Keeping it Real: Learning UX in a Lean Environment
Guest Post by: Kofi Aidoo, Intern
It’s been 6 Mondays since I landed at O’hare and came directly to the famed Merchandise Mart ready to begin a new chapter. After spending 3 years placing designers and putting my own creative needs on the back-burner, I was here to start again and begin my journey towards becoming a UX designer. So, exhausted from my last 4 days in New York, I walked into the 1871 space at the Merchandise Mart, luggage in tow and duly impressed by what I saw.
After several years of going to IxDA events and flirting with the idea of UX as a career, I decided that it was time. In making my transition I had spoken to a good number of people in the industry and received some valuable advice. I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to the practice and also that I didn’t want to pay too much money. The ship and build philosophy, the location, and the very reasonable price made Starter League, my current focus, a very attractive option.
For those who don’t know, the Starter League is a 1.5 year old “school” that teaches different aspects of web design and development. The Starter League was founded by Neal Sales-Griffin and Mike McGee, two friends who had faced the challenge of learning the skills needed to build their own digital products. Realizing that there weren’t that many opportunities and resources available that truly help the uninitiated, they began the Starter League. The root of their drive and methodology is to help people learn the skills needed to create and ship viable products fast.
They offer classes in Beginner and Advanced HTML/CSS, Web Development using Ruby on Rails, Visual Design, and User Experience, the class I’m taking. All courses last 3 months and attendees are encouraged to take more than one course to round out their education. The UX class is taught by Carolyn Chandler, co-author of “A Project Guide to UX Design” assisted by Veronika Goldberg, a visual designer turned UX designer and alumnus of The Starter League.
A typical class starts with the review of the homework, Carolyn asks us about any insights and pain points and then we delve into the lesson for the next 3 hours with a ten minute break at the half-way point. We’ve already learned about visual design, heuristics, personas, user stories, surveys and research, as well as, have begun to do some initial wireframing and site maps. All work is project based and done in groups that were formed in the second week. Groups… which leads me to one of the over riding tenets of the course. Collaboration!
Collaboration forms the spine of the learning. In the programming classes, students work in pairs during class, but for the design classes, students work in groups on one “real – life project”. They work together, as practitioners, looking to develop and launch an idea. The high point of all this collaboration is Starter Night at the end of term when teams from all the classes will join together to build an app and then present their app and their process to the rest of the League. Think of it like a 6 week Hack-a-thon without the begging for money at the end. One of the taglines displayed heavily on the Starter League homepage reads: Start Careers. Launch Products. Build Companies. But after 6 weeks here I can definitely say the emphasis, besides being on collaboration, is more heavily on the last 2 tenets.
With such an emphasis, in the UX classes especially, the process can sometimes feel a little lacking on feedback. With 3 months to cover everything there is a speed that is obvious but not overwhelming. However, our homework assignments are mere discussion points and serve ultimately as a roadmap to the construction of an app. Topics and processes are well covered, but we seem to touch on them only once or twice and don’t come back to them as we move on in the class. More than one of my colleagues and I have raised this point, and Carolyn and Veronika have responded admirably. Homework review is taking up a little more of the opening minutes in class while some information that can be consumed as reading material is placed in an extra file. The emphasis on in-class activity and familiarity with the UX process has gone up, and that is great. But enough about Starter League, the question for me remains:
As one of the many here focused on making a career change, and on making UX my livelihood: How do I KEEP IT REAL and become a UX professional while I’m here?
I was trying to keep it real even before I started the program. On deciding to come to this program I have not only left my job but have also made a not so insignificant financial investment. I wanted to make sure I would use the time wisely and be efficient. So, the first thing I did when I was accepted was to prepare myself mentally for the challenge.
Inspired by a Steve Martin quote, “So Good they Can’t Ignore You” is a book by Cal Newport, a Georgetown Computer science professor who’s been writing since high school on different tips for academic success. This latest book looks the idea of Follow your Passion dead in the eye and forces it to blink. To summarize, his claim is that a successful career isn’t about “Following your Passion”, instead your passion arises from using deliberate practice to build career capital, build valuable skills in your industry, gain more control over what you work on and then couple that with a mission statement that drives success and that elusive Passion. Skills are the foundation and that foundation takes work! This has become the backbone of my practice.
But deliberate practice isn’t just about work it’s about receiving critical feedback on that work and then working to make it right. So when my friends in the NYC IxDA community alerted me to this internship I jumped at it. I had known Lis from going to IxDA events and knew she was a well respected straight shooter who would definitely help me refine my craft. Along with this internship I was pleasantly surprised that the Starter League had also put some thought into mentoring and would provide anyone who wanted it with a professional in the city as a mentor for the duration of the course. I was lucky to have been assigned Patrick DiMichale, a colleague of Caroyln’s at Manifest Digital.
The most important thing I’ve done is immerse myself in the work. The Starter League is full of people working to put their ideas to market. Regardless of their experience they are developing projects that require good User Experience design. I’ve aligned myself with 3 of these projects (including my own), and have been using the things I learn in class to look at the projects from a user perspective as well as a business perspective. I’ve given both my mentors a lot to chew on in the past weeks and it’s been invaluable to have their input.
As I look at the next 6 weeks the end seems both far away and right around the corner. I’m not 100% sure if I’ll be ready to start a UX career by the end of my time here, but I do know I’ll be on the right path and will have built a solid foundation from which to move forward. No matter what the challenge, being mindful about the skills that are important, as well as coveted, and working on those will be the guiding principal in my practice. I urge you to read Cal Newport’s book and look at his 4 principals to a happy career. No matter what the environment Keeping it Real starts with knowing your stuff!