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Hey there, design reader!

Welcome to Week 16 of my UX Academy Journey. Last week we discussed the intersection of art and design, where they diverge, and how this thinking plays into design learning. Now it’s time to take what we’ve learned and jump, head first, into the first of three capstone projects. Are you ready? (I am!)

Ah, Phase 2! What’s it all about? (Capstone projects!) What are they? (Three back-to-back final projects each focused on a different product element, meant to serve as real-world exercises in executing on a UX design project brief and serving as the finished portfolio pieces in preparation for the job search at the conclusion of the program). 

How ever do you choose one? What if I change my mind, or get off track? Does it even matter? (The short answer: yes—and no). 

Setting up for a successful sprint

Throughout Phase 1 of UX Academy I had a potent case of the catch-up crazies—the distinct feeling of being behind (even when I wasn’t, necessarily), constantly requiring me to pick up the pace with repeated spurts of sprinting. And as any marathon runner will tell you, sprinting is not something you should plan to do throughout the entire race if you expect to keep pace. Or at least, so I hear (I have never—and do not expect to ever—run a marathon).

In any case, it’s no surprise that Phase 1 was a rapid introduction to all things UX design. This industry is vast and still growing—and when drinking from a firehose, it’s easy to get wet. But this quick surface-level exploration was by design, allowing us newbies the chance to get familiar with key processes and methods before embarking on our more substantial capstone projects.

And for me—someone easily lured along project tangents and down font-selection rabbit holes—recalibrating for the second part of the course would be key to staying on track.

Knowing I would need my wits about me to squeeze every last drop of valuable learning I could out of Phase 2, I started channeling my inner Sheryl Sandberg and decided to really lean in to the extra resources available in the UX Academy curriculum—not least the mentor–mentee relationship itself.

Transitioning from student to professional

One of the things I was most excited about at the outset of UX Academy was the emphasis on mentorship, and the opportunity to have 24 full hours of dedicated 1-on-1 digital facetime with a real, live, working UX designer.

The mentor–mentee relationship within UXA is similar to traditional mentorship outside of the program, but on hyperdrive. My Phase 1 mentor had a very holistic approach, and was exceptionally positive, encouraging, and flexible with both his time and the gentle guidance he provided me in and around any questions or roadblocks. 

Looking back, I can also see that this mentoring style was conducive to the aims of the first half of the program, which were about building a general understanding of UX design methodology, and less on coaching the actual execution.

Mentoring styles

Six primary leadership styles, as outlined by Daniel Goleman of the Harvard Business Review. Image credit: Harvard Business Review

He and I fostered a strong working relationship, and aside from helping me develop my UX design skill set, he also offered individualized professional coaching and served as a personal cheerleader for me throughout the first three months of the program.

The course was still very much self-driven, which was both a benefit (I got to explore the world of UX design and figure out what areas interested me most) and a potential hazard (it was easy to let myself get distracted or otherwise side-tracked and lose the primary point of each lesson).

My Phase 2 mentor, however, has an entirely different mentorship style—one based on clear structure, professional accountability, and repetitive client-designer role-playing exercises. He integrates his own professional and professorial requirements into delivery of the curriculum, offering a taste of what this work might be like on a real life design team. 

Such a sudden change in style might feel jarring at first, but it quickly became clear that this would be a blessing in disguise. Exposure to a different mentoring style is forcing me to let go of what had become comfortable, and benefit from the distinct insights and resources that will surely come with another perspective.

Professional development through regular communication and rigorous role-play

On our first capstone kickoff call, my mentor laid the groundwork for how the next three months would go: In additional to the regular curriculum deliverables, I would be required to complete—and be accountable for—an additional three items each week: 

  • a meeting agenda, due 24 hours before our next mentor call;
  • an updated Trello timeline task tracker, which I am expected to stick to and keep up to date;
  • a slide-deck presentation of all work completed since our last meeting, to be discussed in the first part of each of the three role-playing calls allocated per capstone. 

Mentoring styles

A look at my full Trello timeline for capstone 1. Click to zoom!

All deliverables were to be consistently branded and delivered in order and on time. If I fell behind, my mentor would pause my progress in the program. 

Hello there, stakes—look how high you are!

As per my Phase 2 mentor’s design, the first part of each of the subsequent calls would be entirely role-play based, with him playing the part of the client and me the part of the hired designer, running a full presentation just as I would with real clients and project stakeholders. 

“During these role-playing calls I’m going to ask you questions just as a client would. You will need to be prepared to defend the reasoning behind your design decisions,” he said by way of a warning. “I may be blunt and direct. Don’t be intimidated or put off by this. I do it because it will give you the experience of running a real meeting.”

There would be time opened up in the second half of the call for mentor–mentee questions and answer. Beyond that, I was encouraged to reach out to him directly throughout the week with necessary questions (those I’d need answered in order to proceed to the next step in the design process), rather than holding them all for our next meeting and losing valuable hours in the already tightly packed project timeline. 

While the prospect of additional work on top of the high demands of the existing UXA course schedule was undoubtedly daunting, more than anything else I was excited to have a chance to dive into some intense training—there would be no time to entertain any of the questionable habits I’d flirted with in Phase 1. 

It was time to whip myself into streamlined UX designer shape.

Selecting a project brief

The only task left was to pick a project brief. The first capstone centers on responsive design, but what that means, and exactly what it will involve, depends on the details of the subject matter. And as someone with enthusiasm for many competing interests, making a quick and definitive choice is always a struggle. 

Passion projects

The curse of the passion project. Image credit: Mitch Goldstein, an Assistant Professor of Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, from his series of Venn diagrams aptly called A Helpful Diagram.

The options were as follows: 

  • rebrand and redesign for a famous and now defunct airline (PanAm)
  • a local bicycle shop (or another local business of your choosing)
  • a national non-profit (an organization connecting animal shelters).

My mentor strongly encouraged me to select one of these rather than devise an independent project, which he said would be more difficult, especially considering the tight three-week deadline. 

I geared up for option two, and settled on either a local neighborhood spa or coffee shop, narrowed down from a long list due to another stipulation from my mentor; if I would be redesigning, he requested that the business not have an existing responsive site, even if it was a very bad one. As it turns out, it’s quite hard to find a non-responsive website these days. 

But after a day and a half of ruminating on the two local business options available to me—and feeling less than thrilled about each—an invisible light bulb suddenly turned on over my head in a last-minute “aha” moment, and I cheated a bit by pitching a project that was very personal to me. 

Kickoff meeting notes

The first branded deliverable from my first Phase 1 capstone: kickoff meeting notes.

A friend and coworker, who has over 20 years of experience as a teacher and a developmental educator, has been running a specialized program for afterschool, holiday, and summer camps for years. She has an existing brand and burgeoning clientele, but has never had the time or bandwidth to hire a designer to build her online presence. 

Knowing I was running out of time, I feverishly pitched the new brief. One of the reasons I decided to take the plunge into a UX design career change was my desire to get to work with an array of different industries, and to access the opportunity to take on and indulge in coveted passion projects when they happen to come along. 

It took a little defending, but after making a case to my mentor, I changed tack and—reinvigorated—barreled full steam ahead. I’m crossing my fingers that I can stay on track.

Until next week, happy blitz designing!

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