How 3 Mentors Shaped My UX Career

This October marks my 10th year in the web design field. I began my career as an enthusiastic (yet very green) college graduate with just enough HTML and CSS skills to land a job. Since then I’ve worked hard, fallen hard, picked myself up, and excelled beyond my own expectations. I’m now an expert in user experience. I’m an educator and an international public speaker. But I couldn’t have done this without the help of others. A strong work ethic and a brain wired for nerdery weren’t enough to get me here. I’ve accomplished what I have thanks in huge part to mentorship.  

As my career reaches and passes the 10-year mark, I’ve chosen to highlight three of my career mentors and how they helped me succeed.

Aliza Schlabach

Photo of Aliza Schlabach

Aliza Schlabach taught me basic principles of design and front-end development.

I’ll never forget how scared and excited I was to start my first real job at Traffic.com. I was hired as a hybrid graphic designer and front-end developer in October of 2004, having just graduated from college with a Fine Arts degree. Somehow my portfolio of sociopolitical websites and net art got me hired by a group of engineers. I’m not sure how that happened. But, I digress.

When I started this job, I realized—quickly—that I knew enough about design and coding to be dangerous, but not enough to be effective. Perhaps that’s why they hired Aliza shortly after they hired me.

Aliza was a senior designer/developer at the time with about five years of experience. She immediately took me under her wing. As a digital artist with no formal design training, I knew little about graphic design principles. I barely understood the grid, and to this day, I still struggle with typography. Aliza coaxed me through some awful design attempts, and together, we were victorious. She was brutally honest but delivered feedback lovingly.

Before working with Aliza, I didn’t know about A List Apart. She was the first person to tell me about Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. She lobbied to get us tickets to the first An Event Apart conference, held in Philadelphia, but the tickets sold out before we could gain approval.

Aliza and I still keep in touch. Since those days, she’s moved onto project management and entrepreneurship. She’s considering a return to front-end development as her next career move. I hope that happens.

Jon Ashley

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Jon Ashley taught me how to think through problems like a UX designer.

During the summer of 2007, there were many job openings—the economy was booming and the housing market hadn’t yet tanked. I was actively interviewing for both front-end development and UX positions. I had no formal UX experience, but I was fascinated by what little I had learned. I was eager to learn UX and willing to transition from front-end development to UX for the right job.

After interviewing with G2 Interactive, Jon Ashley, then director of UX, hired me as an associate (junior) UX designer.

Jon was one of the first mentors that taught me how to think like a UX designer. As an associate designer, I often created wireframes for a pharmaceutical client. The senior UX designers were relieved to see this “boring” work offloaded to someone else, but Jon always exhibited a passion for solving its challenges. His passion was contagious. Notwithstanding the dryness of the wireframes, he showed me the difference between sloppy and polished interaction design. When I wanted to focus on writing copy for error messages, he instead taught me error prevention through effective design. I learned much of what was in Luke Wroblewski’s Web Form Design book from Jon—before the book was published and well before I read it.

Of course, wireframes are rarely used anymore, but the principles and thinking behind them I still use today.

When user research projects came down the pipeline, Jon found opportunities for me to participate. I learned how to conduct usability studies and interviews by shadowing senior UX designers on those projects.

I grew my skills at G2 and moved onto Happy Cog as a senior UX designer. I wouldn’t have earned a position with Happy Cog without Jon’s dedication to my development and career growth.

Kevin Hoffman

Photo of Kevin Hoffman

I learned collaboration and facilitation skills from Kevin Hoffman. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Gray).

I reported to Kevin at Happy Cog where we worked closely together for two years. Although I learned a wealth from working with Jon and the G2 UX team, I had even more to learn from working with Kevin.

Shortly before I was hired, Happy Cog conducted a client kickoff meeting via phone. It didn’t go so well. Keeping the client team engaged was challenging, and the meeting itself felt unproductive and frustrating. The kickoff meeting format needed to change, but no one knew how to make it better. So Kevin took it upon himself to improve Happy Cog’s meetings. By the time I joined the team, Kevin had read several books on the subject, found a mentor, and established collaborative meeting formats that Happy Cog still uses today.

Kevin left Happy Cog in 2012 and started his own consultancy, Seven Heads Design. A recent client of Kevin’s told me “He runs the best meetings!” When’s the last time you heard someone get excited about meetings?

Kevin taught me how to facilitate meetings that are effective and fun. I went from being a shy and lackluster facilitator to leading meetings that actually accomplish things. I learned to run brainstorming workshops that generate great ideas. I can reach consensus with a large, diverse team (well, most of the time). I’ve since used these facilitation skills to conduct conference workshops and teach UX courses. I also used these skills to introduce a formal UX practice at AWeber, earning buy-in for UX from the leadership down.

Kevin’s now writing a book, Meeting Design, which you should read the minute it’s published.

Who are YOU Going to Mentor?

If you’re an established designer or developer, chances are that someone like Aliza, Jon, or Kevin took the time to nurture your growth. That’s awesome, and now, it’s your turn. Who are you going to mentor?

Who can you take under your wing? Is it someone at your organization who’s green and struggling? Is there someone trying to break into the field who wants to take you to lunch? Even if it’s only once a year, consider having a conversation with someone who’s eager to soak up your expertise.

(If you’re already a mentor, high fives. Keep doing it.)

Need a Mentor? Don’t be Shy. Ask Someone.

If you’re new to the field, find someone you can learn from. This could be someone you work with or someone you’ve read about or heard of. Ask a mutual connection to introduce you via email. Buy this person coffee or lunch in exchange for their expertise. Ask questions like “What’s the first piece of advice that comes to mind for someone in my position?” or “What does success look like for a junior UX designer in your organization?”

Like I’ve said before, this is a hard field to break into. Building relationships is key. Whether you’re a mentor or a mentee, I hope you engage in a mentoring relationship. We have a lot to learn from each other, and mentorship sure as Hell worked for me.