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  • Writer's pictureAaron Hodgin

Wise Advice for New UXers

Over the last few months, I’ve been doing a lot of informational interviews. I’ve reached out to friends, friends-of-friends, people-I-used-to-know, and total strangers- I want to talk to anyone who can offer insight or advice about the field I want to work in.

Cliff Seal is a UX Architect at Salesforce and a friend from years past. When I reached out to him for an informational interview, he said he would love to help, but that he found written correspondence to be a better format for meaningful questions and thoughtful responses. I loved that- I also find it easier to communicate through writing, and I appreciated that he was willing to take the time to give me some advice.

We began a correspondence, and his advice has been incredibly insightful. It’s clear that his wisdom comes from experience, and he shared thoughts on the bootcamp-to-career transition, being flexible in your design process, and collaboration and consensus building in a remote work environment. His advice would be helpful to anyone in my position, so I asked if I could share it along. If you see him, thank him.

[Me] I'm nearing the end of my Springboard bootcamp. I've definitely enjoyed a lot of my experience, and it's given me the structure and direction to put together some projects to showcase in my portfolio. However, I've heard from some UXers that when they've interviewed or worked with people coming out of bootcamps like Springboard or General Assembly, there are some skills missing that are hard to pick up from these places. The main thing I feel I've been lacking is collaboration, since almost 100% of the work I've done has been remote and solo. My question is: If you've worked with people coming out of bootcamps, what are the most common skills that have been missing? Or if you haven't worked with bootcampers, then more generally, what skills / aptitudes / mindsets have you seen that help people to be successful early in their UX career?

[Cliff] I've worked with (and hired) folks coming out of bootcamps, and you nailed it. The dense, structured timeline of bootcamps cause folks to believe that UX "process" is a rigid or even objective thing that exists in a vacuum.

Working in enterprise software, our timelines are years long, and we're distributed across the world. Like it or not, company decisions are driven by C-suite folks more concerned with stock prices over time and revenue growth and acquisitions. They don't give a tiny shit about doing "good work" because their definition of good work is broader than the product. We have to basically know how to take those tools from bootcamp and quickly establish productive plans based on time constraints, internal politics, etc.

On the other hand, smaller/older companies with low UX maturity will want to move much faster than bootcamps can prepare you for. Even if you can get colleagues to participate in the design process with you initially, it won't happen every time, and you'll need to know how to build on existing knowledge and not revisit it every time.

This ability to scale your process based on your context is the most important thing to keep in mind IMO. I've told folks as much for a long time and I still think it's right.

For an example, think of a given chunk of work you might be asked to do. Now, imagine you have project timelines of 3 weeks, 3 months, and 3 days. How do you do your best work in those time frames? How can you gain confidence in the short time windows when you can't research or validate? How can you maintain project stability and progress over an entire quarter?

All of this is helpful because it can apply to joining a very large team vs. being a solo designer at a company. Eventually you'll know more about what you're capable of and what the company is capable of, and you can adapt your process to keep yourself and others from burning out.

[Me] My other question is about your experience with remote work. Becky [my wife] and I are planning to move to Asheville before the end of the year, so I'll be looking for positions that are fully remote. I love the flexibility of remote work, but there's definitely a magical spark to in-person collaboration that I'll miss. What strategies / practices have helped you to be a successful team member and creative collaborator when working remotely?

[Cliff] (First of all Asheville is so dope.)

I have Big Opinions on this one and feel strongly about it. 🙂 One reason I've stayed with one company for 10+ years now is because I've always had the option of being fully remote, or hybrid, or fully in-office.

In my experience, you don't need the in-person aspect as often as you might think. You can do remote collaboration well by being thoughtful about it, getting feedback, and iterating on how you do sessions. Remember that people are usually not having as much fun as we are, even if it is in fact fun for them and helpful in their jobs.

Participating remotely is more draining for most folks, but participating in-person negatively affects others as well. It's much easier to ensure everyone is heard when folks aren't all in the same room where loud voices can rule the day.

Speaking of skills they don't teach at bootcamps: knowing how to manage the collective energy of the folks you're working with is critical ^. Asking others for design feedback can be draining on them! Plus, if folks don't feel heard, they won't want to continue trying.

Even when you're working with other designers, I think this is still important to keep in mind, you just wield it differently. One way I do this is by paying attention to how individual designers like collaborating: documents, Figjam, outlines, discussions, slide decks, design critiques, etc. Knowing how to make progress with these different mediums is a really valuable skill for being remote.

Last thing: an important component of being fully remote is having the ability to meet with your company in person on a regular basis (even once or twice a year). This is a huge component of not feeling isolated, especially when they're regular and folks know when to expect them.

Let me know if anything else came up for you reading this. Happy to answer more questions. ♥️

[Me] I agree wholeheartedly with your Big Opinion! When I worked from home as a teacher, I was creating digital learning materials, video lessons, all kinds of cool stuff. When we had to return in person, I realized that the primary function of my job was babysitting. That's when I decided to quit.

The last part of the bootcamp is the Industry Design Project, where we finally work with a small team of other Springboard students and do some work for an actual startup. I'm pretty good at running meetings and client communications, so I've kinda taken on the role of project manager. In meetings, especially over Zoom, I'm always focused on maintaining momentum and making decisions. There's nothing I hate more than a meeting where everyone just sits around soaking in ambiguity. I always make sure to yield the floor to other voices, but sometimes I do worry that I'm bulldozing through the meeting (especially taking my whitemaleness into account). I like what you said about "managing the collective energy of the folks you're working with"- do you have any meeting practices / strategies for keeping everyone engaged and making sure everyone leaves feeling heard?

[Cliff] Sure! I think it's nearly impossible for everyone to feel heard in a single meeting—it's hard enough in a 1:1. So I account for this by providing ways to give feedback before, during, and after any meetings and sessions. Make things asynchronous when you can ("comment on this doc by EOD") so people can approach it however they want.

This might sound like splitting hairs, but I try to avoid "making decisions" in meetings in favor of gathering and noting consensus. Instead of "we need to decide this today", it's "we need to understand what we do and don't agree on, and use this time to understand the things we need to work out". Even if there's consensus, reflecting that back to the group gives people a chance to raise their hand and say they need more time. Make sure those decisions are "made" in documents that are accessible to everyone.

To me, this is a significant portion of design work at a larger company. If you are designing an outcome—like how an actual product will look or function—then there's a lot more work to be done outside any UI or flows. It's difficult work and it requires a lot of emotional maturity and it takes time to get better. But, I watched myself do it over years and made sure of it by actively soliciting feedback from people. It made me a much better human!

Anyway, you can also build this rapport by doing "retros" or otherwise making sure everyone gets a chance to give feedback about the design process itself. If people see they can give you feedback and that you can truly take it into consideration, they'll feel heard on another important level.

In terms of keeping people engaged: these days especially, put meetings in the smallest possible time box they can go in. On big, difficult conversations you'll need enough time to unpack conversations or do exercises, but I recommend keeping timing really tight around all that. It's much better to have folks feeling like they need more time than vice versa. For the time you do use, set a clear agenda and stick the heck to it.

We all universally have so many different issues staying present these days that the only common thread I've seen is to keep requested time short and on track, and ask for feedback religiously.

To that point, if you stay worried about being too white-guy-wants-to-shut-down-conversation (❤️), this feedback will help you figure out whether it's helping or hurting others. You can also ask the group for permission to own certain things, like the agenda. It can be awkward but just being vulnerable and clear works the best.


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