It started with a sweet Facebook message. My former colleague F told me that she had embarked on a journey to proactively shape her career and become a better UX designer, and honored me with the request to be her mentor. Here, I am sharing what we discussed during our most recent catchup about teaching UX design to a friend on the job.
F had been made the lead on a new project at the design agency she works for. Also on the team was visual designer B, who was eager to ‘pick up some UX skills’ whilst working together. The two had been friends for a while and were happy to engage in a mentor-student relationship of their own. Soon though, frustrations started to build. F had the feeling that ‘he was just not getting it’ and that ‘he kept asking really obvious questions and ignoring the important stuff’, while B was looking for affirmation and positive feedback from his friend — which he didn’t get.
It is tempting to think that, since you already get along pretty well, it will be easy to share insights and experience from each other’s professional worlds. However, if taken too lightly, ‘casual co-learning’ can have dire consequences and lead to a lot of frustration, wasted time, an unsuccessful project, and — in the worst scenario — a broken up friendship.
If you are considering to train one of your friends or colleagues in your trade — and we’ll get to the reasons why that is an excellent idea in principle — you may find the following advice useful. To start off, you should definitely…
Take it seriously
There is a difference between providing feedback and advice here or there, and actively teaching someone. The former requires a certain amount of shared understanding of the subject matter, the latter effort and dedication on both sides. You want to be clear which of the two you are dealing with. Which leads to the next point:
Formalize the ground rules
Talk the talk early on. Sit down on a park bench during lunch and say what it is you want to get out of your arrangement, and how you imagine it to work. What are you going to teach? How much time do you want to dedicate to it? I found that the most important aspect is to discuss openly how to provide and receive feedback, and how to separate your personal from our professional views and conversations. If you are the teacher, you should not shy away from being honest with your friend. Sugarcoating is not going to help them learn anything. Sometimes, they are not going to like what you have to say, and if things in those moments get personal, they can get ugly. So, as much as you possibly can, leave emotions out of your professional conversations.
As time goes on, it is good to keep this kind of talk up. Ever heard that ‘communication is key’? That’s because it is. Set time aside for regular meetings (I call them ‘maintenance’) where you can discuss how you are feeling about your interactions. Give each other feedback on the feedback, but don’t let it come to an argument. Have a ‘safe’ conversation. Just point out how you perceived certain situations, how you’d like to treat similar ones in the future, and listen to your counterpart do the same. The goal is to work out strategies that keep you both happy, and to set expectations.
Manage your time
If, like B with F, you and your student work on the same project, you should not expect them to contribute anything. I generally expect that I will end up doing 100% of the UXD work, and I’ll spend 20–30% of my time engaging with teaching activities. Anything they contribute outside of their key area of responsibilities (in B’s case, that is purely visual design), is a plus that is welcome, but not anticipated.
In a similar vein, …
Imagine you are the student who is given an assignment. You proudly present it to your teacher, who looks at it, gets stressed because it is not good enough and time is running out, and ends up changing everything on their own. That’s the scenario you have to avoid. Just acknowledge that this is going to take up time, and plan accordingly. If you really find yourself unable or unwilling to make the time, let your friend know and recommend another suitable teacher to them. Then you can still have a pint together after work and share some experiences.
Being patient is so important because any sign of frustration on your end will lead your mentee to lose confidence in themselves and in you. Ask yourself how a good nursery teacher might react.
React with questions, not answers
One reason why you will need so much time for teaching, is because you are not advising. That is, you should help your student to learn how to think about a problem, how to break it up into manageable chunks, analyze it, and make the right deductions. Here is an overly simplified illustration of what that may look like:
B (having completed a task): “I’ve designed this component as a single page with multiple drop-downs. Look how they animate. Cool, right?”
F (thinking that the entire information architecture makes no sense): “Imagine you are [persona name] sitting on your sofa after work. Your niece sent you a link that directly leads to this page. How might you find out what to do next?”
See, the point is not for your student to produce the outcome you want and need on your project, but for them to understand how to get to a good answer themselves.
Don’t expect too much, but let yourself be amazed
I often feel like anyone could do my job. That is because many of the analytical skills I worked hard to learn myself some time ago, I simply internalized at this point. When teaching though, you ought to be careful about what abilities you assume from your student. Here are some usual suspects:
When F asked B to go through the available market-, user-, and industry research, it only seemed natural to assume that B should be up to speed with everything by the end of the week. Well, B has never learned what to look for, how to draw links between discreet pieces of research, how to identify the noise that can be ignored — in short — how to get insights from information. Naturally, B was overwhelmed, possibly unsure about how to ask for help, and had very little understanding of the relevant material when the next agile sprint kicked off.
B was also asked to do a competitor analysis and research interaction patterns. Never having done so, B produced a list of beautifully looking examples, which were all but entirely unsuitable for the context of their own project. That is probably because B used his usual way of looking at things the way he always did as a visual designer, not as a UX designer.
Another skill seasoned UXers may take for granted is the ability to zoom in and out of a problem space, to change the focus from the systemic environment of a service offering to micro interactions in a sub-menu, at just the right moment in the project. Without this skill, one is faced with all the available information at once. Then, it is impossible to understand or do anything meaningful. When you start a new project and your student immediately starts to draw animation frames, you know you need to change tactics.
One good method to prevent the above scenarios, is to start off with small and neatly boxed off tasks. Help your mentee understand the constraints that surround a confined task or problem, give some guidance on what to look for, and then — and this will sound strange — trust them to do good work. Let them roll with it. Let them own it, and let them surprise you with the outcome. If you provide the guidance, constraints, and freedom to explore ideas, they may just astound you.
And if they consistently don’t…
Know when to stop trying
This will sound harsh, but sometimes — despite genuine dedication on both sides — your efforts will be futile. Fortunately, this is rare, but I have encountered individuals who truly just did not get it. I think there is such a thing as talent for analytical thinking and problem solving. People that don’t have it may excel in other areas, but I think it is not worth anyone’s time and energy to try and ‘make’ them UX designers.
The student becomes the teacher, but not like you think (or: Why to put up with it)
So why exert so much energy and time on teaching someone else what you do, you may ask? Because it makes you a better designer too — pretty much from day one. Every time, you explain a concept, a problem, an idea, or a design, you will be forced to communicate the underlying rationale to someone else. In doing so, you may discover flaws or new angles to look at the situation at hand — resulting in better work.
For me, this has been great practice and has had a lot of positive impact on the final output of my work, on how I think about the industry, even how I think about my career as a whole; and it certainly has enriched my life on a purely personal and human level.