Ending the UX Designer Drought

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The first article in this series, “A New Apprenticeship Architecture,” laid out a high-level framework for using the ancient model of apprenticeship to solve the modern problem of the UX talent drought. In this article, I get into details. Specifically, I discuss how to make the business case for apprenticeship and what to look for in potential apprentices. Let’s get started!

Defining the business value of apprenticeship

Apprenticeship is an investment. It requires an outlay of cash upfront for a return at a later date. Apprenticeship requires the support of budget-approving levels of your organization. For you to get that support, you need to clearly show its return by demonstrating how it addresses some of your organization’s pain points. What follows is a discussion of common pain points and how apprenticeship assuages them.

Hit growth targets

If your company is trying to grow but can’t find enough qualified people to do the work  that growth requires, that’s the sweet spot for apprenticeship. Apprenticeship allows you to make the designers you’re having trouble finding. This is going to be a temporal argument, so you need to come armed with measurements to make it. And you’ll need help from various leaders in your organization to get them.

  • UX team growth targets for the past 2-3 years (UX leadership)
  • Actual UX team growth for the past 2-3 years (UX leadership)
  • Average time required to identify and hire a UX designer (HR leadership)

Then you need to estimate how apprenticeship will improve these measurements. (Part 3 of this series, which will deal with the instructional design of apprenticeship, will offer details on how to make these estimates.)

  • How many designers per year can apprenticeship contribute?
  • How much time will be required from the design team to mentor apprentices?

Growth targets typically do not exist in a vacuum. You’ll likely need to combine this argument with one of the others.

Take advantage of more revenue opportunities

One of the financial implications of missing growth targets is not having enough staff to capitalize on all the revenue opportunities you have. For agencies, you might have to pass up good projects because your design team has a six-week lead time. For product companies, your release schedule might fall behind due to a UX bottleneck and push you behind your competition.

The data you need to make this argument differ depending on whether your company sells time (agency) or stuff (product company).

When doing the math about an apprenticeship program, agencies should consider:

  • What number of projects have been lost in the past year due to UX lead time? (Sales leadership should have this information.)
  • What is the estimated value of UX work on lost projects? (Sales leadership)
  • What is the estimated value of other (development, strategy, management, etc.) work on lost projects? (Sales leadership)

Then, contrast these numbers with some of the benefits of apprenticeship:

  • What is the estimated number of designers per year apprenticeship could contribute?
  • What is the estimated amount of work these “extra” designers would be able to contribute in both hours and cash?
  • What is the estimated profitability of junior designers (more) versus senior designers (less), assuming the same hourly rate?

Product companies should consider:

  • The ratio of innovative features versus “catch-up” features your competitors released last year. (Sales or marketing leadership should have this information.)
  • The ratio of innovative features versus “catch-up” features you released in the past year. (Sales or marketing leadership)
  • Any customer service and/or satisfaction metrics. (Customer service leadership)

Contrast this data with…

  • The estimated number of designers per year you could add through apprenticeship.
  • The estimated number of features they could’ve completed for release.
  • The estimated impact this would have on customer satisfaction.

Avoid high recruiting costs

Recruiting a mid- to senior-level UX designer typically means finding them and poaching them from somewhere else. This requires paying significant headhunting fees on top of the person-hours involved in reviewing resumes and portfolios and interviewing candidates. All the data you need to make this argument can come from UX leadership and HR.

  • Average cost per UX designer recruit
  • Average number of hours spent recruiting a UX designer

Contrast this data with:

  • Estimated cost per apprentice

To estimate this, factor in:

  • Overhead per employee
  • Salary (and benefits if the apprenticeship is long enough to qualify while still an apprentice)
  • Software and service licenses
  • Mentorship time from the current design team
  • Mentorship/management time from the designer leading the program

Increase designer engagement

This one is tricky because most places don’t measure engagement directly. Measuring engagement accurately requires professional quantitative research. However, there are some signs that can point to low engagement.

High turnover is the number one sign of low engagement. What kind of people are leaving—junior designers, seniors, or both? If possible, try to get exit interview data (as raw as possible) to develop hypotheses about how apprenticeship could help. Maybe junior designers don’t feel like their growth is supported… allowing them to leverage elements of an apprenticeship program for further professional development could fix that. Maybe senior designers are feeling burnt out. Consistent mentorship, like that required by apprenticeship, can be reinvigorating.

Other signs of low engagement include frequently missing deadlines, using more sick time, missing or being late to meetings, and more. Investigate any signs you see, validate any assumptions you might take on, and hypothesize about how apprenticeship can help address these issues.

Help others

If your organization is motivated by altruism, that is wonderful! At least one organization with an apprenticeship program actually tries very hard not to hire their apprentices. Boston’s Fresh Tilled Soil places their graduated apprentices with their clients, which creates a very strong relationship with those clients. Additionally, this helps them raise the caliber and capacity of the Boston metro area when it comes to UX design.

Hiring great UX apprentices

Hiring apprentices requires a different approach to evaluating candidates than hiring established UX designers. Most candidates will have little to no actual UX design skills, so you have to evaluate them for their potential to acquire and hone those skills. Additionally, not everyone learns effectively through apprenticeship. Identifying the traits of a good apprentice in candidates will help your program run smoothly.

Evaluating for skill potential

Portfolio. Even though you’re evaluating someone who may never have designed a user experience before, you still need them to bring some examples of something they’ve made. Without this, it’s impossible to get a sense of what kind of process they go through to make things. For example, one apprentice candidate brought in a print brochure she designed. Her description of how she designed it included identifying business goals, balancing competing stakeholder needs, working within constraints, and getting feedback along the way, all of which are relevant to the process of UX design.

Mindset. The number one thing you must identify in a candidate is whether they already possess the UX mindset, the point of view that things are designed better when they’re designed with people in mind. This is usually the light bulb that goes off in people’s heads when they discover UX design. If that light hasn’t gone off, UX might not be the right path for that person. Apprenticeship is too much of an investment to risk that. Evaluating for this is fairly simple. It usually comes out in the course of a conversation. If not, asking outright “What does user experience design mean to you” can be helpful. Pay careful attention to how people talk about how they’ve approached their work. Is it consistent with their stated philosophy? If not, that could be a red flag.

Intrinsic motivation. When people talk about having a “passion” for something, what that means is that they are intrinsically motivated to do that thing. This is pretty easy to evaluate for. What have they done to learn UX? Have they taken a class? That’s a positive sign. Have they identified and worked through a UX problem on their own? Even better! If a candidate hasn’t put in the effort to explore UX on their own, they are likely not motivated enough to do well in the field.

Self-education. While self-education is a sign of intrinsic motivation, it’s also important in its own right. Apprenticeship relies heavily on mentorship, but the responsibility for the direction and nature of that mentorship lies with the apprentice themselves. If someone is a self-educator, that’s a good predictor that they’ll be able to get the most out of mentorship. This is another fairly easy one to evaluate. Ask them to tell you about the most recent UX-related blog post or article they read. It doesn’t matter what it actually is, only whether they can quickly bring something to mind.

Professional skills. UX design is not a back-office field. UX designers talk with clients, customers, stakeholders, developers, and more. To be an effective UX designer a candidate must possess basic professional skills such as dressing appropriately and communicating well. Simple things like sending a “thank you” email are a great indication of good professional skills. (Physically mailed  thank you notes get extra bonus points. One-off letterpressed mailed thank you notes get even more!)

Collaboration. UX design is a collaborative discipline. If a candidate struggles with collaboration, they’ll struggle in the field. When discussing their work (especially class project work), be sure to ask what role they played on the project and how they interacted with other people. Complaining about others and taking on too much work themselves are some warning signs that could indicate that a candidate has trouble with collaboration.

Evaluating for apprenticeship fit

Learning pattern. Some people learn best by gradually being exposed to a topic. I call these people toe-dippers, as they prefer to dip their toes into something before diving in. Others prefer to barrel off the dock straight into the deep end and then struggle to the surface. I call these people deep-enders. While apprenticeship can be modified to work better for deep-enders, its gradual exposure can often frustrate them. It is much better suited for toe-dippers. Evaluating for this is tricky, though. Asking people whether they prefer to dive in or learn gradually, they’ll say “dive in” because they think that’s what you want to hear. Asking them how they’ve approached learning other skills can give some insight, but this is not 100% reliable.

Learning by doing. Apprenticeship helps people acquire skills through experiential learning. If this is not how a person learns, apprenticeship may not be for them. Evaluating for this is very much like evaluating for intrinsic motivation. Has someone gone to the trouble of identifying and solving a design problem themselves? Have they practiced UX methods they have learned about? If so, it’s likely that learning by doing is effective for them.

Receptiveness to critique. Apprenticeship is a period of sustained critique. Someone whose response to criticism is defensiveness or despondency will not be successful as an apprentice. This is easy to identify in an interview within the context of discussing the work examples the candidate has brought. My favorite technique for doing this is to find something insignificant to critique and then hammer on it. This is not how I normally critique, of course; it’s a pressure test. If a candidate responds with openness and a desire to learn from this encounter, that’s a very positive sign. If they launch into a monologue defending their decisions, the interview is pretty much over.

If you’re fired up about UX apprenticeship (and how could you not be?), start making it happen in your organization! Do the research, find the data, and share your vision with your company’s leadership so they can see it too! When you get the go-ahead, you’ll be all ready to start looking for apprentices. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll get great apprentices who will grow into great designers. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series where I’ll get detailed about the instructional design of apprenticeship, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking!


  1. Let’s get started! Hiring great UX apprentices and Evaluating for skill potential, Evaluating for apprenticeship fit

  2. Sooooo…. let me get this straight. You post on a design blog about how it’s a better idea to hire non-designers to do design work and expect to get a positive reaction from readers? Great idea, spend all of your time trying to teach someone to do a job that you most likely don’t even know how to do yourself (why you would be hiring a UX design specialist in the first place). Seems like a solid plan.

  3. Buuny, as someone who made the wrong choice in college (I am graduating this upcoming semester–there is no way I can afford another 4 years of design school), I think that an apprenticeship would be the best option for me. No, I am not academically trained in design, but I ended up designing all kinds of things through my college career (mainly graphic design) for people and clubs because I had time, and didn’t realize that I would prefer designing websites than I would recording musicians (I’m graduating as an audio engineer). I assume that if I was lucky enough to land an apprenticeship, I would have a qualified master. I mean, it’s just an internship if you aren’t actually learning from a “master,” as the old ways of apprenticeship would seem to say. As well, I would assume that the only businesses thinking of apprenticing a UX Designer would be businesses who only have one and need more.

  4. Buuny:
    It seems like something about the article wasn’t clear. I’m not talking about “non-designers,” as that’s, well… LOTS of people. *Very few* people have what it takes to become a great UX designer. To quantify that, over 180 people applied for the 2015 UX Apprenticeship cohort at The Nerdery. We hired four of them. What I’m talking about is people who may not be designers *yet.* The second half of the article focuses on how to identify people with that potential, which is more difficult than identifying people who already have demonstrable skill. I encourage you to read Part 1 (http://boxesandarrows.com/ending-the-ux-designer-drought/) to understand more about the background of UX apprenticeship (including tons about mentorship, which by default focuses on increasing capacity rather than making a team out of nothing). This article is the second in the series and thus much more detailed.

    Thank you! That is spot on. Including the distinction between apprentice and intern. And yes, what I’m advocating for is apprenticeship as a method of increasing capacity. *Creating* a UX practice is a whole other subject entirely.

  5. Great article, very much explanatory but few places not very clear but so far i get the points needed.

  6. Let’s get started! Evaluating for apprenticeship fit
    Cantik Dan Sehat Alami

  7. Very good article and very good views, employees and bosses should be Thinking, I am looking forward to more articles about this series.

  8. I found most of my training and relative experience came out of working the field. I’m not a toe dipper by any means but the employers I worked for in the past weren’t above watching hired on resources paddling relentlessly to stay at the surface. To put it morbidly. Basically you have no choice but to apply yourself, get paid crap for it, and somehow focus on the variables which constitute a successful experience while keeping your imagination alive. So it may be, by sheer virtue the industry and academic process has created the drought by forcing out talented assets through means of ROI. Your method is far less traumatic. However based on your comment of only taking on 4 out of 180 apprentice candidates is no less effective at producing to volume intended to meet industry demands.

    ROI > Altruism.

  9. Hello Fred,
    I enjoyed the article. I think apprenticeship falls exactly into line with ux, making education about the user/student. I recently moved to Seattle and until I started looking for jobs, I had never heard of UX. I know I want to move into the field. But the lack of experience, like you discussed in the article, is definitely holding me back from finding a career in the field, or even an internship for that matter.

    I saw in the previous article someone had ask for a list of companies that have participated in apprenticeship. Do you happen to have an updated list? If any have been added?

    Thanks for sharing,

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