I described my experience as a student in General Assembly (GA)’s User Experience Design immersive course (UXDi). UXDi worked very well for me, but I was both aggressive and lucky. Although the course has a lot to offer students who are looking for mentorship and portfolio-building in a structured environment, it falls short in professional development.
Now that I have some experience as a working researcher and designer, I get a lot of questions about my UX training at General Assembly. Questions usually fall into one of two camps. My previous post addressed the prospective students who ask me if they should take the course, and in this one I will try to answer hiring managers who ask me whether they should hire UXDi graduates. This question is difficult for me to answer, in part because I’m not sure what’s being asked. I see a lot of disparity between what designers say they hire for and what job postings advertise that companies want.
What Makes a Good Designer?
The other night I was at a networking event where a designer proclaimed that his favorite coworkers, the most interesting designers with the best problem-solving skills, switched to design from a totally unrelated career. Many designers, myself firmly included, love the variety of experience that UX professionals bring to their work. A diverse pool of UX talent fosters better problem solving skills for a wider variety of problems, and more empathy for a wider scope of humanity than just tech workers in San Francisco. It’s also really fun to hear about all the weird jobs your coworkers used to have.
This is where I think GA can be valuable to hiring managers. Bootcamps like UXDi offer a route into UX that can be, compared to 2- and 4-year university programs, time- and cost-effective. These options are very appealing to talented junior-designers-in-the-making who may have had one or several careers (or degrees) already, but need some formal training and a resume line to help them get in the door to a design interview.
In job postings, however, I usually see expectations of formal and often graduate-level education in a handful of fields (product or industrial design, HCI, cognitive psychology, anthropology) that have become associated with UX. This comes with a preoccupation with degree pedigree, which inserts itself into the candidate evaluation process before quality of portfolio work.
As a UXDi student, I was often advised to ignore half of the requirements on any given job posting. These requirements constitute what one researcher called an “HR fantasy list” rather than a realistic depiction of the skills needed to succeed in the role. I once overheard another designer advise a group of female UXDi students to “just apply as if you are a white man and the only rules that apply to you are the ones you like.” I also give this advice. Bring confidence and assertiveness to your job search! Plus, there just aren’t a lot of junior designer positions out there, and you have to apply to something.
My theory is that when hiring managers ask me about my experience with GA, both their questions and the above discrepancy are rooted in a larger uncertainty as to what kind of training reliably creates good designers: “What can we look for in resumes or portfolios that can reduce the work and uncertainty of recruiting?” I can’t answer that, but I can try to address more specific questions like, “How do GA graduates compare to other entry-level candidates?” “What skills does this person actually have, and how much work is it going to be to train this person?” and “Can this person really see a design project through to launch?”
Process and Soft Skills
My cohort graduated with a variety of skill levels that reflected the expertise we brought in with us and the work we put into the course. Many of us were changing careers and already had the soft skills necessary to succeed in UX. While we were new to design in varying degrees, we weren’t new to having a job, meeting deadlines, and getting along with people. Some of my classmates felt their technical skills needed more work in one area of design or another, and some of us felt ready to jump into a full-time role.
Personally, as a research-heavy candidate with no formal tech background, I felt most comfortable taking an internship to spruce up my visual and interaction design skills. I had Omnigraffle down, but I wanted more practice with Axure and creating icons in Illustrator and Photoshop. I was familiar with Basecamp but not with JIRA, which has a steep learning curve.
My biggest challenge wasn’t precisely design-related; I needed time to learn key Agile terminology, which stand-ups to attend, and which sprint planning meetings to attend remotely from my desk while finishing a project for another team. I am still trying to figure out how to integrate UX into Agile. Luckily, I have grown good relationships with my product managers and engineers, giving me the sense that we’re all in this together. Many GA graduates come into the program with tech backgrounds, but for those who don’t, be prepared to help them acclimatize to your development process and learn new tools.
In retrospect, I probably could have jumped into a full-time role and done well, but my 3-month internship did wonders for my process, soft skills, and confidence.
In any hiring situation, it’s wise to enter with a solid idea of a few specific projects you’d like your new hire to work on, and from those projects draw up a list of skills that would make or break a UXer in that role. Look at your existing team, whether you have a large design team or you’re hiring your first designer, and determine where the current choke points are in getting work out the door. I notice that many hiring managers will say they are looking for a visual-UX-font-end unicorn with 8 years of experience and two HCI degrees, but what the team actually needs is a smart colleague who is ready to learn whatever they need to in order to help the team get their work done.
Hiring managers should determine what skills they need for the work at hand, and hire someone who has those skills. You can evaluate GA graduates’ skills in the same way you evaluate any other candidate: by looking at their portfolio of work, and comparing their problem solving abilities to the problems you have in your organization.
I can recommend one shortcut for taking a baseline on UXDi grads’ abilities as a whole, or comparing two GA-educated candidates. The second UXDi project in San Francisco has remained the same for at least a year: wireframe a shopping and checkout flow for a school uniform retailer named True Spirit. All GA students from the past 12 months or so have done the same project with, as far as I can tell, the same brief, making it a useful point of comparison. You’ll find a ton of those projects on Google.
While I have some reservations about what GA offers students, it could be a fantastic resource for hiring managers. As I outlined in my previous post, UXDi students develop a set of basic but foundational design skills, and they are introduced to a wide variety of popular design tools. These short, intensive, non-traditional programs are often attractive to career changers. GA can offer hiring managers a pool of candidates with basic design training, diverse work experiences and approaches to problem solving, and vital soft skills. I encourage hiring managers to determine the skills a new hire will need to solve specific problems, and to use candidates’ portfolios to evaluate whether they are a fit.