Should I Take General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive Course?
In many ways I am one of General Assembly (GA)’s success stories. In February of 2014, I won a scholarship from Designers + Geeks that allowed me to quit my job and take GA’s 10-week User Experience Design immersive course (UXDi). I accepted a paid internship offer before my final course project began, and my internship turned into a well paid, full time job with a recognizable brand. GA knows that these are the kinds of results that draw students like me to their programs; recruiters for the immersive course often boast of job placement rates from 90%-98% within 3 months of completion.
With similar design bootcamps on the rise, I get a lot of questions about what I learned at GA. Generally the questions fall into one of two camps: “Should I take the course?” and “Should I hire graduates from this course?” Now that I have reached my one-year anniversary as a working UX researcher and designer, I want to share my experiences in the hope of answering these questions. I’ll tackle the first question in this article and address the second in a sequel (edit: now available here!).
Should I enroll in UXDi?
What potential students are really asking is something like, “Is this course worth $9,500?” “Can I become a UX designer without it?” and “Will I really get a job out of this?”
Pros: Structure, Portfolio Development, and Mentorship
What I wanted out of the UXDi course, and what GA was very good at delivering, was an intense and structured opportunity to learn design methodologies and terminology while building a portfolio. I would not have been able to create as compelling a portfolio, nor as quickly, if I had been teaching myself UX on my own. I probably could have put a portfolio together, but it would have taken much longer and been more frustrating. Whether that’s worth ~$10k is up to you!
The day-to-day format of the course worked well for me. Mornings were comprised of lectures, interrupted every 45 minutes or so with a group activity to experiment with what we’d heard. Students had the afternoons free to apply the morning’s lecture topics to our current portfolio project.
If you don’t hit any major roadblocks in your absorption of the material, you will have all the time you need in class to easily complete your work to a standard of sophistication good enough to present to others or even use in your portfolio. If you find a concept or design tool difficult to master (or you have an off-day and simply can’t focus for an afternoon because your brain is leaking out your ears), your progress can easily be derailed. I frequently worked through lunch and for an hour after class every day to make sure that I had the time I needed to finish course projects to my standards, and later, to work on my job search. I kept a blog detailing a lot of the early coursework here: http://elfoxdesign.tumblr.com
After the class completes each portfolio project, students present their work for feedback and critique. My instructors coached students to tell a compelling story about the evolution of their designs and to stay open to feedback. This turned out to be great interview prep, at least for portfolio reviews. I also used these presentations as the basis of the case studies I put in my portfolio. By the end of the course, I felt well prepared to discuss my work with inquisitive strangers.
GA’s greatest strength and weakness is its instructors. Mine served as endless fonts of feedback and guidance in design, job searching, and generally socializing my cohort in UX jargon. If you get along with your instructors and you are persistent about asking for help and feedback, you will do well. I have spoken with some graduates who felt that poor instruction made the course a complete waste of their money and time, leaving them under-trained and unprepared to find work.
The single most important thing you can do to evaluate if the UXDi course is right for you is to research your potential instructors, and escape as soon as possible if you sign up for a course with instructors who aren’t meeting your needs. If you worry this may be happening to you, ask for a refund or request to defer your enrollment to another course.
Your instructors should be industry veterans, and ideally they’ll have some prior experience in managing a team, teaching, mentorship, or other design leadership. Find their LinkedIn profiles and portfolio sites. If you are not sure what to look for in a design portfolio, ask a designer friend to evaluate their work. If you don’t have any designer friends yet, get out to UX events and make some! Searching for “user experience” on Meetup or Eventbrite will get you started. GA often asks instructors to attend recruiting events, and it can’t hurt to ask potential instructors to have coffee and chat to evaluate if you are a fit for each other.
Cons: Professional Development
The most vital resource for successfully transitioning into a new career is a network of people who are willing to vouch for your skills by referring you for jobs. Unfortunately, GA was very poor at helping me develop a professional network. I hoped that GA would leverage its ties with startups and larger businesses in the area to introduce me to hiring managers. This did not happen. My cohort toured a couple prominent product companies and consultancies, and met a few of their designers. There were too many students per working designer at these visits to develop any useful connections or even get advice in small groups. I followed up with a few, but most of their teams were not hiring, or not hiring UXDi grads.
GA did hire a career coach of sorts, an experienced designer who spoke to my cohort once a week in the second half of the course. While the coach was well intentioned and willing to share personal anecdotes, much of their advice was too tailored to their particular experience to be useful for much of the class. GA may not have given the coach any kind of structure or guidelines for what they were supposed to provide to the students.
Several weeks after the course ended, GA held a job fair for my cohort. There was minimal instruction as to how to prepare and what to expect. In retrospect, I’d recommend bringing hard copies of your resume and business cards, and developing a 30-second pitch of your favorite project that highlights your role and what kind of work you want to do in the future. Some of my fellow candidates brought candy, which seemed popular with attendees.
While my cohort was informed that over 100 businesses RSVP’d for our job fair, the businesses did not seem to be vetted for whether they were actually hiring. Some of the business representatives I spoke with definitely were not hiring for junior UX designers at that time. Many were not certain if they had a position open — or, if they did, what sort of skills that person should have. Several were really just looking for developers.
While GA is careful not to guarantee job placement as part of their services, the professional development they do provide is very poor. I don’t know where their 90–98% figure comes from, but it certainly isn’t representative of my cohort. Some of my classmates simply didn’t want or need work for a while, but some really excellent candidates are still struggling to find jobs.
My cohort took charge of our own professional development by regularly searching for design-related events and sharing them with each other on Basecamp or via email. We then took turns motivating each other to attend another 3-hour event on top of a grueling 8-hour day. We also regularly checked GA’s website for classes and workshops on relevant topics like visual design, mobile prototyping, and front-end development. As part of the immersive program, students are able to attend other GA offerings. GA’s program administrators did not communicate any scheduling information to UXDi students or instructors, despite repeated requests.
GA’s failure to share their own professional development opportunities with their students speaks to their overall lack of organization. I was never certain which administrator to email with which question, and titles and administrators seemed to shift constantly. The staff is very kind and enthusiastic, but very young and somewhat inexperienced. I would like to see GA more aggressively develop the organization, attention to detail, process, and communication skills that are essential to administrative roles in education.
My impression from speaking with more recent graduates is that GA has tried to fix some of these problems, especially vetting the job fair attendees. GA collected feedback regularly throughout my course, but I did not see my concerns addressed during my time there. I am not able to speak to how the program has evolved in response to student feedback, but you can contact current UXDi students easily by searching on LinkedIn or attending design-related events in the Bay Area.
GA’s UXDi course is not a magic wand that will instantly transform you into a working designer in 10 weeks. It does offer industry mentors to help you develop basic design skills, learn UX vocabulary, and build a portfolio, all in a structured and intense environment full of enthusiastic fellow students. GA does not help you find a job, nor give you the skills to successfully apply, interview, and negotiate salary. This is up to you, luck, and chance.
Still have some questions? Check out my follow-up: Should I Hire Graduates of General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive Course?