This week we’re talking with Michelle Lin, Mentor Community Manager at Designlab, Product Designer at Reddit, and former UX & UI Designer at eBay. Since joining the team, Michelle has been leading efforts to connect Designlab’s network of 400+ mentors. We discussed her own career journey, what it’s like being a mentor, and why the industry should value career-switchers
Hey Michelle! Could you tell us a little about your career path and what brought you to your current work?
It’s actually a pretty funny story… and a long one at that, so bear with me. I was born and raised by a self-taught web designer mama in Taiwan, who first introduced me to design and taught me the entirety of the Adobe Creative Suite before the age of 7. At age 8, I designed my first website via Dreamweaver on my dog and launched it on Geocities.
So, you could say I fell in love with design at a very young age. However, once we immigrated to the US when my mom remarried my stepdad, I suddenly found myself with a brand new family in which everyone was either an engineer or doctor. In this new reality, a career in design was not an option or anything that my parents would support.
I ended up at UC Berkeley, which was my dream school, with zero clue about what I wanted to do with my life. In college, I wrote for the Daily Californian as a lead theater critic, double majored in Earth & Planetary Sciences and Cultural Anthropology, minored in Sustainable Environmental Design and interned for a few arts non-profits doing marketing design.
Ten days after graduation, I started my first job—as an archaeologist for a small environmental consulting firm—but I knew from day one it was not a career path that would bring me any joy. Although, ironically, it was the place where I first learned about product (UX/UI) design as we ended up creating and developing an internal dashboard for a huge project we had with a well-known client in the Bay Area.
From then on, I began endlessly researching on how I could make a career switch and came across a three month-long product design apprenticeship program. I quit my job, took my savings and dived in full force into the world of digital product design.
After the three months, and hours of hard work and networking, I began freelancing as a designer for a startup named Gigster which provided “software on demand”. Post-Gigster, I worked as a contract UX/UI designer at eBay, which is around the time I started mentoring for Designlab.
I absolutely fell in love with Designlab, but saw that there was a disconnect in terms of community for the crazy talented design mentors in the network. Now I work in-house for Designlab as the Mentor Community Manager to make sure that the mentors are getting more value out of the platform by learning and connecting with one another beyond simply mentoring.
Oh, and I also work at Reddit as a Product, UX Designer. As much as I’d love to share what I’m working on at Reddit, you’ll just have to wait and see once the specific products launch!
You mentioned accidentally getting into design on the archaeology job—but do you think there were other reasons you were led to become a product designer?
To be completely frank, studying cultural anthropology and writing for my college newspaper really served as my foundation as a product designer. I was born an empath, and in my personal opinion, empathy is a skill that cannot be taught.
I decided to focus on product design because it is a job that is never mindless: you need to always be advocating for the user, which requires empathy from beginning to end. There’s so much more to product design than pushing pixels and making something beautiful—it includes everything from design thinking, process, understanding business goals, marketing, content strategy, conducting (user) research, knowing how to communicate and work on product teams, and most of all, always putting the user first. None of these things are possible without empathy.
So how did you get into mentoring? How would you describe your approach, and what you try to achieve when working with students?
It’s simple really: I knew what it felt like to make a huge career switch—the fears, the feelings of self-doubt, the lack of confidence—and I wanted to share my own learning and experiences with aspiring designers. A huge motivation was knowing what it’s like to hate your job and being able to empathize with and understanding that dreadful feeling of it being a Monday and knowing that there’s a full week of mindless work ahead of you.
My approach differs with every student, but I would describe it as nurturing and adaptive. For me it’s about discovering the strengths, weaknesses and needs of each mentee, and empowering them to become the best designers they can be. However, there is one thing I always do when I first begin mentoring a new student: I make sure to send them a personal email, first to introduce myself and help them feel comfortable, and second to recommend resources like design newsletters to sign up to, blogs to follow, as well as must-read books.
What’s the biggest buzz you’ve got during your time mentoring?
Having an amazing and dedicated mentee receive a product design paid internship (remote-friendly) at the beginning of Phase 2 of UX Academy, before even starting her first capstone project!
A user flow from Michelle’s Stroll Health project
Which assignment is the most fun to teach?
My favorite assignment of all is mentoring on the task and user flows. It’s definitely something personal from when I was going through my own UX design training, because it’s something I really struggled with. But once I spent enough time practicing and nailing down the flows, it became my favorite part of the entire product design process. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see the same results with my mentees when they master their flows.
What would you say that you get from mentoring students, both personally and professionally?
The ultimate value is definitely seeing my mentees grow as designers from day 1 until the end of the course. I’ve also built very strong mentor-mentee relationships and friendships with current and former students, and I genuinely cannot even put into words how much joy that brings me.
Are there any tips you’d give to new mentors who are unsure what they’re letting themselves in for?
Trust yourself and your design process, and reflect on your own career journey and also what you do on a daily basis as a designer. Since so many of our new mentors are very experienced designers, it’s likely that they’re already providing mentorship in their own workplace. Also, keep in mind that you (new mentor) are a product or UX designer for a reason—you’ve got wisdom to share and there are aspiring designers who need that insight.
There’s been quite a shift in recent years, with increasing number of students taking intensive courses like UX Academy, rather than going the traditional college route. What do you think are the pros and cons?
I can go on and on about this, but I’ll try to keep it somewhat concise. Pursuing design academically will get your foot in the door for interviews, but it doesn’t mean you will get the job. In traditional academic settings, the focus is placed more on “technical” skills rather than “soft” skills. And, trust me, the soft skills are absolutely necessary when going through the lengthy interview process and getting that offer.
Product and UX design are not necessarily “new” career paths, but they are ones that are finally being valued by companies. Non-traditional intensive design courses or apprenticeship programs give students the opportunity to work on real-life and non-conceptual projects with guidance from practising Senior and Lead product and UX designers.
Similar to taking the traditional route, these programs give aspiring designers the opportunity to put together a portfolio, but in a shorter amount of time. Yes, it takes a lot of hard work given the time limit… definitely more so than taking the traditional academic route. But, if you remain focused and motivated, it will pay off. Plus, it’s cheaper!
Established designers are sometimes skeptical about intensive courses. What would you say to employers or design directors who are unsure about taking on graduates from providers like Designlab?
At the end of the day, we need more designers in the world as technology continues to grow and advance. If you only focus on traditional credentials or a piece of paper, you’re missing out on truly talented designers who have worked incredibly hard in a short amount of time.
One thing I would definitely say to skeptics, is to take 5 to 10 minutes out of your day to look at the portfolios of Product and UX Designers who took a non-traditional route, and compare those to the portfolios of designers who spent years studying design. You will not be disappointed.
And how about new students who’ve never experienced 1-on-1 mentoring before—do you have any advice on how they can approach the experience to get the maximum benefit from it?
First and foremost, be humble but know that you will grow drastically as a designer and learn immensely from the best of the best. Your confidence will grow as time goes on. Trust the curriculum and trust the process. And, of course, do your best to stay on top of your work so you don’t fall behind in order to keep the lessons and feedback fresh in your mind.
Importantly, if you don’t feel like you’re getting what you need from your mentor, don’t be afraid to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with your concerns. We’re all human: sometimes personalities don’t match, or there’s a clash of mentoring or learning styles. Know that Designlab wants you to succeed, and will be there for you to ensure that you get the most valuable experience.
Finally… funniest story from your design career so far?
Spending hours, spread out through many phone calls and weeks, explaining what I do to my parents even after two years of working as a product designer. The funny part, I suppose, was my stepdad's final “Aha!” moment:
“I get it now, maybe we need to hire a Product Designer for our company… none of our clients understand how to use our software, but it’s their only option!”
My stepdad, by the way, is the Engineer and Manager for North & Latin America of his software company...
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