In-Depth Review: Designlab’s UX Academy

design-lab-ux-academy-review

Designlab is an online-based program that teaches in-demand UX/UI design skills through fun, part-time courses. Based out of San Francisco, their goal is to provide affordable education, challenging curriculum, mentorship, and community.

Courses are typically a compilation of short article lessons, hands-on projects, and 1-on-1 mentorship from professionals from leading companies such as Airbnb, Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc.

If you are considering Designlab’s flagship program, UX Academy, they recommend that you attend their Open House Webinar. These 45-minutes sessions are hosted by a few of their team members and offer more detailed questions about their program and structure. Additionally, you can request an information package sent straight to your email.

For admissions, there is a short online application that gathers personal information such as your availability and your interest in design. As an admissions requirement, you either need to submit a portfolio to demonstrate your design background or attend their 4-week Design 101 course. After being admitted, Designlab provides various resources to help you establish your payment schedule for the course. 

The Review of UX Academy

The following is a personal review of UX Academy. After college, I was having trouble starting my professional career and decided that I wanted to pursue a tech-related line of work.  A friend suggested looking into Designlab and decided to “try it out” by signing up for Design 101.

Having enjoyed the structure and self-paced nature of the course, I applied to the UX Academy full-time track while still maintaining my part-time job. The course was expected to run from January 14th until April 29th. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. Life happened, and then it happened again and again.

Despite these hiccups, I completed the course with a portfolio containing 4 capstone projects and my certificate of completion. It was truly an incredible journey to go through the program and I’d recommend Designlab to anyone who is serious about transitioning into UX/UI.

Course Structure

The program is broken into 2 main phases. 

Phase 1

Phase 1 dedicates  7 weeks devoted skill building. Topics included are the UX design process, user research, interaction design, prototyping, testing, UI design, and more. The lessons are composed of readings and videos on Linkedin Learning with projects at the end. In total, there were about 30 to 40 short projects in this phase of the course. Some of the work involved reflective articles while others involved sketching and designing. I enjoyed the variety in lessons and projects, it made the work less mundane and boring.

Due to the nature of this course, this portion was very self-paced with the understanding that in the full-time portion, I was required to clock in 40 hours of work a week. This was tracked when you uploaded assignments.

On their platform, they include a section where you detail how many hours you spend on each project. This is primarily used by your mentor to provide feedback. More often than not I would log fewer hours than required and sometimes not quite finish all of my work. When this happens, you will receive an email on Monday with your weekly report stating that you are behind (not the most encouraging message to begin the week).

At the end of Phase 1, you and your mentor separately fill out an evaluation of your work. This serves as a checkpoint before moving into Phase 2, which is more rigorous and application-based.

Phase 2

For the final 8 weeks of the course, Phase 2 is focused on portfolio-building. Working with my mentor, I completed 3 in-depth speculative capstone projects from start to finish, wrote case studies, and put it all together on my online portfolio. This is a more holistic approach to design projects and builds upon the foundation developed in Phase 1 because there is less external structure. Each capstone serves a purpose in further developing skills in the following areas: Responsive Web Design, Feature with an Existing Product, and End-to-End Mobile App.

To begin the process, project briefs are provided with a background, basic timeline and expected deliverables. There is a lot of leeway when choosing a project brief that would best fit your personal interests. Independent projects are also allowed by cautioned due to the possibility of extra work to set up and decided on scope, timeline, and deliverables.

In addition to complete projects, the initial weeks of Phase 2 were dedicated to setting up an online portfolio and building a personal brand. It was during this time that  I was able to design a personal logo that I’m proud of.

To wrap up Phase 2, there is a portfolio submission requirement. My portfolio was submitted to Designlab’s review panel where they provided feedback and numerical evaluations. You are required to receive 4s (on a 1-4 scale) in all of their grading categories to pass and be granted certification. 

Career Services

After the formal portions of the academy, the next optional step is participating in a Career Services where you are paired with a Career Coach to establish a job search plan.

Unfortunately, I did not complete the course following the program’s terms and agreements so I had involuntarily declined this portion of my experience. While I was bummed to not have access to career resources, I had been equipped with a pretty solid portfolio to begin applying to jobs with.  

Mentorship & Community

In comparison to other programs, like General Assembly, for example, UX Academy establishes a community completely online. They use Slack to connect students from past and present to network and collaborate. There are channels created by cohort, region, interests, etc. for you to join and engage. One of my regrets during my time with UX Academy was not networking with my peers as much and being too prideful to ask for help. To me, it seemed like everyone was on their own and there was no requirement to discuss topics amongst each other so I primarily studied on my own. 

In addition to coursework and assignments, there were 2 other weekly requirements: mentor meetings and group critiques. 

Mentoring

During the entirety of the Bootcamp, you are assigned one mentor if you’re full time. You get two if you’re in the part-time track (or lucky like myself I was in the full-time course). You are required to schedule regular weekly meetings to review your assignments and ask questions. I was always excited to meet with my mentor and ask questions because it gave me a chance to better understand the material. Moreover, a mentor is someone who works in the field that you are trying to get into… This is a prime opportunity to network and ask about their experiences. 

Due to the quick-paced nature of the track, you are required to meet with your mentor twice a week. It is worth mentioning that mentors are not specifically trained for their roles and more often than not, they are not graduates of the program. This poses a few issues: different experiences, varying levels of knowledge, and unclear answers relating to the curriculum. 

For mentors who have not experienced the program or first time mentoring, they are only provided an outline of what is covered week-by-week but have no access to the course material meaning that they can see the topics and respond to general questions based on their work experience. Mentors are not seeing what the lessons are, they are only seeing the assignments you and other students submit. It’s hard to ask specific questions referencing to a reading or a video if something was unclear. However, depending on your mentor’s work experience, you received other valuable feedback and answers. 

My first mentor had a graphic design background before becoming a UX designer so she often had very insightful feedback on layout, color, typography, and wireframes. My second mentor was a veteran mentor who went above and beyond with how he structured his mentorship program. He had a regular weekly meeting schedule of Monday/Wednesday for his full-time students and a very systematic approach to capstone completion. He introduced real-world approaches by simulating stakeholder meetings, asked in-depth questions regarding the process, and required the usage of project management tools such as Trello. 

This second mentoring experience was a 180-degree change in Phase 2 compared to Phase 1. It took me a little bit of time to familiarize myself with this working style and I felt like I had to elevate my work more. I then  realized that mentors greatly impact experience because I felt like I was learning much more and being held to much higher standards. Despite being very nervous at the beginning, I realized that my mentor was always available to answer questions via Skype and he was respond to me within an hour of sending him a message. 

Group Crits

During the course of the Bootcamp, you are required to complete at least 12 group critique sessions. I’ll refer to them as group crit sessions since this is what DesignLab call it. To join a group crit, you go through a scheduler to reserve your slot but you can only schedule about  4 weeks in advance and only 1 a week will count towards your requirement. 

Group critiques are 1-hours sessions facilitated by designers,  typically graduates of the program. Facilitators host regular weekly sessions multiple times a week. I chose to schedule my sessions at the same time every week because I figured this would give the facilitator a chance to get to know me more. I also noticed that other students did this as well and I was able to make a few friends from outside of my cohort.

During the group crits, students from all different cohorts attended to share their work. The facilitator allots 8-10 minutes per student so that everyone can share what they’re working on and receive feedback from their peers. This encouraged the development of public speaking, work-sharing, and receiving constructive criticism.

Despite not being in a physical classroom with other students, I felt like group crits gave me the most realistic classroom experience because it was similar to college discussion sections. I appreciated the feedback that I received because there were so many creative-minded individuals who would share their perspectives for me to further improve my work.

More often than now, the comments I received were things that I never thought of on my own despite how busy I was. It was always a priority to attend a group crit. 

Final Verdict: 

Designlab’s UX Academy a completely online-based learning environment that could work for you if it offers a scheduling convenience; it did for me.

Granted, I didn’t research other options such as General Assembly or Springboard prior to making the decision, I gave it a test-run by completing a short-course and enjoyed the structure. I felt like I was in control of my learning experience. I’m sure that everyone has entirely different motivations for transitioning into UX/UI (there was a recruiter in my cohort looking to ‘better understand the field’ by taking the course!).

Something to remember is that UX Academy might be the first of many steps to your path as a designer. I would recommend taking this Bootcamp as a stepping stone to your bigger career move or even supplementary to your UX/UI learning because it provides you the certification and experience.

Designlab’s offerings, both short-courses and their flagship program, only focuses on UX/UI, in comparison to other ‘Jack of all trades’ programs so if there is something you want to learn more about, take one of their other short courses. Learning doesn’t end after this certification. 

About the Author

Kim

Designer, foodie, and lover of aesthetics. A learning technologist by day and aspiring UX'er the rest of the time. Bringing to you the latest design tidbits.

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