Blood, Sweat & Wireframes: Reflecting on the User Experience Design Immersive at General Assembly

It’s exactly two months since I completed the User Experience Design Immersive course at General Assembly London and it feels like a good time to reflect on the experience.

(Note: I can only speak for my experience on the course — others may have experienced it a little differently. These are my opinions and feelings about it.)

Summary

I loved the course — really well organised, great teaching and support, a good selection of content, well paced (challenging), lots of help preparing you for job finding, and a lot of fun. A lot of hard work too, but it’s rare that you get the chance to launch yourself in a completely new career in six months, I feel lucky to have found something that allows me to do that. In short, I have emerged from the course feeling confident in my understanding of UX tools and methods and my ability to use them to find user-centred solutions.

That’s the summary. Read on for nuance and juicy details.

My former life as a teacher: here with students of Wondang Middle School in Incheon, South Korea.

In the lead up to the course I wrote about the hard work ahead, the hope that it would be my escape route from teaching, and the excitement of entering into a new world with new people. It had to be a success — I was committing too much money and time to it for it fail, plus a move away from teaching was already years overdue.

Doing the course was no small undertaking — I lived away from my partner in Brighton for four months and, as well as forgoing earnings for more than six months, I estimate I spent more than £16,000 on course fees and living. Crikey. It’ll be a long time before my finances are healthy again. So in a sense, I placed my future in the hands of General Assembly. Half true, I still had to put in the work and GA make it clear that it’s up to you — that old adage of ‘the more you put into it, the more you get out of it’.

Working it through: teammate Charles during the voluntary O2 project after the course ended.

So, was it worth it?

For enjoyment, learning and great experiences = yes, absolutely. For the purpose of getting my first UX Design job, I think and hope so. I can’t say for sure because I haven’t landed that all important first job yet, although things are looking good and I’m confident a job isn’t far away. I’ve had a number of meetings with UX Designers in Brighton and the overall response to what I present to them has been very positive. I’ve shown my portfolio website, walked them through my projects and my UX process, and talked about how my background in teaching transfers to UX Design. And people have been clearly impressed with what I have done on the course. Six months ago I barely knew anything about UX Design, and here I am, showing a good understanding of the key approaches and tools with visual evidence of how I implemented them on a range of different projects, one of them working with O2. I know that I’m just at the start though — no amount of classroom learning can substitute workplace experience.

I get lots of questions from UX practitioners about the course — how many projects did I do? How long were they? Were they real client projects? What were the teachers like? Did I get advice on how to find a job? Were we given help with creating portfolios? I had the exact same questions when I was looking into the course, so I’ll answer them here now for anyone interested.

A critique: great for improving presentation skills and realising you’re either on the right track (great) or you’ve veered wildly off course (quick, rewind!)

The Makeup of the Course

Over 11 weeks, there were 5 projects ranging from 1 week in length to nearly 3 weeks, which was the final project. All were agile design sprints, following the Double Diamond approach (discover, define, develop, deliver), apart from an individual week-long project focussing on visual design. Three were team projects (3 to 4 people), which kicked off with us being given an industry-like brief from a client. Each was designed by the teachers and course producers to allow us to immediately implement the knowledge and skills learnt in the classroom, which was great. I love this kind of learning experience and, as a teacher, know the advantages of it. Most importantly, it’s fun. You apply the new learning in context and, because it contributes to the success of the project, you’re invested in it. It’s like learning a new language while living in a foreign country. You’re able to stand up, walk out the door and try out your new words in a real world situation straight away. And in doing so, it is deeply satisfying to see the instant results of new skills learnt yesterday or that morning.

Affinity Mapping: grouping responses collected from user interviews with Spencer, who was working remotely from LA.

Teaching

I’ve said this so many times to people: as a teacher, the teaching on the course ticked all of my boxes. I was impressed from Day 1. The course was extremely well organised, well designed, and well implemented. My teacher, Francesca Sciandra, an experienced UX Designer, created a friendly, relaxed and engaging classroom atmosphere in which questions and opinions were encouraged. The mood of the class was always considered and responded to, and information was disseminated at appropriate times. In my experience this kind of stuff takes a long time to master as a teacher. The pacing of the teaching was snappy and there was plenty of positive praise — both as a group and 1:1. Feedback and guidance was often given, usually during critiques (verbal) and at the end of the project (verbal and written). If I was ever unsure about something, I never hesitated to badger Frankie and the assistants, and they always responded without judgement.

Breakout: the GA communal space was great for working in. This table^ baffled us — 30ft long and made of one piece of concrete. They clearly made it on site, but how… ??

Support

Our intake was unusually large — 26 students — so Francesca was supported by two Teaching Assistants, Margot Azoulay and Carlota Iglesias, who had recently been students on the course themselves. The three worked really hard to support us in the class and during workshop time when we were working on projects. This came in the form of advice and guidance, lending a general ear, or handing out cheeky snacks and treats. They gave tutorials and showed presentations from their past projects. And the out-of-class fun (pub) was their domain too. They were great.

Friday Funday: we acquainted ourselves with many local pubs and bars, from the dark and dingy (Black Horse) to the allrounder (The Crown), to the civilised (The Culpeper). Here we’re at Big Chill Bar around Brick Lane, keeping a close eye on our bags — those MacBook Pros ain’t cheap!

How hard/easy was it?

UX Design isn’t rocket science, it’s a process of working. The great thing is that UX Designers like to share their ideas and experiences freely. Sure there was a lot of reading to do on the course — I’ve got an ever-growing backlog of bookmarked articles — but the learning acquired from reading was secondary to the first hand experience of working through the process. In this sense, the course was very practical and vocational in its purpose.

I made this video after a completing a bonus project after the course had finished. It gives a good overview of the process you can expect to go through during a 2-week project.

There was a lot to do, almost all of the time. At times it was intense, and if you didn’t maintain a level of working you would slip behind. Having said that, no one dropped out of my intake because it was too tough (just one person due to serious medical reasons). But General Assembly’s selection process is quite thorough and they do a pretty good job of deciding whether you’re likely to succeed — both on the course and in finding a job afterwards. Reassuringly, the staff often stressed the importance of a) having fun and b) getting a good night’s sleep.

Almost every night I was busy at home doing something. Here I’m doing some user testing with my friend, Dee.

Before the course began there was a long list of pre-course tasks — a mixture of reading, some coding (GA’s own Codecademy), some UX tasks, and even job finding work — which sounds crazy but this reassured me that GA were serious. They want you to hit the ground running and to have thought about stuff before you turn up on Day 1. They want you to think about how you present yourself to others and what kind of UX job you want at the end of it.

Most of the time on the course we were doing a project — the first project started on Day 1! So after the morning’s lessons we were given workshop time to get on with project work. We followed a suggested schedule of tasks to keep us on target and quite often we would work at home to make sure we were prepared for the next day’s activities. My blood ran a dark shade of coffee during the course — it was literally on tap in GA kitchen. There were a few late-nighters too, usually preparing for an end-of-project presentation the next day.

A world of cables. Miraculously, I didn’t witness a single person deck it during the course.

The elation after these presentations — more and more as the course went on — was always a highlight. With the adrenaline and coffee still working their magic, everyone felt pretty goddamn pleased with themselves. There was a lot of back-slapping and kind words — GA raised it even higher some Friday afternoons with ‘impromptu’ bubbly and well-done speeches, which was great. Who wants all their £8000 to go on Post-Its anyway?

Bubbly Jubbly: basking in post-presentation joy with Jussi.

Outcomes (commonly known as ‘finding a job’)

As I’ve already mentioned, this started as soon as I was accepted onto the course and it continued throughout, picking up in the final third. General Assembly take outcomes very seriously — it’s the measure of their success — and getting your first job is the ultimate goal. So they have a dedicated team who work to support and guide students towards that goal. I’d almost never had a positive or helpful encounter with a careers advisor in the past (because it was free? too generic?) so I ate up all the assistance and advice offered to us. It was up-to-date and lazer-guided, with visits from experienced UX Designers and UX recruiters to answers our questions. As well as giving us comprehensive pointers on our web presence (LinkedIn, Twitter, portfolios), the team checked our content whenever needed. It’s months since I’ve finished and the support is still there for me, which I’m still utilising.

Who was in my class?

All sorts of people! A lot of different accents and personalities, each bringing their own worldview and experience. Sometimes there were clashes but most of the time there was a lot of laughter and encouragement.

As I said before, it was an unusually large class. Many of us were surprised and a bit bummed out at the start of the course because we thought we wouldn’t receive as much 1:1 support. However, in conversations I had with others at the end we agreed that this wasn’t the case and, actually, we’d gained much more by having a large class. More people to chat to, more jokes, more opinions, more insights, MORE IDEAS!

A group effort: we conducted our last daily stand-up meeting in the Sky Garden at the top of the Walkie-Talkie building.

And the best thing is…

I’ve come away with loads of new friends and — BONUS — each one is a valuable connection in the UX community.

A perfect course, then?

There’s no such thing, obviously. What’s perfect for one person won’t be for others. But for me — someone coming to it from a non-tech background — it consistently hit the mark. It wasn’t always rainbows and air guitars, for instance there were some niggles over how groups were chosen for projects but, you know, you’re going to have to work with a lot of different people in the job, right?

One thing I would like to have seen: the opportunity for us UXers to work with the Developers. GA is a fantastic work environment with developers, designers, data analysts and others, all energetically working through their respective courses. It’s brilliant rubbing shoulders in the communal areas, learning what everyone’s working on. But given that we’ll be working together in the real world, wouldn’t it be great to have a taste of that experience on the course?

Got more questions?

Check out the course details:

https://generalassemb.ly/education/user-experience-design-immersive

If you want to talk more, feel free to email me:

smith.p.kevin@gmail.com