I promise I won’t make you tear up but hopefully I’ll make you stop and think a moment about learning through shared experiences, selflessness, and the power of knowledge.
What is Bridge? It’s not-for-profit organization that supports women, agender, and non-binary professionals in their career paths to help them navigate barriers in the tech space. Bridge has been running a software development course for the last few years, but I was fortunate to be a part of their first official Product Design cohort. Being a part of the program goes well beyond the 11 weeks we actively spent in the course, I still feel completely supported by this community. Our slack group is lit (aka quite active with people helping each other out, talking about initiatives and events they’re working on, and posting leads for good jobs).
When I entered the classroom on that first day at Bridge, what was apparent to me was that I was not alone. I was amongst a positive group of fellow students, instructors, TAs and volunteers. All of us were brimming with excitement for this experience that was unlike a typical workplace or classroom — there wasn’t a feeling of competitiveness. Rather, there was a communal feeling of inclusion and support. This set the tone for the rest of the course.
A fully supportive environment like this one is hard to come by. It almost never exists in the wild, but in this safe space we developed incrementally (I mean, iteratively!) into product designers and eventually were let loose on the world. And that’s where I am now, in the real world trying to apply what I’ve learned in my own design practice.
So, what did I learn?
The Importance of shared experiences.
Learning with others and from each other is a unique experience that can’t be replicated in an online course or when reading books and articles on your own. Being in the same room to share ideas and feedback keeps everyone engaged, enables sharing of ideas and creates a level of comfort that increases dialogue. The ability to speak as a group was really a standout feature at Bridge. I’ve done a few tech courses in the past and have never been able to engage in group discourse where everyone feels like they’re included. This was due to not only the openness of those running the classes but also thanks to a smaller group size. It was manageable enough to have discussions where every member could be heard and valued.
Because there was this open dialogue within the classroom, feedback on work (an ongoing practice) felt less awkward and onerous. Because the group came from varied backgrounds, each student and instructor was able to approach each situation differently. It enabled people to point out issues I wouldn’t have realized working on my own. My work was better because we were working together. Much of the work we did in class was group work designed to mirror the real working world. It helped us learn the value of working with others, and how best to foster great collaboration.
Research is messy.
When we first delved into the research portion of the course I was overwhelmed. I had lots of survey data and interviews that I wasn’t sure what to do with. Once we started to filter data into empathy maps and then later into journey maps I began to have a clearer idea of what the trends were in the research. But I was still struggling because of some conflicting viewpoints in the research. I wasn’t sure what to do next, and I was frustrated.
Lindsie, Bridge’s Director of Product Design, said something that made me feel at ease: “Research is messy,” and it is.
It’s never going to be perfectly arranged to suit your needs. That’s just how it is. I felt relieved after this because I was worried about turning the research into a crystal clear narrative, when in fact it was several divergent experiences, with some subtle trends emerging. It was murky, but in going through some of the exercises I was able to glean great insights into who my users were and what motivated them. This was a trend in thinking at Bridge. The process is not cut and dry, so moving things along before you think you’re completely finished is ok. In fact, it’s usually beneficial. I was getting hung up on the details and therefore not continuing the process. Insights and discovery will happen along the way. There’s no need to force it before moving on.
Connecting the dots is not always obvious.
What dots? What am I talking about? Well, I’ve learned about design thinking in my career through courses, books, and various workplaces but what was I missing? I always felt there was a disconnect between my user experience knowledge and the actual practice of it. I didn’t understand how to account for both the user research and business needs and being able to build really neat innovative products. Synthesizing all the data collected was the missing piece. How do we know what the business needs are? And how do we combine that with all the user research we’ve gathered?
At Bridge we participated in Clarity Canvas exercises. This is the practice (developed by designers at Rangle) of running workshops to gather information to help extract information from the research we’ve gathered and from the stakeholders. This is a way to establish what the stakeholder’s goals are, who they see as their users, and what those users want or need. We also practiced facilitating a short workshop to determine what values and ethics were meaningful to the product from the business and the user’s perspective. I didn’t realize how useful these techniques were until we put them into practice. The process of gathering information from people is difficult and by using these techniques I learned it could be efficient and organized.
Beautiful things grow out of good practices.
I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to participate in the first official Bridge Product Design program. What I’ve learned has empowered me to lead the user research program at my current workplace. I feel confident that I can guide us to gather information and utilize it to make our products more successful. Thank you to all the instructors, TAs, volunteers, guest speakers and my fellow students for giving your free time to this knowledge-sharing endeavour and for giving me a voice with which to speak with confidence. I’m excited for the future of Bridge — I want to see it grow so it can help guide more designers like me who need a boost to get to the next level in their career.