What is mentoring?

A reflection on the experience of mentoring

Certain conversations lead to more questions, more deep thought. At times they are unsettling, but on a broader level they benefit everyone involved in the conversation. The numerous meetings I attended this fall as a mentor led to such great design conversations. The experience was enriching and helped me understand myself better as a designer.

Mentoring is similar to any design activity, but different

I was assigned to be a mentor for 3 projects over the course of the fall season for 1st year students in IU’s HCI/d program. In the first couple of sessions in the 1st project, I felt nervous. I wasn’t quite sure whether I was doing justice to my role. Was I answering their questions? Was I asking the right questions? With time, I got better at critiquing by involving myself as a team member.

During my internship, I was trying to be inclusive in my design process when working with business and engineering. When mentoring, the reverse is important. I had to include myself in the team and understand the team’s thought process. Activities like checking in and writing down clearly summarized thoughts on the whiteboard were just as important for the mentor as well.

As beneficial as it is to do all this, it is also important to note that mentoring is about striking the right balance between being a part of the team and acting as a leader. This is a tricky thing to do, as I am not meeting the team frequently and only have limited time to spend with them. Act too much like a team member and the team doesn’t gain much, act too much like a leader and you end up influencing the team’s decisions. This is an important lesson to take away as I grow as a designer. I won’t be shy to admit that I haven’t been able to strike the right balance yet. However, I did work towards that balance by being present in the meetings for the first 20–30 mins and then leaving before laying down some actionable thoughts on the whiteboard.

Mentoring is NOT just about guiding, coaching or giving advice

Mentoring sessions aren’t for mentors to just give advice and wave their hands but rather a platform for sharing perspectives. To understand what mentoring is, we need to see when mentoring really happens.

When does mentoring really happen? — Mentoring happens when familiarity meets curiosity. With this mindset, we can all leave our thoughts open to critique no matter what our position is. As a second year design student with some internship experience, I brought familiarity to the table by sharing my lessons learnt in the industry. By being relatively new to the interaction design field, the first year students brought curiosity. This curiosity has the power to question what seems familiar. For example, questions like ‘how do you create a persona?’ made me think about what personas really are. Many other questions like this also made me reflect on my past projects.

Observing other’s process is an eye opener. When I saw teams struggling to construct stories around their ideas, I realised that me and my peers were making the same mistakes; only worse. We were better at doing the same thing — slapping faux stories on top of our design ideas. I realised that this was the wrong way to tell stories. I thought, why aren’t we sketching out scenarios first and then coming up with ideas? Easier said than done, but it is better to fail doing the right thing than excel at the wrong thing.

Driving success and embracing curiosity

I believe that good design is about empowering people. Through mentoring I understood that design itself is a lot about helping people succeed in achieving their goals. When we grow, we often forget where we were in the past and hence fail to empathise with others. In order to empower people to achieve their goals; a designer really needs to work closely with others, respect their curiosity and understand their work. If you are designing for a client, respect their knowledge in a particular domain or business and do not dismiss their curiosity.

Mentoring and education

As I move further into my career, I am more interested in design in education than ever before for reasons I cannot put into words right now. What if instructors across the world didn’t think of themselves as instructors but presented themselves as mentors? What if classrooms became a place where familiarity meets curiosity? What if the goal was to not just award a grade and follow a curriculum, but to help kids realise their dreams?

I have read a number of articles on mentoring, but two of them always stand out to me and inspired this article too. One is by Mandy Brown(A Book Apart’s co-founder & editor) and the other is by a recent IU grad, Lulu Wang. Do read both these brilliantly written pieces.

I am an Interaction designer pursuing MS in HCI at Indiana University and recently interned at Rackspace. View some of my work on shankarUX.com and follow me on twitter @shankarux.

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