Effective Resumes for UX Career Changers
Generate more UX-job opportunities with a resume that effectively communicates to UX hiring managers how you are making a career change into UX.
One of the nice things about our UX conferences is hearing stories from attendees of how they discovered UX and left their current professions to pursue a fulfilling UX career. That's a good thing because the world needs more UX professionals and, therefore, more UX career changers like them.
But career changes are stressful. Research by Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe suggests that a career change is about as stressful as a close friend's death! An antidote for this stress is setting goals and dates for yourself and taking incremental steps to progress your career-changing journey. One such step is updating your resume to convey your past through the lens of your future UX career.
What Is a Resume?
A resume is a concise document that communicates your educational and work experiences to a hiring manager. Its purpose is to advance your application to the next step in the hiring process for as many relevant job opportunities as possible. As annoying as resumes can be to write and maintain, they have stubbornly persisted as a necessary professional document since the times of Leonardo Da Vinci. For all the flaws of resumes (and they have many), you will need to submit a UX-oriented resume if you are applying for UX jobs.
Design Your Resume for UX Hiring Managers
Resumes are primarily for UX hiring managers — those responsible for advancing your application for a UX job opportunity. It's essential to understand and empathize with the hiring-manager persona:
- Hiring managers do not review resumes carefully. A study by The Ladders website suggests resumes are scanned for about 6-7 seconds in the familiar F-shaped pattern discovered from our past eyetracking research. This behavior indicates that many resumes contain unhelpful content or ineffective layouts.
- Hiring managers at many companies use an applicant-tracking system (ATS) that attempts to organize, analyze, and prioritize large volumes of job applicants. The ATS may incorrectly extract data or render resumes unreadable to the hiring manager if the resume is submitted in the wrong file format, uses artistic fonts, or attempts to create complex layouts using tables or columns.
- Our recent research on hiring and retaining UX teams shows that UX hiring managers are protective of their team cultures. They prioritize collaboration and interpersonal skills and may be willing to relax job-experience expectations for candidates communicating those skills.
- Hiring managers overemphasize relevant job experience as a predictor of future job performance and they excessively penalize candidates with short job tenures as "flight risks" likely to quit. A meta-analysis of hiring research by Chad H. Van Iddekinge and colleagues found no significant correlation between long-term job performance and candidates' prior work experience or job tenure. Unfortunately, many hiring managers use these factors because they are readily provided and easily assessed.
- Even the most well-intentioned hiring manager is prone to the naturally occurring unconscious biases we all share as humans. Irrelevant factors may influence your application's success.
General Resume Guidelines
A few caveats before we cover the guidelines — this advice is geared toward job opportunities in North America. Other countries may have different cultural or legal expectations on resume content. Additionally, it's focused on applying to industry and not academia. Academia uses a different, lengthier resume format, called a curriculum vitae or CV. (Confusingly, the term CV is often used interchangeably to describe resumes.) Don't submit an academia-formatted resume when applying to an industry job and vice versa. You need different documents.
Follow these guidelines for creating an effective resume:
- Microsoft Word and PDF file formats: Word documents (.DOCX) are the most universally read by ATSs, but PDFs are advantageous because they preserve styling and formatting. It's beneficial to have both formats available. Use PDF when sending directly to a human and Word when submitting through an ATS. Always check that your text is selectable and that hyperlinks work. Converting a Word document to PDF using the "Print" menu on Macs will break hyperlinks; instead, save a copy of the file using the PDF file format. Always check and comply with the requested file formats on the employer’s application form.
- 1 page: Strive to fit your resume on one page. This constraint forces experienced professionals like UX career changers to summarize, frontload important content, and eliminate filler. Writing your resume will be more challenging, but the result will be more scannable and useful for hiring managers. Use a second page if you have 20+ years of work experience that is too difficult to summarize on one page. But just like the content below the page fold is often ignored on the web, the second page will go ignored if your first page lacks compelling content.
- Wide margins: Significantly widen your resume's margins (.50–.75 in, 1.27–1.91 cm) if you have extensive work and educational history. Wider margins force you to keep achievements to one line and make the puzzle of fitting content just a little easier, thus helping moderately experienced professionals like career switchers. If you have less job experience to accommodate, restore the margins to improve your text's readability.
- One readable font: Our recent review of typography research suggests there's no best font for online reading, and resumes are complicated since they may be read in print or online. Be conventional — pick a serif or sans-serif web-safe font and size it between 10–12 points. Avoid thin, cursive, decorative, or wide-set fonts like Verdana, which, although readable, are space-inefficient.
- Simple layout: Don't use headers, footers, tables, or columns in Word. These can confuse ATS scans and result in misread data.
- Consistent: Ensure that all submitted resumes and any web versions of your resume (such as LinkedIn or on your portfolio site) are generally consistent. While it’s a good idea to tweak your resume to emphasize specific skills or achievements for a particular job posting, you don’t want omissions or significant differences to instill doubt in the hiring manager.
- Reverse chronological order: Communicate your work and educational activity from most recent to least recent to ensure that the most relevant content is highest on the resume.
- Simple visual design: Avoid background fills and intrusive graphics. Pick one high-contrast accent color and use it sparingly for key content like job titles. Ensure that your body text is near black in color and has high contrast.
- Print-friendly: Print your resume in draft-quality black and white after any significant resume revision. Is your resume still readable? A meta-analysis of reading research conducted by Delgado, Vargas, Ackerman, and Salmerón suggests that paper-based reading is easier than online reading for reviewing informative text under time constraints and our own research shows that paper leads to higher reading speeds compared to tablet devices like the iPad and Kindle. Printed resumes also make it easy for hiring managers to annotate and sort applicants.
- Error-free: You have ample time to proofread your resume before applying to UX jobs. Submitting a resume with multiple errors may be perceived by hiring managers as a tendency for carelessness with deliverables.
- Truthful: Embellishments, pertinent-work or educational-information omissions, or fabrications will be discovered someday. Lying to your next potential manager in your first interaction is a bad sign and could lead to termination in your future.
Include this content in the contact-information section at the top of the resume:
- Name: Names are a well-known source of bias on resumes. Experiments by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan showed significant differences in employer callbacks based solely on a resume name's assumed ethnicity. If you're concerned that your identity may negatively impact your application, substitute your last name with your first initial. It's also okay to use a preferred name but remember to use your legal name on job-application forms.
- Location: Mention where you currently live using your city, state, and ZIP code. Your complete mailing address is unnecessary and just another source of unconscious bias. Your location is relevant to hiring managers for various reasons: time-zone collaboration, salary expectations based on living expenses, office proximity for hybrid or on-site roles, or legal requirements.
- Portfolio link: Link directly to your portfolio website or file-download service. Write out the URL and use a link-shortener service if necessary. Be careful if your name is included in the URL when using the first-initial tactic mentioned above. Remember to use a signifier to denote clickability.
- Email address: Use one professional email address. Be cautious with long-standing email providers like Yahoo or AOL that may contribute to ageism. Avoid email addresses based on online pseudonyms that may be interpreted as juvenile. Again, be aware if your full name is in your email address.
- Phone number: Include one personal phone number where the hiring manager can reliably contact you. Make sure it has a brief, clear voicemail recording identifying you as the recipient. Don't forget to use dashes and parentheses to chunk the content for easier recall.
- Small visual elements: If visual design is one of your skills, the contact information section is where visual accents, like personal branding, could be included. Keep them small and unobtrusive if you even decide to have them.
Underneath the contact information, list your UX experience, which is the most critical part of your resume. You must show the hiring manager how you are applying your new UX knowledge in a meaningful, real-world context. Sidestep the cycle of being unable to get UX experience without UX experience by considering these approaches: work as a freelance UX consultant, providing UX services to a non-profit, tap your social network for business owners whose company might benefit from UX improvements, or apply to UX apprenticeship or internship opportunities. Having at least one entry here will significantly improve your UX-job prospects and demonstrate your commitment to changing your career.
Include this information for each UX experience:
- Job title: List your job title in bold.
- Employer: List the employer in bold and don't include logos. Don't use hyperlinks as that may distract the hiring manager with tertiary details. Don't list a client business as your employer if you weren't a full-time employee of that business. Use freelance consultant or the name of your consulting business instead.
- Dates: Include start and end dates using both months and years. Use present for the end date if this is your current job.
- Location: Not always essential to include but add it if it clarifies the job or use a remote label.
- Responsibilities: Summarize your job duties in 2–3 concise sentences. Checking your job description can help. Lead with verbs (Conduct user research) instead of pronouns (I am responsible for user research). Use numbers when appropriate to communicate the context and scope of your duties. Describe the type of clients you helped, if applicable and acceptable.
- Achievements: Achievements are what make your resume shine. Achievements are impactful results you delivered during your tenure by applying your skills, abilities, and talents.
- Format achievements in a bulleted list using a circle. ATS scans sometimes rely on detecting circles to identify achievements. Stick to standards and invest energy in your content.
- Emphasize quantitative results and numbers.
- Order achievements by impact. Start with those you hope to discuss with the hiring manager in an interview.
- Keep achievements to one line each.
- Aim for at least one achievement per job and list more for more-recent experiences and fewer for less-recent ones.
- Write a quantitative achievement using this structure: [Verb] [quantitative outcome] [context] using [skill/tool/technology]. Some examples:
- Increased conversion rate by 10% for ecommerce shop using sketching, high-fidelity prototyping in Figma, and A/B testing.
- Increased the rate of new-customer acquisition by 20% for social-networking mobile app using user interviews and customer-journey mapping.
- Increased visitor-donation rate by 15% for animal-shelter site using a content audit and A/B testing.
- Nonquantitative achievements are less persuasive, but can still convey your effectiveness. Follow the same structure as for quantitative achievements. Some examples:
- Recognized with “Circle of Excellence” award by peers (1% of 1,000 employees) for teamwork with launching new brand.
- Implemented new training program 1 month ahead of schedule and in budget with Smartsheet.
- Earned Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.
- Secured promotions for 3 high-performing direct reports using career-development plans.
Next, show how you obtained your UX knowledge. Listing UX education higher on the resume and not in an Educationsection with your other educational credentials emphasizes your pivot away from your past career and towards UX. Include this information for each UX-related credential:
- UX degree or certification: List the credential name in bold. Include level if a degree (BS, MS, PhD).
- University or organization: Mention who awarded this credential.
- Dates: Note the time it took to earn this credential. Include the start and end dates using both months and years.
- Location: Not always essential to include location, but add it if it clarifies the credential.
- Coursework: Like job responsibilities, describe your coursework in 2–3 concise sentences. Cite specific UX skills or tools you studied or applied in a class project.
- Achievements: Use the same bulleted format as above, but mention academic achievements like graduating with honors, scholarships, or awards. Employers may expect to see GPA for education earned within the past 5 years.
NonUX Work Experience
Then, list out your nonUX work history that predates your UX pivot. As a career changer, you cannot just copy and paste old-resume content here. You must reframe these jobs with your new UX career in mind. Reflect on your past responsibilities and achievements, and, if you can tie them to a job-transferrable UX skill — great! Even if you can't, successfully delivering value to your employer on time and under budget collaboratively has merit.
Include this information for each nonUX work experience:
- Job title, employer, dates, location: Follow the advice above. Treat promotions within the same employer as separate entries and don't merge them.
- Responsibilities: Follow the advice above. Summarize your job duties in 2–3 concise sentences. Fortunately, UX draws upon a variety of skills from many disciplines that you may be able to highlight:
- Data analysis
- Content strategy
- Visual design
- Software development
- Project management
- Team management
- Specific tools: SPSS, JIRA, Confluence, Mixpanel, Sketch, Qualtrics, and so on.
- Achievements: Follow the advice above. Emphasize achievements with quantitative business impact using skills with some UX relevance. Reduce achievements for your least-recent work experience to a minimum of one per entry if you need space.
University degrees require effort and perseverance. Don't leave them off your resume because they seem irrelevant to your new UX career! That said, you must significantly reduce the detail you share. Keep these items to one line at the bottom of your resume.
Include this information:
- University degree: List the degree and its level in bold.
- University: Mention the university that awarded this credential.
- Date awarded: Save space by just including the year granted.
- Location: Not always essential to have a location, but add it if it clarifies the credential.
- Achievements or GPA: You'll need to drop these to conserve space, especially if you earned them a long time ago.
Avoid This Content in Your Resume
Your resume will be more persuasive by avoiding these types of content:
- Lists of skills or technologies: Creating lists of skills or technologies is a popular approach to cram more keywords into a resume to trick the ATS algorithms. These lists are ultimately filler to a human, though. When or where did you use paper prototyping? What did you accomplish by using it? These lists are a form of keyword stuffing that harms your resume's understandability to humans.
- Unit or bar charts: These data visualizations attempt to convey one's skill in an area by displaying a numerical rating, such as 4 dots out of 5 for Figma. They look stylish, but the ratings are arbitrary (you made them up!) and are just as devoid of context as skill lists. Worse, they're more space inefficient.
- Headshots: Your appearance is an obvious source of unconscious bias. Never include.
- Mission or objective statements: Smart hiring managers skip this content and make their own determinations. They already know you’re interested in the UX job because you applied. Persuade them by communicating educational and professional progress on your UX-career change, not with prose.
- Subheadings: Make no mistake: subheadings help structure web pages and reduce undesirable F-pattern scanning. However, UX-career changers benefit from sequencing their activities chronologically, so that UX education is placed prominently on the resume and not buried in an Education section.
- References: It’s great to have professional references, but it’s unnecessary to list them or waste valuable resume space declaring that references are available upon request.
- Hobbies and volunteering: What you do with your free time is your own business and irrelevant to future employers. It may also signal aspects of your identity that could increase unconscious bias.
- Professional organizations: Participation or volunteer-leadership roles in professional UX organizations (like HFES or UXPA) are appropriate inclusions only for students or recent graduates with minimal career history.
- School or personal projects: Your portfolio is the best medium to document projects. Relisting projects on your resume is a filler tactic. Personal projects involving unsolicited redesigns are unrealistic and unpersuasive due to a lack of constraints, compromises, or deadlines.
How to Handle Employment Gaps
People pause their careers for valid reasons, like caring for a new child or supporting an ailing loved one. Unfortunately, hiring managers may treat these employment gaps negatively — a state of facts that disproportionately affects women applicants. A UK-government research report by Nicks, Hardy, Roy-Chowdhury, and Burd demonstrated that applicants who reported only the total tenure on their resume for each job received 14.6% more employer callbacks than reporting dates with a gap. Attempting to explain the gap within the resume was also ineffective. Thus, consider reporting the total duration of your tenure in months and years instead of specific dates, but be aware that this unconventional tactic may run afoul of ATS scans or hiring-manager expectations. This approach could also assist older workers concerned about ageism by focusing the hiring manager’s attention on what you’ve achieved and not when you achieved it.
Standing Out as a UX-Career–Changer Applicant
You may be concerned that following this advice will result in a resume that looks too similar to other applicants and won't stand out. But don't worry; like Jakob's Law of Internet User Experience, hiring managers spend most of their time on other people's resumes. These resumes are frequently bloated with self-serving, low–information-density content to mask delivering the bare minimum (or perhaps just due to misguided resume advice). A resume following the guidance above will be noticeable and stand out.
Even better — truthfully target your resume for a particularly desirable UX job. Most candidates blast one generic resume to multiple job openings. Very few candidates take the time to reprioritize their responsibilities and achievements to emphasize what the posted job is seeking in candidates.
Resumes are straightforward employment deliverables complicated by the often messy trajectories of our careers, a lack of mindfulness regarding our achievements, the conflicting opinions on relevant details, and the perplexing software systems used to process them. Thoughtful and concise resumes emphasizing techniques and results are uncommon and will jolt hiring managers from their resume-scanning stupor. Use this guide to clear that first resume hurdle and continue your UX-career–changing journey.
Thomas H. Holmes and Richard H. Rahe. 1967. The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 11, 2 (1967), 213–218. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0022-3999(67)90010-4
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Pablo Delgado, Cristina Vargas, Rakefet Ackerman, and Ladislao Salmerón. 2018. Don't Throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension. Educational Research Review 25 (2018), 23–38. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2018.09.003
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