Two weeks ago, I concluded my three months as a user experience apprentice at Fresh Tilled Soil, a Watertown-based design firm. I spent three months in a team of five apprentices (Xin Xin, Dave Levine, Mat Budelman and Sean Smevik) improving my user experience, interaction and interface design skills (and getting paid!).
The five of us came from very different backgrounds. I worked as a user interface designer and occasional front-end developer as a freelancer and consultant, within agencies, and most recently within a startup. Xin was an animation major before working as lead designer at a startup. Sean was also an animation major, but went into freelancing. Mat worked as a print designer before picking up web design and development, and Dave, a Starter League graduate, worked with startups in Chicago as a UX designer and developer. We all had varying degrees of prior industry experience and expertise, which made us ideal candidates for Fresh Tilled Soil’s apprenticeship program.
Now that I’ve had a brief vacation and had time to gather my thoughts, I wanted to give an overview of the program and my experiences with it.
The rest of Bootcamp was a mix of reading (Steal Like an Artist, Thinking With Type and About Face 3), presentations given by the FTS team, and a UX strategy and discovery challenge. Presentations were focused on pretty much every major segment of design and front-end development essentials, all from the lens of user experience. Our challenge focused on the strategy and discovery phase of a web app design project, culminating in a group client presentation and individual clickable wireframes.
Bootcamp was kind of exhausting, but was a successful way to begin our apprenticeships and get all of us starting on a similar level of theoretical UX knowledge.
At the end of Bootcamp, each apprentice was chosen by a mentor who could relate to our individual goals and skills. I was chosen by Steve Hickey, a total design & front-end dev badass with a love of good type. (Obligatory dribbble and github links.)
Our mentors were tasked with overseeing our work over the course of our apprenticeship. They provided individual (and occasionally group) feedback on challenge and client work. We checked in with them at least once or twice every week.
Individual mentorship is, by far, the best feature of AUX. Mat wrote a bit about it on the Fresh Tilled Soil blog. I have never before had an opportunity for the type of in-depth, personal mentorship that I received as an apprentice at Fresh Tilled Soil. Steve was able to see exactly where I was falling short in my work and guide me towards better ways of thinking about design problems and potential solutions. He got me to think about each design decision I made and be able to back it up with solid reasoning (no bullshit allowed). It was, honestly, exactly what I needed to improve as a designer.
We engaged in several challenges throughout the three months to boost our individual design and development skills. We converted a psd into an accessible form, identified problems with the modern TV experience and came up with solutions to those problems, designed the interface for a mobile MBTA app, and created something we could share with the design community (still a WIP). I was also given some sub-challenges by my mentor, Steve, to help improve specific skills.
Each challenge culminated in a presentation to the AUX team (apprentices, program leader and mentors), followed by an open critique. They were a chance for us to show of our skills and gain insightful feedback which helped us see where we fell short.
No good apprenticeship would be complete without, of course, client work. Each apprentice was involved in some client projects (sometimes alone, sometimes alongside our mentors). We also as a group had total control over one major project.
Our group project was a major point of learning. We did everything from the initial strategy and discovery phase, up to completion of wireframes for a redesigned mobile application and responsive marketing website with an account dashboard component. Mat acted as project manager, and our team collaborated, jumping in where appropriate and stepping back when not during each of our two-week sprints.
Sean wrote a bit about our first sprint, a two week deep dive into the existing product and assets, where we looked to identify the problem we would be solving in the next several sprints. We spent most of that sprint going in wrong directions. Finally, we just needed to step back, break the product down into its smallest bits, and build back up.
Our proposed solution kept only the essentials of the product, stripping away unnecessary layers and features. When it came down to it, the app was brilliant at one thing. It didn’t need the rest. It needed to focus on making that one task even easier, and our proposed solution (and a redesigned marketing site) would need to reflect that.
The weeks that followed were made of steady work and constant iteration. We would iterate on a deliverable a dozen or more times before it even made it to the client. We were all sad to see our parts in the project wrap up at the end of our apprenticeship, when we handed off all of our work to the FTS team to finalize. That one project taught me more about the user experience design process than any book ever has, and I am grateful we had the opportunity to work closely with such a great product and team.
Life After AUX
AUX was an amazing, enlightening, and humbling experience. It pushed me past my limits, challenging me in a way I’ve never experiences. It was exhausting. Overall, I can say with confidence that it was one of the best experiences of my life, and most definitely my best career decision to date.
Now that AUX is done, what am I doing with my life?
I’ve spent the past two weeks sleeping in, relaxing, and catching up on some projects I’m involved in. I’ve been working with several designers and developers on MP6, a plugin which updates the WordPress admin interface design. Most of my contributions so far have been to dashicons, the new icon font we’re using within the admin. I’ve also been working on post format icons.
I’m currently pursuing some job leads, but am still open to chat. If you’re interested in hiring me, I’d love to talk — please send me a message via my contact form.