Meetups and user groups are unique and underrated assets in making the transition from student to working professional.
What makes meetups and user groups unique, and why should they be part of your career pathway from beginning to… wherever it leads?
Among other things, meetups and user groups provide:
- Connections with highly specific resources (like experts in a programming language or a particular design focus).
- A chance to develop quality relationships over time.
- A forum to learn more about specializations.
- An opportunity to get to know movers and shakers, and people hiring(!) in your field.
- And last but not least, a chance to form friendships with people with similar interests.
Before getting into the what, where, why, and hows of meetups and user groups, let’s tune into the experience of an incoming experience designer, Sophia Reck. She shared this insightful perspective with meetups and user groups with us:
I joined some NYC UX Professionals groups, both on LinkedIn and Facebook. To be honest, I wasn’t particularly active myself, since I am a student and felt like my contributions wouldn’t be as valuable. But, just seeing all of the awesome insights and tips and support from everyone else was an incredible experience for me. It led me to learn and practice different skills in Figma and gave me a lot of information on how UX designers function in the working world rather than just in classes/academia.
This was also during the pandemic, so it was especially nice to be able to feel that connection with people over a shared interest, since many university clubs (like the UX Club) couldn’t really function normally.
Sophia’s experience is unique, of course. But that’s the point. By checking out and connecting with user groups or meetups, you can create your own sets of connections and experiences.
The Wide World of Design Meetups and User Groups
Above: SIGGRAPH Fox Render
Meetups can be large (like the motion graphics meetup shown above at The Ultimate Guide to Motion Design Meetups and Events).
Or smaller, like the one below.
They can address the specific needs of designers, developers, and users of different software apps or fields. They can be general, as in meetups and user groups for UX/UI designers. Or more specific, like for Figma, InVision, or Adobe XD (all apps used in UX/UI design).
By the way, on terminology: What’s the difference between user groups and meetups? Not much, really.
Meetup.com is probably the single largest venue for listing and connecting with meetups (and user groups) so the term meetup is widely associated with and popularized by that site.
User groups historically were sponsored by software publishers (like Adobe), often hosted at their sites, and aimed more at users than developers and designers. But, again, the terms refer to widely overlapping categories. Larger, more organized meetups are often sponsored by software publishers or institutions. Adobe, for example, sponsors user groups on its own apps like Lightroom, Photoshop, and InDesign, and also on publishing, visual design, or just using Adobe products.
Some user groups or meetups are highly organized, and provide access to high-level resources. The Adobe Creative Cloud User Group in San Jose, CA, for example, is a venue for networking and learning about the latest in Adobe Software and integration between Adobe apps. It includes cool experiences like photo walks in the Bay Area, "Photoshop Challenges," and Saturday morning "Coffee Talk" sessions.
Drupal (Content Management System) meetups in New York City feature lightning talks from experts, and then breakouts into groups of a dozen or two with experts where developers can bring in challenges they are up against.
Meetups and user groups can have thousands, hundreds, or dozens of members. Fargo, North Dakota may not be the top tech epicenter in the U.S., but the Fargo Game Makers meetup has hundreds of members sharing game development and related skills and prototype ideas for designs.
A meetup of FargoGameMakers
Leverage Meetups to Break Into Your Field
Meetups are not (mainly) job boards, but if you are engaged, interested, ask thoughtful questions, and then let it be known that you are looking for work, meetups can be a way of connecting with jobs that might not even be posted.
How to leverage meetups to get work? A few suggestions:
- Keep your eyes and ears open for conversations about open jobs. Meetups can help you learn about job openings that are not publicly posted.
- Conversations with peers at meetups can shed light on how to frame your resume and portfolio to get hired at a specific job you are aiming for.
- Getting introduced to the environment at hosting companies gives you a leg up in applying for a job and acing an interview.
- Many of the most-desired employers host Meetups, and attending them is a chance to get a feel for working there.
- While again, meetups are not job boards or hiring events, sometimes jobs get posted at meetup chats, like the one below.
It’s OK to Be Shy…
Maybe you’re not the most outgoing person in the room at a meetup. That can be a good thing! People love a good listener.
If you’re looking for a way to start a conversation, just let people know that you’re here to meet cool people in your future field and find out about potential opportunities. Ask people questions about what they do! Again, it is often the case that the best way to learn, connect, and be noticed at a meetup is to be a good listener.
When you meet people at an event, exchange contact info and follow up right away. Wait until the meetup is over, but then quickly send an email expressing your appreciation for the connection.
Finding Meetups and User Groups
Stop number one in finding a user group or meetup is Meetup. Their site lists an amazing and comprehensive set of user groups and meetups.
Along with searching Meetup, you will want to get more granular and connect with meetups specific to your field. You’ll find lists focused on your geographical area, your skill set, and your aspirations. And even meetups that focus on what stage of your career you are at, or what specific challenges you need to overcome.
Some examples of listings of meetups focused on different needs:
- AIGA is a professional organization for designers of all types and sponsors webinars and conferences that are great for networking.
- 13 Meetup Groups You Need To Join If You’re New To Tech is a list that includes resources for students from backgrounds traditionally excluded from tech including women and underrepresented communities.
- Glug sponsors a wide range of meetups, all over the world, on topics ranging from leveraging Adobe CC to managing file transfers.
- Look for meetups that bring together different disciplines to explore global themes. Topics explored at Designers + Geeks New York for example, include “Designing for Emotion” and a “Redefining Women Iconathon.”
Can’t find a meetup that meets your needs? Wherever you are, whatever area you want to network in, there are bound to be others in the same boat.
A founder of the Glasgow SQL user group (photos below) posted a comprehensive how-to on creating a user group. It addresses how to get a space, how to promote your group, how to get financial sponsors, and how to create a dynamic mix of different kinds of activities.
Another good resource for do-it-yourself user groups is Starting and running a technical user group (isn't easy).
Meetups to Overcome Specific Barriers
Meetups can be an avenue for groups historically (and presently) underrepresented in the design and development world to break through barriers.
On one track, “traditional” meetups and user groups often take responsibility to provide resources and assistance with breaking down traditional barriers.
On another track, there are meetups and user groups that bring together people who are in the process of breaking down those barriers. One of the most successful of these is Women Who Code, which is “dedicated to providing an empowering experience for everyone who participates in or supports our community.” Their website includes a Job Board.
You’ll find meetups dedicated to overcoming a wide range of barriers at meetup.com. A sampling:
- POC Designers (New York, NY)
- LGBTQ UX - "Spill the Tea" Social Hour Tuesdays
- Ladies, Wine & Design - Ladies, Wine & Design
An Unbeatable Deal: Free Seminars
Last, but absolutely not least, free seminars are offered by schools, software publishers, and other organizations and companies. They are a way to enhance your skills, but not just that. They are also opportunities to make valuable connections, during breaks and in socializing afterward.
Some of the most valuable free seminars are those sponsored by Nobile Desktop in NYC (the virtual ones can be joined from anywhere). Check out Free Seminars | Free Design & Coding Classes in NYC for an updated set of free classes.
- User groups and meetups provide unique opportunities to continue to develop your skills as you enter and progress as a communication designer or developer.
- User groups and meetings can be door-openers to job opportunities.
- User groups and meetups can introduce you to professional culture and expectations.
- Meetups are fun! And a chance to forge friendships beyond online “friends” and “connections.”
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