Tips for being successful in General Assembly’s part-time UX class

A few weeks ago I wrapped up my second stint as an Expert-in-Residence for General Assembly’s part-time UX Design program. It’s a big time commitment (supervising in class activities, grading homework, meeting students for open hours) but I really enjoyed mentoring students and seeing their skills and projects develop over the three months of the course. If you want to transition into UX I think it is well worth the time and money, especially if you already have training in a design discipline like graphic design, industrial design or architecture. Can the class prepare you for everything and guarantee you a job on graduation? No, but you probably learned that hard lesson after graduating from four years of high school or college.

But this isn’t a sales pitch for GA’s design classes — it’s advice on how to make the most of your experience. So if you’re thinking about taking the GA UX course, already signed up or in the middle of the class right now, do yourself (and your teaching staff) a favor and…

Understand the time commitment

Just like college, or any other life experience for that matter, you get out of it what you put in. Two nights a week for two hours doesn’t seem that taxing but it can be pretty brutal if you’ve had a full, stressful day at work. Oh and don’t forget most of your work will be out of class working on your project so say goodbye to your other weeknights and weekends! Make sure you really have the time to make the commitment. Take the class when you won’t be traveling for work or taking vacation. If you can take the class when you’re “funemployed” or between gigs even better. I took a front-end class at GA while taking a work sabbatical and had time during the day to work on homework and outside coding tutorials which helped me tremendously with absorbing the material and producing a polished final project.

Have a problem space you’re passionate enough to build a three-month project around

The bulk of the class is working on designing an app. Everyone picks their own project and a proposal is usually expected by the second week of class if not earlier. If you don’t want to scramble and get stuck working on something you feel lukewarm about its best you know before class begins what kind of product you want to design. I’ve seen students design healthcare related apps, transportation apps, 3D printing apps, salsa dancing apps, etc. The most successful projects are very specific, niche product ideas that the student has a deep expertise or interest in. They know the space and they know who they can reach out to for interviews and user testing. Try to go beyond the obvious ideas that have already flooded the marketplace. Frankly, I’m not interested in reviewing another foodie app and probably neither is a potential employer.

Focus on your problem, not the solution

You should have a project idea but don’t get too enamored with a solution too soon. You must be able to define a problem before you ever hope to solve it. Through user interviews and observation get passionate and the problems your users are facing.

Frame your design solutions as hypotheses to test.

The bulk of your effort in your project, even when you get to mock ups and prototypes, should be refining your understanding of your problem space. Frame your design solutions as hypotheses to test. The best projects I saw did not just go through iterations but painful almost 180 degree pivots. If at the end of class your product looks pretty much how you thought it would at the beginning then you probably fell in love with your initial idea and didn’t take the time to really understand the problem and work through a solution.

Learn to listen

Listen to your potential users. Listen to the feedback you get from your instructors, experts-in-residence and fellow classmates. Embrace criticism and learn to seek out feedback on what you need to change rather than collecting evidence of what you are doing well.

Being a designer is a humbling experience so be humble.

It’s really tough to test your first prototype and see if fail. It’s bruising to present your work and hear all the things that you need to change. Being a designer is a humbling experience so be humble. It’s never easy to get feedback but it gets easier.

Don’t be afraid of change

If you are truly listening you will start to learn about things you need to change. Sometimes it can be accomplished with a small design iteration. Sometimes you will have to do a major redesign. And sometimes you will find yourself enough off course that you must fundamentally rethink your idea and start from scratch. If your research is telling you things need to change, then change them. Get comfortable with throwing away work, no matter how many hours you invested in it. This can be very scary when your final project presentation is only weeks away, but we (instructors, experts, employers) would rather see less polished work that actually solves a user problem than a prototype that is beautiful but useless.

Learn the tools

If you want a professional looking project at the end of class then you will need to get comfortable with a graphics program and a prototyping tool. If you’ve never used a program like Sketch or Adobe Illustrator you will need to devote time out of class to learn how to use the software — we have time to do simple demos but that’s about it. Just like learning any tool you must practice on your own. For beginners I recommend Sketch and InVision as they have the lowest learning curve. One of my students had been struggling to create wireframes in Sketch until she set aside an entire Saturday to do tutorials and get proficient in the tool. After that weekend she was able to work fluidly in the software and make fast progress on her app.

Keep up with project milestones

There is a lot to do in a short amount of time — it’s easy to get behind. Keep up with project milestones and homework. Don’t think you can wait for some magical weekend to get all your backlogged work done — the students who tried this technique often end up dropping the class or not finishing their midterm and final presentations. Let go of your perfectionist tendencies and turn in work even if it is not at the level you want it to be. You can always polish things at the end or after class.

Document your project

At the end of the General Assembly class you should have a kick-ass project that you can put in your portfolio. If you have been keeping up with project milestones you should have plenty of artifacts to show off your design process. Take the time to pull all the work you did together into a compelling story. Treat your final class presentation as a dry run of how you would present the project at a job interview. Get a squarespace account and document your project on a portfolio site. Write an article about your project and process on Medium. You might be telling the story of this project a dozen of times at job interviews so you will want to know it inside and out and have great, professional looking visual artifacts to impress potential employers.

Take the time to pull all the work you did together into a compelling story.

So there they are, eight things you can do to make the most out of the General Assembly UX design course. If you’re interested in transitioning into UX definitely reach out to GA and learn more — they can give you all the information and even hook you up with alumni so you can understand if the class (and UX as a career path) is right for you. If you are already a UX designer, consider being an Expert-in-Residence or instructor. It’s reinvigorating to work with students who are just getting their feet wet with UX. I had left a job and wasn’t really sure if I was on the right career path. Being around students made me realize how far I had come in the last six years honing my own skills. It helped to reconnect me to my passion for the practice and look forward to what I want to learn and do as a designer in the years to come.

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