The user experience design field is booming. We’re making an impact, our community is vibrant, and everyone has a job. And that’s the problem. A quick search for “user experience” on indeed.com reveals over 5,000 jobs posted in the last 15 days (as of March 15, 2014) in the United States alone! Simple math turns that into the staggering statistic of 10,000 new UX-related jobs being created every month.
This amount of work going undone is going to prevent us from delivering the value that UX promises. It’s going to force businesses to look toward something more achievable to provide that value. For user experience design to remain the vibrant, innovation-driving field it is today, we need to make enough designers to fill these positions.
Fortunately, there are a tremendous number of people interested in becoming a UX designer. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for these people to land one of these jobs. That’s because of the experience gap. All these UX jobs are all for people with 2-3 years of experience–or more.
UX design is a strategic discipline in which practitioners make recommendations that can have a big impact on an organization’s revenue. Frankly, a designer isn’t qualified to make these kinds of recommendations without putting in some time doing fundamental, in-the-trenches research and design work. While this might seem like an intractable problem, the skills required to do this fundamental work can be learned!
Someone just has to teach them.
Solving the problem
There are many ways to to teach fundamental UX design skills. Design schools have been doing it for years (and the new, practically-focused Unicorn Institute will start doing it soon). However, to access the full breadth of people interested in UX design, education in UX design needs to be accessible to people at any stage of their lives. To do that, you need to make learning a job.
This is not as crazy as it sounds. Other professions have been doing this for hundreds of years in the form of apprenticeship. This model has a lot to offer the UX design field and can be adapted to meet our particular needs.
What is apprenticeship?
In the traditional model of apprenticeship, an unskilled laborer offers their labor to a master craftsman in exchange for room, board, and instruction in the master’s craft. At the end of a certain period of time, the laborer becomes a journeyman and is qualified to be employed in other workshops. To be considered a master and have their own workshop and apprentices, however, a journeyman must refine their craft until the guild determines that their skill warrants it.
While this sounds medieval–because it is–there are a few key points that are still relevant today.
First, apprenticeship is learning by observation and practice. Designing a user experience requires skills that require practice to acquire. Apprentices are also compensated with more than just the training they receive. Even “unskilled,” they can still provide value. A baker’s apprentice can haul sacks of flour; a UX apprentice can tame the detritus of a design workshop.
Apprenticeship is also limited to a specific duration, after which the apprentice is capable of the basics of the craft. In modern terms, apprenticeship is capable of producing junior designers who can bring fundamental, tactical value to their teams. After a few years of practicing and refining these skills, those designers will be qualified to provide the strategic UX guidance that is so sought after in the marketplace.
A new architecture for UX apprenticeship
The apprenticeship model sounds good in theory, but does it work in practice? Yes. in 2013, The Nerdery, an interactive design and development shop in Minneapolis, ran two twelve-week cohorts of four apprentices each. There are now eight more UX designers in the world. Eight designers might seem like a drop in the 10,000-jobs-per-month bucket, but if more design teams build apprenticeship programs it will fill up very quickly.
Building an apprenticeship program might sound difficult to you. However, The Nerdery’s program was designed in such a way that it could be adapted to fit different companies of different sizes. We call this our UX Apprenticeship Architecture, and I encourage you to use it as the basis of your own apprenticeship program.
There are five components to this architecture. Addressing each of these components in a way that is appropriate for your particular organization will lead to the success of your program. This article only introduces each of these components. Further articles will discuss them in detail.
Define business value
The very first step in building any UX apprenticeship program is to define how the program will benefit your organization. Apprenticeship requires an investment of money, time, and resources, and you need to be able to articulate what value your organization can expect in return for that investment.
Exactly what this value is depends on your organization. For The Nerdery, the value is financial. We train our apprentices for them to become full members of our design team. Apprenticeship allows us to achieve our growth goals (and the revenue increase that accompanies growth for a client services organization). For other organizations, the value might be less tangible and direct.
Hire for traits, not talent
Once you’ve demonstrated the value of apprenticeship to your organization and you’ve got their support, the next thing to focus on is hiring.
It can take a long time at first until you narrow down what you’re looking for. Hiring apprentices is much different from hiring mid to senior level UX designers. You’re not looking for people who are already fantastic designers; you’re looking for people who have the potential to become fantastic designers. Identifying this potential is a matter of identifying certain specific traits within your applicants.
There are two general sets of traits to look for, traits common to good UX designers and traits that indicate someone will be a good apprentice. For example, someone who is defensive and standoffish in the face of critical feedback will not make a good apprentice. In addition to these two sets of traits, there will very likely be an additional set that is particular to your organization. At The Nerdery, we cultivate our culture very carefully, so it’s critical for us that the apprentices we hire fit our culture well.
“Pedagogy” means a system of teaching. Developing the tactics for teaching UX design can take time as well, so it’s best to begin focusing on that once recruiting is underway. At The Nerdery, we found that there are four pedagogical components to learning UX design: orientation, observation, practice, and play.
Orientation refers to exposing apprentices to design methods and teaching them the very basics. In observation, apprentices watch experienced designers apply these methods and have the opportunity to ask them about what they did. Once an apprentice learns a method and observes it in use, they are ready to practice it by doing the method themselves on a real project. The final component of our pedagogy is play. Although practice allows apprentices to get a handle on the basics of a method, playing with that method in a safe environment allows them to make the method their own.
Observation and practice comprise the bulk of an apprentice’s experience. Both of these activities rely on close mentorship to be successful. Mentorship is the engine that makes apprenticeship go.
Although mentorship is the most critical component of apprenticeship, it’s also the most time-intensive. This is the biggest barrier an organization must overcome to implement an apprenticeship program. At The Nerdery, we’ve accomplished this by spreading the burden of mentorship across the entire 40-person design team rather than placing it full-time on the shoulders of four designers. Other teams can do this too, though the structure would be different for both smaller and larger teams.
The final component of our apprenticeship architecture is tracking. It is largely tracking apprentice progress that gives apprenticeship the rigor that differentiates it from other forms of on-the-job training. We track not only the hours an apprentice spends on a given method but qualitative feedback from their mentors on their performance. Critical feedback is key to apprentice progress.
We track other things as well, such as feedback about mentors, feedback about the program, and the apprentice’s thoughts and feelings about the program. Tracking allows the program to be flexible, nimble, and responsive to the evolving needs of the apprentices.
Business value, traits, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking: Think about these five things in relation to your organization to build your own custom apprenticeship program. Although this article has only scratched the surface of each, subsequent articles will go into details.
Part two of this series will cover laying the foundation for apprenticeship, defining its business value and identifying who to hire.
Part three will focus on the instructional design of apprenticeship, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking.
If you’ve got a design team and you need to grow it, apprenticeship can help you make that happen!