UX Apprenticeship Results – Cohort 1

The last time I wrote about UX apprenticeship on this blog, it was still just an idea. Okay at that point it was more of a plan. But now, we’ve graduated our first cohort of apprentices to the role of Associate UX Designer! The past 12 weeks have been the most professionally rewarding of my career and in them I have learned a ton about what worked well and not so well about the program, and this article spills all the details. And I mean all of them. It gets so detailed that I am handling this like any other research report; I’m kicking it off with an executive summary (aka tl;dr).

Executive Summary

  • 3 of 4 apprentices hired into the Associate role
  • The fourth has a job waiting for her once she graduates from college
  • Cohort 2 was approved and four more apprentices start 9/9
  • The basic model was successful, but some elements needed to be tweaked or dropped along the way
  • Upcoming changes for Cohort 2 should make the program even more successful

Establishing Business Value

The program achieved its business goals, although it was more of an upfront investment than we originally intended. It proved difficult to enable it to pay for itself through apprentice billings, but hiring three new ready-to-go designers allows us to earn our investment back quickly. We’re now planning to integrate apprenticeship into the structure of all UX projects to reduce this difficulty in the future. If a project is structured to accommodate an apprentice from the beginning, assigning apprentices to projects in a billable capacity will become much easier than it is now.

Acquiring Talent

Originally I had planned to focus our hiring efforts on students graduating from UX-related graduate programs. Do you know how many apprentices fit that description? Exactly zero. Partially, the people graduating from those programs were recruited into permanent positions by large companies. But more importantly we learned that it wasn’t what people knew. It was how they thought and what they felt that made the biggest difference. We focused on finding people who had to design user experiences or they would die. We also looked for those who would fit in well with our culture. That’s a huge reason we were able to hire (almost) all of them. Come on, Maddy! Hurry up and graduate!

Assessing Talent

This proved to be quite successful. It helped me understand the apprentices skills, talents, and personalities better. The initial assessment meeting helped the apprentices feel comfortable that the program would help them reach their goals at the same time. I wasn’t always able to assign apprentices to something in their areas of focus, however, because there wasn’t always enough work in those areas to go around.

Plugging Knowledge Gaps

If there was any aspect of the program that received complaints, it was the reading list. To be fair, it is pretty brutal. That said, the workshops were successful although spread too far apart. The reading was intended to be discussed during the workshops, but often we didn’t have time to do that. For the next round I will group the workshops closer together in the beginning and handle the readings separately. I will spread them out instead.

Fred’s UX Book List:

Part 1: Intro to UX

Part 2: User Research

Part 3: Interaction Design

Part 4: Information Architecture

Part 5: Usability Evaluation

Mentoring With Many

This idea is the beating heart of the apprenticeship program. While it worked, it wasn’t perfect. The plan was to focus on exposing apprentices to as many UX design methods as possible, track their progress on each method, and build their skills in each method by having them use the method on multiple different projects while being mentored by a different designer for each project.

To do this, I had to keep an eye on all the projects the entire UX team was working on and what design methods they were using, and then assign apprentices based on their need to develop skill with a given method. This process met the goal of exposing apprentices to lots of methods, but it didn’t teach them everything they needed to know.

The apprentices appreciated the broad exposure, but they wanted the opportunity to see the process from start to finish. Initially, I was averse to the idea of internal projects (those are for interns, not apprentices), but in this case we came up with something worthwhile and it was an excellent learning experience for them. During the next round, we’ll ensure that each apprentice is involved in a long-term project from the get go. That could be another internal project, or it could be something else.

Another option we’re looking at is assigning each apprentice to one project start-to-finish during the course of their apprenticeship. They would still rotate on and off other projects, but that one project would be consistent. Yet another option is to create an apprentice-only client project. In this option, I would function as the lead designer and method mentor all-in-one. The apprentices would do all the work and I would make sure it was high quality before exposing it to clients. I like this option a lot. It keeps the apprentices together, which we found valuable during the first cohort. It also keeps me billable, which helps the program pay for itself. Finally, it’s something that will help me keep my own skills sharp while allowing me to focus on the apprentices.

Let me switch gears here for a moment and provide some perspective from the mentors’ side. In general, they loved mentoring. Some mentors put a lot of effort into doing so. That said, things did not always go so smoothly for them. Rotating people on and off their projects was difficult for two reasons. First, they had to spend time onboarding yet another person. Second, they didn’t always know what an individual apprentice was capable of.

We solved the first problem by creating project onboarding documents. When an apprentice hops onto a project no apprentice has been on before, their first task is to create the project onboarding document which describes the general purpose of the project, the people on the team, and the work that they’ll be doing. When a new apprentice pops onto the project, they read the onboarding document and the mentor has to spend less time getting the new apprentice up to speed. To solve the second problem for the upcoming cohort, we’ll be creating apprentice profile documents to share with the designers they’ll be mentoring with. These documents will give designers an understanding of an apprentice’s background and communicate their level for each design method. This will help designers put apprentices to good use on their projects.

Tracking Skill Development

In the original plan, I had the apprentices moving through four different levels of skill in each design method. The apprentices and mentors would work together differently depending on what level the apprentice was at. The basis of moving between levels was going to be time spent plus mentor feedback. However, mentor feedback proved tough to get enough of – and get quickly enough to make leveling decisions. Hours alone, however, were not sufficient.

We’re adding additional gates to the leveling process for the next round (for a description of the levels, please read my original post):

  • Observation to Assistance: Hours only
  • Assistance to Mentorship:
    • Hours
    • Must have attended the relevant workshop
    • Must be able to articulate the value and use of the method to the Principal Mentor (Fred) as well as what they learned through Observation and Assistance
  • Mentorship to Oversight
    • Hours
    • Workshop
    • The Method Mentor meets with the Principal Mentor to discuss the apprentice’s performance and whether they are ready to work at an Oversight level
    • The apprentice meets with the Principal mentor to discuss whether they feel ready to move on to Oversight

There were, however, several things that did work well about tracking! Apprentices filled out their timesheets daily and tagged their work by method and level. Every morning I would evaluate their timesheets, enter data into their skill trackers, and send out notifications to apprentices and their mentors that they had leveled. These notifications would also describe what the apprentice should be capable of doing at their new level. One tool that made this process go smoothly was the Gmail widget called “Canned Responses.” I felt bad using what were essentially form letters, but there was a lot of information I needed to communicate quickly.

Another component of skill tracking I want to pay special attention to is how I communicated to apprentices what was expected of them at each of these levels. At first, I didn’t. But I received feedback from them that they really needed to know this, so I created another document that outlined the things that they should be able to do at each level. This was useful for mentors as well, because it helps them understand what they can expect of an apprentice at a certain level. I began to communicate these capabilities to both mentors and apprentices in the form letters I’d send out after an apprentice leveled.

The capabilities document is a great example of how this program has evolved and what makes it successful – a continual cycle of feedback. You see, the apprentices might be new at UX design, but I’m new at running an apprenticeship program. In that way, we learned from each other. Their feedback has clearly made a positive impact on the program. I can’t wait for Iteration 2 to begin on September 9th. I’m sure I’ll learn more with this next group, and you can be sure I’ll share it with you here.

If you have specific questions, please leave a comment!

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