The Craft of UX: What we can learn from bakers' guilds

96e9e85e6a8bc21ea955b8fac6063267?s=47 Leanna Gingras
October 25, 2012

The Craft of UX: What we can learn from bakers' guilds

What do bakers, metalsmiths and user experience professionals have in common? They’re all crafts, but unlike other crafts, UX doesn't have a mentality of apprenticeship and practice. I argue that because UX requires broad knowledge across a number of disciplines, we need to better train incoming UX professionals. We should look to other fields for inspiration, especially craft guilds.


Leanna Gingras

October 25, 2012


  1. 1 I’m Lee. I graduated a little over two years

    ago. I’ve spent time in-house, I’ve spent time in agencies, I’ve been a mentor and a mentee both. Now I work in Seattle as a UX Architect at Garrigan Lyman Group. My talk will take a look at how we grow incoming UX professionals. How do we get the people we need to the point where they can do amazing work?
  2. Here’s what I’m going to cover today. 2

  3. First: how many of you have been practicing for less

    than 5 years? 2 years? Just graduated? In school? Did you feel prepared to do the job when you started? 3
  4. Let me tell you what happened to me. When I

    entered this field, clutching my newly minted HCI diploma, I was very excited, and carelessly optimistic about the future ahead of me. I might’ve even thought I was hot shit. I had a rude awakening. It turned out I wasn’t actually prepared to do good user experience work. 4
  5. I went to school, right? What went wrong? School only

    gave me some basics. foundation of HCI field, which is essential but still pretty academic. No context: None of it pulled together or contextualized…silos of learning. 5
  6. This is the kind of fantasy project I would get.

    It’s free of any constraints or context. It requires that you show methodology, but not thinking through the problem. It doesn’t matter if this runs on any tech system, and there are no clients to appease, and there is no money to make. As a result, I learned to solve problems in a very simplistic way. This isn’t even really a problem. It’s deliverables. As a result, My skill set didn't match what employers needed. 6
  7. I naively thought … I thought companies would say "hey,

    we want a tool to do X", and I'd create a tool that did X, and they would implement it. clean, linear process. if the interface is cluttered, no problem! let's remove some features right? 7
  8. But people don't hire Uxers to make simple designs in

    simple situations. they need us for messy situations. They need us for situations with pre-existing systems, conflicting business requirements and constraints. Needed experience solving different types of problems, and needed to learn strategies for dealing w constraint 8
  9. I also didn’t have soft skills I needed. Didn't have

    experience or training on how to manage client meetings, manage expectations - those soft skills are actually really huge. It wasn’t that I was BAD, it was that I didn’t know what to do. When do I talk? When do I shut up? 9
  10. It’s a learning process. Client asks for a baby cagefighting

    app, and I give them exactly what they ask for. Not good. Or I tell them that baby cagefighting is stupid and immoral and I get fired. None of these are optimal. The more experience I have, the more gracefully I can handle this situation. But it’s all in the soft skills. And that comes from experience. 10
  11. Long story short: School only got me halfway there. How’d

    I get the rest of the way? 11
  12. I got lucky and had good mentors who were willing

    to invest the time and energy to train me and whip me into shape. I was amazingly lucky. 12
  13. Others I graduated with weren’t so lucky. But it shouldn’t

    be luck. It should be standard. ok, so the system is broken. we have a training gap between education and the real world, and the solution lies in thinking of UX as a craft. 13
  14. a new way of looking at the problem can reveal

    a solution. If we look at user experience as a craft, this opens up a whole new world of possibilities for that training gap. But why consider UX a craft? What qualifies it as a craft? 14
  15. First, let’s consider what the particular need for UX is.

    UX is exploding as the “best to market” secret sauce for companies trying to differentiate their products from the competition. But this means the user experience for that product needs to be carefully crafted and high quality. These high quality solutions matters for UX. 15
  16. “craft” is a loaded term. Let’s start slow. 16

  17. “skill” is an interesting word there. It implies something that

    has to be learned. It’s something specialized. It’s something that produces high quality products. It’s not quite a rich enough definition to work for UX. Let’s look at how others have defined it. 17
  18. The idea of making a quality product. With skill. The

    idea that it’s a slow and involved process. That’s craft. 18
  19. This means that the wireframe sweatshop idea is not sustainable,

    not craft. The recognition that you can’t crank out all-purpose solutions. This isn’t IKEA. UX doesn’t come in flat-pack containers. UX as a craft means having the CORE SKILLS and expertise needed to understand and solve each unique problem. 19
  20. Our amazing Axure skills aren’t what makes an app successful.

    What’s valuable is not the boxes we draw. What’s valuable is how we solve our problems. The tools we need are much more fundamental than that. 20
  21. UX core competencies are not wireframing. Are active listening, critical

    thinking, storytelling. These are the foundations to design and strategy, and they should be taught at that foundational level. When we have those foundations down, that frees us to be CREATIVE and nimble in our problem- solving. 21
  22. Let’s think about that example I gave where a client

    asked for the baby cagefighting app. Active listening: Ask LOTS OF QUESTIONS. Critical thinking: I work through what the need is for this app, elevate the good, nail down the constraints. Problem-solving: pulling all of this together in an app that elegantly dances around constraints and creates joy in the user. Storytelling: I tell stories about my solution, I visually communicate why it works. I make sure my interface tells a story that fits into the users’ lives. 22
  23. It’s a long road. This isn’t stuff I learned quickly.

    But I’m better, and I offer UX value. I had a lot to learn to get there. UX is not the first craft to struggle with training people to perform high quality work. What can we learn from other crafts? What can we borrow from those fields with centuries of experience in getting it right? 23
  24. Let’s take the German bakers’ guild as a case study

    and figure out what guilds are doing right. Guilds mean business. They don’t take training lightly. The training process takes 6-8 years. It’s a huge investment on the part of the apprentice, and on the part of the guild as well. Clearly there’s a quality standard they care deeply about. 24
  25. 25 They take pride in their work and expect a

    lot from their profession. They care about producing QUALITY work, and they know training someone to do work to that standard takes a lot of time. User experience practitioners also take a lot of pride in what we do. We love our jobs, we love to show off our work. We know there is a markedly different quality of the work a seasoned UXer produces from the work a newbie produces. This isn’t a coincidence – those masters didn’t pop up out of nowhere. Peter Morville didn’t appear out of the ether. He was trained. We need to have similarly realistic expectations about what it takes to make a master Uxer.
  26. 26 Guilds define set of core skills that are essential

    to producing quality work in their particular craft. This means that bakers don’t just learn recipes. They learn ingredients, elements, chemistry, math. They acquire a holistic, sensory understanding of their materials, one so rich that they’ll know by touch whether the bread is done and by taste whether the yeast is fully fermented. Bakers are FLUENT in their materials. This helps them be flexible and creative when they need to be.
  27. 27 Guilds understand learning is a process and you must

    practice. There will be many failures. The more you practice, the more you fail, the more lessons you to learn. These failures are necessary to learn and grow. A German master baker can bake 300 different kinds of bread. That takes practice. Every bread = different mix of ingredients. Practice gives understanding. Every UX problem requires a different mix of ingredients. With practice, we UNDERSTAND how to think and communicate, develop strategies and commit to heart.
  28. ok, heavy stuff. let’s take a step back. We can’t

    overhaul the user experience business overnight, but these are the things we can do as individuals, as people with something to teach. here are 4 practical, implementable things we can steal from guilds that are not super demanding in terms of resources and infrastructure. baby steps. 28
  29. 29 what this means: If you want to be a

    baker, you have to really want it. why guilds do this: guilds want people who care about the profession, who are invested in the quality of our products. What it means for UX: Hire for passion, curiosity and humility. Genuinely wants to learn and grow. someone who is EXCITED about solving problems and who is excited about working with people. Not everyone wants to learn.
  30. 30 understand that hiring folks fresh out of school means

    assessing potential, not existing skills. Don’t look at how good their wireframes are. Ask them how they solved the problem. Ask them how they prepared for this interview. Ask why they dig UX. it means understanding you’re hiring someone green. being patient and understanding when the junior screws up, needs help, needs slow guidance. If the junior is genuinely invested in learning from you, that’s easier to handle.
  31. 31 what this means: Everyone knows their role. Mentors understand

    they are there to guide and groom. Apprentices understand they are there to learn. why guilds do this: people live up to what you expect of them. people rise to the task. people live and work with purpose. What this means for UX: Mentor is there to guide and groom, not to dump work on the newbie. Newbies understand that they need to practice and develop core skills, and this might mean doing work that doesn’t seem that sexy or designery from the outset. But when expectations are right, very exciting and rewarding.
  32. 32 Example: if you give someone who wants to be

    a designer a small internal project, consisting of ethnographic observation and interviews, they may feel like they’re being stuck on a crap busywork project. In reality, they’re learning interview skills, observation skills, and they’re going to put this to work smoothing over business processes that’ll help them earn trust and push designs through later down the road…they’ll appreciate that. If expectations are set.
  33. 33 What this means: the apprentice isn’t just dicking around

    in the back of the shop - the apprentice is watching and learning from the master, and the master is actively guiding the apprentice’s education. why guilds do this: to reveal the why behind the how and the what. to help put it all together. To provide the essential: dialogue, critique, guidance. what this means for UX: here, mentorship doesn’t mean weekly one-hour check- ins, but actively guiding and critiquing their work, co-working together, whiteboarding and designing together. what’s important is to expose new people to the spectrum of brilliant problem-solving strategies. They should see real work, and participate in real work.
  34. 34 1 strategy: Pair junior with senior. Common but not

    always done right. Watch professional in ACTION. Don’t divide and conquer.
  35. 35 what this means: guilds are networks of professionals. Every

    baker in town knows all the other bakers. why guilds do this: to create a community of people to continue learning and growing with. what this means for us: UX is a community, and it’s all about networking. and we get jobs via this community. Don’t be the only designer that they know, help them cultivate their own network. Hook them up: Happy hours etc. Provide with opportunities to grow their network -> career.
  36. We can’t overhaul the user experience business overnight, but these

    are the things we can do as individuals, as people with something to teach. 36
  37. Those are some excellent ways for those of us already

    in the profession to insure our own future and make sure we’re training amazing people. But what are the people fresh out of school supposed to do? Sit around and wait for the world to get better? While it’s not ideal, there are a couple of strategies you can use to get the training you need. It’s all about looking for signs of a guild culture. 37
  38. It’s totally possible to do this in a practical way.

    When you look for jobs, remember that they’re not just interviewing you, YOU’RE interviewing THEM. Your interview goal, among others, is to figure out if the company culture is conducive to support your learning. 38
  39. Assess the company culture. Is this somewhere you can learn

    and grow, or is it a wireframe sweatshop? Look at the physical workspace. Is it open or are there cubicles and walls? Do people collaborate and talk or is it quiet? How do projects happen? Do people collaborate or work in siloes? Collaboration is a good sign – sign of being able to learn. 39
  40. Assess the UX culture. Is there a UX team? (if

    you’re the only UX person, it’s a good bet they’re not hiring for potential and don’t know what to do with you.) Are there other, more experienced UX people you can learn from? Can those people spend time with you to explain things and guide you? (can they provide mentors?) Does the company provide any room for UX people to come together and share their deliverables and ideas? (can you get to know your co-workers? Build a network? Drink with them?) 40
  41. Assess the mentor. Is this someone you can learn from?

    Can they MENTOR you? Do they have time to work one-on-one with you? Ask about their management style. You do NOT want to hear “totally hands off”. You want them to be willing to guide you. Ask what they do when they see a junior making a mistake. You don’t want to hear “I step in and take over.” You want evidence of some sort of teaching process. Assess how dedicated they are to UX as a profession – ask about conferences, blogs they read, or ask them to define “user experience”. 41
  42. 42 If take it on ourselves to grow our new

    professionals,…we will grow user experience people who solve real problems elegantly. We can grow people who make FUNCTIONAL AND DELIGHTFUL products. We will have jobs we’re happy with. We will learn. It’s worth it.
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