UX mentorship needs a redesign.
Spoiler Alert: We're not Jedi in Star Wars.
In the past years I’ve been asked to ‘be a mentor’ multiple times by different people trying to break into the UX field. That request is very flattering and humbling - people asking my advice and guidance when oftentimes I still feel like a rookie.
However, I’ve been starting to question if the way we approach UX mentorship is the right way. Today, I want to dive a little bit deeper into that.
Problem 1: The role of mentors is not clearly communicated.
UX beginners are being told everywhere they go that they should get a UX mentor. Courses and bootcamps use mentorship as one of their biggest selling points and more experienced designers in the field oftentimes thank their mentor for their successes.
It’s clear that having a mentor is a benefit, especially for those completely new in the UX field. However, we’re not really doing a great job at explaining why mentorship is beneficial and what the role of mentors is.
The result is that many new designers seem to have this perception that simply having a mentor means their careerpath will automatically become easier or that it is a job guarantee. The result? People focus so much on finding that One Perfect Mentor that they forget to figure out what they need help with. I get asked “Do you want to be my mentor?” more often than “I’m trying to figure out X, could you support me with that?” It’s hard to provide value when people don’t tell you exactly what they seek out support for.
This leads me to problem numero 2…
Problem 2: The definition of the mentor-mentee relationship is very narrow.
The understanding of the mentor-mentee relationship seems to be very narrow. I get the impression that people seeking mentorship interpret this relationship as some kind of Jedi-Padawan dynamic where one experienced and wise mentor guides a newbie on this careerpath and shares their knowledge and experience freely and generously.
This limits the chances of getting support and inspiration, because you’ll need to find that one mentor that can provide the support you’re seeking and has the time and willingness to provide this support. It also does not take into account that a fruitful mentor-mentee relationship is one where both parties profit instead of a one-way street where one person is providing charity work.
I would argue a mentor-mentee relationship needs to be a personal relationship.
You can find the value a mentor can provide in many different ways, for example:
Following thought leaders on LinkedIn, Medium and other platforms.
Seeking out collaboration with colleagues in your company.
Working on personal projects with other designers.
Participating in (online) hackathons and design jams.
Attending webinars on topics you want to learn more about.
Finding buddies in online communities on Discord, Slack etc.
Connecting with your local design community or company design community.
Some of the people I consider my ‘mentor’ are not even aware of this. I don’t officially ask people to mentor me. Instead, I seek out genuine connections and try to establish relationships that provide value to both sides. This also works the other way around: I don’t take up any requests to officially become someone’s mentor, yet if someone comes to me with a concrete ask, I will try to support them to my capabilities.
Problem 3: Everyone and their mom is a “mentor”.
Yeah, I might get hate for this, but I indeed put “mentor” in quotation marks. It’s so easy to position yourself as a mentor that even people who just got fresh out of a UX bootcamp are now offering (paid) UX mentoring services. No hate to these individuals, but it really leaves me wondering if this benefits our field. Being a mentor has become a smart way to polish your resume and in some cases a very lucrative sidehustle. If everyone is a mentor, how do you know if someone really has the experience and skills to back up their claims?
Does sharing your experience automatically make you a mentor? I think not. It’s great that people share their experience and knowledge so generously in our field - in fact, that’s one of the things I appreciate the most about the design community. People genuinely seem to care and support one another.
Mentorship is more than sharing some personal anecdotes, however. The people that I consider my mentor share a few common things:
They’ve been in the field for years, oftentimes decades.
They can share experience from different jobs, companies and industries.
They’ve been in some kind of leadership role.
They share different perspectives, not only using their own experiences but also experiences of those around them.
They don’t tell me literally how I should do things, but rather question how I would do things.
They not only support me with knowledge about methods and tools but even more so help my sharpen my soft skills like communication, stakeholder management, collaboration and navigating office politics.
Improving UX mentorship.
What can we do to make those who seek out mentorship find the support they need? How can we guarantee a certain level of quality when it comes to people offering mentorship programmes?
Here are some suggestions for those who offer mentoring:
More transparency around experience and skills for people that offer (paid) mentoring services.
More transparency around what your mentoring services mean and for who they are intended.
More transparency around pricing. How did you arrive at the prices of your services? What is it that people are paying money for?
Platforms that offer mentor services should consider rewarding industry leaders and experienced mentors for the time and expertise they invest, which could also set those mentors apart from new, less experienced mentors.
Apply critical thinking beyond your own ego. Will your mentoring services provide true value to your audience or would it just make for a nice checkbox on your resume?
Here are some suggestions for those who seek out mentoring:
Before you try to find a mentor, invest some time in figuring out what exactly you need support with.
Do you research! Just because someone calls themselves a mentor, does not mean they actually are a good mentor.
Paying money for mentoring services is not a quality guarantee. A lot of support is available for free. Your company or school might offer mentoring programmes, your colleague might be interested in mentoring you or you could connect with your local design scene to meet potential mentors.
Be open minded: you can find support everywhere and in every form. Just because you don’t have a personal relationship with someone, does not mean you can not learn from them!
Let me know what you think!
I’m very curious to hear opinions from both mentees as well as mentors on this topic. What’s your experience with UX mentorship? Do you think there’s room for improvement? If so - what would you suggest?
As always, the comments and my mailbox are open. Looking forward to your message!
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