Graduating From a Non-Existent UX/UI Program
Flatiron School broadened their course offerings in 2018 when they acquired Designation, adding user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design to their curriculums. I began taking this course remotely in the summer of 2019. However, as you may have discovered through the title, Flatiron eventually announced in April 2020 that they would be pausing admissions to the UX/UI course. There is, as of the time of writing and to my knowledge, no plan to re-introduce the program.
So there are a few things at play which I though were worth writing down for anyone interested in Flatiron or remote learning in general. (1) What’s it like taking classes with a remote bootcamp program like Flatiron’s? There are a lot of people—I imagine more now that we’re supposed to be socially distancing—curious about what an online education looks like. Especially one that advertises success in just 5 or 10 months. (2) What’s it like learning UX/UI? I’d like to explore how I was taught the subject, and how my instructors prepared me for the eventual job search to come. Obviously, Flatiron doesn’t offer the course right now, but I’ll try to point anyone interested into a direction where they can learn a few things for themselves. (3) How does the school support a dead curriculum’s students?
To state what may be obvious at this point: this is a weird little collection of my thoughts, opinions, and experiences during my course intended mostly to help anyone curious about Flatiron or UX/UI. It is not intended to be a review of Flatiron or my instructors. I also am not trying to persuade anyone to take or avoid courses like these. I simply thought the experience was rather interesting, and that maybe somebody could benefit from my perspective of how things happened. I will also try to link any relevant information along the way, giving anyone reading this looking to learn more about how to get involved in the UX/UI business a way to get their feet wet—so keep an eye out for that.
How I Found Flatiron
For the sake of context, I’d like to set the scene for how I got involved with Flatiron School. I’ve long been interested in design, but never found work in that field after college. With two bachelors’ degrees in hand, I promptly found a job at the local movie theatre and after two years made my way to the local newspaper working in sales. It was all a great experience, but at the end of the day, not what I set out to do.
My sister happened to have some links to Flatiron, and after doing a bit of research, it seemed like a good opportunity. I would take a few months to learn UX and UI, which seemed like plenty of time considering the fact I was already trained in graphic design from my time in college. Then the school would help me find work afterward, or my money back (given certain conditions were met).
Beginning Classes Online
In August 2019 I began my course with two instructors, one focused on UX and the other on UI, though both were very capable with both. We all met through Zoom (we were ahead of our time) and proceeded to jump into design. In the early stages there was a lot of reading to keep up with, but since I already had years of education in graphic design and art, it felt more like a refresher course for the most part. Still, a lot of the glass had trouble balancing this with their work and other day-to-day things. Others simply didn’t show up to any meetings. In the first month or so our class dwindled from thirty-something students down to about ten. That wasn’t disheartening to me, though. I knew from college that many students couldn’t be bothered to show up to class except on days there was a test. I’d expected a drop like this after just a few days seeing the curriculum.
What felt like the most valuable part was being introduced to the tools of the trade (primarily Sketch and InVision), and getting thoughtful reviews from my instructors. One of my instructors always tried to tie her examples into the years of work experience that she had in UX, which gave everything the context I think I needed.
Partway through the course, the one instructor was shifted to a different class due to a lack of total instructors. Looking back on it, that may have been the first sign of the inevitable pausing that would happen to my curriculum. I don’t feel it negatively impacted me to have one less instructor, but I know that it created much more work for the one remaining person, and I knew I was missing out on the formerly diverse viewpoints that came with having multiple instructors. Even though I was confident in their ability, I know that just because of the way people work, it would have been nice to have two experienced people critiquing my work rather than one.
Other issues popped up throughout the course. More than once an assignment or deadline would need to be changed either because it didn’t allow us time to accomplish the task, or because the instructor disagreed with it in some way. There were lists of extra credit assignments which nobody ever had the time to work on. Sometimes we would be told to ignore some Flatiron-supplied readings in favor of something else. I believe this was mostly a good thing, because of the way our instructor would relate everything to their work experience. I got the sense that while Flatiron was still figuring out how tor teach the curriculum, our instructor knew what was important for us to learn, and were modifying the curriculum in small ways to support that. Thankfully, to my knowledge, Flatiron allowed them to do changes like this as needed.
Learning UX/UI Remotely
First, let’s make sure everyone knows what I’m talking about when I mention UX and UI. User experience (UX) is essentially about designing products that people find easy to use. They should enjoy the experience of using the product, not be burdened by it.
User interface (UI) design is about taking the UX and making it pretty. That’s the part where you take the client’s colors, style, and image, and put it on the screen. The goal is still to create an enjoyable and easy to use experience, but now with the focus less on “where do I put this button” and more on “what typeface and color should this button use?” Given my aforementioned studies, I found UI easier to pick up.
The curriculum was always a mix of both reading and practicing design, but there was a definite point where the curriculum had us working on projects in Sketch more than reading case studies or blogs. I found Sketch particularly exciting, since it reminded me of many programs like Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer, the latter of which I currently use almost every day on various projects and commissions. It was certainly a learning curve for other students, though. Adobe XD and Figma both have have free plans, which I would absolutely recommend trying out if you’re interested in UX or UI design. They were not the focus of my studies at Flatiron, but they’re similar in many ways, and by the end our instructors were encouraging us to give them a shot. I’ve personally been enjoying XD and its prototyping feature quite a bit (more on that in a future piece, I think).
If you’re brand new and looking for tips to get started, I’ll recommend Jesse Showalter’s YouTube channel. He has several overviews, guides, and more that focus on UX and UI design. He’ll also sometimes just record his process of working on a design, which is really helpful and exciting to see him turn a blank screen into a cool website design for a watches.
Studying remotely came with a few challenges as well. I’d grown somewhat accustomed to remote work given my time with Worldbuilding Magazine and Smunchy Games, both of which operate completely remotely, but I’d never taken a fully remote class before. There were certainly times when managing all of my projects outside of the course, and getting to all the assignments and meetings, was challenging. I had the benefit of working on commission, so I could be flexible with my time, but I more than once found myself rushing to catch up on an assignment or to complete a project during a busier week.
If you’ve come trying to decide if learning remotely will work for you, I’d like to think that it would, but only if you stay on top of your schedule. In Flatiron—as should most online courses—we were given a clear calendar so that we could plan ahead how we spent our time. I had access to all the reading sometimes weeks ahead of time, so I would often check to see how long it was and depending on that sometimes start weeks ahead if I could (note that readings ranged from 800 word blog posts to 80 page documents). For projects, I would seek advice from my instructor and start gathering ideas and sketching designs ahead of time so that when I did begin working on it, I generally knew what I wanted to do. However, if you can’t manage that sort of schedule, it may be difficult to get into remote learning. While it certainly has its advantages—especially in 2020—it demands much more of your ability to schedule and act independently than in-person classes tend to.
I could go on about this and the actual process of learning UX/UI, but I think referring you to the Nielson Norman Group would do better. The NNGroup posts excellent free articles on UX and UI design which we referred to throughout our course. If you’re looking to get a sense of what online learning is like, read some of those articles, and pretend you have weekly meetings plus design assignments.
For another perspective on the course and remote work, I would also encourage you to check out my former classmate Phylicia Flynn’s recent post “4 Unexpected Things I Learned from an Online Bootcamp.” It’s a fun read, and inspired this post — so, thanks, Phylicia!
When Your Curriculum is Cancelled
I have no idea if the UX/UI curriculum was canceled because of a lack of enrollments, budgetary issues made worse by COVID-19, or for some other reason. Regardless, Flatiron more or less cancelled the program I was taking about a month before I finished.
So what happened in the end, then, with this shuffling of instructors and often modified remote lesson plan that ultimately was put on ice? I can’t say anything for the other classes which started at different times, but as for myself, I graduated as intended in the summer of 2020. It’s certainly an awkward time to begin job searching, but the school kept its promise to support me with a career coach and to help me find a job. There were a few more hiccups along the way to get to this point, but they were all resolved quickly, and I do feel as though I was given the tools to succeed.
Now I just have to convince a recruiter of that.
I should state that I enjoyed my time with Flatiron. If you’re looking into a career in data science, software engineering, or cybersecurity, you could do a lot worse. However, I didn’t take any of those courses, so I can’t speak for them or their instructors. I feel lucky that I got in within the narrow window they offered the UX/UI courses, and for the connections I’ve made along the way. My instructors were excellent, and I’ve learned a lot in the short ten months I was enrolled—and with the resources I was provided I’m able to continue that education. For me, as somebody looking to make a career change and get back to my roots in design, I think that Flatiron was exactly what I needed.