Despite specific programs and corporate promises, designers are not getting the training they need. Here are some of the issues behind it and some considerations on we can do it better.
In a landscape of rapid growth, where there is more demand for designers than there has ever been before, the industry needs to find a balance between extracting from designers and investing in them. It is this flow that is essential to minimise the industry’s growing pains and make sure we have a healthy distribution of experience and competency.
From the designer’s perspective, trying to figure out which way you should proceed in your career can be daunting. There are so many options and often to pursue them means taking a risk and changing jobs.
There is an opportunity here for a win-win outcome. I believe we need a standardised professional development framework that is created for designers, by designers, with designers.
Currently, professional development is controlled by all too often, non-designer managers. It is dictated by the needs of the company and rarely looks at the needs of the designer in any meaningful sense. Perhaps to a superficial degree with token considerations but generally they are prioritised last. It is filled with vanishing budgets, non-relevant training and overall corporate oppression of the designer’s identity.
Despite the clinical name, professional development is important. I would prefer to use the more generic term Growing as a Designer, but I want to refer to a specific lineage of thought.
As humans, we tend to change over time. Some call this experience, some call it maturity. The more we experience life, the more experience we have. The same goes for our professional lives. If we don’t grow, then we stagnate, go stale, and stop contributing meaningfully as designers. We stop contributing to our full potential and let opportunities go wasted. As designers, we have made a promise to society that we will make it a better place, filled with better experiences. As employees, we have made a promise to help the company achieve its purpose, and as colleagues, we have made a promise to support and inspire. Developing as designers is crucial to delivering on these promises, and if we don’t try, then we may as well just give up.
As design leaders and DesignOps practitioners, it is our responsibility to ensure our designers are growing in ways that are mutually beneficial for them, the team and the organisation. We have a unique voice amongst all parties, the one that represents the designers and their needs. It is our responsibility to balance out managements business centric perspectives and hold some kind of relevance to the training industry’s profit-driven offerings. We are the only ones that can ensure our designers get the right training at the right time.
It is hard to find much information on how to create an intentional internal UX learning program within your design org. Clearleft has made a start on a framework and Airbnb have a great article on how they do it, however, there isn’t much out there (that is easy to find). If you have any input then please let me know.
From my personal experience and from that of other designers I have talked to, most design organisations don’t have an intentional continuous learning program. The large companies with big budgets will perhaps have them, but let’s face it, most people don’t work for Airbnb.
I personally believe that the broader UX industry needs a bit of a wake-up call when it comes to supporting our designers’ professional development. It’s not that we need to be overly prescriptive with how we do continuous learning, it’s more that we need to take a step up and take ownership of it. Too many designers are having their learning undercut by corporate values and are left wanting. So what can we do to normalise internal learning programs?
For starters, we could discuss what a successful learning program could look like. Some considerations I propose are:
- Financing should be clearly communicated (if not a part of the contract), consistent and openly talked about.
- Signing up for training should be systematised and planned long in advance, not just last minute or only on the designer’s initiative.
- Organisations should take into account post-training learning, where the designer actually gets to practice and put to use what they have learnt
- Designers should have a range of learning opportunities available to them, from courses to conferences. This should be a balanced mixture of design-specific training and industry-specific training.
- Different designers have different needs and therefore should have the appropriate level of training accessible to them.
- Can you think of any others?
We cannot however sit around and wait for the world’s problems to solve themselves, so until then, here are some things you could consider doing on your own.
- Demand clarity on what is available to you regarding different training and budgets. If management gives you a vague answer then be clear with them about what your expectations are. Persistency is key. If you still don’t get anywhere then try to get it into your contract.
- Talk with your colleagues or other designers you know. See what kind of training they are getting or want to do. This should help you form what you should expect.
- Think beyond conferences. Conferences can be cool, fun and social, but they are also passive and limited in what they can teach you. Look for more in-depth, design-specific courses and training.
- Think about how you can knowledge share within your organisation. Can you start a Community of Practice or regular design deep dive sessions?
- Find a colleague who has a skill set that complements yours and ask to work with them. Rotating between different colleagues will give you the most diverse exposure. Even if you are very senior, there is always something to be learned even from junior designers and their fresh eyes.
- Be clear with yourself, your colleagues and management about how you want to grow as a designer. Would you like to specialise in something? would you like exposure to many things? would you like to get into operations? Once you know what you want to do, you can plan how you will get there.
- When you do learn something, make sure to put it to practice and integrate it into your way of working. You will need to be clear to management about what it is you have learned and you will need to help them identify how you might be able to work with it. For example, if you took a design sprint course, can you run a design sprint?
- Communicate with all your designers to understand what their individual needs and desires are regarding how they want to develop professionally. You could do a competency mapping exercise to get a sense of where they sit currently. You could document this in a competency matrix.
- Try to pair different designers together who have different skill sets and ways of seeing the world. This will boost the cross-pollination of skills throughout your organisation.
- Clearly frame the case for investing in professional development for designers. Put together a strategy that you can take to the budget holders and use it as a backbone to steer the discussion. You want to be the one controlling the narrative and helping your stakeholders make the right decisions
- Set up a regular UX day where the entire UX department can come together and focus on collectively getting better at one particular thing. You can alternate the themes each time and tailor them to what you think the organisation needs right now.
- Set up a list of potential training that designers can sign up for and give everyone lots of time to plan and make sure they have the time available to do it.
- Make sure your designers get a fair amount of education about your company’s specific domain, i.e. for a bank they need to learn about finance etc.
- Try to circumnavigate the conference trap, where lazy or unprepared designers may choose to go to a conference as they see it as a holiday, prestigious event, or passive work. Don’t get me wrong, conferences are great but make sure it is really what the designer needs. Sometimes a more intensive course would be a better fit, but the designer has low confidence or simply cannot be bothered.
- Try to look at what other design organisations are doing and see if there is anything you can learn.
- Try to measure the success of your system to inform improvements. You can use the skills matrix to analyse how people are progressing and compare this with your desired outcomes. Are those paper bag inspiration lunches really working? You will never know unless you keep track of your progress.
Professional development is one of those subjects that make a lot of people feel anxious, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I have given some of my thoughts on the matter, I would love to hear what other considerations you may have. Hopefully, with a robust discussion and a whole heap of persistence, we can keep designers growing in clear and consistent ways.