User Experience Design Apprenticeship

By Fred Beecher

Director of User Experience and Design

Demand for user experience design talent is exploding. More and more people are asking UX designers how they can become UX designers, too. UX-related degree programs are proliferating. While this seems fantastic on the surface, if you dig just a little deeper you'll find that the demand is for experienced UX designers, the supply of which is extremely limited. This experience gap is a threat to the health of the UX profession. If we don't close it, we risk losing relevance to business (they'll find some other way) and becoming unattractive to potential new designers (why struggle to get into a field so hard to get into?). So, how can we close the experience gap? At The Nerdery, we're building an apprenticeship program to take people with the raw materials required to be great UX designers and help them build the skills that will make them so.

To some extent, the experience gap makes sense. The more closely UX design is integrated with an organization's strategy, the greater the benefits. You can't expect a novice designer to be effective at a strategic level. However, the practice of UX design requires tactical methods that novice designers can learn to execute effectively. It's the experience they gain working with these tactical design methods that builds within novice designers to form the insight and wisdom required to be effective at the strategic level. These methods are the tools with which we craft a user experience.

For thousands of years, apprenticeship has been an effective method of teaching a craft. At The Nerdery, our UX design apprenticeship program is built around six components. We are a specific type of organization and the program is customized to our needs, but these six components form an architecture that other organizations can use to build their own apprenticeship programs.

Establish Business Value

Apprenticeship is an investment. There's no way around that. To build an apprenticeship program, you'll have to articulate how the program will benefit your organization financially. We started by establishing the cost of various issues the program intends to offset:

  • Finding & recruiting talent
  • Losing business due to long UX lead times
  • Drastic increases in demand for UX design services

While apprenticeship will help us offset some of those costs and seize additional opportunities, it has its own costs. Here are some factors we considered:

  • Salary & overhead
  • Non-billable time
  • Time billable at lower rates
  • Loss of billable time from mentoring designers
  • Program administration
  • Retaining apprentices as designers after their apprenticeship is completed

Acquire Promising Talent

The definition of "promising" is fluid. We're focusing on the following characteristics:

  • UX-related graduate degree
  • Broad familiarity with UX design methods
  • Personal traits required to be a good UX designer

Of course there are other sources of promising talent, namely people switching to UX design from related careers and undergraduates. At this point, graduate students are the easiest group to make apprenticeship work with. As we gain experience running this program, we will tap these additional sources and address the different challenges that come with them.

Assess Incoming Talent

Everyone is different. Our apprenticeship program is built to accommodate human variability. When we bring an apprentice on board, the first thing we do is identify their knowledge gaps, along with any skills they may already possess and goals or areas of specific interest. This helps us set up the specific details of what each apprentice is required to do to complete their apprenticeship.

Plug Knowledge Gaps

We don't expect apprentices to be familiar with every UX method that exists; most senior designers can't even say that. We do, however, require that apprentices be familiar with the methods we use most (and, where applicable, the tools we use to execute them). To plug gaps like this, we're building a curriculum of UX design readings and custom training that we'll provide to apprentices (and interested designers & developers) as needed.

Mentor With Many

It is this component of our apprenticeship architecture that is most likely to vary among organizations. The Nerdery has a large UX design staff of 35 (and counting!) and, to meet our goals surrounding business value, we need to be develop multiple apprentices simultaneously. While close mentorship should be a component of any apprenticeship program, the volume of work we do and the size of our staff allows us to accelerate the exposure of apprentices to the broad array of UX design methods we use frequently. For us, mentorship looks like this:

  • Apprentices work with a principal mentor who is responsible for their overall skill development & growth
  • The principal mentor works with sales & management to identify the UX design methods being used on current & incoming work
  • The principal mentor assigns apprentices to projects which require methods that an apprentice needs to build skill in
  • The apprentice is mentored closely on those methods by the project's lead UX designer
  • Designers can expect to mentor apprentices a few times per year for a short amount of time

Within this mentorship component, there are several levels at which an apprentice is mentored on each UX method. These levels are primarily differentiated by the level of accountability the apprentice has for the outcome of the method at each one. Apprentices move up through these levels of accountability based on the amount of time they spend and the feedback they receive from the lead designers who mentor them.

  • Observation. The apprentice observes the lead designer perform a given method. The apprentice is not accountable for the outcome of the method and is not billable.
  • Assistance. The apprentice contributes materially to the execution of the method, but they are still not accountable for its outcome. Examples include things like taking notes during interviews, preparing card-sort materials, or annotating prototypes. The apprentice can be billable at a low rate.
  • Mentorship. At this level, the apprentice is now accountable for the outcome of the method. The lead designer will work very closely with the apprentice to ensure the outcome meets our high standards. The apprentice can be billable at a moderate rate.
  • Oversight. The apprentice is now capable of executing the method on their own and remains fully accountable for its outcome. The project's lead designer only checks in and provides oversight and approval over the apprentice's work. While they're still mentoring the apprentice, it's much more hands-off than the previous level. The apprentice can be fully billable at this point.

How an apprentice proceeds through these levels of accountability depends on our project portfolio at the time. Some apprentices could work through all four levels on the same long-term project. Others could do so over the course of several small-to-medium-sized projects.

Track Skill Development

As apprentices work through the different levels of accountability on each commonly-used UX design method, the principal mentor will track the time they spend, evaluate the feedback they receive from the lead designers they've worked with, and make the decision about when an apprentice is ready for more accountability. Through this tracking, the principal mentor will also know when the apprentice has completed their apprenticeship. This is a balance between the hours they have worked within all methods, the number of methods they can be fully-accountable for, and lead designers' feedback.

We expect most apprentices to complete the program within three months and to be offered a position as Associate UX Designer once that time is up. Ideally, tracking will continue throughout a designer's Associateship, but that will depend largely on the principal mentor's workload.

I recently presented this model as an Idea Market at Interaction13 in Toronto. I received a wealth of feedback on it from the interaction design community and I'll post that feedback in a follow-up to this article. In the meantime, what do you think of this model? Please let us know in the comments!

Fred Beecher has been working in User Experience for 14 years. In that time he's seen UX mature from a field struggling to prove its value to one that's driving an explosion of innovation and economic growth. That growth has made UX designers hard to come by. A frequent speaker and author on topics like design process and interactive prototyping, Fred has recently shifted his focus toward meeting this increasing demand. He is currently developing a UX design apprenticeship program at The Nerdery that bridges the gap between education and practice to act as a sustainable source of UX design talent.

Published on 02/15/2013