with new participants, to get results you can brag about.
Some services offer ready-made briefs that someone else has set specifically so that you can use them to get experience. Download a brief, do the work, put the results in your portfolio.
I've never been to a hackathon myself, but it's a way to get experience working in a team and produce a real solution. It's likely that you wouldn't be able to do a lot of research into the problem, because of the short amount of time you work on the project (Usually two days).
However, a project you start at a hackathon is a good candidate for diving deeper into after the event is over - especially if you can continue working with the same team. The fact that most hackathons involve developers means your longer time work might be built, as well.
To find a hackathon, search on Eventbrite for "UX" or similar, and see if anything is happening in your area.
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