User Experience Design Apprenticeship

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!

UPDATE (Feb 22, 2013): We are now accepting apprenticeship applications

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.

26 thoughts on “User Experience Design Apprenticeship”

  1. I’ve been looking to transition into UX Design for a while, and seriously looked at grad school last year, but I’m hesitant to go that far into debt. I’m willing to volunteer a few months just to get some exposure, but it’s hard to find anyone willing to take on a mentee. I’m not in school and haven’t been for many years. I’m most interested in user research and project analysis. Basically, I don’t have a portfolio to get me in the door. Suggestions? Move to a more techy city (I’m in Madison) where there’s more opportunity? I’m reading, but without applying what I learn, or without a mentor to guide/discuss ideas, I feel stuck. Help!

  2. Michelle,

    Do you have a degree or related experience in anything like graphic design, web design, psychology, anthropology, technical writing, computer science or anything similar? If so, then I don’t think you need to go the grad school route. However, if you don’t have any previous experience in those areas grad school is a good option. For example, I was recently contacted by someone finishing up his senior year at college with a chemistry degree. For him, I strongly recommended he look into some grad schools.

    Assuming you *do* have relevant experience, you’d be part of the *next* audience we want to target with the apprenticeship program, people switching careers midstream. As an experienced professional, you’d have learned lots of things that aren’t specific to UX that we wouldn’t have to teach you. However, we’d have to teach you more about UX than the average grad student. At this point, focusing on grad students is the path of least resistance, but we fully intend to build out the program to accommodate switchers like yourself.

    So back to you and your portfolio. Here’s what I’d do in your situation… Identify websites that you or your friends use frequently and do your own fake projects based on those sites. E.g., Identifying a new shopping feature on Amazon, you could design what that feature would look like, build an interactive prototype, conduct usability tests with your friends, write up some findings & recommendations, and fix your design. What UX managers want to see is your thought process. How did you identify the problem? How did you work through the problem to arrive at the solution? How did you ensure your solution actually worked? A portfolio of “projects” like that would be very impressive.

    Good luck!

  3. Ian,

    Could you define what you mean by “external?” Our goal with the apprenticeship program is to meet increasing demand for UX by essentially growing our own designers from people with the raw materials required to be successful. So we will seek people externally, but ultimately our goal is to hang on to them. After all, apprenticeship is not an insignificant financial investment.

    However, if you mean that apprenticeship would be something that someone else would pay us to put them through… that’s a very interesting idea. It doesn’t help us accomplish our goal of growing our design team, but it is something that could help offset the cost of the program. I’d love to hear more if you’ve got additional thoughts on the subject!


  4. Ah, thanks! I definitely hear you on the investment piece. It makes sense, and I can respect how there are balanced upsides for both parties involved.So let me ask then, assuming one was interested in joining the Nerdery and their UX teams, how does one apply to join the apprenticeship program?

    Otherwise, general question – do you think there’s benefit to encouraging engineers go through a similar apprenticeship program, more as a learning experience?

    I’ve worked with many development teams that don’t have an established design/UX workflow. Generally speaking, the engineers have always just built things themselves and don’t see the value in adding time into the process for UX/design work. They also have no trouble using their programs themselves.

    I don’t think they’re inherently against usability or anything though. I’d imagine they’d be open to learning about UX, and at that point, could then pick up and apply basic UX principles for a better end product.

  5. You Know that is a really good idea. I got a degree in Interactive media and design and went back to school for Computer science/Accounting and the UX apprenticeship sounds like something a lot of people in my situation would need to break into the field. It is extremely hard to land a position without experience on your side even if you have an impressive portfolio or examples of what you can do. Its a smart move and something I and many of the people would sign up for if given the opportunity.

  6. Hi – very interesting program. I lead a digital group at an agency and we’re always looking for this kind of training for our team – especially for UX/design. If you do consider allowing outside attendees (at our expense, of course), please let me know. Thanks!

  7. I would be very interested in this program! I have 8 years as a Print Designer and about 2 years in web design. I have dabbled in UX Design but never full on. I took a few User interface design classes at the art institute as well. Let me know if this is something i can sign up for. Thanks

  8. @Ian: To apply, keep following this blog. We’re actively working to post the job in our HR system. When it’s up, I’ll announce it here and on Twitter (you can follow me at @fred_beecher). Regarding engineers as apprentices, that sounds interesting. But if your goal is to show them the value of UX design, I’d advise you to switch your focus to business leadership instead. Show *them* the value, and they’ll require UX as part of the product development process. From there, collaborate productively with the engineers and that will help win them over too.

    @AJ: Thanks! Please watch this blog for the announcement!

    @Robin: Due to the interest in this type of arrangement, we’ll definitely be exploring it. If it happens, you can bet we’ll be announcing it here!

    @Michael: At this time, we’re focusing on people just out of school with degrees relevant to UX (e.g., information architecture, interaction design, hci). However, we’re not excluding anyone. I encourage you to follow this blog for the announcement that the positions are open and then apply!

  9. Excellent model – very inclusive!

    I would guess the length of time spent in the observation and assistance levels will vary greatly between new apprentices based on prior skill sets and the type/size of projects they’re working on, but assessing an apprentice’s current knowledge, goals, and interests as a first step will reduce that variability in training times and ease the transitions from start to continuation.

    As someone gaining a degree in Web Design and Interactivity with a degree in Psychology and training in Continuous Improvement I am thrilled that the field of UX Design is growing, but also aware that without working experience as a UX Designer, positions may be limited. I agree that opportunities like this apprenticeship program will close the experience gap and open the door for those of us with a combination of skills, but without the requisite “3 years experience please” while maintaining a steady (increasing?) flow of UX Designers. Thank you for developing this program! Perhaps, in time, others will follow suit.

  10. @Claire: Nice to hear from you again! And yes, that’s what the Assess Incoming Talent step is all about. We have a baseline set of hours we think will be required at each level for the UX research & design methods we use most frequently. However, I expect *no one* to use exactly this set of hours. This baseline will be customized based on the knowledge & experience of each incoming apprentice.

    PS: A degree in psychology and a degree in web design!? Squish ’em together and that’s pretty much a degree in UX design. : )

  11. Fred- That is pretty much what the grad program told me as well – start your own project. And who knew my Anthro degree would ever be handy outside of museum work? :) For a portfolio though, can I stick with sketchups and case study documentation? I haven’t been well versed in html since the ’90s, and even then it was pretty entry level. Is it important that I be competent in Adobe Creative Suite? Would I be competitive focusing on problem solving vs a fancy portfolio, since that’s not my background?

    Thank you for taking the time with all the questions!

  12. @Michelle: Anything that shows your thought process is great. I would, though, recommend you do what you can to make something interactive that you can actually test. There are TONS of prototyping/design tools out there that let you build interactive stuff without coding. That’s how I build prototypes as a matter of fact. See, we design *interactions.* It’s hard to do that well without making something *that people can interact with. : )*

    Regarding competency in Creative Suite, I’d say it’d be beneficial but not required. I’ve so far managed to skirt having to suffer through Adobe products for the majority of my career. : )

  13. This is the very thing I have been waiting for! I hope more companies offer something like this. This is incredibly forward thinking!

    I would be interested in applying for this position as I have a background in design and web, but was not able to get a degree in HCI specifically due to lack of programs in my area. I am finishing up a BFA in Graphic Design this semester. I also currently work as a designer/front-end developer at an advertising agency and am constantly trying to push the UX ideas I have learned about in my reading to my company, but alas it has been a bit bumpy so far. I’ve had my small victories though. Would an individual like me be a good fit for this program?

    I’ve often thought about how to break into UX specifically, but there are few opportunities to gain experience… especially in my area. I sell myself as a web designer/developer, but really am pushing a UX like agenda with my projects (but I also have to design and develop as well) So this type of program is awesome to me.

    Is this a paid thing? like a internship? Just curious ^_^

    Oh… and your company seems awesome BTW. Everything about your description seems like a place I would love and fit well in. I am glad there are companies like yours out there!

  14. Alright, I’ve got some exciting news… We’re now accepting applications for UX apprenticeship! You can find the link at the end of the article above, or you can just go to this URL:

    @Allie: Wow, such kind words. Thank you so much! And yes, I would encourage you to apply. You seem to have read a lot, which is good, and clearly you’re passionate about the work. You’ve already tried to do it on your own, which is even better. And yes, the apprenticeship position is paid. It’s a full-time position, with benefits. Our goal here is to take people with the raw seeds of talent and work with them to become fully independent members of our design team.

  15. Is this position still ongoing? I would really like to chat a bit more about it. :) I have a unique interest/background in UX and a chat would help identify how (if at all) I would fit in this position.

    Thank you so much!

  16. Hello is this position still available? I would be very interested in it as I am looking to break into UX and am doing a masters in Human Computer Interaction this fall.

  17. Hi Ashley,

    Yeah, we’re halfway through the second cohort right now. : ) We’ll be doing it again, but I don’t have a specific date for you. Follow the blog here and/or follow me on Twitter for news about apprenticeship. If I’ve got big news, like opening a new round of apprenticeship, Twitter is where I share it first. @fred_beecher

    What you can do for now is go to, click “Apply Directly,” and choose “UX Apprentice” as the position you’re interested in. When a new round opens up, we’ll poke around those applications to find people to interview.

    In the meantime, here are a few things you can do to work on your UX skills:

    – Join the local UX groups: UXPAMN, IxDA TC, and the venerable UX Meetup

    – Check out some of the “Intro to UX” books on my probably too comprehensive UX book list:

    – Find a design problem and solve it yourself using UX design methods! Keep all your artifacts and “deliverables” to talk about when interviewing for UX positions. Russ Unger & Carolyn Chandler’s book, “Project Guide to UX” can be really helpful here.

    – Follow a bunch of other UX people on Twitter and read the articles they tweet out
    Check out blogs like frog’s designmind, Boxes and Arrows, Smashing UX, UX Mag and other UX-related blogs

  18. Thank you for the above instructions for contacting The Nerdery to show interest in the program. I’ve been referred by a AIGA member. I have a well-rounded agency background and took a short UX Analyst position with Best Buy. I really hope I can be a part of the 3rd round of apprenticeship. I’ll continue to follow you on Twitter and keep my eyes out for new info!

  19. Even the comments are insightful on this article. I also love the idea of being an apprentice, and UX design is incredibly in demand. Being a web designer and a voracious reader on marketing and psychology has brought me here.

    I think the aspect of UX design that is drawing the design community into a more empathic space, is a great thing. Observing a user struggle with a design idea and realizing it needs to change, is just so much more empowering than heated debate on the best way forward with a design. Awesome that Nerdery is doing this!

    I think that the traits that a UX designer must be very important at this level of process, and it’s great that you are pinpointing them, seeing as it takes a significant investment to train a UX designer, and get them to the point where they can bill for full hours, and contribute to the process in a way that adds full value to the project.

  20. Hi, I am so happy to find this program!
    I am currently an international grad student with an HCI major graduating this summer.
    I would be able to get verified of Optional Practical Training session in order to extend visa, if only I can get a job offer, internship offer, or any kind of contract job offer.
    I wonder whether the apprenticeship program would provide any kind of job offer, and whether you will accept international students with F-1 visa.

    Thank you in advance for help! =)

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