Learn UX Design—Q+A With Maria Jennings

Hey! You’ve reached Will, Admissions Manager here at Designlab 👋 I spend a lot of my time on calls with you all talking through career options and what it’s li…

Will Anderson
Will Anderson
Apr 18, 2019
Min Read

Hey! You’ve reached Will, Admissions Manager here at Designlab 👋

I spend a lot of my time on calls with you all talking through career options and what it’s like to strike out on a new path and begin learning UX design.

So to offer some extra insight, during our recent company retreat outside Salt Lake City, Utah, we hosted a webinar with UX Academy graduate Maria Jennings about her experience as a Designlab student!  

Maria now works at Designlab as a UX Writer—a position that applies the design thinking skills learned in UX Academy to the creation of product copy. She came from a completely non-design background, so Designlab courses were her first introduction to design of any kind.

We chatted about what it’s like working with a mentor, how she managed the coursework while working, and what the job search process was really like.

Read on for video of my conversation with Maria! We’ve included text summaries, as well as answering some of the extra questions you submitted that we didn’t get a chance to answer during the Q&A.

Why Designlab?

AKA: Why Designlab and not the other guys?

To watch, skip to 39'30"

(Will) When I discuss this with students, I always try to break it down into three things:

Company Feel: This is entirely subjective, so it really comes down to how you feel. When I first learned about Designlab through Karen Cheng’s blog, I had never heard of it before. I have a background in recruiting, so I’d heard about some other competitors, but Designlab was a new name. Even though I’d never heard of it before, I honestly just felt a little bit more comfortable with it. It felt like a start-up to me, and it felt a little bit more warm and personal than other companies. That’s what I always intend to do when I talk to people on the phone, and that's kind of what our company is about. That was something that I picked up on at the beginning that drew me to Designlab.

Now, some people might want more of something that might feel like a little bit of a different experience—I’ll call it like more of an enterprise experience, or a big company experience. And that’s okay too! I think they're just different kinds of settings for different people. So, that’s the first thing—entirely subjective.

Portfolios: Because the curriculum focuses on everything in the product design process, it doesn’t limit you, which is really important because your first role will likely be a junior, more generalist type of role. So you’re gonna be doing a little bit of everything, and that makes our students’ portfolios really strong.

We also encourage students to customize their capstones, and allow students the freedom to pick which projects they’re going to work on, so our students never have to do a certain set of capstones. This is really important because portfolio replication is a big problem in the industry.

Mentorship: I think our mentor community is really strong. The fact that we have people like Maria’s mentor, Alan, who are going to ask you a million questions and really push you and is gonna make you be the best designer you can be. You want to have someone who can really be a good coach to you, and not just someone who is going to be nice with all of their feedback.

Does your curriculum differentiate between learning UX and UI, or is it a combination of both?

UX Academy covers the end-to-end product design process, which includes UI (user interface) design. 

UX design refers to the entire user experience of a product: everything from discovery and market research through prototyping and usability testing. UI design—designing the user interface of digital products—is one big, really important aspect of user experience. UI design focuses on how a screen looks to a user: the layout, color, typography and interactions between an interface and its user.

Because building an effective and intuitive user interface is so important to a product’s UX, some companies—especially larger, established companies with multiple design teams—will hire for dedicated UI design roles. After completing UX Academy, you’ll be prepared to apply for general UX, UX/UI, and product design roles.

Confused about all the different UX design job titles? Check out this blog post!

UX Academy Admissions

How long does it take to get enrolled after applying?

We try to get back to people within 1 week of applying, although if we’re coming up on a cohort that’s about to launch then we’ll do our best to process within a few days. 

How large are cohorts and how soon do they fill up?

The size of our cohorts depends on the capacity of our team of expert mentors. We try to keep our UX Academy cohorts small to make sure each student can be matched with a mentor who fits their career interests and learning style.

Recently, our cohorts have begun to fill up earlier and earlier. We suggest applying early, and, if you’re accepted, putting down your despot quickly in order to avoid losing your spot. Remember you can enroll for a cohort up to 2 months in advance!

Getting a Job

What is Career Services like?

To watch, skip to 21'55"

(Maria) So after I passed my portfolio review, I entered the Career Services portion of the curriculum. Instead of working with your mentor, you have a Career Coach who is laser-focused on helping you land your first product design job. My coach helped me figure out what I should include in my cover letter, what my resume should look like, and how to keep track of all the jobs I was applying for. She also made sure I was keeping my design skills sharp while I was applying, and gave me additional feedback on my design work.

What is the interview process for design jobs?

To watch, skip to 23'00"

(Maria) Since my background is in marketing, I had never interviewed for a design job before. I was used to interviews being focused on broad, behavioral questions, like, “tell us about your last job”, and “what’s your greatest weakness?”. 

Going into a design interview, your interviewer has already seen your design portfolio, so they know a lot about you already. This opens the door for a lot more specific questions about your work, and design style. You should be prepared to answer a lot of specific questions about your designs, and be able to defend all the design decisions you’ve made, like which features you’ve decided to include, and why you chose specific colors and type.

There’s also usually a design challenge so that the interviewer can assess your design skills on a new project. This can be a take-home challenge or a onsite whiteboard challenge. For example, I was asked to design some mid-fidelity wireframes for a mobile game, and explain my reasoning behind each screen. A friend of mine was asked how she would re-design an app to book conference rooms at a coworking space. 

The challenges are meant to stretch you creatively, but they’re also pretty easy to prepare for. There’s a lot of example challenges you can find online, and your career coach can give you some too.

What’s your biggest tip for the job search?

To watch, skip to 25'40"

(Maria) Apply for everything! When you look at job postings, you’ll often see that a company wants 2 years of experience, or 3 years, or 5... I think it’s important to remember that those requirements are really a wishlist that the employer provides: that’s their ideal candidate, but that doesn’t mean you need to tick off all the boxes to get your foot in the door.

I think especially in tech, companies care less about your years of experience and much more about your ability to produce the work they’re looking for, and the kinds of skills you bring to the table. 

We recently had a UX Academy grad who landed a position at National Geographic that asked for 5 years of experience, which she just did not have. But she was able to demonstrate that she had the design chops to do the work, and they hired her!

How do you leverage your past experience in a different field to get a design job?

To watch, skip to 27'40"

(Will) It really comes down to the narrative you tell about yourself: why did you decide to study design, and what about your past experience do you bring to the table? Sometimes it might be a pretty natural transition: if you worked as a graphic designer for ten years, moving into product design is a pretty natural next step, and you’ve already learned a lot of the visual design skills.

If you’ve been working in something like marketing, you can focus on empathizing with a customer base to figure out how to market a product. Focus on how you showcase a product, or how you construct a product, even if it something as simple as a brochure, you’ve worked on figuring how products match a market, and how to push a product that is meaningful.

Even if you’ve been working as a pharmacist, for example, you can find ways to connect it to product design. It’s technically complicated, complex work, and there has to be a process in place to make sure people get the right medicine. You can connect this to the product design process, and even explore opportunities in the biotech field.

Just because you’re switching careers does not mean all your previous work experience just goes away—feel confident in leveraging your previous work experience in design interviews.

How long does it take on average for graduates of UXA to get a job?

To watch, skip to 32'30"

(Will) It depends on the market. In cities like New York and San Francisco, the market is very, very big, and even though there’s more openings, there’s also a lot more competition.

You might be looking at about 4-6 months of job searching to find a position in these cities. And there’s always things you can do to accelerate this—attend networking events, keep your design skills sharp, and figure out how to pitch yourself in interviews.

What should be the salary expectations of UX Academy graduates?

To watch, skip to 45'45"

(Will) When we look at all of the markets that we see our students going into, the average salary lands at about $70,000. That’s about what you can expect in cities like Chicago, Denver, and Austin. If you’re in New York or San Francisco, you’ll probably see salaries that are a bit higher, up to $80,000 or $90,000. If you’re in a much smaller market, like Lexington or Durham, a salary might dip into the $60,000 range.

How does Designlab prepare you for product design interviews?

To watch, skip to 18'00"

(Maria) So every mentor is a little different, but my mentor had me do mock interviews in almost every session during Phase 2. He’d give me a heads up the session before, and tell me to be ready to answer a bunch of questions after presenting my work to him. Or he’d surprise me, and interrupt me during my presentation with questions. This was a great way to learn how to interview with different kinds of people. I learned how to defend my design decisions, and make sure I felt confident going into interviews.

He also went through my portfolio really thoroughly, and helped me figure out what was working and what needed to be improved. He helped me add in more visual elements, and make sure my explanations were focused and effective. 


What was it like to create your portfolio?

To watch, skip to 19'25"

(Maria) The second half of UX Academy is entirely devoted to the three capstone projects that lay the foundation for your design portfolio. It’s your chance to synthesize everything you’ve learned so far in the course and turn it into an end-to-end project. 

If possible, I recommend trying to work with real companies or local businesses for your capstone projects. You can redesign the website of a local coffee shop, or maybe create a mobile e-commerce site for your favorite clothing store. These kinds of things set your portfolios apart a little more, and it shows that you know how to work with clients and stakeholders, which will come up a lot in design interviews.

Keep in mind that your portfolio is the first thing a potential employer will look at, so it’s absolutely worth taking your time to make sure everything in there is as polished as possible.

Does UXA have any front-end dev training?

The curriculum does not include any programming. The huge majority of UX Academy grads land positions as UX designers without any coding knowledge. The role of a product designer is to research, validate, design, and test ideas. Designers work with engineers to turn designs into code.

Do I need a Mac?

You can complete UX Academy coursework on any kind of computer. Sketch, one of the design tools we recommend, requires a Mac, and you need to buy a license—but you can get 50% off via our Perks page. 

But you can also design with Figma, a free, browser-based design tool that works on any computer. Check out our free email course on getting started in Figma!

Day-to-Day Life in the Course

What was the day-to-day life in the course? How did you set a schedule your time?

To watch, skip to 10'30"

(Maria) I took the course full-time while also working part-time. I was working during the day and then doing all of my UX Academy work in the evening. It was really important to figure out a time management system.

I think one of the biggest selling points of UX Academy is the flexibility in when you complete coursework. But I highly recommend setting a schedule for yourself so you don’t fall behind. If you do your UX Academy coursework every evening from 5-9, consider that time as booked as if you had to attend an in-person class where someone is taking attendance. 

Designlab provides time estimates for every project and assignment, so I started each week by going through the next unit in the course and mapping out what days I would do each assignment based on the time estimates. And, of course, make sure that you’ve accomplished all of your work before your mentor sessions!


What was it like working with your mentor?

To watch, skip to 13'45"

(Maria) I loved working with my mentor, Alan. Because I was on the full-time track, we met twice a week. In every session, we’d go over the most recent work that I’d done. This might be wireframes, a color palette, research, or a writing assignment. And he would give me feedback on my work and make sure that I was on the right track. Because we met so often, he was able to tell me if he thought a project was going off-track, so I would be able to course correct before investing too much time in something that might not be working. 

Because mentors are working design professionals, this was also a great opportunity to get any of my design industry questions answered. Unlike a professor who has been teaching for 10 or 20 or 30 years, mentors are still working designers. Alan was able to give me a lot of insight into when I should start applying for jobs, what skills I should focus more on, and what to expect in a typical design interview. 

How do students communicate with mentors?

Students communicate with their mentors in a couple different ways. Depending on if a student is on the part-time or full-time track, they’ll meet with their mentor over video chat once or twice a week. These sessions are a great time to get specific questions answered, help on design tools, and in-depth feedback on your work so far. This is also a great chance to come prepared with questions about hiring practices, common interview questions, and any extras you can do to set your work apart.

In between sessions, your mentor will also provide feedback on your work through the Designlab platform. After your upload a design, mentors will leave feedback on specific elements of each deliverable: what works, what can be improved, and any ideas they have to push your designs to the next level. Mentors will have to approve all of your deliverables before you can advance to the next unit.

How are students and mentors matched?

Before your course begins, you’ll fill out a pre-course survey so we can collect more information on your background and what your career goals are for after UX Academy. Based on this information and your location (we match students with mentors in similar time zones), we’ll pair you up with someone who will be a good fit.

How are UX Academy mentors vetted? Where do they work?

To watch, skip to 43'40"

(Will) Any designer interested in becoming a UX Academy mentor must first mentor in our month-long courses for at least six months before applying to mentor for UX Academy. We do this to make sure mentors know how to successfully guide students, and to ensure that they’re well-versed in accurately teaching the principles of product design. So as a student, you’re guaranteed to have a mentor who has a proven track record of success with students.

We really have world-class mentors. To name just a few examples, we’ve got people like Lauren Connolly, who used to work at Yelp and now works at Spotify, we’ve got Sebastian Rias, a senior designer at Squarespace, Michael Brooks Jr., who is the Chief Product Officer of his own company. So we have a wealth of experienced mentors working in all sorts of product design roles across the industry, and we do our best to match students with mentors who match their career interests.

Ready to take the next step and enroll in UX Academy? Start your application today, or schedule a call with Will! Find out more

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Launch a career in ux design with our top-rated program

Top Designers Use Data.

Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.