After 10 user interviews and 30 hours of finding prospects, talking, and taking notes, my mind was exhausted. But I also gained a lot of insight about mentorship, particularly UX mentorship.
It’s no lie: mentorship can fast track your learning in a new field. Having someone “on my side” did wonders for me when starting out, giving me guidance in a sea of endless information. I hope to return the favor to the community with the following insights on UX mentorships.
Interestingly, after the third interview I realized that there was no agreement between each of the interviewees on what they wanted out of an ideal UX mentorship. Some sample responses:
- I want a formal mentorship program where I can talk to my mentor weekly
- I want a mentor who can get me an internship or job
- I want someone I can go to events and shoot the shit with
Despite the different responses, several themes emerged. While I started with the intent of finding an ideal mentorship structure, I ended up discovering an entire mentorship spectrum instead.
Mentorship is a wide spectrum that, just like any other relationship, has infinite variables.
Knowing these variables will undoubtedly help you pursue and create more fruitful mentoring relationships.
I’ll detail the 5 most important, recurring variables gathered from my user research:
1. Time commitment
On one end of the spectrum, some people look for one-time mentoring and learning experiences. Think conferences, workshops, fire-side chats, etc.
The other end of the spectrum is a desire to have an ongoing relationship, which may include checking up on each other, sending job postings, and more.
Be aware of a potential mentor’s time and your personal preferences.
Tip: remember that a quick 15 minute catch-up is better than an hour long meeting that may never happen. More on this in a bit.
Mentorships can range from friendly (someone you’d get a beer with and talk about non-work stuff too) to formal (a mentor who might only have time to do a quick 30 minute call or sit-down once in a while).
My favorite mentorship experiences come from informal relationships. Whereas formal arrangements can feel more transactional, informal mentorships can feel more fluid, making it easier to share thoughts and feelings.
Mentorships can take on more forms than you might imagine. Nathan Barry doesn’t know me, but I consider him a design mentor. Luckily replying to one of David Kadavy‘s email started a conversation. I don’t think he knows I consider him a mentor, and that’s okay.
Some people operate on better on a casual basis, and others with a rigid, formal structure. Know what you need.
Determine whether you are okay with remote mentorship (emails, calls, Skype), face-to-face, or a mix of both. Mentors can be busy so don’t be bummed if meeting in person is not feasible.
The great side to that is that you can potentially have mentors from all around the world. Pretty useful if you’re looking for a job in another city.
4. Experience gap
The gap in experience between you and a mentor could define many aspects of the relationship, such as the formality and type of advice you’re seeking. Are you okay with a peer mentor close to your age? Or are you looking for someone more senior in age and experience?
Rethink who your mentor can be. There are tons of people younger than me who I’d consider UX and design mentors. Smart co-workers are also make great mentors.
I find it helpful to adopt an a-la-carte method to mentorship and getting advice. Different people can help with different things. Don’t expect a mentor to be the one-stop shop for everything. This brings us to the next variable…
5. Desired knowledge
Where in your career are you, and what do you want help with?Knowing this is a shortcut to finding a mentor who’s a good fit.
Perhaps you’re keen on improving your technical knowledge first, so you might seek guidance on which prototyping software to learn first. Someone else might seek domain knowledge, like figuring out how to run usability tests.
Personally, I find that the more experienced the mentor, the more appropriate it is to ask strategic questions vs the technical questions (which can be Googled).
Make use of these experienced mentors by asking for career guidance, how to sell UX within an organization, and how to deal with people & politics.
Now that you know the variables, I’m going to hit with with some mentoring best practices. Ready?
Mentorship Best Practices
Establish your baseline
This means do your homework. Get yourself to a baseline level of knowledge so that you can get guidance on things that actually matter.
They say there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but I disagree. There’s plenty of dumb questions, and I’ve asked many of them before. I kid you not, I’ve heard beginners ask Senior UX Designers or Directors on how to use Photoshop. It’s not too different from asking:
“I’m not resourceful enough to figure it out for myself, so can you expend energy figuring it out for me?”
Knowing your variables well, like experience gap and desired knowledge, makes you better equipped to ask people the right questions.
Example: asking your classmate why she uses InDesign in her workflow, vs asking the VP you met last week about the skills she foresees as being essential in UX in the next 5 years.
Work your network
Finding a good mentor requires some hustling. For anyone living in a city that has a UX Meetup (UXPA, IXDA, IA Institute), that’s the first place to start. Some organizations even have a mentorship program. Hanging out at these meetups can often lead to informal mentorships that last the duration of your career.
Taking a class is a great way to create an “instant network” in the UX community. People from all walks of life take UX classes, and it’s not uncommon to be sitting next to Art Directors, programmers, product managers and senior designers. Perhaps fellow students might not be in the UX field yet, but don’t be surprised in 3 – 5 years time when they become a Senior UX Designer and ask if you’re interested in a job :)
These people can potentially be your support network that lasts throughout your career, if you’re a student willing to invest a little more effort to make a connection.
You’d be surprised how many students just get in and get out of class. I consider 1/2 the value of taking an in-person class comes from the peers around you.
Bloggers, even the big ones, are just people too. If their message resonates with you, just hit “reply” on the emails and leave a nice message. Some will even say yes to a free cup of coffee if you’re local and have good questions to ask.
Mentees, YOU drive the relationship
This gem came up over and over in interviews: the more motivated a mentee is, the more fruitful the mentorship. Those who show initiative and follow up gain the respect of their mentors. This sentiment from a top programmer says it all:
Here are some ideas on how to take more initiative in your mentorships:
Don’t wait for mentor in order to grow or learn. Do something cool. Do a project and ask/tell people about it. Jennifer Dewalt did 180 websites in 180 days and I admire the shit out of her for that. That tenacity!
When you have a project, it almost becomes an asset that speaks for you, and opens people up to mentoring you.
Sometimes, the most obvious thing to do is the hardest thing. Following up is one of them.
It’s easy to get caught up not sending that email by believing that you have to ask the greatest question ever or have done something amazing in order to email a mentor. False. Instead of stressin’, you can just do this…
Here’s what mentors love: a message that is:
- flatters the mentor (“I took your advice, did X, got this good Y result”)
- doesn’t require a response
This is like getting fan mail. Everybody loves fan mail. Here’s an example:
“Hey John, I read that article you wrote about animations in design. It’s super useful for the app I’m working on!
No need to respond, but it’d be great to hear how you’re doing.”
Sometimes if you want to maintain a connection with a mentor, it’s enough to remind them that you exist, instead of barraging them for advice and requests all the time.
Here’s something fun to experiment with. Note: I’ve done this with peer mentors, not yet with more senior mentors.
Have your mentor(s) hold you accountable for a project or design challenge.
Let’s say that you challenge yourself to draw 1 wireframe a day for 30 days to increase your awareness of UI elements and layout. You can ask a mentor to hold you accountable. I personally like using Venmo.
“Each day that I don’t email my design to you by 11:59PM every day, I’ll Venmo you $10.”
I did this for a writing challenge and ended up with 27/30 days, and gave $30 to my friend.
Feel free to get creative and come up with other challenges.
A note on managing expectations:
All of this isn’t to mark mentors as higher-than-thou, snobby people who don’t have time for you. In fact many mentors are incredibly humble. It’s just that if they are more senior and experienced than you, it’s likely that they are busy and starved for time.
So don’t be butthurt if they forget to reply to your emails. I stress again to review the mentorship variables to see where you fall on the spectrum. It can save you some headaches and missteps.
Also, mentors may refer you to job opportunities, but avoid any expectations to get a job from your relationship. The knowledge gained from a good mentorship is worth more – and may last longer – than any one job.
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