Week 1: Learning UX Design at Academy Xi – Trust the Process?

Day 1: 04/02/19

The moment had finally arrived. My first day as a User Experience Design (UXD) student at Academy Xi. Time to get “unstuck”, start fresh and find the job of my dreams. No pressure though!

I don’t know what made me more nervous. Meeting a bunch of random strangers (many of whom were likely to be way younger than me). Or finding out that UX design didn’t actually “spark joy” in me … and that I’d just blown $12K.

After successfully negotiating the special kind of hell that is Town Hall Station, I found my way to the Academy Xi campus. Early as usual, because that’s how I roll.

A quick pic out the front to mark the moment, a couple of deep breaths and … onwards!

Academy Xi in Druitt St Sydney
Academy Xi – Druitt St, Sydney


Being one of the first few to arrive, I met my first classmate, Hilbert. He seemed to be around the same age as me and we hit it off straight away. Phew!

Once everyone arrived, the staff at Academy Xi introduced themselves before directing us to our classroom – a modern space complete with freshly laid fake grass flooring. Sure, it looks cool. But vacuuming that stuff must be a nightmare.

Anyway … our teacher, Rob Williams, gave us an introduction to the course and what to expect. Rob’s knowledge and passion for UX design were intoxicating. Not only that, he’s a good human who clearly wants us to succeed.

According to Rob there are no “dick wickets” in UX design. And if most people in UX are anything like Rob, he may well be right. By the way, “dick wicket” is my new favourite saying.

Rob Williams. Head of UX design at Academy Xi.
Rob Williams. Head of UX at Academy Xi and a really good dude.

Can you even sketch, bro?

Our first task was to draw a sketch on a post-it note of the person sitting next to us – yeah, awkward much? Then we spent 10 minutes learning about that person (including their spirit animal) and presented our findings to the class.

Although my sketch of Hilbert was passable, my drawing skills need work! Hilbert, a seasoned graphic designer, apologised for making me “look like a villain”. I forgot to take pictures of our sketches. Note to self: take more pics!

In case you’re wondering, my spirit animal was a lone wolf. Because that’s how I’ve felt over the last few years running my own business.

Insight: This exercise is valuable in learning how to conduct user interviews and build personas.

Group design challenge

Next, we split up into groups of four people for a 10 minute design challenge. We had to build the highest tower that could support a marshmallow on top using only:

  • 20 pieces of spaghetti
  • 1 length of string
  • 1 length of sticky tape
  • 1 marshmallow

Spoiler alert. Our group won!

Insight: speed fuels creativity.

Leaning tower of pasta.
Winner! The leaning tower of pasta.

Another group task

Guess what? UXers love a group task (and post-it notes!). In this task, we had to come up with a list of things that are important to us … and how we wanted our class experience to be. Lots of positive vibes all round.

Unifying message: Don’t be a dick!

What is UX?

Before starting the course, I’d done a fair bit of reading on the definition of User Experience Design. One thing’s for sure, the question “What is UX?” stirs up a lot of debate among designers.

Ask 10 designers “What is UX design” and you’ll get 10 different answers. Some even suggest that UX is dead. It reminds of one of life’s other great debates “What is punk rock?”. But I’m not going there now.

Anyway, we paired off with the task of defining UX design (in layman’s terms). Hilbert and I came up with something like this:

UX design is the process of connecting business goals with user needs.

It’s not wrong. And neither were any of the other definitions we heard. But Rob’s definition of UX design really resonated with me:

User Experience Design is the process of designing satisfaction by improving the customer's experience when interacting with the product.
My favourite definition of UX design so far.

The process of designing satisfaction. Hot damn! πŸ”₯ Much better, don’t you think?

Of course, once I posted this slide to Instagram, someone made the comment “Not limited to customer” – which is true, but illustrates the debate that exists among designers.

We spent the rest of the afternoon discussing examples of Good UX and Bad UX. And to my delight, someone suggested Town Hall station as an example of bad UX. Seems like we’re all on the same page with that one.

Other insights from Day 1

  • My classmates are all super friendly with diverse backgrounds
  • UX is a growing industry with lots of opportunities
  • The staff at Academy Xi care a lot
  • UX without research is not UX
  • I’m well and truly out of my comfort zone
  • I think I’ve made the right decision

Day 2: 05/02/19

Everyone is a lot more relaxed today. The ice has broken and the nerves have settled. We start the day with a recap of yesterday before digging into the theory side of design thinking.

Here’s a quick run down:

Design thinking

A fancy term that takes 3 main things into account when designing a product:

  1. Will people want it? (desirability)
  2. Can we make it happen? (feasibility)
  3. Is it good for business? (viability)

That’s the vibe of it.

The process of design

The UX process starts with uncertainty at the beginning and clarity at the end. The key, according to our teacher Rob, is to “trust the process”.

The UX design process

The UX design process.

UX research

The UX process starts with empathy and research – so that we don’t build the wrong usable thing. That’s why UX without research is not UX.

How to make toast

After our theory session, it was time for a practical exercise.

If you ask people to draw the process of making toast (without words), they intuitively know how to deconstruct the process into bite size chunks (usually 5-13). It’s a simple way to get people thinking visually before tackling more difficult problems.

Watch the TED talk by Tom Wujec on Youtube.

How to make toast
I need to work on my drawing skills. Plus, I forgot the butter and Vegemite.

5 UX design principles

We spend the next session learning about UX design principles including:

  1. Useful: Does it solve a problem?
  2. Usable: Is it easy to use an interact with?
  3. Learnable: Does it require little need for guidance?
  4. Aesthetic: Does it accurately reflect your brand?
  5. Emotional: How should the customer feel?

Makes sense, right?

UX design specialties

Did you know that UX design is more than one job? We spent some time delving into the different UX specialities: UX Researcher, Information Architect, Interaction Designer, Usability Tester and Visual design. Yep, there are lots of different roles.

Being a UX Researcher seems like a natural fit for me. But I still don’t know which path I’ll take. I’m keeping my options open.

We also explored the differences among UI (User Interface), UX (User Experience), CX (Customer Experience) and SD (Service Design). Way too much info to cover here.

But one thing is clear: UX is a growing industry, with increasing demand and many different niches and career pathways.

I’m looking forward to exploring the options.

What’s the problem?

The final exercise of the day involved revisiting the examples of Bad UX from yesterday. We split into groups to work on a problem. Ours was related to my.gov.au (a website nightmare for many people).

This is where we’re introduced to Problem Statements, which involves identifying:

  • user roles and their activities
  • reasons for their activities
  • steps they may take
  • obstacles they may encounter
  • negative feelings they may encounter

We then used a process known as “5 W’s and an H” (why, what, who, when, where and how) to validate and clarify the problem with a “Concept Card”.

This all sounds reasonable in theory. But in practice, it was difficult. It didn’t feel like we quite nailed it. And to make matters worse, we had to present it to the class straight away.

I would have preferred to run through the process in detail with a fully worked example, so we could better understand what the hell we were supposed to be doing. For the first time, I’m starting to question whether this whole UX thing is for me.

Coming from a rigorous scientific background, this exercise feels very “quick and dirty”. But maybe it’s just the “uncertainty” at the beginning of the process? Perhaps the path to clarity is just around the corner?

Post-it Notes and Problem Statements

Day 3: 06/02/19

Good news?

Today, we meet up at a cafe in Surry Hills before our first client project. Yes, it’s only Day 3 and we’re already being let loose with a real life client. And it’s a big one. Talk about being thrown in the deep end … complete with concrete shoes and a straightjacket!

Who’s the client? I don’t even want to say. We signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). So I’ll be making reference to “The Client” from here on in.

Anyway, The Client has a particular digital platform that they want us to work on. We’re split into groups of four. Our first task is to identify and choose a specific User Role and come up with a Problem Statement.

Again, this feels ambiguous and rushed. This is a major media organisation. Surely there are actual user roles and problems that have already been uncovered?

Nevertheless, I run with it. Trust the process, right? With a flurry of post notes, we hastily identify our hypothetical User Role and Problem Statement. Next thing we’re being quickly ushered out of the building due to a double booking. I’m struggling to process what just went down πŸ‘‡.


Outcomes Program (aka getting a job!)

After lunch, we’re joined by Leyda from the Academy Xi Outcomes Program. To put it simply … Leyda’s job is to help us get a job. And she’s very serious about it!

Leyda explains that she’s already scouting job opportunities for us. Not only that, there are expert consultants who are coming in to tune up our CVs and LinkedIn profiles so that they’re “mint” πŸ™Œ.

I’m beginning to see why Academy Xi is so confident about getting us jobs. It’s nice to know that they’re already hustling behind the scenes. It feels like they’ve got our back.

But first, we need to get a LinkedIn profile. This is where I regret deleting mine in a fit of rage a couple of years ago (their email alerts were out of control).

UX research

We spent the afternoon being introduced to research. Because as we learned on Day 1: UX without research is not UX!

Having spent the best part of 15 years as a scientist, I’m all over it. My previous experience has involved lots of quantitative research i.e. measuring things (like populations of fish).

But I’ve also done a bit of qualitative research, too i.e. describing things (like surveys of recreational fishers … and customer surveys back when I owned a retail store).

I’m enjoying being back in my comfort zone after the events of this morning.

Winona Forever!

We also learned how to conduct user interviews. Tomorrow, we’re going back to The Client in Surry Hills to do real life interviews – allegedly with actual users of the platform.

Practising interviews in class was a fun exercise. We learned more about our classmates on topics ranging from travel, keeping animals in zoos, and their disdain for Stranger Things and Winona Ryder. Sorry Nate Bamback, as Johnny Depp once proclaimed “WINONA FOREVER”.


Day 4: 07/02/19

Bad news!

Our teacher, Rob, is sick with the flu and won’t be coming in today. Oh no! We’re supposed to be doing user interviews for The Client this afternoon. To quote Han Solo: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”.

After a pretty painful morning coming up with our interview questions, we soon found ourselves sitting in front of real people … and trying to extract insights in relation to our hypothetical Problem Statement.

Our group of four split into pairs and we each took turns being an interviewer and scribe. Despite our users not being well matched to the Problem Statement, we managed to keep two of the four interviews going for over 40 minutes.

While there were some good insights, I can’t help feel this whole exercise was a missed opportunity to solve more pressing problems. But the reality is … things don’t always go to plan. Sometimes you’ve just got to do your best and treat it as a learning opportunity.

Day 5: 08/02/19

More bad news…

Rob is still very ill and won’t be teaching today. I’ve also hit rock bottom. I stayed up way too late last night transcribing the recording of my user interview. I’m tired, cranky and over it!

The way in which we’re launching into the process with minimal preparation doesn’t sit well with me. But maybe it’s “designed” to be this way?

The concept of Ready, Fire, Aim comes to mind. That is, to reach a goal quickly you need to take action first, make any necessary adjustments and correct for any mistakes later on.

How to “facilitate”

We start the day with a “Facilitation Workshop” by Rich Brophy from Tricky Jigsaw – which was a workshop … on how to facilitate a workshop. So meta!

First, we had to form a human production line where we each pretended to be a cog in a machine that made shoes. Yes, it was as ridiculous as it sounds. But it’s an effective way to kill egos and get everyone on the same page.

Rich then took as through the fundamentals of how to facilitate a workshop that actually leads to valuable outcomes. Basically, it’s a “single diamond” process of defining the purpose, diverging (going wide), converging (sharpening the focus) and getting to an outcome.

I’ve sat through more than a few boring workshops in my time. But this one was far from it! The tools and techniques that we learned today will prove invaluable no matter where we end up in our careers.

Office Space meme about boring workshops.
No more boring workshops on our watch!

And the survey says …

Even though Rob was away sick, we watched a video of him explaining survey methodologies. Generally, one would do a survey before conducting user interviews (to gain insights and design better interview questions). But, for some reason we’re doing it the other way around. Oh well …

We only had about an hour to sign-up for the survey platform (Survey Monkey), learn how to use it … and design 10 survey questions. I enjoyed this part of the process, as I’ve used similar tools in the past. But since the surveys had to be sent out that afternoon, I don’t think we had enough time to do it real justice.

Friday beers

It’s been a tough week. Time to relax with a few beers and pizza courtesy of Academy Xi. Not so fast! Just when we think we’re off the hook, we’re paired up again to do one last exercise.

We draw sketches of each other, find out a few fun facts and then present to the group (which also included the class doing the Service Design Transform). It turned out to be a lot of fun. Finally, we indulged in some well earned drinks and reflected on the week that was.

I haven’t had this level of social interaction in a long time. I feel exhausted. But I’m also buzzing as I make my way back to Town Hall. Despite some moments of doubt throughout the week, I’m so glad that I’m doing this course. The people are awesome – friendly, supportive and with a shared interest in solving problems through design.

At the start of the week, I said my spirit animal was a lone wolf. But with UX design, it’s starting to feel like I’ve finally found my wolfpack.

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