What I Learned from UX Mentor Night

I’ve been the UX Designer at Helios Interactive for over two years now. I’ve learned many things during that time, but one thing that has remained true since my first day is that User Experience Design is something learnable by everyone. Even though every company defines the position differently, all people have something valuable to contribute when collaborating within a team, regardless of age or life experience.

Those of us who are lucky enough to practice UX as our profession were assembled by Cascade SF for a Design Mentor Night—we acted as mentors to anyone eager to ask questions, get portfolio feedback, or just talk about design. The event was organized speed dating style, with each mentee session lasting 20 minutes.

What struck me throughout the whole event was the breadth of professions, ages, and experiences of the mentees who wanted to get a start in the UX field, not to mention that they were also very nice people.

My first mentee was here in the US on a student VISA from China. Obviously a creative and smart person, he wanted to talk to me about his website and his current job working as a jack-of-all-trades at an SF startup. His ultimate goal was to move beyond being a generalist and secure a more specialized role.

My second mentee was trying out UX as her second career. She started out in life by getting an engineering degree and working on automated hardware testing and analytics solutions, before realising that she wanted something more creative. From her previous experience she knew about testing and quantifiable data, but she wanted help visualizing the beginning of the creation process: user flows and synthesizing client and user perspectives.

I had two mentees who were recent graduates of a design bootcamp, both looking for their first jobs. One had a very traditional portfolio website—she clearly laid out the user personas, empathy maps, some wireframe and high fidelity screen mockups. The other wanted to focus purely on wireframing. He spent time taking his first class-generated wireframes and polished them with easier-to-parse colors, slick transition animations, and overall more visual cohesion. Two very different, unique, and ultimately valuable approaches to UX.

I also met with an architect, a museum curator, and a software engineer who were all eager to start designing user experiences. And they all should! I am a firm believer that coming from another field or humanities background can make you a better designer.

An example of how diverse paths can aid your job; my personal journey has been particularly non-linear. I left school with a double major in fine art and biology, in addition to working as a bioarchaeologist for a number of years. This work taught me the importance of context, patience, and empathy (for the deceased in this case), as well as reinforcing my love of puzzle solving and detail-oriented work. Next I joined a 4 person non-profit focusing on building tablet-based data collection applications for archaeologists in the field. Because of the small team size, we all were forced to wear every hat. I did our payroll, graphic design, software development, field testing, you name it.

In my current career I often draw from my learnings in my past. I view UX design as projecting a User’s needs forwards in time, which is really just the reverse of what I was doing as an archaeologist. How will this person interact with this AR experience versus how did this person end up with so many knife marks on their ribs. Where will this person be using your application? Outside? In a moving vehicle? Was this person high-ranking in their society and is that why they were able to have their broken bones treated? These are the questions that preoccupy me on a daily basis, and give me the unconventional insights I need to be better at my job.

This Mentor Night really reinforced my personal belief that UX is applicable and useful for all ages and walks of life. Every person I met with will be a great addition to a company. Each mentee could easily bring a new perspective to any application by using his/her life experiences as a springboard. Of course, there is more training involved. To become a successful UX designer, you need to be empathetic, think holistically, collaborate, and remove your ego from decisions. But, if you can do all that and draw knowledge from your past, that will always make you a better designer.