I interviewed ten aspiring UX designers, spending over 30 hours conducting interviews about what UX mentorship was like from both sides of the table. This article reflects my best thinking on how to approach UX mentors, and a counterintuitive way of thinking about mentorship in general.
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.
After dozens of interviews with UX designers, 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 talk shop 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 many variables.
Knowing these variables will undoubtedly help you pursue and create more fruitful mentoring relationships.
I’ll cover the 5 most important, recurring variables to consider when you’re seeking a UX mentor.
UX MENTORSHIP VARIABLE #1
When asked about the ideal mentor, many interviewees responded with rosy pictures of someone who’s a guiding, nurturing figure willing to spend time grooming their protege.
But the reality is that the majority of mentors are busy professionals with their own lives. That doesn’t mean mentorship can’t happen organically over time.
- Low time commitment: one-time learning and mentorship experiences like conferences, workshops, hackathons
- High time commitment: organized, consistent meetings that grow the relationship over time.
Most mentorships will fall somewhere in the middle of those two.
Pro 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.
Many beginning UX designers expect too much for the time they put in.
Aligning your effort to expectations is important on the journey of finding a good mentor.
UX MENTORSHIP VARIABLE #2
Mentorships range from friendly to formal. This can mean the difference between someone you’d get a beer with, and a specified time to formally mentor you.
(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.
Pro tip: Consider peer mentoring, which calls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Get to know someone else on the same UX career path as you, then meet regularly to try to help each other / give feedback on each others’ work.
Some people operate better on a casual basis, and others with a rigid, formal structure. Decide what suits you.
UX MENTORSHIP VARIABLE #3
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.
You can potentially have mentors from all around the world. Pretty useful if you’re looking for a job in another city.
UX MENTORSHIP VARIABLE #4
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 all knowledge. This brings us to the next variable…
UX MENTORSHIP VARIABLE #5
What stage of your career are you in, 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 technical skills first, so you might seek guidance on which prototyping software to learn first. Another mentee might seek domain knowledge, like how to become a better user researcher.
Pro tip: the more experienced the mentor, the more appropriate it is to ask strategic questions vs 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 share with you some mentoring best practices. Ready?
UX Mentorship Tips & Best Practices
Alright, so now you know that mentorship lies on a spectrum, and the major variables to consider. The next following 5 tips will help you find and develop real mentorship relationships.
1. 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 on how to use Sketch. It’s like saying “I’m not resourceful enough to figure it out for myself, so can you expend energy figuring it out for me?”
Pro tip: ask your classmate why she uses InDesign in her workflow, while you should ask a VP of Design what skills she foresees as being essential in UX in the next 5 years.
Knowing your variables well, like experience gap and desired knowledge, makes you better equipped to ask people the right questions.
2. Work your network
Finding a good mentor requires hustle. 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 mentorship programs.
Hanging out in these spaces can often lead to informal mentorships or even career opportunities.
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.
3. Mentees 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:
If you claim to be “very passionate about X” but have never done anything concrete in X I find it difficult to take you seriously. People who are really passionate about anything don’t wait for “leaders” or “mentors” before doing *concrete* work in the area of their passion, however limited.
Here are some ideas on how to take more initiative in your mentorships:
4. Do something
Don’t wait for mentor in order to grow or learn. Do something. Do a project and ask/tell people about it. Jennifer Dewalt did 180 websites in 180 days and I admire the hell out of her for that. That tenacity!
By demonstrating that she’s not afraid of learning and has done her homework, Jennifer Dewalt will have no trouble reaching out to top programmers and asking them for help.
When you have a project, it almost becomes an asset that speaks for you, and opens people up to mentoring you.
5. Follow up using the “drip” approach
Sometimes, the most obvious thing to do is the hardest thing. Following up is one of these things.
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 use what I’d like to call the drip approach.
Borrow this approach when reaching out to potential UX design mentors:
- be succinct
- lightly flatter the mentor (“I took your advice, did X, got this good Y result”)
- don’t require a response
Everybody loves fan mail. This is like sending your mentor 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.
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 discouraged 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.
The difference between a UX mentor and a coach
As you can see, mentorship relationships are fluid and contain many variables. It takes time to get it right. If you’d like personalized help in progressing with your career, you need a coach. And who better to get UX coaching from than the founder of UXBeginner?
I’ve helped hundreds of students improve their portfolios and brand presence, helping them land jobs at Google, Facebook, Microsoft and top startups. They all went through my personalized, 1-on-1 UX Career Coaching Program. If you need a guiding hand through your resume, UX portfolio and job application process, consider investing in coaching with me.