Jessica Ivins is our guest to talk about her work at Center Centre, a user experience design school, and how students are learning to be the next generation of UX designers. We also discuss self-learning, accessibility concerns, website metaphors, and how to prep for applying at a school like Center Centre.
Jessica IvinsWeb // Twitter
Jessica is a user experience (UX) designer and faculty member at Center Centre, the UX design school in Chattanooga, TN, where she prepares students to be industry-ready designers. She publishes UX articles on her blog and on Medium, and she speaks at conferences and local events about design.
Time Jump Links
- 01:29 What is Center Centre?
- 03:30 How is Center Centre accredited?
- 05:44 What's an example project like?
- 07:27 What kind of students qualify?
- 11:52 How do you interview possible students?
- 20:53 Sponsor: Discover.bot
- 22:23 How do you spot someone who isn't a self learner?
- 30:01 How do I present myself to get work?
- 43:10 Sponsor: WooCommerce
- 44:15 What is the curriculum?
- 50:02 Accessibility concerns
- 57:59 What can I do to prep for applying at Center Centre?
WooCommerce is WordPress plugin that brings eCommerce to your WordPress sites. It's unique in its customizability and flexability. You can use it to sell physical products, digital downloads, memberships, services, and tickets, plus offer customers lots of different ways to pay, including things like Apple Pay and Bitcoin powered by Stripe.
MANTRA: Just Build Websites!
Dave Rupert: Hey there, Shop-o-maniacs. You're listening to another episode of the ShopTalk Show. I'm '80s radio star Shadoe Stevens [laughter] and with me is Chris Coyier. Hi, Chris.
Chris Coyier: Hey!
Dave: What happened?
Chris: Oh, I'm just feeling at the middle of the middle of things today, you know. I just feel very balanced and--I don't know--just like I'm at the center of the universe, really. How are you feeling?
Dave: Well, I feel like my daughter coughed in my mouth and now I'm sick but, hey, that's a story for another time. [Laughter] Who do we got in the studio today, Chris?
Chris: Eh, that'll happen. Well, we have an extra special guest, Jessica Ivins. Hi, Jessica. How are you?
Jessica Ivins: Hello, folks. How's it going?
Chris: I am excited about this episode because Jessica works at a very cool place in a very cool city. Chattanooga, right?
Jessica: Mm-hmm, yes.
Chris: Yeah, and the place is--as I was joking--middle-middle. It's actually called Center Centre, right?
Chris: Two alternate spellings of the word "center," but the name is interesting. Tell us about the school, anyway. It's like a real brick and mortar place, isn't it?
Jessica: Yes. Center Centre is located in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We provide a full-time, on-site program that lasts for two years. When you attend as a student, you graduate as an industry ready UX designer with almost two years of work experience, with a portfolio under your belt, with projects under your belt, and you are ready to join a UX team and get to work on day one.
Chris: This is happening all over the world is that there are these things popping up. Some of them are mega super VC backed and there are 200 of them all over the world. Some of them, they kind of take over a region or they're just in one country, another country, and some of them are online only. Some of them have a few brick and mortar but have an online program. Rarer are they all brick and mortar like you are.
Jessica: Mm-hmm, yes. We focus on UX design so, when you're a student, you're prepared to be a well-rounded UX generalist.
Chris: Yeah, right on. Who knows why? I'm sure you have a strong grasp as to why this is a situation in the world. I think a lot of people point to a labor gap. There are just so many companies hiring and can't hire fast enough for these specific kind of technology focused skills. Apparently, universities aren't pumping them out fast enough, so let's circumvent normal universities, perhaps, and make a new learning style.
Isn't it true that Center Centre kind of is a real university, though, isn't it? Isn't it accredited in a way that some of these other ones are not?
Jessica: We are much more on the vocational side than we are on the academic side. We've designed our program from scratch, from the ground up, and we did a ton of research into developing our program before we could even call ourselves a school.
In that research, before we designed the school to be what it is, we talked with -- now, I say "we." This is before I was hired. This is going back to the days of my co-founders Jared Spool and Leslie Jensen-Inman. When they were putting the school together, they spoke with dozens if not hundreds of hiring managers to learn what these UX hiring managers wanted in candidates, especially more junior candidates, people who were right out of school.
These hiring managers, they didn't care where you went to school, what degree you had. They wanted to know, can you do the work and can you join a team and contribute from day one? That's when we realized that what we needed was that the conventional options out there weren't really going to work for us, like the bootcamps and the universities.
Jessica: We felt really weren't going to meet the goal of preparing somebody to be industry ready and ready to work on day one, so that's why we designed this program from scratch. Again, it's much more on the vocational side than the academic side, so we designed it to be much like a workplace.
I am a faculty member here, but I double. I'm sort of more of a manager and project manager and coach than I am a conventional educator. The students report to either me or my colleague, the other faculty member. We manage the projects. We coach students along if they're struggling with learning something. We give them the support that they need just like a good manager would do.
By the time you graduate as a student, you are used to this work-like environment. That way, when you go into the work environment, it's not a huge transition like it would be from other conventional educational situations.
Chris: Right, right, right. There is a lot of focus on this, "You do real work here," right?
Chris: Then, on Friday, "Please turn in your Bubble sort assignment." It's more like -- yeah. What's an example project like? Is it like--I don't know--"The sandwich shop down the street needs an online ordering system. Let's build them one"?
Jessica: No, it's much a much bigger project than that. Again, our goal is to prepare you to be industry ready by the time you graduate. We decided to focus on preparing students to be industry ready for an in-house team, like an in-house design team because we saw the trend coming years ago how a lot of UXers now work in-house where, about five or ten years ago, a lot of UXers were working at agencies and companies were hiring agencies to come in and do the UX work.
There's been a shift where a lot of companies now are building their UX teams in-house. We bring projects to the students that are from larger organizations that are looking for additional UX work. We tell organizations that give our students projects, "It should be something that's important, but something that's maybe been on the back burner for a little while that's not hypercritical," because they're students. We wouldn't want them to get a huge, high profile project, but we also want them to get something that's important.
Chris: Right, right. It's like how a student haircut is always a little discounted, you know.
Jessica: [Laughter] Yeah, because they're learning, right? You've got to learn somehow. To be a good hairstylist, you've got to start somewhere, right?
Chris: These are not fake projects. They are not, like, "Let's invent a problem and invent a solution to the fake problem."
Chris: You're partnering with real businesses who give you their backburner projects for real students to do, which brings a whole air of responsibility and this is straight up real.
Jessica: Mm-hmm, exactly. Yeah.
Dave: What kind of students do you all accept? Is it like you take them from zero to professional or do you have portfolios? Can anyone jump in this field? Is that kind of your goal or are you looking for certain types of candidates?
Jessica: Yeah, great question. To attend Center Centre, we have a few requirements. You have to be at least 18 years of age. You have to be fluent in English. You have to be either a permanent resident or a U.S. citizen because, right now, we're not yet set up with the government to take students who are international unless you're a permanent resident or a citizen.
A few other requirements but, other than that, we don't require any previous design experience. We do have a very thorough admissions process, which is much more like a conventional job interview process than a conventional school application process.
Chris: Really? Like, "Do we think you're cut out for this?" in a way?
Jessica: Exactly. Yeah, we use behavioral interviewing. We ask a lot of questions. We ask for a lot of examples. The things that we look for in our applicants are self-learning. Are you the type of person who is used to teaching yourself things? Are you open to teaching yourself things?
As you probably know, to be good, to be successful professionals in this field, you have to hone the skill of self-learning because this isn't the type of field where you sit around for two years and then go to a class and then learn something and then you have everything you need to know for the next two years. There's just a lot of self-learning involved.
Chris: Heck yeah, so this is clutch!
Jessica: Yeah, mm-hmm.
Chris: This is so important.
Jessica: It's really hard to teach somebody self-learning. But if they already have that as a skill and a habit, we can teach them to be a designer, if that makes sense.
Chris: Well, let's focus in on that a minute. That's kind of interesting.
Dave: This might be the rest of this show.
Chris: You can't promise to deliver someone self-teaching. Like you just said; I'm just repeating what you said. I didn't mean to put words in your mouth or anything. You're kind of saying -- is that -- uh, it feels funny to say, though. Is it like you kind of either have it or you don't kind of thing? What would you suggest to somebody who feels like they struggle with that? Like, "I don't know how to learn," or whatever. "I don't know how to be a self-starter."
Jessica: Yeah, I'm so glad you asked this question because, conventionally, for me, when I was younger, growing up, I was a very good student but I was a very good student in the traditional way where you pay attention in class, you take notes, you study, you get an A on the test, you do your homework. That works really well for an academic environment, but it doesn't necessarily translate to an environment like the field that we work in where you don't have that kind of structure around you to make sure that you're learning what you need to know or it's up to you where you have to go out and learn it. It was a skill that I had to learn on my own.
It was really intimidating to me at first because it just wasn't a muscle that I had built up. But it's something that I started to build up and I started to get more comfortable with. Now I'm at a point where I feel much more confident in my ability to learn.
I'm able to model that for my students as well because we do make sure that they have that skill under their belt before they come on. But we really want to instill in them how important it is to keep learning because, even though they're here for two years, we still can't teach them everything because there's so much to learn. The field evolves so quickly that, once you feel like you've learned something, a month later, six months later, you're going to have to learn a new thing or learn this thing that's changed or adjust the way you do things. It's just the nature of the field.
Yeah, it's a very important skill to have and I think, if any of your listeners out there don't have it yet, it's like training for a marathon. Assuming that you're healthy enough to train for a marathon and run a marathon, you can go from zero to marathon as long as you put in the work and you're smart about how you do it. You train, you run, and you reflect on how your run went, and so on and so forth. You can, over the course of a few months, become a marathon runner.
It's the same thing with learning any skill. You can grow your skill, and you can go from zero self-learning skills to being a strong self-learner in a matter of time.
Chris: There is so much more to talk about here. If you were interviewing someone and their job was to run a marathon, and you just kind of got the vibe that they just didn't really care, they were like, "Yeah, it'd be cool to run a marathon," then you're like, "I'm not really feeling it, yo"?
Chris: "Tell me why you want to run that marathon." Would that be what you're kind of on the lookout for? You might interview a potential student and they're just like, "I don't know. UX seems cool," or something. How do you suss out that they're not a good…?
Dave: Self-learning sign.
Jessica: With all the skills that we look for during the admissions process, we ask for past examples. That's behavioral interviewing, if you're familiar with that. It's a great interviewing technique because past behavior is usually a good indicator of future behavior. If you've done X well in the past, you will likely do X well again in the future.
We ask them, "Tell me about a time where you had to learn something on your own." Most of the applicants that we get, by the time they decide to apply to us because it's a big commitment to attend for two years, most of the people who end up applying, we find right away that we're able to get examples from them because they decide that they're a good fit for us. It is pretty easy for us to find the evidence that we need in that regard.
But again, like I was saying, we ask for past examples, like, "Tell me about a time where you had to learn something new. Tell me about a time where you had to learn something on your own." We hear some really great stories.
The evidence that we look for, it could have nothing to do with design. It could be one applicant told us about how he learned how to change the brakes on his car, the process that he went through, and how he had to iterate. He made some mistakes, but he kept going with it.
He had to go back to the auto place and exchange the brakes that he bought because he bought the one brakes or the one tool or something like that. By the time he finished, a friend of his said, "Hey, can I pay you to change my brakes?" By the time he went to do the next job, he was much better at it because he had already taught himself how to do it.
It's examples like that that we look for. Again, it's just that skill of self-learning. It doesn't need to have anything to do with design. You don't have to have taught yourself graphic design, coding, or anything like that. It's just, are you a self-learner?
Dave: It's funny you mention the brake example because I have one friend who changes their own brakes.
Dave: His name is Chase. I met Chase in college. I went to college. I was a Japanologist, you know, majored in Japanese, of all things. A still little mad that they let me do that, but I did.
Dave: I think the greatest thing I learned wasn't all the Japanese. It was actually meeting Chase because Chase was the smartest person in the world to me. He just knows everything. Then I slowly figured out, he's just actually really good at Googling.
Dave: He had the keywords. He knew how to phrase a Google query right, like the right keywords, the right kind of number of adjectives. I'm typing a book, "Why on earth are there--?"
I was writing just terrible queries, but he just was very efficient and succinct. I was just like, "That's how he knows so much!"
Chris: Wow! Really?!
Dave: He taught me how to learn--
Chris: His ability to change brakes had to do with his ability to Google things well?
Dave: I think, to my mind, there's a correlation. Now, he's so good at Googling, he's just like, "Well, I'll just learn how. I'll just Google how to change my brakes. I'll just figure that out."
Chris: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Dave: I still have not been that motivated.
Chris: Yeah. I changed the oil in my motorcycle a couple years ago. I was pretty impressed with myself.
Jessica: [Laughter] Well, I've never done any work on my car, if it makes you all feel better. [Laughter]
Dave: No, I just….
Chris: Oh, headlights, I could do that now, too. I was inspired by a friend of mine who went out and, "There's no way this is hard. Why would they make--?" You know, and it just kind of isn't. It's a little fiddly or whatever, but you can absolutely change them. I don't know why I'm so focused on this now, but it is a great correlation, right?
Chris: If you have a little go-getter spirit. Not that I blame anybody for not wanting to do things like this, but there are other examples like that too, right? You could be like, "Well, I wanted to--" I don't know "--build a step-up thing for my dog to get up onto my bed because she's getting old."
Jessica: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Chris: You still have to learn. Yeah.
Jessica: Yeah. A few years ago, before I worked at Center Centre, I worked with this guy who was just such an incredible self-learner. He was this modest guy, but he just had so many skills. He went to the art institute for graphic design, so he learned graphic design and, I think, some coding. On top of that, he taught himself so many coding skills. He knew a lot about front-end. He was a good graphic designer.
Then when I worked with him, he was really curious about learning UX design. He wanted to work with me on projects, so he just gravitated toward me. I took him under my wing. He just soaked everything up and he approached everything as a challenge, like, "All right, I want to learn this," and he learned it really quickly.
He and I worked together for maybe a year and a half. By the time I left, he was doing usability tests on his own. He was running user research studies on his own because he wanted to learn from me and just approached it with this just sponge mindset of, like, "I want to learn this."
What was really cool about that was, I realized through working with him, that he wasn't necessarily very successful in the conventional educational environment. I knew he struggled with reading and he was honest with me about that. He really struggled with reading. He's probably dyslexic. This was not the typical person who got straight A's in school.
At the same time, he is very successful in this field. He's now a product manager leading an effort at a different company. He was just telling me the last time I talked with him how he's reading this book or going through this book and watching videos on how to get better at product management. The things that he's telling me were just really great.
I said, "Well, everything that you're telling me is what our students learn in one of the courses that they take, which is basically a product management course." I'm thinking, this guy, he's just this insatiable self-learner. Because of that, he's so well rounded and so capable.
He was one of the first people that I was exposed to who was that extreme about self-learning. It was so inspiring to me and it helped me become a better self-learning. I was like, I want to be like him. I know a lot more about UX than he does and he's catching up so fast. If he can catch up fast, if other people can do this, I can do this too.
Chris: Is it putting him in the situation? Here's a non-softball question for you. If somebody is an incredible self-learner already, why do they need Center Centre then?
[Laughter] Sorry, but it would be good to know.
Dave: Whoa! Hardball!
Jessica: Dun-dun-dun! No, that's a great question. You can only get so far in UX design without real world experience. That's why a lot of hiring managers care about, can you do the work and can you show evidence that you can do the work?
I think coding is different. Now you all know more about front-end than I do, so you may disagree. I do think that coding is a little more straightforward. Yes, you need experience with coding, but it's very cut and dry. There is a lot of it that you can practice and learn on your own whereas, UX, you can only read about it so much before you actually have to do it and experience it to get that useful knowledge under your belt.
It's kind of like cooking. You can watch. If you don't know how to cook, you can watch all the cooking shows in the world. You can learn some things, but you won't really know how to cook until you get into the kitchen and until you turn on the stove and trying to saute something. You might end up finding that you burn it. [Laughter] You burned your food.
Chris: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Jessica: Okay, well, "Okay, I didn't realize that, okay, well, it turns out the smoke point of butter is really high and they didn't say that on the cooking show, so I just burnt the butter and now my food tastes weird."
UX is the same way. You really need real world experience to know how to do it, and that's one of the big reasons why we exist because, as you mentioned before, roughly two-thirds of your time is spent on real project work. By the time you graduate, you haven't just learned about the skills. You have learned how to do the skills and you can provide evidence of that learning through your portfolio.
Dave: Yeah, that's a good point. I think UX has a lot more nuance or almost a decision you made three weeks ago is now blowing up in your face or something, and you're like, "Oh, okay. Now I have to reevaluate kind of that whole cascade of assumptions I made."
Jessica: Yeah. I'm glad this came up because the guy I was talking about a little while ago, the guy who is this super driven self-learner, he was trying to do UX work before I was there. He was reading articles and doing this and doing that. He was trying, and he just wasn't getting far enough.
With me coming on, I was very senior. I was able to help him see, "Okay, what you're doing here, part of this you're doing really well. Here's another part that you could do better in order to, for example, get buy-in from the team and move this forward." He was only able to get himself so far without some sort of mentorship, some sort of way to really know how to apply it on the job.
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Dave: Can I ask kind of the inverse question? How do you spot a non-self-learner? We're speaking very fondly of self-learning and maybe some listeners are like, I don't have that gene. Is it a problem or is it maybe kind of a problem in our industry? How do you spot a non-self-learner? Then is it okay if somebody isn't, in our industry?
Jessica: Yeah, I think it's okay. I'm not going to stand up here and be like, "You must be a self-learner!" I think, if you don't have that skill, you're not going to get nearly as far in your career as if you had it, for sure, just with the examples I've just shared.
The guy I was talking about, had he not had those skills, he'd probably still be doing the graphic design that he learned how to do in school, which is fine. He just wouldn't be where he wants to be and he wouldn't have had the amazing career that he has now.
Chris: Id' say half the work I do, at least, is totally unknown territory. It's like I know what needs to be done, and I have no idea how to do it. I have to just figure it out somehow, but I'm usually not too stressed out about it because my skills, over the years, have lent themselves to, like, "Well, here we go again. I guess I'll look for some docs and see if I can read through them," but docs sometimes suck, so I'll try some trial and error.
Chris: I'll reach my network and ask for questions. I'll try to compare it to some other code. I'll try to find some examples out there.
Of course, my mind jumps to coding problems, but that's not always true. Sometimes there are other tasks that are similar in that way.
Yeah, I would say that working with me and the projects I work on, if I were hiring someone to help me with that, you can't not be a self-learner. If I found that you just had some specific thing that you knew how to do and what you wanted to do in life was just to execute that skill that you already had, you're going to be useless to me. I hate to say it.
Jessica: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah, I mean, like I was saying earlier, and I agree with everything you said, I think it really sets you apart when you're a self-learner.
Again, if any of your listeners are thinking, "Well, I don't have that skill," you can always start small and start building the muscle. Just like you would if you wanted to run a marathon, you've got to start with the first mile.
Dave: I'm just thinking about myself because I do that. I'm thinking, I feel very much like a self-learner, but I also know this industry likes to reinvent itself every six months or so.
Dave: And come up with something totally knew that we must be doing. Then you have to have an opinion on it because your client, your boss, or whoever starts asking you, like, "Hey, can we do the Parallax?"
Dave: I'm like, "Oh, no!" Yeah, I'm in the, like, I think it's going to be necessary--
Chris: Are you trying to say that it'd be cool. Maybe we should have more set skills. [Laughter]
Dave: Yeah. I don't know. I keep coming back to, like, we need budgeted time to think about these things and to continue self-learning, but I think a lot of us are stuck in sprints. You're just like 26 sprints a year. Just break my neck all year.
Chris: For years on this show we've said our little tagline. Feel free to play it, Chris Enns.
MANTRA: Just Build Websites!
Chris: It's, "Just Build Websites," which is our kind of cheesy way of answering the question, "What should I learn next?" because we get that question over and over and over and over and over.
I'm sure you're kind of obliged to have an answer to that for your students at school, so it'd be interesting to hear what you have to say about that, but also that we say it just because it's like, "I don't know what to tell you. You should learn what the project you're on dictates you learn next because that has all that real world vibe to it that's going to mimic what you need to know when you're progressing in your career and getting new jobs and all that." That's why we say that.
Jessica: Exactly. Yeah, I agree with that. One of the things I've told my students and I've told other people is what I've learned from a guy named Chris Risdon who is a prototyping expert and a UX expert here in the field. He was teaching prototyping workshops at our conferences a few years ago.
In the UX field, there are so many different prototyping tools. There are a ton of them, and there are always new ones coming out. People often would go up to him and ask him, "What prototyping tool should I learn now?" His response was always, "Well, instead of focusing on what tool you should learn next, focus on learning how to learn the tools as quickly and as effectively as you can because the tools are always going to change."
If you learn Sketch or if you learn Framer or whatever tool is really popular right now, chances are, in a year, you're going to have to learn a new tool because that tool is not going to be the tool of choice anymore. Or you might switch a job, and they use completely different tools. Or you might start a new project where the tool that you were using before just isn't a good fit for this project.
That really resonated with me. It made a ton of sense to me. Rather than spending all your energy on trying to get good at one tool, like we were saying earlier, really focusing on, "Well, how can I get better at learning?" The next time you learn a tool, maybe even taking some notes on how you learned or just being really mindful of how you learn, reflecting even. The next time you have to learn something, you will have thought about it before.
Chris: I like that.
Chris: Yeah, because maybe even the fourth time you learn something, like a wave of terror may befall you yet again.
Chris: It's like, "Oh, I don't know how to do this." At least that's what my body does, like, "Hmmm," you know. But if I was like, "Okay, I've done this three times before and, before, I had a little bit of methodology on how I got past this, maybe I'll just try to apply that same type of thinking to this new unknown."
Jessica: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah, exactly. Our students, they encounter that on their projects, so each project requires different tools, usually for different reasons. Sometimes they were doing low fidelity prototypes, so there are tools that are more suited for low fidelity prototypes. Sometimes, they had to make a certain type of prototype and hand it off to the design team, and the design team had these specific needs.
I think they use some of the same tools some of the time but, with each project, they always had to learn at least one new tool. Again, that's reality. That's kind of building upon everything I've said before. That's one of the reasons why we focus so much on self-learning when we interview our applicants and when they go through the admissions process because it's something that they're going to have to do, even here at Center Centre, and again when they graduate and go off to work.
Chris: That's a big deal, isn't it, that final push out the door? I don't know. Probably, it's somewhat unique to Center Centre because you've known them for years and so you can guide them and be like, "Remember when you did this, this, and this? Tell the world." That kind of thing.
Chris: What about more generally than that? What are you trying to--? I don't know. When these students or anybody who is looking for a new job or perhaps their first job or entering the industry, everybody wants to know this. Anybody in that position is just thirsty for knowledge on, like, how can I present myself in the best way that this is actually going to work?
Jessica: Yeah, that's a really big question. [Laughter] Yeah, there are so many ways I could answer that.
Are you saying, like if somebody just recently realized, like, "Hey, UX is what I want to do," or, "Front-end development is what I want to do"? What would I say to that person who is asking me, "How can I make myself stand out and be hirable?"
Chris: Yeah. Yeah, but I guess to go from that early stages of, "I'm going to make the leap and I want to do this thing for real," and now you kind of have because perhaps you've attended Center Centre, you've done a ton of learning on your own, or you've built up some sites you've built and that kind of thing, but you have not yet--I don't know--made it to your satisfaction in the industry because what you really want is to go work at Airbnb or something. How do you get there?
Chris: I don't know. I know that's a big question.
Dave: I want the money. I want the Chesky bucks.
Chris: That's what people want. They want to come to work at 10:00 a.m. They want free gummy worms.
Chris: And they want to wear sweatpants.
Dave: Venture capitalists.
Chris: And they want over $100,000 a year.
Jessica: [Laughter] Yeah. Oh, gees. There's so much I could say about this.
What I will say, with our students, one of the things that we do with them is, from the beginning of the two-year program, we work with them on preparing ahead of time for their job search. What we want to avoid is, it's a year and a half into the program or maybe a year and nine months into the program, and then they're like, "Oh, I've got to put a portfolio together. Oh, I've got to do a resume. Oh, I've got to think back to what I did a year ago at Center Centre, that old project. It's been a year. I can't really remember what I did, but I've got to put it on my resume, so now I've got to put on my thinking cap and get back in the time machine and try to go back and figure it out."
That's the situation that we want to avoid. That's the situation that a lot of professionals find themselves in when they're ready to look for new work where they've been in a job for two years, three years, even more, and now they have to put a portfolio together or a resume, and they can't remember what they did two months ago let alone two years ago.
We work with the students pretty early on about crafting a Career Management Document that they keep up to date. That's a document where you capture all the project work that you're doing on a regular basis. You can do it every day. You can do it once a week. I do it, and I do it once a week.
Chris: What did you call that document, again?
Jessica: The Career Management Document.
Chris: I love this.
Chris: So, you don't forget about little moments that are--
Jessica: Exactly. Mm-hmm.
Chris: Mm-hmm. Okay.
Jessica: While it's fresh in your mind and it doesn't take that long. It takes me maybe 20 to 30 minutes a week, depending on what I've done that week. What I do is I just capture notes about what I did. Photographs, so I'll take photographs of sticky notes on the wall. I often ask people here at Center Centre to take photographs of me if I'm leading a meeting or, if I'm up at the white board, I'll ask my colleagues to do that, so I save those.
I also just write up resume bullets and I put them in this long-running document. I have this Google doc that's probably 20 pages long now, but it's just a long running list of projects that I've done and potential resume bullets I could use.
Chris: Talked on ShopTalk Show.
Jessica: [Laughter] Yeah.
Chris: April 24th.
Jessica: I do. I actually put podcast interviews in there because you never know what you're going to need for your next job, right? I even help out with social media sometimes here at Center Centre, especially now that we're in between student cohorts. I put the social media work that I've done on there because I don't plan to go into social media marketing, but you never know what is going to be applicable to your next job.
That's what we tell our students is, capture everything that you do, and it's been incredibly useful for me in all sorts of ways. Even, like, I blog a lot and sometimes I want to go; I want to write about a project that I worked on six months or a year ago. I'll even go back into the Career Management Document just to refresh myself on what I did on that project so that I can write about it in the blog post.
More importantly, it's really so that you have a record of everything that you've done and that you've already done a lot of the legwork. By the time you go to apply for a new job, you're not starting from zero.
Heaven forbid you get laid off or fired from your job. That happens. I've seen good people get fired. I've seen good people get laid off. It can happen to anybody. You're going to be in a really stressful situation.
You're going to be panicking. You don't want to be in that situation, starting from scratch, and trying to put a resume together, from zero, and a portfolio where, if you've already done some of that legwork, especially if it's a stressful situation and you're scrambling to find a new job, you'll be very thankful that you did all that work.
Dave: Yeah. You don't. You don't want to be fired and then have to spend a month getting your resume, your website resume--
Dave: --back up and going and then go into work.
Dave: Yeah. Our company does this on our About page. We're only three people, so it's pretty easy to collect little facts, but then I do it on my site, too, like my About page.
Chris: I was just going to say that. Your About page is great, Dave. It's like this year-by-year horizontal scrolling kind of -- it looks like a Trello board of stuff you've done.
Dave: Stuff I've done.
Dave: All it is on the backend is just a data.yaml file or whatever, like events.yaml. It has a title, an icon, and a year. I just loop through it all.
Dave: I'm on this podcast every week, so I don't document all this, but if I'm on somebody else's podcast or I'm at a conference or if I get published in another blog or something, I'll just make a little note because it's just kind of a fun thing for me to keep track of.
Chris: Projects, it's interesting. You put some of these on here, Dave, but maybe not -- I feel like this would be twice as big if it were client projects launched.
Dave: Yeah, if it was every project, it'd be pretty big. I just try to get the big ones in there.
Dave: Just kind of the major ones.
Chris: You have a secret redacted one on January 2018.
Dave: Guess we'll never know.
Chris: I'll never know.
Dave: Guess you'll never know.
Jessica: [Laughter] Yeah, and I'm so glad that I do it for myself, and we have our students do it. It's been a tremendous help to them. One thing that I wanted to add, too, is that I think it's important when you're capturing all this evidence of your work that you want to capture evidence from each stage of the project. Some folks, especially who are new to UX design, they think that, for their portfolio, they need finished screenshots of their work and that's all that goes into the portfolio.
Jessica: There's much more that needs to go into the portfolio. Good hiring managers, they want to see; for each project in your portfolio, they want to see what was the project like, so what stages did you go through? What problems did you encounter in the project? How did overcome those problems? What technical constraints did you have? What was your timeline? What was your budget? All of those things.
They really want to see a story, so they want to see a progression of how this project started, the process that you went through, and what the end result was. It's really important, too, to capture evidence of the work as you go through the project. That could be screenshots of some prototypes that you make. It could be photos of some sketches that you made early in the process. It could even be photos of you moderating a usability test.
Anything that you think might be useful for your Career Management Document later, go ahead and capture it because the worst that could happen is -- and it doesn't take much time. Like I said, it only takes a half an hour a week or less. The worst that could happen is you capture something that you don't need later, but you don't want to be in the opposite situation where you wish--
Chris: I just think this is so great.
Jessica: You wish you would have gotten photos of you running the usability tests and now you don't have any.
Jessica: You think that would be perfect for your portfolio and now you don't have any. You just want to avoid that if you can.
Dave: That's good advice.
Chris: I'd be impressed by that photo.
Chris: I can see that -- you know, you'd be like, "Well, but that thing never really launched," or, "When it did launch, it didn't really use a lot of the stuff that we did," or whatever. I'm like, "So what. Who cares?"
Jessica: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Chris: You still did the work.
Dave: So often, especially with digital products, it's like the version you launched only existed for one day.
Dave: Then, the next day, 20 requests from marketing show up and you're just like, "Oh, boy."
Jessica: [Laughter] Yeah.
Dave: Let's take them one at a time and murder the website, but that's fine. It happens.
Jessica: [Laughter] That's a good point. Paul Boag has a great quote that I love. It's something along the lines of, "Launching a website is like planting a garden." You don't plant the garden and then just walk away for weeks at a time and expect it to flourish. You have to maintain it. You have to prune it. You have to water it. You have to keep an eye on it in case all the squirrels are eating your flowers or whatever.
A website is the same way. When you launch, that's not the end. It's just the start of the next phase of pruning the website, keeping it active, and getting requests from stakeholders who want more things on the website or want more things to change. I love that. That was a huge thing for me. I've shared that with my students as well.
Chris: I like that. There are so many good metaphors. Robin Rendle, just over on CSS-Tricks, wrote one about how a website is a car and not a book.
Chris: I think there are some people that think of a book as, you craft it so perfectly and you get all the stuff just right. Then you send it to the world and you're done.
The metaphor holds up in a way because it is a reading experience, a lot of website are. It's a lot of typography and that. To compare it to a book isn't so bad.
He's like, "No, no, it's just much more than that. All these little parts that have got to work together, that change over time, and that need to be tested," yadda-yadda-yadda.
Dave: There are recalls because some of the parts….
Dave: You have to take care of that.
Jessica: Yeah, I love this metaphor. Yeah, or like me; there's a giant puddle on the highway that you drive through and it tears apart the bottom of your car, so now you've got to fix it.
Dave: Oh, yeah.
Chris: Too soon, huh?
Jessica: Oh, I've had terrible luck with cars. I have this awful raincloud that you see in cartoons with the raincloud with the lightening that follows. That's how I am with cars.
I'm not reckless with my cars at all. I don't do donuts in the parking lot. I still -- I don't know. I drive through giant puddles and then it costs me $500 to fix them. But anyhoo -- a tangent. [Laughter]
Dave: No. No.
Jessica: I love that metaphor, though. That's great. I love -- when you first brought up the book, I thought you were going to say, "A website is not a book. It's not like something you finish and then you put it away." But you're talking more about almost like the publishing or the writing and the publishing nature of the book. Either way, I really love that metaphor. That's great.
Dave: I want to kickstart a Web design metaphor coffee table book.
Dave: It's just all of these because, for us, it's similar to the garden. Maybe if we translate British English to American English, it's exactly the same thing. We always call it mowing the lawn. It's like, well, we could do a major UX overhaul, but we've kind of got to mow the lawn first.
Jessica: Hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Dave: [Laughter] And see what's in the yard.
Dave: We just have to clean it up and then we can kind of address the fundamental….
Chris: And there's 100% chance that you're going to need to mow it again in a week.
Dave: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
Jessica: Dave, I love that idea.
Dave: But at least now you know there is a snake pit in the yard.
Dave: Or an old jungle gym or something.
Chris: Did somebody really drive by and push their old washer and dryer into my front yard? Oh, my God.
Dave: Why is there a baby stroller from the 1950s…?
Jessica: Oh, that's great. I love the idea of your coffee table book, Dave. I think you should run with that. That's awesome.
Dave: Yeah and take every metaphor to its most logical extreme. Yeah.
Chris: I hear A Book Apart is interested.
Dave: Yeah, really? Because they shut me down.
Dave: Hmm. All right. I'll get Katel on the phone.
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Chris: Okay, so do you want to tell us a little bit more about the curriculum situation at Center Centre and how you've arrived at that, how it evolves, and that type of thing?
Jessica: Sure. We always saw our curriculum as this living and evolving document because the industry evolves and changes all the time. We want our curriculum to stay current and evolve with it.
We just graduated our first class of students in October. We have not started our next class yet, so we are taking this time to take a deep dive into the curriculum and looking at what's working from the first cohort that we want to keep and what we want to evolve and adjust to keep up with the demands in the industry.
One of the things that we've heard from hiring managers, we started hearing it a lot shortly before students graduated, is that UX hiring managers want UX designers who have more visual design skills. That wasn't something that we were hearing two years prior when we were finalizing the curriculum, but it's something that we were hearing a lot when we talked with these hiring managers.
By visual design skills, these hiring managers, they weren't looking for UX designers to make logos, rebrand companies, or anything like that. They want UX designers who can work with a brand style guide, work with a design system, and put together a high fidelity, functional prototype that uses the principles of graphic design--color, type, and layout--that will hold up and adhere to the brand guidelines and everything rather than having to rely on a visual designer to do that work. There's a lot of that type of work happening now in companies, so UX hiring managers are looking for designers who have those skills.
Now, we already had visual design in our curriculum. We had one class. Dan Wahl actually came in and taught the workshop for that class. We realized that, while it gave the students a foundation, it wasn't giving them enough for what the hiring managers need now.
Now we're looking for ways to add more visual design to the curriculum and possibly another course. We are also looking -- in the future, we'll be looking for more project opportunities, more projects that give students opportunities to do more visual design work. That's just one example of how we're evolving the curriculum.
Another way, too, is that we're taking a deep dive and looking back into what more accessibility and inclusion achievements we can add into the curriculum. We believe in weaving accessibility into all of the courses because we believe that accessibility is something that needs to be considered at every stage of the project. As you all know, it's best to weave accessibility into the design from day one, all the way from day one of thinking about what the project is going to be until it launches and beyond.
We infuse accessibly into each of our courses, and we make sure that we do that instead of making it a separate thing because what you don't want to do in a project is to say, "Okay. We're three-quarters of the way through the project. Now let's stop and see how we can make it accessible." Chances are, you've done all this work already and it's probably not accessible. It's extremely hard to retrofit a design to make it accessible.
Chris: Yeah. It is sometimes the drizzle stage, right?
Chris: The pizza comes out of the oven and you're like, "I'm going to drizzle on a little accessibility and then ship out the door."
Jessica: Yeah, and if only it were that easy, right? It's very, very difficult to make something accessible in that way.
Speaking of metaphors, Nic Steenhout, he runs the accessibility rules podcast, he has a great quote. He said, "If you're going to make blueberry muffins, you can't add the blueberries to the muffins after they're baked. You have to add them in from the beginning."
The same thing with accessibility. It's really, really hard to retrofit a design and make it accessible, and it's usually very expensive and time-consuming at that point. But if you weave it in from the beginning, chances are you will have a much more accessible product. That's why we weave accessibility into each of our courses. We're taking a deep dive and looking at additional ways that we can infuse accessibility into each course.
Dave: This is right up my alley, here, just looking at my Jira board. Yeah, even component driven design and learning how to do that means, oh, you can fix accessibility issues at a component level and then roll out the new component or updated component. I think it pays.
Yeah, accessibility is another garden, right?
Dave: You can't just -- I find a lot of people just want a binary answer, like, "Is this accessible, yes or no?" You're like, "Well…" so it depends on what you mean. Can a screen reader read it? Yeah. Is it hard to understand if you're dyslexic and autistic? Maybe. Yeah, we definitely have to investigate.
Jessica: Yes. Mm-hmm.
Dave: People, they don't understand the continuous practice nature of accessibility. They just want a binary, yes or no, is it done, sort of thing. I struggle with that, but I think people need to understand it's kind of an ongoing thing.
Jessica: Yeah, and I like that you brought that up because I think there's a misconception out there that accessibility is about screen readers and making our designs work for screen readers. That's part of accessibility, but there is so much more to accessibility.
Accessibility is not just for people who have visual impairment or people who are blind who use a screen reader. You can think about people who have low literacy because the statistics are pretty astounding here in the U.S. and probably around the world where there are many people who are virtually illiterate, very low literacy, who really struggle to read.
Chris: Whoa. I don't know that much about this. This is interesting.
Jessica: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Chris: I'm following what you're saying, but I never connected low literacy with an accessibility concern.
Jessica: Yeah, so really what that affects is the content that you write for the website because if you're using jargon, if you're using really complex words where you could be using simple words instead, it's going to be very difficult for that person to understand the information that you're putting out there.
Jessica: Really, it's up to us as designers to meet the user where they're at. If the user has low literacy, it's not up to us to be like, "Well, suffer through and read this college level writing," when we could simplify the writing, open it up, and make it more accessible to that person.
By simplifying your writing, by the way, it doesn't mean dumbing down. A lot of people push back and say, "Well, I'm not going to dumb down my writing. I don't want to insult my readers who can read at a higher level."
By making your writing simple and your content simple, you're not dumbing it down. You're opening it up to more people who can read it. By simplifying the language, you're actually making it much easier to understand, even for people who have a higher reading level, because it's less cognitive processing that they have to do to understand the content.
Chris: Oh! Preach it! So great.
Jessica: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Chris: This isn't 100% connected, but a little bit in that I've had people reach out to me on CSS-Tricks and be like, "I want to write an article. Is this too beginner-y?" I say, "Absolutely not. I love beginner style articles. But I will tell you that a beginner style article, the bar is higher, still, than an advanced article."
An advanced article is fine. It's complicated. You break it into parts. You do your best explaining it, people will follow along and, hopefully, eventually, understand your complicated thing.
When you're explaining a simple thing, a foundational kind of concept, you really have to just avoid anything, too many assumptions, and just make it super, super clear.
Chris: Then when you're done, it doesn't mean that the target for that article is just only people at the exact beginner article. I've heard, and I can't remember who I'm stealing this from, but that people of all skill levels will enjoy a piece of well written beginner content because they'll nod their head along with it and appreciate the clarity that you've brought to something that is kind of near and dear to their heart. Then beginners will get it as well. Anyway, just a little aside.
Jessica: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah, I agree. Yeah, very similar. Mm-hmm.
Chris: It also reminds me of a website, which is an old website that I think is one of the greatest treasures of the Internet ever is unsuck-it.com.
Jessica: Oh, I vaguely remember this.
Jessica: Yeah. Okay, this sounds familiar. Okay.
Chris: It's just a huge list of stupid business jargon words.
Chris: Not all business, but just all kinds of -- you know, like -- I don't know. There's just a million of them, alternatives to the stupid jargon, you know, and there just must be hundreds or a thousand stupid things in here.
Chris: It's like, "Just don't use that word. Just use a clear word instead."
Chris: It really has an intense vibe to it. What were you going to say?
Jessica: Yeah, we talk about that at Center Centre. We talk about using the word. Instead of using the word "leverage," just use the word "use." Instead of using the word "utilize," just use the word "use."
Chris: There you go.
Jessica: Stuff like that. I remember working on projects where there was one project where we were redesigning a hospital's website. It was the public consumer-facing website. We found that some people struggled to know what a cardiologist was. But if we replaced the term "cardiologist" with "heart doctor," everybody knew what that was.
We had a lot of conversations. Of course, not everything is cut and dry.
Chris: That might even get me. I'd be like, "Is that the skin one?" or whatever. No? Shoot.
Jessica: [Laughter] Yeah, like the--
Dave: Radiologist? My radio is fine. It's my bones that are broken.
Chris: Yeah, and who is going to be offended? "Oh, they said heart doctor when they could have used a more complicated word." Nobody cares. Shut up. It's a heart doctor.
Jessica: [Laughter] Yeah, it's interesting you say that, Chris, because you have to balance everything with what the user needs and also the politics of the organization you're working in, the business goals, and everything.
I don't remember if we ended up with heart doctor. I think it's something that we recommended. It might have stayed cardiologist. But, you know, you do what you can to get the design through the door. You have some wins for the user and you have some losses. It is what it is.
Another interesting project, actually, was when I was working at Happy Cog and we were redesigning the Holocaust Museum's website. It's a museum dedicated to WWII and the Holocaust that is in Washington, D.C. We were doing usability testing on that.
The museum does a lot of awareness work on modern genocide, modern mass murder that happens around the world. We found that, with our users, some of them didn't understand the word "genocide," but they understood the term "mass murder." Again, that was another conversation.
I know this is a really depressing example, but it's a good example of how to simplify language. It gave us the opportunity to have a conversation with the client about what language we want to use to make sure that this information is as understandable as possible.
Chris: This is just a great example of accessibility. We were kind of talking about accessibility. Did we derail you in a way? Do you have more to say about that?
Jessica: No, this is all about accessibility. It comes in so many forms.
Also, for example, we have a presenting course here at Center Centre. One of the things that students learn in the course is, if you're giving a presentation and someone in your audience has trouble hearing, how do you make your presentation accessible to that person? Or if somebody in the audience has a visual impairment, how do you make that presentation accessible to them?
There are all sorts of things you can do, everything from little things you can do if you're presenting slides, to hiring a sign language interpreter. If there's somebody in the audience who has trouble hearing, you can make sure that you're using a microphone, number one. You can add some small text labels to your slides. You can do it in a way that just clarifies what's on the slide for everybody in the audience. It's not just helping the person who has trouble hearing.
I remember one of my students was giving a presentation. It was a practice presentation for the presenting course. She was presenting about how she likes to knit. She showed this knitted sweater. It was a picture, of this sweater that she had knitted, on the screen. It was a sweater that she had knitted for her friend's dog, but I thought it was a baby sweater. Then I was confused. [Laughter]
Then, at the end of the presentation, when we were reflecting on the presentation, she talked about, oh, that sweater for my friend's dog. I was like, "Oh, I had no idea."
Jessica: I was confused. I'm like, "I thought it was for a baby," so one of the techniques, there are lots of techniques that you can use. You can just take a moment to say, as you're going through the presentation, "I knitted this sweater for my friend's dog," or you can even have a label on there or something that says, "Dog sweater," or something like that. It makes the content more understandable for everybody and not just the person who might have a disability, like trouble hearing or trouble seeing.
Chris: Yeah. Love it.
Dave: Great. I guess we're kind of hitting towards the end of the show here. I guess, maybe one last question would be, if somebody is like, "Hey, I do want to make the move into being a front-end UX designer," any pre-Center Centre work that they can do? Is there anything you could recommend them taking on or looking at doing?
Jessica: Of course, I should say that we are accepting applications for the next cohort. If you are interested in Center Centre, please feel free to reach out to me. I'm very easy to find and contact online.
In addition to that, Center Centre aside, maybe one of the big things I would say is, just prepare yourself for having a lot to learn. There are many people who transition their careers and they do so successfully. There's just so much to learn about UX design. Just prepare yourself and be kind to yourself that it's going to take a while to really learn everything that you need to know to have a fairly solid foundation. It can take people years into their careers before they really get a solid foundation. Even then some, lots of time.
Hopefully, that makes sense. I think some people get really excited about UX design and they want to get into it. Then the more they learn about it, the more they learn they don't know and it can seem very scary. But we all had to start from somewhere. I would say, if you want to be a UX designer, just kind of prepare yourself for having a lot to learn and give yourself permission to learn and fumble and you will get there.
Chris: That's a wonderful wrapping up sentiment. Thank you, Jessica.
Dave: Yeah, thank you, Jessica. We'll do our standard wrap-up but thank you very much for coming and sharing about learning to learn. I loved the discussion, personally. For those who aren't following you and giving you money, how can they do that?
Jessica: [Laughter] I write on Medium, so feel free to follow me there. I blog there pretty regularly. I'm also very active on Twitter. I'm constantly reading UX articles and reviewing resources. I share the best of what I find on Twitter so, if you're interested in following me there, please feel free to do so. Otherwise, those are probably the two best places to find me.
Dave: Awesome. Thank you. Thank you, dear listener, for downloading this in your podcatcher of choice. I'm sure you enjoyed my sultry voice this episode.
Dave: Hopefully, it'll be better the next one. Yeah, follow us on Twitter, @ShopTalkShow, for tons of tweets a month. Star, heart, favorite it up; that's how people find out about the show.
If you hate your job, head over to ShopTalkShow.com/jobs and get a brand new one because people want to hire people like you. Chris, do you have anything else you'd like to say?
Chris: [Rolls the tongue] ShopTalkShow.com.