The Future of Product Design Apprenticeships is Open Source and Practical Application

Written by Steve Hickey, Director of AUX at Fresh Tilled Soil

For the past four years we’ve run AUX, our user experience apprenticeship program in-house at Fresh Tilled Soil. We originally created this apprenticeship because we were struggling to find designers and developers with adequate experience in the parts of product design that we valued most — human-centered experience design. We also noticed many design and development practitioners being split into black and white camps with little or no overlap in skills. In the product design world there is a lot more grey area and there really isn’t a design handoff. What we wanted was designers and developers that could feel equally at home in either camp whilst maintaining a holistic perspective over the entire user experience.

In the absence of any reliable sources of product design talent we decided to create our own pipeline of world-class UX designers, developers and strategists. Over the years our team and nine classes of AUX graduates have written about their general experiences of the program. You can read their stories on our blog and listen on our podcast The Dirt. We’ve also published our AUX reading list and other relevant perspectives along the way. With all these invaluable insights we’ve reached a point where we’d like to share the detailed inner workings of this highly successful program. Beginning today we’re making our apprentice handbook a public resource.

We’re doing this because we think things are better when they are open and transparent. We’re certainly not the only ones who think this. By sharing what we are doing we hope that other creative teams will use these ideas and share their experiences. We hope that other teams build on this foundation and make something infinitely better for all of us to share.

The handbook contains all the details of how we recruit, select, onboard, train and, when necessary, help our Apprentices find jobs. Not every graduate stays at Fresh Tilled Soil so it’s important we close the loop and ensure they get a great position where they can use their new skills. We believe strongly that apprenticeships are currently the best way to educate and nurture creative talent for teams doing high-value product design work.

Let’s push the envelope of design education even further, together.


The AUX Handbook

This is your guide to running AUX Program.

Philosophy

We turn promising early-career web professionals into user experience experts through structured challenges, one-on-one mentorship, and real-world client work. Our apprentices aspire to be leaders in the field by building beautiful, engaging web and mobile products embedded in thoughtful customer experiences. All of our apprentices are taught the full range of UX fundamentals, and also given the option to specialize in one of three areas: user interface design, front-end development, or UX strategy.

The program pairs every apprentice with a mentor that has a similar background. A mentor’s job is to guide the apprentice on their career path, to help them avoid mistakes that they made, to discuss ideas and provide feedback. Most importantly, the mentor’s role is to spot potential obstacles the apprentice isn’t yet capable of seeing and turn these into teaching moments. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the mentor to make sure the apprentice does well in the program.

The main curriculum is centered around 3 challenges designed to teach the major skills of a UX professional. To teach other skills in an apprentice’s specialization area we have a series of minor challenges that can be assigned by mentors. To complete a specialization skill an apprentice is responsible for teaching it to another apprentice. Using the model: see one, do one, teach one, we are able to transition Apprentices from knowing to understanding. During this process, Apprentices will also develop empathy for their cohort and team members as they work through the challenges together. It is our opinion, that the best products are built by teams who understand and empathize with the other members of the team, and we strive to teach those qualities in the cohorts we guide through the program.

How do we define a user experience professional?

We claim to offer an apprenticeship that creates user experience professionals, so we need to be able to explain what that actually means. It’s important to us to stress that UX in the web design and product design space is an inherently multi-disciplinary practice. We look for people with a strong set of core skills which we can develop a bit while adding to and enhancing their broader skills. We don’t believe in the jack-of-all-trades, we prefer the T-shaped skill arrangement made popular by IDEO’s Tim Brown. As Brown describes, “The vertical stroke of the ‘T’ is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. The horizontal stroke of the ‘T’ is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines”. In other words, we’re looking for generalists that have strong core skills and can collaborate well with others.

In our opinion, the qualities a UX professional must possess are:

  • Some level of experience with modern web design and/or front-end dev.
  • An effective personal process for achieving consistently good results, and a desire to add to and improve it.
  • Incorporation of user research/observation/feedback as a core component of the way they work.
  • A clear understanding of usability and interaction design principles and best practices.
  • The ability to create an effective information architecture.
  • The ability to create and run usability tests, with a focus on forming and testing hypotheses.
  • The ability to identify and create the best prototype for answering the question at hand.
  • The ability to simplify and improve ease of use in products.
  • A desire to create products based on the user’s needs, behaviors and habits.
  • A willingness to stand up for the best interests of the user.

What is our standard for who is qualified for the AUX program?

Loosely speaking, a good candidate is someone with at least some professional experience and proven competency in working on the modern web. We also expect they will have above average communication and presentation skills. As we hinted at above, collaboration skills are critical, so we’re also looking for demonstrated experience in understanding and managing team dynamics. People fresh out of school haven’t worked as well for our program. This is not to say other companies or teams might not have success with recent college graduates, but it’s our observation that work experience is a big benefit to understanding the various team dynamics common in product teams. Individuals trying to transition from an unrelated career aren’t ideal candidates either. The best results are achieved with people that have enough baseline skills working on the web that they don’t spend the entire 15-week program playing catch-up. Instead, we’re using this valuable time enhancing their existing skills and adding UX-specific skills.

Research

Other paid, in-person apprentice programs


Recruiting

While a session is in progress, the form at http://freshtilledsoil.com/aux is the general form for collecting email addresses from people who are interested in the program. Make a new form every time you go back to gathering email addresses so when it’s time to email these people you only reach out to relevant people.

Once a new session has been planned out and is ready to accept applicants, switch over to the form for accepting applications. You should create a new form for every session to keep applicants boxed together by session.

For an application, we ask for name, email address, portfolio URL, and the URL of a project case study that demonstrates the applicant’s thinking and process. If they have an existing case study they can use that, otherwise we expect them to prepare one specifically for us. We also ask which area they want to specialize in.

The application period is open for 2 weeks. This gives them time to create a case study for us if necessary, while time-boxing applications so that managing the process is a bit easier for us. In the past, we accepted admissions on a rolling basis, but we found that many applicants had accepted jobs already by the time we got around to planning the next session. This newer tactic increases the odds that an applicant is available and highly engaged in the process.

Anyone who responds to the application email is categorized into a tracking spreadsheet so we can track them through the process.

Pipeline organizations

We’re able to reach a diverse set of applicants by creating partner relationships with organizations that represent different communities in the Boston tech scene. These partners are part of our recruiting pipeline, and we coordinate our announcement of the admission period opening with an email or other communication from these organizations to their members.

One of our goals is to identify and add a few new organizations for every new session of the program. Over time we can increase our reach into every corner of the Boston tech community.


Bootcamp

Bootcamp is how we choose who to invite to the program from the high number of qualified applicants we receive. Portfolios and interviews give applicants a chance to control how they appear to us, and are an important part of the invite process, but Bootcamp requires them to work under pressure in the completion of a project for us: a design sprint where they prototype a single purpose app in a pre-selected topic area so we can compare the work of each candidate.

Bootcamp is held on the weekend (two Saturdays in a row) because we’re trying to attract candidates who have experience, i.e. are already employed. This shouldn’t interfere with their work schedule, but they will have to work on the project during the week, around their existing schedule. The Bootcamp experience is explicitly designed to create pressure and a tight deadline, so we can get a clean comparison of all candidates against each other under the real-world conditions common to our day-t0-day work.

We have tried to run Bootcamp with remote applicants in the past, but have found that it’s too difficult to get these applicants participating in a way that doesn’t put them at a disadvantage compared to the in-person candidates. That doesn’t mean we won’t try it again in the future as we learn more about remote collaboration.

Bootcamp presentation

Research/resources


Schedule & Logistics

When we’re not accepting applications we use a form on our site to gather nothing but email addresses from interested parties. Once a session has been planned we post the application form. The application period lasts for two weeks. It opens on a Monday and ends Friday of the following week.

In the past, we accepted applications at all times, but by the time we were ready to run the program a lot of applicants had moved on and found jobs. By only accepting full applications for a week we don’t spend time filtering people who aren’t likely to join the program.

Applications are evaluated and invitations emailed at the beginning of the following week. Invitees have two weeks to answer the invitation. Then we hold our first Bootcamp session on a Saturday two weeks after the end of the applications period.

Applicants have the entire week after the first Bootcamp session to go through the design sprint exercise. The second bootcamp session is the following Saturday.

Bootcamp attendees are evaluated and program invitations emailed at the beginning of the following week. Invitees have four weeks between the end of Bootcamp and the beginning of the program to settle their schedules.

The program runs for a total of 15 weeks (approximately 4 months). We pay the apprentices and we provide them each with an iMac and any necessary software for the duration of their apprenticeship. You can read about the details of how we pay them and what the ROI is on the program on our blog.

We run twice a year, making sure we leave enough time between sessions to adequately prepare for the next. In previous years we have run 3 cohorts but we found that this was an unsustainable burden on the rest of the team.

Week 0 (pre-program)

Week 1

  • Continue company onboarding (complete 45-steps)
  • Mentor interviews and assignment.
  • UX challenge 1 assigned.

Week 2

  • UX challenge 1 continued.
  • Minor challenge 1 assigned.

Week 3

  • UX challenge 1 due at end of week.
  • Minor challenge 1 workshop at end of week.

Week 4

  • UX challenge 2 assigned.

Week 5

  • UX challenge 2 continued.
  • Minor challenge 2 assigned.

Week 6

  • UX challenge 2 due at end of week.
  • Minor challenge 2 workshop at end of week.

Week 7

  • UX challenge 3 assigned.

Week 8

  • UX challenge 3 continued.
  • Minor challenge 3 assigned.

Week 9

  • UX challenge 3 due at end of week.
  • Minor challenge 3 workshop at end of week.

Week 10

  • Transition primarily to work on client projects.
  • Start to work on portfolio sites.

Week 11

  • Continue to work on client projects.
  • Continue to work on portfolio sites.

Week 12

  • Continue to work on client projects.
  • Finish work on portfolio sites.

Week 13

  • Continue to work on client projects.
  • Practice interviewing & negotiation.

Week 14

  • Continue to work on client projects.

Week 15

  • Continue to work on client projects.

Check-in meetings

To facilitate the sharing of lessons learned, and create opportunities for group feedback, there are regular meetings scheduled as a part of the weekly process and the process of each project.

Every Monday morning there is a team meeting to discuss what we’ll be doing that week, including introducing any new challenges.

Every third Friday we meet to go over completed challenges and discuss what was learned.

Apprentices are also required to take on the responsibility of setting up regular check-ins with their mentors, and with other employees to get feedback on their work and discuss new ideas.


Curriculum

We’ve made the full curriculum available as a repo on Github. The following links go to Google Docs instead if you prefer that format.

UX major challenges

  1. User research & interviewing
  2. Personas, experience mapping & behavioral design
  3. Prototyping & usability testing

UI design minor challenges

  1. Accessibility & universal design
  2. Asset optimization & performance
  3. Design systems

Front-end dev minor challenges

  1. Progressive enhancement & accessibility
  2. Performance budgeting
  3. Front-end systems architecture

Strategy minor challenges

  1. Business model/Lean/Value proposition canvas
  2. Product road-mapping
  3. Domain analysis

Workshops & mini challenges

After each challenge apprentices are asked to fill out an anonymous feedback form so we can consider ways to improve the challenge for the next round.


Resources

The full reading list for all the challenges in our program can be found in this blog post. The following is a smaller, more focused list.

General reading

Interaction design

User interviews

User research & testing

Universal design

Atomic design & visual systems

Color

Emotional and behavioral design

UX strategy

Career

Job search sites


There’s so much accumulated knowledge in the heads of the team running this program that we’ve undoubtedly left some important stuff out. Please give us your feedback and feel free to reach out so we can answer any questions you’ve got. Enjoy!

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