As a newly minted PhD in anthropology, Kiersten faced the challenge of planning her next career move. She liked the idea of combining her research skills with designing useful products, so she enrolled in Brainstation’s online, part-time User Experience Design Course. We spoke to Kiersten about balancing a full-time job with the UX bootcamp, the crossovers between anthropology and UX design, and how Brainstation instructors always supported her, even if she missed a class.
What’s your career and education background and how did you end up wanting to study UX design?
I graduated with a PhD in Applied Anthropology in December 2017, and I'm in a mid-career research position right now as a qualitative researcher for a federal organization in Tampa, Florida. I’ve been thinking really hard about what I want to do with my career and where I want to go next, and had been considering UX design for about a year.
I've been reading a lot, expanding my network on LinkedIn, and joining different platforms with anthropologists like myself. I’ve also talked to designers and other people from the larger UX community. I found out about Brainstation and this Certificate course through a blogger I've been following over the last few months. I looked into it because Brainstation came with a high recommendation from somebody I really respect.
How did you first come across the idea of UX design?
UX design was mentioned throughout my anthropology program. As an applied anthropologist, “business anthropology” or “corporate anthropology” is a growing sector for us. A huge part of that is focusing on the customer experience, and bringing our trade – ethnography – into the design space to work directly with designers.
I'm super interested in crossing over into technology. So this is a way for me to bridge my ethnographic methods and my anthropology expertise into the technology sector. I also have a great friend who is a technologist and also an anthropologist. Originally my interest was in the research behind user experience, but through the Brainstation course, I've actually become really interested in the entire design process.
What made you decide to do a part-time online bootcamp, rather than a university UX program, or a local in-person class?
I looked into several master's degree programs, but to be quite honest, I have student debt. I just finished a PhD program and I also have a master's degree. I'm kind of tired of the formal route of education at this point. I wanted a school with a quicker pace and a more applied teaching method to get an introduction and see if I'm really interested in pursuing this. I wouldn't have been opposed to a shorter certificate program at a college, but again, the tuition was much more than I was willing to spend.
I stumbled across a few bootcamps locally in Tampa, but I was worried about credibility. BrainStation stood out because a friend in my network recommended it as a great introduction to get into design and into UX. It was also relatively affordable because they were offering a scholarship.
Also, I also wanted to do a part-time UX bootcamp. I work 40 to 50 hours a week so my schedule isn't flexible enough to go to class full-time. The evening classes at Brainstation worked out well.
How are you able to balance a full-time job with BrainStation?
It’s been tricky. Unfortunately, I missed one of the classes because of traffic and working late. But the Brainstation instructors are super flexible. They work with me, and always offer tons of online resources. In the learning portal, you have access to the PowerPoints and presentations from class. Most of my work outside class happens on the weekend. So even though I had constraints with my schedule, I made it work.
What is the learning experience like? Tell me about the teaching style at Brainstation.
Three different instructors collaborate on the course. We have classes once a week, every Tuesday evening from 6:30pm to 9:30pm ET. At the start of each class we all check in with each other. We have an opportunity to engage with the instructors and ask questions, and give them feedback on where we are. The goal is for each of us to design an application, to present in our final class.
We learned about different usability studies, card sorting, and Brainstation gave us different activities for wireframing. When we were learning about interviewing, we went into a virtual room with our classmates to develop an interview guide and then interview each other to practice those skills. In my opinion, BrainStation has done a good job at taking different learning styles into consideration. When there's time leftover in the class, we can work on our assignments. And there's always time again to engage with the instructors to get assistance or help if we need it. Our class is definitely not just three hours of the instructor talking. There's a lot of screen sharing – it is engaging and interactive.
How much work do you have to do outside of those three hours per week of class time?
There are two to three hours of optional extra course materials to read. I like to at least skim through them and get a grasp of those materials because there's only so much information they can cover in one class each week. My strategy is to skim the materials and save them all into my Favorites tab so I can access them later on.
Since I'm brand new to design, I've probably spent more time on it than people who are already working in the space – about five to 10 hours of work per week. When I have to use a new tool, the activity takes me longer. For example, when I took my prototype from Moqups and then put it into InVision, I had never used InVision before, so there was a little bit of a learning curve, but it was manageable.
What does the curriculum cover?
The 10-week Brainstation course covers the entire design process. The first class was an introduction to user experience, and then we went into UX research. We talked about the different steps in the design process from information architecture (IA) to wireframing, to prototyping, to usability testing. Now we're prototyping, so we're working on our final prototypes. We also discuss the UX design career field as a whole, and get tips on how to enter the workforce.
What is the Learning Portal like at Brainstation?
I've been really impressed with how the Brainstation course is put together. I've taught online courses in higher education at the college level, and the platforms are not always this user-friendly. If you've taken an online course, from a college or community college, and didn't have the best experience, I'm 95% certain that you’ll find Brainstation’s platform to be much more user-friendly.
For example, on the main page of the Learning Portal, I can see what classes I have attended or missed – Brainstation tracks your attendance as you move through the class. They don't record the classes, but you always have access to the lesson materials. BrainStation keeps future lessons closed until a day ahead of time, so I can review the slides for the next day. I can see the course description, syllabus, a roadmap, a student handbook, and course projects. Most of our assignments are at the end of each presentation, and there are links for additional reading.
The course is very user-friendly, so I didn't have any challenges or issues. I also found the instructors to be incredibly supportive and very responsive; one of the biggest strengths of the organization is their customer service and the access you have to the instructors.
What tools do you use to build projects? Do you build them outside of the learning platform?
Yes. We've been using UX folio, InVision, and Google Drawings, among others, and BrainStation gives us a lot of tips and tricks. For me, a big strength of the class was learning how to use all these different applications that I never even knew existed.
How do you communicate with instructors and students?
For the most part, it's through Slack, which is really efficient, but instructors are also available through other methods. We communicate with them a lot, either in the beginning of class, or towards the end when we have time to work on our assignments.
Using Slack, I can communicate with my class members and send them my work as well. If I get stuck on anything, there's always somebody available – it's not long before you get an answer. So from a student support perspective, it's very strong. Students can also choose to share our LinkedIn or other social media accounts on the portal, to connect with each other.
How often do you collaborate with other students?
I have a lot of time constraints because I work so much. But some students, especially people who are working in the design space, have shared their screens to collaborate. We do share weekly assignments and prototypes with each other. It's really cool to see how advanced some of my classmates are. I think the collaborative learning environment has been very helpful, and the exercises that we do together help us get to know each other.
Do you have a favorite project that you've worked on so far?
Everything is leading up to this final project – I'm building a nutrition tracking app. Through the research phase, I looked for missing pieces of existing applications and something that was missing was the ability to either export or import bio stats from healthcare professionals. Several users I spoke to had certain medical issues and the current apps out there don't really have the ability to incorporate outside health data, or communicate with healthcare practitioners.
I really enjoyed the research part of this project. If I was to switch over into UX full-time, I would probably look into being a UX researcher, because I love research. I love talking to people, seeing what the end user needs are, and understanding how people of different cultures use technology. I also love how products like this can impact people’s lives.
What has been the biggest challenge in this UX program?
Because I'm a seasoned research professional and I have a career, I work full-time in a specific area, so it’s hard to get my brain to move into that creative design space, and learn completely new things like wireframing, and the design process – I had to learn a lot of material in a pretty short period of time. But I didn't feel overwhelmed at all because I knew I had access to help at Brainstation.
Is job advice integrated into the learning experience online?
We had a whole lesson on how to approach a UX design career. The instructors are all experienced designers, so they can draw from their personal experience to share what their days are like, and we've had tons of exposure to product designs they've actually worked on in the design space. To see the level of design projects that the instructors and real companies are working on has been really cool.
What are your plans once you've finished Brainstation? What sort of job are you interested in transitioning into?
I work in health sciences right now, so healthcare, especially user experience research with healthcare technologies and telehealth modalities, is a big field of interest for me. That could entail starting my own business, joining a consulting business, or making a leap into the private sector. I'm open.
Right now I work with soft money – meaning that my team has to apply for grants in order to fund our research. For the next 12 months, my career is pretty solid. But after that, I'm looking to see what happens. I think that the corporate sector probably offers the best possibilities for me with my skills.
My career is still a work in progress, but this experience is going to help me continue to move forward – I've expanded my portfolio, and I can continue to craft and hone in on those skills in the areas that really excite me.
What advice do you have for other people who are considering an online UX design bootcamp, while balancing a full-time job?
You definitely have to carve out time, just like anything else. Make sure you understand the time commitment before investing in the course, because it is an investment in time and money. Prior to enrolling, BrainStation told me it would be 10 hours a week. And that proved to be true. It was not easy, I had to put in the work. I had to be willing to have that growth mindset and be pushed into areas that I was not comfortable with. But I entered the course with an open mind, wanting to learn new skills, and get a solid understanding of what the entire process of UX design looked like from start to finish, and after the 10-week bootcamp, I’ll have that knowledge and that understanding.