To succeed as a UX designer, you need to swallow your pride and lean on others.
Not only will you further practice and improve your skills, but you’re also building your network. As UX Director Patrick Neeman mentions in his blog, the best UX jobs are found through word of mouth.
In this piece, I explain three tactics that can help anyone refine their skillsets (even if you have no formal UX training). I’ll describe:
- How to build a meaningful relationship with a UX mentor
- How to become a UX apprentice
- How to initiate your own UX projects to get noticed by employers
Let’s get started.
The following excerpt is from The Definitive Beginner’s Guide to UX Design.
Tactic 1: Building a relationship with a UX mentor
Like becoming a Jedi, one of the best ways to learn UX is to find a master. Whenever I was doubtful as a beginner, I’d ask my mentors for advice.
Don’t be afraid to rely on mentors to fill in any knowledge gaps. The first time someone asked me for help prototyping a mobile app, I felt no shame in telling them I didn’t know how to do it. I did, however, mention I was familiar with responsive prototyping and that I was confident I could help them.
Then I emailed one of my mentors, and we figured out the rest.
Finding a UX mentor can be a difficult process, however. Most national organizations (e.g. the UXPA, the IA Institute, the IXDA) have mentoring networks they’ve tried to cultivate, but I’ve always preferred to find my mentors indirectly. I’ve attended conferences, local meetups, and talked to complete strangers. When I seem to get along with someone, and if they seem to know their stuff, I’ll ask if I can bug them about future UX projects.
And, most importantly: if they say yes, always take them up on the offer.
I can’t believe how many mentees over the years have asked me if they can get advice in the future, and then never followed up.
Advice from an experienced UX practitioner is the most valuable commodity on the planet for beginners. You should always learn from someone with knowledge and mileage.
Potential pitfall: Unresponsive or ineffective mentors
If you try taking the advice of one mentor and it doesn’t work out, try getting some different advice. As a teacher myself, I can tell you that no teacher is a perfect fit for every type of student, just as every student has specific needs that not every teacher can meet.
Follow up with your mentors (and always try to meet in person if possible), but don’t be afraid to move on if it’s not working out.
If you’d like to shorten the path to mentorship, you can also consider enrolling in an online mentored course. The classes generally allocate at least 1 hour a week to meet with a mentor over Skype (or in-person, if they’re local) to answer questions and discuss your project.
Tactic 2: Becoming a UX apprentice
Tactic 2 may sound identical to Tactic 1, but by “UX apprenticeship,” I mean what Fred Beecher means: a learning experience that takes you from UX zero to UX grasshopper. These are often programs sponsored by UX organizations (e.g. General Assembly, The Nerdery, Fresh Tilled Soil, etc).
At the same time, not everyone is cut out to be a mentor, which is really just another word for teacher.
When evaluating programs, make sure you seek out the opportunity to work on real projects.
Apprenticeships are like internships, but people like me (and Fred) don’t like to use the former, because an internship can mean a lot of things. An internship just means you’re working in an organizational context, but an apprenticeship means you’re actually being trained to be a certain type of professional.
So: not all internships are apprenticeships, but some are.
Formal programs with plenty of hands-on UX training also fall into this category (e.g. Kent State, Bentley, UW, SVA), though some people would probably argue that they are very different. As an academic, I don’t really see a difference between the two, however, as long as academic programs have good relationships with industry partners. (Hint: this is true of all those I just linked to).
Potential pitfall: Ineffective learning experiences
As a beginner, it’s not always easy to assess which programs are worth your time. Beggars can’t be choosers, so sometimes you just have to apply to all the programs that seem to offer what you want to learn.
Here are some questions to ask before you sign on the dotted line, though:
- What kinds of portfolio deliverables will you produce through the program? Will you actually produce things you can showcase as evidence of your problem-solving skills?
- Does the program have a trusted network of potential employers that you can be connected with?
- How practical are the experiences that the program promises? How conceptual? How product-based? How process-based?
When it comes to the last set of questions, you must find programs that fulfill all 4 criteria (since UX requires mastery of all of them). Even if a program only promises to fulfill 1-3 criteria, or only offers training in specific, limited elements of UX (e.g. prototyping), consider looking elsewhere for comprehensive beginner training.