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

In 2016, I took General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) course in Hong Kong. It’s been 10 months since graduation and I feel it’s a good time to reflect on the experience.

The Price

Charging US $12,800 for three months, a 37% increase from 2016, UXDI is no cheap investment. For that kind of money, you can do a master’s degree.

I remember instalments being so unprecedented that I had to increase my credit card limit!

Being expensive is a typical complaint about GA. Is it worth it? I’ll explain at the end.

The Frustration

Before joining UXDI, I scrutinized every review I could find — on Reddit, Medium and tech magazines. It’s incredibly hard to make an accurate assessment, especially when you‘ve never touched design before.

That’s the main reason I’m sharing this stuff with you.

Another reason is that I get asked a lot about what I learnt at GA, particularly in job interviews.

Instead of describing mundane details, I want to tie it in with the bigger picture of working as a UX designer and how’s it’s benefited me up to this point.

1. You’re the voice of users

On Day 1, our instructor asked us to intercept complete strangers in the underground station. I panicked, knowing people in Hong Kong are unapologetically impatient.

But after a few terrifying rejections, I learnt to observe people and go after the right ones. I began targeting tourists who were scratching their heads in front of station maps. I offered help in exchange for an interview.

Oddly enough, we all experience fear when interacting with other human beings.

But as a UX designer, you must be comfortable talking with strangers.

When the word “user” is mentioned in boardroom meetings, you’re going to get a lot of eyeballs. Draw from your past experience and stand up for your customers.

Get ready to empathize with users and support product iterations with real-world feedback. It will be a part of your mission.

2. Post-its are practical and fun!

Our classroom was like a primary school art room for grown-ups. The walls were painted glossy white and 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.

Why didn’t they teach us how to solve problems like this in school?

During the course, we got the chance visit 3–4 creative agencies. Most of them stuck Post-its around their office to facilitate problem solving. This was a real eye-opener!

3. Answers are not set in stone

Out of all personal transformations, this was the most significant.

Many of us are programmed in school to find one, exact answer: A leads to B, and B leads to C. This kind of linear thinking stifles creativity and is extremely paralyzing.

To be good in design, you need to be able to think non-linearly and tackle problems from multiple angles.

In early lessons, I remeber raising 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 to that…

The epiphany occurred when I was doing random sketches for a website and got shockingly awesome results. I realized that being creatively productive meant abandoning the whole paradigm of dichotomies and linear thinking.

I learnt to embrace possibilities coming from my imagination.

If you’re from an engineering or maths major, you’ll most certainly relate to this.

This was a deep transformation beyond those 3 months, but it’s one that wouldn’t have occurred 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 things are solution-driven. Rarely do we spend time thinking about the problem.

On the contrary, exercises in class were geared towards building a problem statement. Data from user research was synthesized (using Post-its) 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, not by coming up with a “mastermind solution”.

Beginners will find it tough to focus on the problem when simultaneously they’re picking up visual and software skills. As time goes by, 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

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of following standard design procedures. This approach may work for resizing images, but not necessarily for UX.

The saying goes that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you’ll see every problem as a nail–refer to the last point. So don’t be limited by the tools you use.

During the course, I learnt many interesting ways to solve problems–journey mapping, user stories, card sorting and so on. At first, it was really difficult to know when and how to use these methods correctly.

But as time goes by, you’ll become much more fluid with your tools and methods.

As UX designers, one of the things that makes us stand out is that we have a ton of tricks up our sleeves. Whether the problem be related to business, people or tech, we have a way of looking for the answer.

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

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