Inside This Article

What does it take to become a UX Designer?  

Metis recently announced a 9-week UX Design & Front-End Development course crafted and taught by Tyson Gach of thoughtbot and Allison House. Join us for a FREE webinar:

This webinar is perfect for beginners who want to know what it takes to be accepted to Metis, or for those with a bit more experience, looking to break into the world of UX Design. 

The full webinar is transcribed below:

UX Design & Front-End Web Development with Metis!

Liz: As you probably know, Kaplan has partnered with Thoughtbot for their UX design and front end development course. And tonight, we are joined by Allison House and Tyson Gach who created and are now co-instructing the UX design course.

Tyson works with Thoughtbot and House has experience with a few different companies as well as with freelancing, so we pretty much have the whole spectrum covered. I want to remind everyone that this is going to be a Q&A style webinar so please use the questions tab to send in any questions that you have or tweet @coursereport. Of course, I have a bunch of questions as well.

One other reminder is that we have a pretty sweet discount for all of you who are tuning in to the webinar. So if you use the code “Course Report” in the referral section of the application, you’ll get $500 off tuition (expires September 30, 2014. I’m also happy to answer any questions that you have about discounts and scholarships after the webinar.

So Tyson and House, welcome. Please introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your backgrounds.

Allison: Let’s see; I’m a designer; I’ve been freelancing probably for about the last year. Prior to that, I was a product designer at Dropbox. I joined in 2012 when the team was just getting started; I was the fourth designer to join.

So I worked on a few things there, Dropbox for business growth and on-boarding, and also got to help see a world-class team grow from scratch, which is really cool.

Before that, I was the lead designer and the first designer to two really exceptional tech education companies. One of them is Code Academy and the other one is Treehouse.

Liz: So you have experience in the education world as well so this is a very natural progression – I love it.

Allison: Oh yea, for sure.

Tyson: My name is Tyson Gach; I’m a designer at Thoughtbot here in New York City. I’ve been with Thoughtbot for about 8 months. Prior to that, I was freelance for over three years building everything from web applications to marketing websites and a handful of IOS apps towards the end, which were really exciting.

Liz: Awesome! So we want to talk a little bit first about product design; what it really is and what it encompasses. Can you tell us the difference between, UX design, product design, front end developer; all of these terms and roles. What are the differences and what are the similarities? Kind of go through that for us.

Tyson: Sure – go ahead, House.

Allison: I think that product design the way that we see it, the kind of designer that we’re trying to build in this course; there’s probably three areas that we want them to spike on.

A product designer is somebody who is good at interaction design, visual design and there’s a little bit of front end development, which means that they can actually execute their ideas.

So we see a couple of other roles in the space like UX designer, interaction designer, web designer… Sometimes the meaning of those terms tends to depend on the company that’s actually advertising for them. But in this course, the UX and front end development course, we’re trying to bring in people who have a little visual design skill already, give them the technical skill on top of that, the interaction design skill and pretty much make people who can do anything.

Liz: What is interaction design? I think visual design I get and front end development I get. What does interaction design entail?

Tyson: I think interaction design is merely an interaction of users using your application that you’re designing. It’s extremely important because that interaction has to be easy and there should be no errors for your user to use your application.

Liz: you mentioned front end development; what are the technical skills that you need in order to be a UX or a product designer?

Allison: I would say at the very least, you should have some basic front end skills. So that would be html, CSS and a light Javascript. Html and CSS are sort of the building blocks of the web; everything starts with html and CSS. So I think fundamentally, you have to understand those two things in order to get started with prototyping.

Liz: Are there people who have back end development backgrounds who now do UX design? Does that help at all or is it too much; do you stop at front end?

Allison: I think it can help. I think that there’s some overlap there. I think that Tyson probably experiences that quite a bit at Thoughtbot.

Tyson: Yeah, I’ve seen a handful of people come from the back end world and move into the front end. The back end engineers are still very much familiar with the front end and that’s what they’re interacting with at the end of the day as well. So whereas they might not be using CSS every single day like a typical product designer might be, they’re definitely familiar with html and have a good solid understanding of at least what CSS is and when it comes into play, and the powerfulness of it.

Liz: I’m assuming that since you both have been successful on these careers that you have all of these skills. How did you pick these things up along the way? Did you freelance to learn them? Did you do online classes or did you do it in your undergrad? What was your path?

Allison: For me, I started when I was pretty young. I was first introduced to building websites in a class that I was taking in school when I was 11. So I got the bug but I didn’t really pursue it until a few years later where I realized that you could view source on a website; you could actually see the code for a website and you could reverse engineer it and build your own. You could use that as a starting point for your own code.

So throughout high school, I was trying to hack together websites, self-teaching and I found within myself a real passion for it. You get this surge like, oh my gosh, I’m a hacker! When you build a website, even though it’s something so simple; I think I’ve been chasing down that feeling for a while.

Tyson: I started somewhat young as well, dabbling in Microsoft Frontpage in middle school, which was fun. Then definitely had the bug for a little while. I think really, college was my point where I started coding for the music business. I studied arts and recording music business; we had one little class that was web design, mostly talking about how to utilize web design to market music. The class was pretty lightweight but I found myself – I chatted every single night with my older brother who was also doing web design at the time and would teach me all sorts of little nuggets of information. I just fell in love with it from there. I actually worked in the music industry for a couple of years. After that, post-college but was still building website for friends and such and then found myself in it for small businesses so decided to go freelance after that.

Freelancing for me and having further mentors was the huge learning curve for me that really allowed me to take it all in, soak it in and go from there.

Liz: Absolutely. What are some of the types of jobs that you can get with a background in product design, UX design? Since you both have such great backgrounds, I’d love for you to go into what it means to work for a company vs. a company like Thoughtbot, a consultancy or to be a freelancer… what do your day to days look like and how do they differ as those different paths?

Allison: I think my experience is primarily in startups. I spent a little bit of time in a consultancy but for the most part, I’ve been pretty startup-y. I would say that my experience at Treehouse and Code Academy were relatively similar. On a day to day basis I was wearing many hats as they say. Sometimes I was actually getting into code; we were such a small team at the time so I worked directly with the founders; I’d get into the code base with them and we were pushing and doing code; we were interacting in that way.

Dropbox was a little bit different. The design process there was just a little bit different. I was less likely to dive into code, more likely, I was just able to prototype my ideas at a high level, even just shoe mockups or sketches of what I wanted to do and work with people from there.

Tyson: I freelanced as I mentioned, for quite a while before this. That was a really wonderful experience, I think. And like I mentioned, for me it was a huge learning experience which was super powerful. I love the flexibility of freelancing and to be able to take a little bit of time off between projects and learn something new and continue to learn during projects. I learned a whole lot about dealing with people and keeping communication strong. I liked being able to very directly and by myself approach companies and talk with them about their needs and what they want.

When Thoughtbot found me and I started working here, I really wanted to keep that flexibility and I’m really thankful that Thoughtbot continues that. Thoughtbot is a place where you can make your job what you want it to be. It’s very open; the culture here is just wonderful. We work in client services so we have clients coming to us all the time and usually, most commonly at least, you were on one project at a time here and we maintain our investment days on Fridays which allow us to work on open source and invest in ourselves and in the community and stuff.
So that’s really powerful too.

So while we’re an agency, I thin k the culture here is specifically really nice and helping to allow for freedom as a designer.

Liz: Yeah, Thoughtbot definitely has that reputation. You mentioned open investment days and I know that that’s sort of carried into Metis, so I want to talk about it in a few minutes but thank you for mentioning that. Can you all give us a sense of the job market for the fields? Have you both been in New York for most of your careers?

Allison: I’m actually from San Francisco so I kind of feel like what I see out there…I actually just moved to New York just to teach this course. But a lot of my friends are working in startups or are also starting their new companies. I know a lot of designer founders.

The vibe seems to be that there’s a huge talent shortage; that everybody needs good designers and developers. There aren’t enough people coming out of school or whatever other education process, with these skills. And it’s not like there’s one job that needs to be filled. I think that right now, we see a lot of technology companies that are just hungry to get people on board and as many talented people as possible. There’s really no limit to how many people they’ll hire. It’s fiercely competitive and I think talent is where the make or break on that front.

Liz: Tyson, have you noticed the same thing in New York?

Tyson: Yeah, I really have. I think we can echo here the same shortage that you see. There’s plenty of startups to go around here in New York as well. I know Silicon Valley is known for that but I think plenty hare as well. So I think definitely there’s a lot of that going on.

I feel like I’m always hearing people wanting to hire great designers, and even here at Thoughtbot, we’re always looking. It’s just a thing that always exists. It’s really lucky in that way, actually, that there are definitely jobs to go around.

Liz: We talked about the technical skills that you need; what are some of the soft skills? I’m sure that you worked with tons of people in your roles. What have been the soft skills that have stood out as you worked with people who were great UX or product designers?

Allison: For me, I think whether it’s somebody who’s more in a product manager role or a product designer role, I think it’s just great design thinking and the ability to think through a problem and solve a problem to come up with unique solutions that really satisfy a user’s need without getting too complicated. And then being able to express that idea. The communication and the collaborative component is also another big one for me.

Liz: Do you find that you’re communicating a lot with nontechnical people, people outside of your design team or role?

Allison: Yeah; I’m sure for Tyson that he has to deal with clients. And at Dropbox, there were several different verticals that we would have to justify and communicate our ideas to.

Tyson: I couldn’t say it any better. She hit the nail on the head. Specifically, when you’re working in client services also; we have lots of clients who are not necessarily tech savvy so we have to be open and really communicate very well about what we mean and not just speak in these crazy, weird terms that they don’t understand, and carry that off through the project and make them feel comfortable with what you’re doing.

Liz: Cool. Where does a product designer’s job come into play during the development process? Who are some of the people that you work with on a team to get a project done, and when is it the product designer/UX designer’s time to really shine?

Allison: I would say in a product designer’s role, I think part of being a project designer is getting involved in the software development process from the very beginning.

Like at Dropbox, our minimum team would be a project manager, a designer and a developer. And those three people could carry forward a project all the way from inception to execution. But I think you could go with as lean as, just a developer and a designer; we’ve seen a lot of these pairings in early stage companies or founders as well.

Tyson: Yeah, I’ve seen that a lot, too. We’ve kind of nicked that method and almost always have at least a developer and a designer kind of kicking off. We specifically utilize a design print typically at the beginning of a project if it’s necessary and that’s where we will have a designer and a developer then usually someone to lead the design print as well as all the stakeholders from the client’s side – in one room if you want to be getting that thing kicked off super well from the beginning, just to set the stage for that product that you’re about to build.

And throughout the building, the developers and the designers work very tightly together throughout the entire thing. I think there’s a lot of micro interaction that needs to take place throughout that product lifeline that is just necessary.

Liz: So speaking of that product lifeline, I thought it would be cool if Tyson took us through an actual project that he had worked on. So he is going to share with us a pretty neat project and how it came to fruition.

Tyson: This is a fun little project we had at Thoughtbot. This is actually the very first budget I worked on; they’re a wonderful client; they’re out of New York City, they’re s startup. They came to us needing their product to be built from the ground up and we helped them accomplish that goal.

I wanted to specifically talk about one piece here that we came across when we were about midway through the project. We do a lot of usability testing; we try to do as much testing as we see fit to make sure that we’re moving along in building the right thing as we’re building it. What you can do is build a website for a school so you can run classes and courses online and you can manage it all in this back end that we built with them.

As a school, you probably have a need to customize it to fit your brand, so you can have a little logo and you can also change the colors around your school website to fit the colors that you have at your brand.

So really quickly from the beginning, we built a very simple way to accomplish that. It was very simply these input boxes that you can put the hex codes in and click save and go preview that and check it out. It was enough to get by; it was extremely simple, it was really quick to build.

This is our MVP, out minimal viable product. But when we put this in front of people, real people who would use this product, we saw hoe people get hung   up in this specific area when we would ask them top maybe customize a color or something.

I think to non-designers or non-developers this hex code thing is a little scary maybe; they didn’t quite know what they were doing. I think it’s hard here to understand what you’re changing on the actual website; there’s no quick way to understand that. So we set out to tweak that and make it better for the people.

This was the first iteration that we had. We decided pretty quickly that we wanted to introduce these prebuilt color palettes so that really quickly with one click, you could get a different color scheme on your website and kind of set yourself apart from the others. We also really wanted to introduce some sort of preview into the back end interface so you can see what you’re changing.

So this specifically here, we introduced some of the key elements on the website and you can select colors and change those.

The next iteration, we wanted to further refine the prebuilt palettes and offer what those would look like, sort of showcase which one is actually selected right now. We also wanted to make the actual preview a little bit closer to the front end of the school website, so we introduced the background in the center white area in the middle, which is what the school website would look like.

Finally, we moved on to the next iteration and further refined the selection of individual element colors. So you could click an element or some text in the preview and it would bring up this lovely little color picker. Then you could now visually select colors rather than ram in this these weird hex codes that some people get caught up on. So that was super powerful.

We finally put this back in front of the users and they saw a nice little gain in the usability to help people customize their websites. So that was a really small example of one piece of a product that we were building. We took a problem that we had, an issue that we found and actually through user testing, came back to the drawing board, worked closely with designers and developers to really flesh out a solution and even offer some new features in that and ship a product – I would say in a fairly quick time frame. This is an iterative process.

I’m sure now that the live, real version of Schoolkeep is now probably even better and different maybe even found more ways to improve, so that’s a really cool thing.

Liz: Tyson, how long did this process take?

Tyson: I’m going to go back to my video here real quick…I think this took about a week. Probably a week before, we may have done the usability testing and then figured that out with the stakeholders to  get that back into Thoughtbot and figured out a way to get that back into the backlog and figure out a priority for that. I think this was not high on the priority as some other things.

Liz: This might sound super crazy but can you tell us what usability testing is and how it manifests itself? Are you having people come into the office and use the product or are you putting it on a website for people to kind of crowd source?

Tyson: Really, it could be both things. It could be websites out there that you can quickly upload work and magically get that out to people to test that. I think that works as far as I’ve heard.

In this particular case, what we do commonly here at Thoughtbot, we’ll just put quick ad on Craigslist and it’s surprising; you actually get a lot of people come in from all walks of life. We have a form that we tweak each time to fit a certain type of person that we’re looking for. But we usually get 3 to 5 people to come in for about a 30 to 45 minute session and sit them down in a room.

The goal here is to get your product in front of possible users of the product as quickly as possible during the creation of your product. You want to test that people. And you learn a lot, you really do. They’re usually very candid and they’ll tell you everything about their frustrations and the things that go well, too. And that gives you a lot of insight on where to work within your product; what should you work on next, what’s really high priority, what can maybe wait. To them, the button color might not really matter as much to you as a designer. They just want to accomplish their goal. Those things really come out in usability testing.

Liz: Right. That’s really cool; it really ads a human element into building a very technical thing.

Tyson: I think it’s really easy when you’re building a product to get caught up in the technical stuff, to make your code beautiful and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, we’re building products for people, real people and you need to take that to mind throughout the entire course of making that product.

Liz: Wonderful. Thanks for taking us through that project. It’s a really neat progression from different iterations of the same product. You all told us about your background and your path to becoming product designers. I’d love to talk about Metis a little bit; how do you see Metis getting in? Why do you see a need for something like Metis and how does it meet that need?

Allison: Having worked at companies like Code Academy or Treehouse, I obviously see the benefit of just learning those skills online. And I think those are exceptional reasons. I think they’re just incredible resources for just learning some technical skills.

But I think it’s just harder to teach design thinking and a big part of that is getting feedback and critique on the work that your produce. It’s hard to automate that in those services like Code Academy or Treehouse. So the benefit here, 1, you get a ton of context. As we take you through the software development process, you understand the role of design within that process and how you would collaborate with developers or other stakeholders as you go through it. So the entire time, we give you tons and tons of content.

And then we also give you a lot of critique, a lot of feedback. And to me, I think with self-taught designers – and I would include myself in this – it’s very easy to not realize the value of feedback and critique early on.

When I was working at Code Academy or Treehouse, I was the solo designer there but I really hit my ceiling as far as how well I could design. I didn’t think I could actually move beyond that point, until I worked with other designers which was part of my motivation for joining Dropbox. And then there was a tone of critique and a ton of feedback! And that was the point where my skill set exploded. I didn’t even realize how much I was stagnating at that point.

So I think that’s another part of the huge value of coming into an in person class like this; is that we’re able to work with you one on one, give you specific advice for you professional roles and also give you feedback on what you’re producing.

Liz: You describe yourself as a self-taught product designer. Is there a way to not be self-taught? Can you learn this stuff in a university? Can you major in something that sets you up to be a UX or a product designer?

Allison: I think it’s difficult right now and I think a big part of that is that the most important thing you can do is solve problems to become a better problem solver. And when you go to school there, there’s sort of a finite number of projects that you did in the semester.

To me, what is going to help you rapidly improve is prolific-ness; producing a lot of work. I think a lot of folks get interested in this stuff and dive into that role; they start to make things and they make a lot of things and that’s how they improve quickly.

I think that academic programs are a little bit behind. It takes a while to get courses approved and then to go through that process, so they’re not always up to speed with the industry.

Liz: That’s fair. So with that being said, tell us about the curriculum in the Metis course. Are you going to be breaking it into projects? How are you going to make sure that people are getting that prolific amount of work on their resume?

Tyson: I think that we’ve been taking a lot of time to make sure that people coming out of this course are going to have actual work top come and show prospective employers, and have that and say, “I built this. I did this. It’s something I designed; it’s something I built with my own hands.” And I think that’s super powerful.

Every single week almost, we’re going to have small little exercises and a little bit bigger exercises at the end of each week. What I’m really excited about is the end. We have two bigger projects. We have a team project where designers within the course are going to get together in small teams, as well as bringing in the Ruby on Rails boot camp and linking up with the developers –

Tyson: And then at the very end they’ll have a passion project. That’s going to be a project of your own. You’ll be able to come up with your own idea; we’re going to help people build that, whatever idea that they have that comes to mind. They have two full weeks to be able to build that and at the end, they can really claim that they’ve built something on their own and taken something from an idea/concept through the entire process of building a product, with something to show at the end.

Liz:  Cool. I love that you’re working with the Ruby on Rails boot camp as well. I think that’s awesome.

Tyson: Definitely.

Liz: What kind of background should someone realistically have before they apply to Metis?

Allison: As far as the requirements go, we don’t have any coding skill that’s required. We’re basically looking for some fundamental graphic design skill. As I mentioned earlier, we have these three pillars that we’re trying to build: somebody who’s good at visual design, interaction design and then then also front end development. So we kind of look for that visual layer to be founded so we can start building on top of it.

Liz: If somebody doesn’t have that visual background, what are some resources that they can use to learn typography or color theory or these things that you would like to have a qualified applicant have before they apply?

Tyson: You know, I never studied design, I studied recording arts. It’s something that you can learn on your own for sure, I think. I think it takes a little bit more time maybe and it’s a little bit different mindset than necessarily learning coding.

But there are principles out there in design and there are foundations that are very common. So those things are extremely powerful and that’s what we’re looking for coming in, is those principles and foundations. I think anyone can develop that sense of good visual design over time, for sure.

Liz: Tyson, you had talked a little bit about the personal investment days at Thoughtbot. Can you tell us how those carry into Metis and what you’re going to use your Fridays for?

Tyson: Yeah, totally. That’s super exciting for me actually, and coming in to Thoughtbot as a freelancer, that was something I really looked forward to because I feel like it lets people be a little bit free and  kind of make what they want.

It’s going to allow students every single Friday to kind of take a break from the day to day lecture and stretch out, kind of catch up from the week a little bit. I think some weeks are going to be a struggle for some people and other weeks are going to be a struggle for other people; there’s going to be some flex there, and that’s totally fine.

So if on a Friday, you need to step back and review some things and do some things over, that’s totally cool if you want to plan for that.

If you breeze through the week and everything’s wonderful and you get it all down pat then you can continue working on that or you could help other people who might be struggling or continue working on your own things and producing design products, which is awesome.

So that day just allows us to kind of break the mold a little bit and let people be a little bit free to stretch their arms.

Liz: Really cool. House, you and Tyson are the two instructors for this course, right?

Allison: That’s us!

Liz: Will there be any TAs or anything like that?

Allison: It’s primarily going to be us but we think we’re going to occasionally bring in air support as I’ve been calling it, from other members of Thoughtbot and possibly other members of the design community, to give deep dives or specialized discussion.

One example is we’re hoping to bring somebody in to give a workshop on a program called Sketch. This is an illustrative program which you can build mockups in. It’s particularly good for building mockups for IOS design or app design.

So there are going to be a couple of occasions where we do deep dives and have other folks who really specialize in those areas come in and give you their expertise on that. But for the most part, you can expect me and Tyson.

Liz: What are you expecting the cohort size to be for this first one?

Allison: I’d say 8 to 12 is what we’re looking at.

Liz:  I love hearing how you designed the curriculum to produce a really well-rounded UX and product designer. Have you designed the curriculum to get people to a point where they’re able to get real jobs as product designers? How are you incorporating the daunting task of job placement into the 9-week curriculum?

Allison: We actually have a dedicated talent manager who helps us out with that. We also have a career day where companies local to New York will also come and speak to our students and learn more about them. But Lillian, our talent placement manager will work with students one on one to help them build their Dribble portfolios, for example, Dribble being a popular site for finding designers to hire and also for showcasing your work. She helps them set up their social media or portfolio or website. It really gets you prepared to present yourself to the world.

Of course, Tyson and I also have quite a bit of experience ourselves, so we’re setting aside some time at the very end of the course to do some Q&A and help people figure out those next steps and provide our experience as a stepping stone.

Liz: That’s awesome. Tyson, I know that Thoughtbot is involved in the curriculum but is there any chance that Thoughtbot is hoping to hire someone from this class?

Tyson: Yeah; you know, we have this wonderful new New York office and we are opening offices more and more, so we’re always looking for wonderful talented designers. So it’s definitely a possibility for sure.

Liz: When does the next Metis program start?

Tyson: September 22nd so it’s coming up quick.

Liz: What’s the application deadline?

Tyson: Next Tuesday is going to be the application deadline; it’s September 2nd, I believe.

Liz: Are you both working on applications and admission as well?

Allison: We interview students directly.

Liz: What’s something that a student can do to make sure that they’re standing out? I get that question a ton: How can I stand out from everyone else applying? What would jump off the page to you?

Tyson: I think we’re looking for compassionate people. No one wants to talk to a boring person over Goggle Hangout. You just need to be excited about what you’re doing and you should be passionate about the work you’re producing. It’s okay if the work isn’t your best work or maybe you’re scared to show it a little bit, and that’s totally fine. We just want people who are very open and love to talk about their work and are willing to crow about who they’re going to become.

Allison: I would say on top of that there’s two qualities that—we tend to have three qualities and compassionate is one of them. Number two is curious. We love curious people. We like to see that spark of interest and to find that within somebody else. It’s not just making somebody a good designer but also a good student, somebody who’s a joy to teach and worth teaching.

The other one is articulation or communication. We need somebody who’s able to talk through their design ideas and help us understand what they think and where they’re coming from. There’s a sense of openness as Tyson mentioned that accompanies that. So if they can tell us what’s on their mind, we can tell them what’s on our mind; it makes critique and makes the whole process of growth a lot easier for us.

Liz: Great. To everyone who’s watching, you just got the secret! Is there anything else that you want to add about Metis or about UX or product design in general that we didn’t touch on tonight?

Tyson: I don’t think so; I think you asked so many great questions.

Liz: Awesome! Thank you all so much; thanks so much to everybody for joining Course Report for our webinar tonight and thanks so much to Tyson and to House for being here. If you have any additional questions for Metis after this webinar, I’ll send out their contact info after this and if you have any questions about Course Report, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. We will send out the recording of this webinar so check your inboxes for that and you can share it with any of your friends who might have missed it live.

And please visit Coursereport.com, sign up for our email list and you’ll get all of our future updates on webinars and interviews; and you can tweet us and tell us what topic or school you’d like to see at the next webinar that we have. Thanks so much for tuning in and good night.