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Chapter 7
Mentorship 101: how to mentor new UX designers for success
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Chapter 7

Mentorship 101: how to mentor new UX designers for success

We’ve all been beginners at one point or another.
Aspiring designers with all the gear and no idea—moving into a dream role at a dream company. During these exciting times, one of the most helpful things you can have is a mentor in the UX community to turn to for guidance.

If you’ve ever benefited from the guidance of a UX design mentor, you know that UX mentorship is a two-way street: beneficial to both the mentor and mentee. It’s on the mentor to ensure this is the case, however, and we’re diving into exactly how you can do that right here.

In addition to being an invaluable resource for individual growth, mentorship can also be turned into a fun and engaging design activity for the entire UX team. Senior and middle designers can take on mentorship roles to guide and support junior team members, creating a culture of learning and collaboration within the team.
Design meetings can be organized as group discussions where mentors and mentees come together to share their experiences, insights, and challenges. This not only provides a platform for mentorship but also encourages open dialogue, the exchange of ideas, and collective problem-solving.

We spoke with Scott Hurff, Co-Founder/CPO at Churnkey and experienced UX leader and designer, about his mentorship experience and tips. Then, we put the insights he shared into this article.

Shall we?

UX mentorship is beneficial to both a mentor and mentee

What are the goals of UX mentoring?

“Mentorship is all about fostering resilience and a customer-centric mentality while reinforcing and rewarding curiosity.”
Scott Hurff, Co-Founder and CPO at Churnkey

This is the answer we got from Scott when we asked about his view on the goals of UX mentorship. Let’s take a closer look:

Goal #1: Teach resilience

“Business needs change and wane; design trends shift; tools, techniques, and code frameworks become outdated. As a UX manager, it’s your job to encourage resilience in the face of a constantly changing landscape.

”All industries change over time, but the constantly-evolving nature of the UX industry makes resilience an especially important trait for UX professionals. It can be disheartening to work on a project only for it to be rendered obsolete within a year—but this is often the case with UX design.

So, what helps build resilience? A number of things, according to Scott:

  1. “A focus on constant self-improvement;
  2. Possessing a set of uncompromising values around what makes a customer-centric experience;
  3. A willingness to solve problems without clear answers;
  4. andThe ability to admit when one is on the wrong side of the facts or an argument.”

Goal #2: Instill a customer-centric mentality

“Your job as a mentor is to show the value of remaining focused on customer needs.”

It’s easy to get distracted by the innovative tools and techniques used by UX professionals—but it’s essential to remain focused on the ultimate goal of UX design: creating intuitive and joyful user experiences.

”Use your prior experience to show how your own customer focus, in concert with your talents as a designer, uncovered broad patterns and sentiment among all the little bits of feedback you see every day.”

Goal #3: Reward curiosity

“Who wants to be caught in an infinite loop of responding to problems with the same solution?”

Over the course of their careers, UX professionals will likely encounter different versions of the same problem time and time again. According to Scott, a key aspect of UX mentorship is ensuring that UX designers remain curious and engaged.

“I think this starts with varying your creative inputs. Read awesome and weird books that your peer group isn’t reading. Study history—that of the world, society, and our industry.

All of these fresh inputs will pop up in unexpected places and it’s your job as a manager to reward curiosity and its creative output, and to foster a culture of learning.”

How does mentorship benefit UX mentors and mentees?

UX mentorship is a mutually beneficial relationship—both sides gain valuable insights and experience from entering into the professional relationship. Take a look:

In UX mentorship, both a mentor and mentee gain benefits

It can be daunting for both the mentor and the mentee, but it’s a rewarding arrangement for both parties when successful. Just take it from Scott:

“Once I got over my initial impostor syndrome (Me? A mentor?), I realized that offering advice and sharing my experience helped interrogate my own ways of working and thinking. It also keeps me plugged into the latest tools, trends, and what’s important to the zeitgeist, so it keeps me both grounded and more aware.”

Building a solid mentorship program for new UX designers

Rome wasn’t built in a day—keep this in mind when building your mentorship program. There are a number of key considerations to help ensure it’s valuable for both you and your mentee. Let’s take a look at how you can optimize your program.

1. Characteristics you need to be an effective mentor

Mentorship is a skill—one that’s developed with time and effort. Here are some of the key characteristics you should focus on, from someone who’s done it:

Strong listening and communication skills
Scott’s exact words were: “don’t be a disrespectful know-it-all”. Just because you’ve got the knowledge and experience, doesn’t mean you need to spend every last second talking.

“Blanketing the airwaves with your opinions on all things makes the mentor/mentee relationship a one-way street and will most likely end up wasting everyone’s time.”

Effective mentors understand that mentorship is a two-way street—there’s just as much to learn from a mentee as there is from a mentor. Of course, the insights are different, but they’re equally valuable to each other.

An empathetic and patient approach to mentoring
“A mentee has entrusted you with their problems, concerns, and fears. Give them the respect of paying attention and really spending the time to understand the root causes of their struggles.”

Try putting yourself in your mentee's shoes; view their problems from their perspective. It’s easy to overlook small issues after a life-long career of dealing with bigger issues, but it’s not your place to decide what constitutes a big issue for your mentee. It’s your job to listen, empathize, and share your experience-based insights.
These qualities are also valuable for managing and improving your UX team as a leader. When mentoring your team members, it's essential to view their problems from their perspective. It's easy to overlook small issues after a life-long career of dealing with bigger challenges, but as a mentor, it's not your place to decide what constitutes a big issue for your mentee.

In it for the right reasons
“It might be tempting to leverage a mentee’s relationship to win them over in order to build support for your particular faction. To paraphrase Jonathan Swift, politics is the art of lying at the appropriate time.”

UX mentorship isn’t an opportunity to mold and shape an individual into someone that can benefit you—it’s an opportunity to help a more junior designer find their feet in the industry you love. Don’t take advantage of their lack of experience.

“This isn’t House of Cards, and you’re not Frank Underwood. Just be a real person.”

2. Setting achievable goals and expectations

Another key consideration for effective mentorship is to establish OKRs — objectives and key results — regarding the relationship. What is your mentee looking to get out of it? Do they have specific skills they’re looking to develop? How can you best support their journey?

Also, consider what it is you’re looking to get from the relationship. You’ve got the opportunity to chat with a newcomer about an industry you’ve formed part of for years; the chance to get fresh perspectives, ideas, and insights.

It’s a good idea to discuss both of your goals during the first few sessions, and how you’ll measure your progress towards said goals. For example, if looking to develop a specific skill, you could have mentees take a skill assessment on week one, and then have them re-take it after week six.

During UX mentorship, your goal can be to develop a specific skill

You also want to ensure you establish clear ground rules from the offset. Look to cover things like how often you’ll connect, for how long, and what’s expected of each party in relation to the mentorship agreement. This helps ensure you’re both on the same page and avoids any confusion or dissatisfaction.
Looking for an online learning solution to upskill your mentees and UX team? Try Uxcel Teams today for a 14-day free trial of the lessons, course, skill assessments, and more.

3. Providing feedback and guidance

Feedback is an essential part of development; it helps the mentee learn and grow from experience. A mentor is in the unique position of being able to expedite growth with experience-based feedback.

An important consideration here is that feedback can be both positive and negative—it doesn’t all have to be ‘here’s what you could have done better’. It’s equally important to acknowledge and discuss your mentee’s strengths and wins.

When it comes to sharing critical feedback, consider these tips to ensure it remains a productive interaction:

  • Establish and reinforce trust: your ground rules should help with this, but it’s never a bad idea to remind mentees that your feedback is always constructive.
  • Be specific: a vague ‘this isn’t good enough’ is unhelpful and demoralizing. Focus on identifying exactly why something isn’t working and why you think that may be.
  • Be human: as helpful as it is, it can often sting to hear negative feedback about something you’ve put time and effort into. Remember to consider the impact of feedback and aim to deliver it as effectively as possible.

Keeping these three tips in mind will help ensure your mentees benefit from feedback, instead of viewing it as something to be avoided.

As a mentor, your goal is to establish trust and provide helpful, specific feedback

4. Building a strong relationship

We’ve said it throughout this article, and we’ll say it again: a mentorship arrangement is a relationship. Just like any other relationship, it takes time and effort to build. Investing energy into the mentorship program is beneficial in the long run—why bother if you’re not invested?

It’s an arrangement that pays off and, like any relationship, brings value to both the mentor's and the mentee’s life. We spoke to Scott about previous mentorship relationships that stand out to him from before he founded Churnkey.

“I came in as a new Director of Design and noticed immediately that the org’s original and longest-tenured designer had been passed over repeatedly for leadership roles, and that a perception had formed that he was disinterested, checked out, but still reliable. I took a long time to get to know him, understand his interests, and see the deep well of his talent.

I gave him the hardest projects; pushed him to take on larger engagements. I made sure to pay him more while easing him into more opportunities to step up. The biggest example was when I left for my honeymoon and asked him to become Interim Director of Design. When I came back, nothing had really changed, and he seemed to relish working new muscles.

I’m proud to say that after I left for another gig, he was promoted to Director of Design, made his own hires, and championed a number of new design initiatives.”

Mentorship—when done right—is a rewarding endeavor, that’s for sure.

5. Encouraging growth and independence

Mentorship can’t last forever; at one point or another, your mentee will need to take the skills and knowledge they’ve developed and apply them to their UX career without your safety net to fall back on.

A key part of effective mentorship is to help prepare your mentee for this transition. They need to take ownership of their own learning and development, but this shouldn’t be daunting or anxiety-inducing. It’s a natural part of any mentorship relationship.

Teach them to reflect on their journey, their strengths and weaknesses, and their goals for the future (and how they’ll get there). Their path to success might not be clear-cut but with the right mindset and approach they’ll learn how to navigate design challenges on their own. It’s your job to foster this mindset and encourage trial and error.

Common pitfalls to avoid when mentoring designers

So, the above is everything you should do. But, what about things you shouldn’t do?

We spoke with Scott about the common pitfalls to avoid when acting as a UX mentor—here are some of the key insights he shared.

1. Teach your mentee to solve their own problems

As the ancient proverb explains: if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

Avoid prescribing a course of action over teaching your mentee how to think about the problem. It’s a quick fix, but it doesn’t provide any guidance for when you’re no longer on hand to provide solutions.

“When your mentee struggles with something, your job is to be both coach and therapist. Ask them lots of questions. Then ask more. They’ll get to the solution on their own.”

2. Show, don’t tell: get into the pixels with your mentee

Mentorship is a lot of talking, but it’s also a lot of doing. Don't be afraid to get stuck into UX problems with your mentee—even if it’s something you’re not done in years.

“Demonstrating your own craft by creating and editing in real-time is a chance to form a stronger bond.”

It’s also a great opportunity to learn about tools and platforms you’ve never used before. The UX industry, and the tools used in it, evolve rapidly—especially during a time of such speedy technological advancement. You might just find there’s a better way of getting jobs done.

3. Highlight the importance of soft skills

“If the way you treat and communicate with others is inconsiderate or gruff, you’ll be giving permission to your mentee to do the same. Reputations are built early and are easy to screw up, and even harder to fix.”

Mentorship isn’t just about developing technical knowledge and skills—it requires a holistic approach to development. You’ll find that a lot of the key takeaways for your mentee can be applied to both personal and professional development.

Remember: kindness doesn’t cost a thing. Mentor with this in mind, and your mentee will learn by example.

Final thoughts on UX mentorship

UX mentorship should be rewarding for both you and your mentee. If it’s not, it’s safe to say you’re not doing it right—or you’re just not a good fit.

Focus on connecting with your mentee to understand their gripes and goals. Build a relationship and you’ll find that the rest slots naturally into place. It makes it easier for your mentee to ask questions and discuss problems, and easier for you to give feedback and instill confidence.

Huge thanks to Scott Hurff for his insights on how to build and benefit from a UX mentorship arrangement. It’s always insightful to get new perspectives from experienced designers.

Now, go flex your new-found mentor muscles!

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