10 Things I Learnt from General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive Course

Last year, I took General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) course in Hong Kong. Almost a year after graduation, I feel like it’s a good time to reflect on how the course has benefited me over the past ten months.

Truth be told, UXDI is no cheap investment. Currently, they’re charging HK$ 100,000 (US$ 12,800) for three months, a 37% increase from what I paid in 2016. For that kind of money, you can do a master’s degree in Hong Kong.

The Beginning

At 25, I was struggling in life. I was not enjoying my job as a technical writer and everything else I pursed became compensation for it. I failed to see the light above the well how ever hard I squinted. The clock was ticking and a part of me was dying.

Then one day at the office, when I was flicking through my Facebook newsfeed, I stumbled across a sponsored ad by General Assembly promoting their course. Three months later, I quit my job.

This was by no means a swift decision. Only after two and a half months of back-and-forth contemplation and intensive online research was I willing to dish out the cash. The installment was so unprecedented that I had to increase my credit card limit.

Why I’m Writing

Back then, I scrutinized every course review I could find — on Reddit, Medium and tech magazines. It’s incredibly hard to get an accurate assessment on this subject when you’re not in the industry and that’s one of my reasons for writing this post.

Another reason is that I get asked a lot about what I learnt at General Assembly, particularly in job interviews. Instead of just describing what happened during the course, I want to tie it in with the bigger picture of working as a UX designer later on.

Here it is: ten things I’ve learnt from UXDI.

1. You’re the voice of users

On the very first day of the course, we were asked to interview complete strangers in the underground station. This totally freaked me out, especially because people in Hong Kong are unapologetically impatient.

But after a few terrifying rejections, I learnt to observe people and go after the right ones. Soon, I was able to target tourists who were scratching their heads in front of station maps and offer help in exchange for information I needed.

I’ve since practiced this technique in design jams and at work with a high success rate. Over time, you know better than to bluntly intrude people’s personal space to conduct interviews. Your role is about empathizing with the user persona, obtaining feedback for product iterations and advocating users in boardroom meetings.

2. Post-its are fun and practical

Our classroom was more like a primary school art room extended for grown-ups. The walls were painted in white lacquer, so you could write on them with markers. On the lecturer’s desk was a box full of coloured Post-its, Sharpies and other wonders.

Like a kid eyeing new candy, I was dazzled by the slabs of Post-it notes in all seven colours of a rainbow. Irresistibly, I vandalized the wall with my awful drawings and clusters of curly paper. We used Post-its to brainstorm, synthesize data and collaborate with teammates. It was amazing. I loved it!

Visualizing your ideas and being able to move them about is extremely powerful. Einstein used visualization techniques to arrive at some of his theories. The question has to be why teachers never taught me to solve problems like this in school.

In the real world, grown-ups in creative industries stick Post-its around the office all the time. This is a phenomenon that I could only wrap my head around after several company visits during the course.

3. Answers are not set in stone

Out of all my personal transformations, this has to be the most significant one. Like my peers, I was programmed in school to find one, exact answer. A leads to B, and B leads to C. This is called linear thinking. However, to be good in design you need to be able to think non-linearly and tackle problems from multiple angles.

In earlier lessons, I used to raise questions like “but my interviewee said this instead” or “how can we prove that our research supports this idea”. There were times when I got so stuck on a problem that I just sat in my seat fidgeting. Amen.

The epiphany occurred when I was doing random sketches for a website and got shockingly awesome results. It was then I realized that to be more creative, I’d have to abandon the whole paradigm of dichotomies and linear thinking, and embrace possibilities coming from my imagination.

Surely, this is a deep transformation that couldn’t have taken place in three months, but is one that wouldn’t have started if not for this course.

4. Begin with the problem in mind

Einstein famously said “if I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”. This is counter-intuitive to what we learn in school and most business environments, where we’re asked to come up with the solution when little time has been spent on thinking about the problem.

On the contrary, exercises in class were geared towards building a problem statement. Data from user research was synthesized to identify customer pain points. A journey map was created to facilitate the discovery of user problems at each touch point. We were judged on how well we understood the problem.

Beginners will find it tough to focus on the problem when simultaneously they’re picking up visual and software skills. As time goes by, however, you’ll get better at it and realize just how worthwhile it is to properly frame a problem.

5. The right tools for the right job

On my resume, you’ll see a bunch of UX techniques containing user interview, design studio, journey map and wireframes, etc. The old me would forcefully apply all these techniques to every problem encountered, when in fact I should be using these tools sparingly, only when the problem asks for it.

The saying goes that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you’ll see every problem as a nail. Don’t be limited by the tools you use. This relates to my previous point of non-linear thinking — it’s about going from A to D, or Z.

Being flexible and adaptable in the way you approach problems is a highly desirable trait. It’s the factor that determines whether you’ll be the designer that resizes photos every day or the design lead that takes on a range of business challenges.

6. User testing is trickier than you think

Now that you’ve finished the arduous research and finally created a prototype, you’d expect user testing to be easy — just show your design to your users and they’ll tell you what needs to be changed. Uh-uh.

Your users are not trained designers. They’re not supposed to tell you exactly what to do. And when they do, it can be incredibly annoying! Additionally, people suffer from people traits. They don’t experience things the same way and are easily distracted by unimportant details. They’ll offer very different opinions and leave you unsure of what to make of the data.

I’ve interviewed users in two-hour sessions to obtain feedback that had little impact on the final design. To gain useful insights from test sessions, you’ve got to show realistic prototypes and read between the lines.

7. Beautiful designs speak louder

If you look up “UX designer”, you might be delighted to discover that you don’t need formal visual design skills to become one. However, aesthetics play a crucial in UX because it establishes trust with the user, communicates the brand and brings out the rationale part of the user experience.

My first design for an ecommerce website project was so ugly that my classmates exclaimed out loud during the user test. The first impression of the website was terrible and failed to induce appetite for the testee to continue using the website. This caused testees to be more focused on the bad design rather than completing the task at hand.

There are so many advantages of knowing how to create aesthetically pleasing designs. Start early while you can as these techniques take experience to master. You will thank yourself for saving countless hours convincing clients, conducting better usability tests and receiving the occasional praises for creating beautiful work :)

8. It’s hard to explain what you do

The term “UX” get abused all the time where I work. I’m disgusted every time my boss instructs me to “improve the UX” of so and so website. UX is meant to be a part of the business strategy, not a standalone improvement. What I think he meant was to “improve the interaction design”.

That being said, don’t forget that it’s your job to explain what you do and initiate new workflows. UX is tricky because it implies widely different processes across industries and product stages. Be as good as possible at explaining what you do in the workplace, at events and to your friends. Your confidence will show.

Lastly, it helps to boil down your existence to one or two sentences. On my resume I state my purpose as “advocating business value and good intention in design, and working on exciting projects that improve lives through technology and careful thought”.

9. Design thinking is not only for designers

Marty Neumeier, author of “The Brand Gap”, describes the era we live in as the Robotic Age, in which jobs comprising of repetitive tasks will be replaced by robots. To stay relevant, people will have to be extra humanistic and creative.

Being in a classroom filled with all walks of life — former accountants, researchers and marketers — confirms that design isn’t a job but a way of thinking. Our goal is not to become a “standard UX designer” but to evangelize design thinking within companies across all sectors.

The industrial age has led to humans thinking like robots. Now we must reverse this trend. Realize that society is pressing for our creativity and ideas, and that we were all born as designers, albeit brought up to acquire our own unique tastes.

10. Designers are amazing creatures

My instructor and classmates were amazing to talk to because they genuinely cared about the problems they were solving and their target audience. It was impossible for them to hide their excitement for experimentation and innovation.

In General Assembly, we were encouraged to explore new ideas in groups and critique each other’s work. Sadly, this is not always the case in the workplace. So much so that I’ve come to appreciate working alongside other design thinkers. Luckily, I still get to exchange ideas with my instructor and former classmates.

Conclusion

So the question arrives: was all the time and money spent on this course worth it?

Yes, at least now I see myself progressing in this field for many more years to come. I’m also a thousand times more motivated to get out of bed and express myself through my work.

Would I have paid the current price they’re asking for if I were to do it all over again? I don’t know. At the time, I was desperate to change my career. I’m just glad I did it sooner than later.

My instructor at the time was Steven Ma. You can find him on LinkedIn.

Call To Action

If you’re thinking of changing your career, I hope this article inspires you to become a UX designer, whether through General Assembly or not.

Did you find this article helpful? If so, feel free to chat me up on LinkedIn.

To see the work I do, visit my website at scottmilburn.design