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How is it going? An update on Center Centre’s First Cohort

By Leslie Jensen-Inman

How is it going? An update on Center Centre’s First Cohort

After the holidays, a message appeared on my phone: “They all came back.” Each of our students in Center Centre’s first cohort had returned from winter break.

Frankly, I was confident they would, but there was always that thought in the back of my mind: What if they don’t? After all, most universities lose a substantial number of students in the freshman year, with some losing as many as 20% during winter break. Many of their students realize they aren’t enjoying the program or getting what they wanted out of it. They decide to call it quits.

We only have six students in this cohort. Losing even one would’ve been a disappointment to us. Fortunately, they all returned, ready to pick up right where they left off. Yay!

As soon as the students returned from winter break, they started on the information architecture challenges in their project design. Before they’d left for the break, we’d introduced them to information architecture. We brought Abby Covert, author of How to Make Sense of Any Mess, to the school to deliver a fantastic workshop. She taught the students about navigation, taxonomies, and ontologies. Now they were diving in and working on their own taxonomies and navigation challenges.

Term 1 Courses: UX Design Fundamentals

The Information Architecture course was students’ third Center Centre course. Our students will take 30 of these three-week courses during their two years in the program.

Each course starts with an industry expert delivering an in-depth, hands-on workshop to introduce the concepts. Cohort 1 students started in October 2016, with a workshop I led for Introduction to UX. In that course, students learned simple paper prototyping, the iterative process, and took apart everyday applications and websites to learn about the different components that make up a user experience.

Students are learned sketching and prototyping skills through experience mapping and storytelling from Chris Risdon. Students learning sketching and prototyping skills through experience mapping and storytelling from Chris Risdon.

In November, Adaptive Path’s Capital One’s Chris Risdon came to the school and kicked off their second course, Sketching and Prototyping. Chris taught the students a simple visual language for sketching ideas and explored various methods for creating interactive prototypes. Our students quickly saw why having a working rendition of their ideas to show stakeholders and test with users was beneficial.

That brought us to December when Abby Covert blew students’ minds with her information architecture workshop. For most of them, this was their first exposure to IA’s central tenets of order and clarity. Abby got them thinking about the meaning behind a design’s words, and how those words help users realize their goals with a website or application.

The students then took their User Research Practices course, which was kicked off by the Center for Civic Design’s Dana Chisnell, author of the Handbook of Usability Testing. Dana taught our students that research starts with observations where one derives inferences, which will eventually lead to design decisions to improve the design. She covered the details of executing a user research study, from participant recruitment to session moderation, and through synthesizing the results to uncover insights about the users and how they used the design.

Three weeks ago, the students met A.I.R. Lab’s Seun Erinle to take a deep dive into Front-End Development. Seun taught the basics of HTML, CSS, and Javascript. We believe that every designer benefits when they know enough code to create simple prototypes, pattern libraries, and style guides. Using front-end code is a fantastic way for a designer to communicate their design’s intent to their team’s developers.

Learning to Gain Competency

When we were creating the Center Centre program, Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, my co-founder, and I wanted a way to ensure our students would develop the skills necessary to be UX designers. From this, the idea was born to measure each student’s progress based on a set of course-specific competencies.

The competencies we’ve developed have worked better than we could’ve imagined. Before each industry expert arrives to teach their workshop, we hand each student that course’s competencies.

Competencies are how we measure each student’s progress. They replace tests and papers to tell us what a student has learned.

Our competencies work like scouting merit badges. Each competency is made up of a series of demonstrable achievements. As the students complete their studies and project work, they have opportunities to check off the achievements. Completing all of a competency’s achievements tells us the student has developed another necessary skill to becoming a successful designer.

The competencies come directly from Leslie’s and my many years of research into what UX designers need to know. (Leslie wrote her doctoral dissertation on real-world, project-based design education, and UIE studied designer practices for more than 20 years.)

From this research, we’ve boiled each of the 30 courses into demonstrable skills. For example, here’s what each student needed to demonstrate they’ve done to pass the Information Architecture course:

  • They’ve isolated and described an information architecture from an existing design.
  • They’ve created a site hierarchy diagram (often called a site map).
  • They’ve developed a design’s navigation menus.
  • They’ve developed a taxonomy to organize an extensive information collection (like a repository of articles).
  • They’ve developed an information architecture that they’ve optimized for multiple information-seeking behaviors (like exploratory browsing or re-finding something previous located).

We know hiring managers will carefully interview our graduates, holding them to high expectations. We wanted to make it easy for our students to show what they can do. The work our students do to accomplish each competency gives them great stories for those in-depth interview questions like “Tell me about a time when you had to organize complex information” or “Tell me about an application’s navigation that you designed.”

We couldn’t be more pleased with the students’ progress. It’s been challenging, but they’ve been accomplishing one competency after another. It’s fun watching them go from zero knowledge to demonstrating proficiency in the skills. They see their own growth, and that’s motivating.

A Resource-Rich Environment for Self Learners

In today’s design environment, a designer can’t know everything. The design world changes too fast. We’re always discovering things about the domains we’re designing for, the challenges we’re trying to overcome, and the users we’re working to delight.

The best designers learn how to learn. The most important thing we can teach our students is how to teach themselves what they’ll need to succeed. We’ve created an environment for them to do just that.

After each industry-expert workshop, our students spend three days teaching themselves the building blocks for each competency, under the guidance of our Facilitators (our full-time faculty). Each student starts by developing their own Personalized Learning Plan, selecting a variety of resources—books, articles, videos, and online tools—to thoroughly study the course subject and start practicing their newly-learned skills.

We’ve compiled an extensive starter list of resources. However, students need to find additional resources themselves. They gravitate to the resources they learn from best. Some students prefer to watch videos (and we’ve made UIE’s All You Can Learn library available for them) while others want to read books or articles.

One of the best things about our first term was watching the students realize that independent learning is enhanced when you work in a group. Initially, they tackled their personalized learning plans quite independently. By the second course, they had discovered the benefits of sharing their progress and resources. They meet together regularly now, to get ideas, encouragement, and a sense of progress from their peers.

Students review their course competencies together. As a team, they learn, plan, and answer questions around UX skills. Students review their course competencies together. As a team, they learn, plan, and answer questions around UX skills.

Every time they assemble their spontaneous learning group to share what they’re uncovering, I find myself smiling from ear to ear. They are supporting each other’s learning. This type of collaboration is what we’d hoped we’d see from the students.

Alicorn: The Student Group Project for Term 1

Design is a maker’s craft. If you’re not making something, you’re not really designing.

From our very first concepts for Center Centre, we knew we wanted students always to be creating and building designs. That’s where group projects come from.

This group of students got an assignment right out of the gate: Build a tool for collecting and sharing UX design resources. Think of it as a Hacker News or Reddit specifically for design. The students came up the project name of Alicorn. (An alicorn is the horn portion of a unicorn.)

The students will work on Alicorn during six consecutive three-week courses. They’ll collectively invest more than 2,500 hours into the project.

They started the project with design research. They studied similar existing sites, like Hacker News, Reddit, and Stack Overflow. They pulled out common patterns and themes.

Students created their first proto persona, Liz, for project Alicorn. Students created their first proto persona, Liz, for project Alicorn.

Next, the students built journey maps from what they saw. They created sketches and prototypes of potential design ideas. They built out a provisional category taxonomy and structured the navigation. And they’ve been usability testing their prototypes.

They’ve been applying their coursework to the project because you don’t really learn how to design until you roll up your sleeves and make it happen. And they’ve learned a lot.

We purposely chose our term one courses. Sketching, prototyping, IA, user research, and even basic front-end development are core design activities. Our students will use these skills in every project they do—at the school and after they graduate. We wanted to teach them to do these right from the start.

The students are having fun with Alicorn. Once they complete it, they’ll have to use it to collect the resources for their Personalized Learning Plans. There’s no substitute for using your own design and feeling all the pain and frustration of your decisions. They’ll learn humility and respect for their users.

We plan to open Alicorn up as a resource to the UX community. The resources the students will add to Alicorn are useful to anyone wanting to improve their UX skills. And we’re sure the community has great resources to share with our students. Not only are the students learning to become designers, but they’re also contributing to the community at the same time. That’s the Center Centre way.

What’s Next?

Coming up in term 2 are the next round of foundational courses—visual design, interaction design, critique and design studio, storytelling and scenarios, and copy and content strategy . We’ve lined up great workshop instructors, like Dan Mall, Fred Beecher, Adam Connor, Kim Goodwin, and Ahava Leibtag—all superstars in their own right.

The students will also be wrapping up their work on Alicorn. They’ll start using it themselves for tracking the resources they use in their Personalized Learning Plans. Then they’ll make it public, so you can try it too. Maybe you’ll find some design resources that help you become a more awesome designer?

Once Alicorn is wrapped, the students will start their next three-to-five month project. This project will come from a company, giving the students a chance to get to know a design and development team well. And that team will get to see what our students are capable of, and hopefully, want to hire one or two after they graduate. (We’re always looking for companies to give us projects. If you think you might have a good project for our students, give us a holler.

Our big news, however, is that we’ll be starting Cohort 2 in May. If you know someone who would make a great UX designer and might benefit from an intensive hands-on program, send them our way. Point them to here for more information or send me an introduction. We’d love to meet them and explore if it’s a good match.

Term one is solid proof that hard planning and thoughtful curriculum design produces excellent results. We’re excited for where this class is going and the quality of the designers we’re producing. We can’t wait to see what happens in term two and with our second cohort.

Teaching UX designers to always be learning

By Leslie Jensen-Inman

Teaching UX designers to always be learning

“Of the important things you do every day in your job, what percentage did you learn how to do in school?” When I ask user experience designers this question, most tell me less than 25%. Even those who have only been out of school for just a few years.

In fact, some of today’s best user experience designers never learned design in school at all. They taught themselves what they needed to know. They learned from peers, from seeking out their own resources, and through the painful process of trial-and-error. This is a long and arduous effort, taking them decades to learn everything they know now.

Right now, there’s a high demand for UX designers. Companies need all the designers they can get. They need designers to gain the skills faster. Self-learning is a great approach, but it’s hard to do quickly.

We’ve created our UX Design school, Center Centre, to meet the high demand for UX designers. We needed a program that launched our students on their journey of turning into lifelong self-learners. This meant rethinking the educational process from the ground up.

An alternative to Sage On the Stage

Conventional educational programs use a Sage on the Stage approach, where a smart person stands in front of a classroom pouring facts and raw knowledge into students’ brains. Despite considerable evidence that this approach rarely works, schools still try to teach new skills this way. This is part of the reason why fresh graduates we hire aren’t prepared for the work ahead of them.

People learn best when they take charge of their education. Some people learn well by reading a comprehensive book. For others, books don’t work at all, but they learn when they hear someone explain the concepts and techniques. Everyone has their own way of learning. A good school needs to adapt its learning options for each individual student.

Most skills designers need, they don’t learn in school

Every year, the collection of tools, techniques, and knowledge designers need changes considerably. It’s hard for seasoned professionals to keep up with these changes. Educators find it nearly impossible to update their courses with every new change. This means when students graduate, they’ll need to continually adapt their knowledge to fit the growing discipline. They’ll need to continue learning important skills while on the job.

In addition, there are some things schools can’t ever teach their students. They can’t teach designers about what their users will need or how their users will interact with their designs. Sure, we can teach research techniques to uncover these important details, but the designers can’t learn about actual user needs until they’re working on the job.

Nor can the school teach designers everything they need to know about the domains they’ll work in. Today’s designers are designing an array of interesting problems. Designers help medical professionals deliver better medicine. They provide better financial systems to help the economy. And they help government agencies provide better services to their citizens and constituents.

Schools can’t teach design and all the ins and outs of medicine, finance, or government. In many cases, the designers don’t even know what domain they’ll work in until after they graduate. They’ll have to learn the domain on the job.

Teaching UX designers to always be learning

How do we design a school, knowing what we teach our students will only be 25% of what they’ll use when they’re on the job? By ensuring that what we give them builds a strong foundation for everything they’ll learn after graduation.

That’s why, at Center Centre, we’ve implemented a three-pronged approach to our program. We ensure our students embrace their journey into life-long learning.

The first prong is to provide students with the latest expertise. During their two years as a Center Centre student, they’ll each take thirty classes. Each class starts with a two-day workshop taught by a leading industry expert.

For example, for the User Research Practices course, we’re bringing in world-renown expert Dana Chisnell (who literally wrote the book on usability testing, coincidentally called The Handbook of Usability Testing.) In her workshop, Dana will take the students through hands-on activities. Students will learn user research techniques such as usability testing and field research. They’ll explore what it takes to plan, moderate, and observe usability tests, along with how to synthesize the observations into solid design decisions.

Every three weeks, our students will meet a new industry expert as they start each new course in the Center Centre UX Designer curriculum. Each time, they’ll learn the essential skills for that topic through the expert’s hands-on workshop.

Providing a resource-rich self learning environment

The second prong is the rich collection of resources we provide. We’ve filled our library with the latest books, adding new ones every month. Every student has access to state-of-the-art online training tools like UIE’s All You Can Learn, lynda.com, and teamtreehouse.com. We give each student a brand-new MacBook Pro, loaded with the latest design software. They’ll be learning with the same tools they’ll use when they’re on the job.

Our full-time faculty—we call them facilitators—spent months compiling resources for each course. They’ve identified the seminal articles, helpful videos, and other materials to answer any student’s question.

The facilitators monitor each student’s progress and tailor each student’s education to help that student learn best. Facilitators work with each student to create a personalized learning plan. Each student crafts this unique plan to achieve learning goals for the course. More importantly, the facilitators work alongside the students to identify relevant, high-quality learning resources. Our students get the practice of knowing where to look when they need to learn something new.

Practice through experience

The final prong is the project work. Center Centre students will spend more than two-thirds of their education working on real-world projects. We designed these projects to give them exactly the real-world experience they need.

Companies and nonprofit organizations submit projects for our students to work on. (We’ll even have a few of our own, so our students can build designs they’ll have to use themselves. It’s always eye-opening when you have to “eat your own dog food,” as the kids like to call it.) The students will work on projects from concept all the way through deployment and beyond. They get the entire experience of building and measuring a design.

Each project will integrate the techniques our students learned so far, plus some techniques they haven’t yet encountered. For example, before Dana shows up to teach her User Research Practices course, the students will have already observed live usability tests during their project work. That way, when Dana gets there, she’ll build on the experiences they had, explaining the underlying theory that made it all work.

On-the-job learning, intentionally designed

We started with a premise: We need to prepare our students to be lifelong learners. This forced us to rethink how to build Center Centre. We knew we had to cherry-pick the best UX techniques to give our students a solid foundation. We ended up with a modular curriculum. We can quickly update our courses to accommodate the latest, best practices and tools.

Most importantly, we’ve infused every course and project with the educational goal of teaching students to improve their own learning capability. Every Center Centre graduate will be ready to learn exactly what they need to create the best designs, no matter the circumstances. They’ll be lifelong, self-driven learners.

Think you’d like to be a Center Centre student? Know someone looking for a career upgrade? We’re still accepting students for our Oct 17 starting class. More info at centercentre.com/apply.

Big news! Center Centre’s first students will start on October 17!

By Leslie Jensen-Inman

Big news! Center Centre’s first students will start on October 17!

We’re starting classes at Center Centre on October 17th! I couldn’t be more excited.

For the team and me, setting our start date is a big deal. We’re ready to dial up our recruitment process, looking for folks who are ready to shift their career and become an industry-ready user experience designer. And I need your help.

October 17 is when our first students will begin with Induction—the week-long introduction to what their next 2 years will be like. Then they jump right into their first class, my Introduction to UX course, followed by Information Architecture, Sketching & Prototyping, User Research Practices, and Front-End Development. And that’s just the first term—there are five more terms right after that.

During the 2 years, they’ll work on 5 to 8 industry-grade projects, from concept through deployment, learning how to integrate UX design at every phase. They’ll work through courses led by 30 industry experts and our full-time faculty.

We’ve intentionally designed every moment of their Center Centre education. They’ll develop the skills and practice the techniques that will make them awesome UX designers, ready to enter the workforce.

I need your help to find the students for the first class. We have the financing for twenty-two students to complete this adventure. We’re looking for motivated self-learners who are ready to be immersed in a program that will give them a new career.

Do you know someone who would make an amazing student? Do you know someone who could become a top-grade user experience designer?

If you know someone who would make a fantastic designer, please introduce them to us right away. Have them look over what becoming an industry-ready designer could be like. When they’re ready, they can contact us. We’ll be glad to give them all the details and answer all their questions, so they can learn if Center Centre is the right choice.

I appreciate you helping me find our first students.


What is a partner company and who are mentors at Center Centre?

By Leslie Jensen-Inman

What is a partner company and who are mentors at Center Centre?

As part of our video update series answering questions about our new school, Jared explains the importance of partner companies and mentors at Center Centre.

What does industry-ready really mean?

By Leslie Jensen-Inman

What does industry-ready really mean?

As part of our video update series answering questions about our new school, Center Centre, Jared shares what it means to be an industry-ready designer.

Why is there a need for a UX design school?

By Leslie Jensen-Inman

Why is there a need for a UX design school?

This is the first in a series of video updates answering questions about our new school, Center Centre. In this video, Jared speaks to the need for a UX design school.

Baking project experience into a design education

By Leslie Jensen-Inman

Baking project experience into a design education

Experience. Real-world experience. Project experience. Research experience. Problem-solving experience. Working-in-a-team experience. UX-design experience.

That’s the kind of experience that hiring managers think is gold. When we talked with managers while doing research for the Unicorn Institute, we found that they were uniformly disappointed with the amount of experience that recent graduates had.

We asked managers which they’d choose: a design-school graduate who had a decent grasp of theory and some solid experience, or a design-school graduate who had an excellent, deep knowledge of theory without any experience. In every case, they said they’d choose the student with the solid experience, even if their theoretical knowledge wasn’t as complete as the other.

Granted, they understood these folks had spent the last two or four years in classes. And many of the graduates were well versed in the theory of great design.

Experience prevents mistakes. It moves things forward. There’s an old saying:

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgments.

Hiring managers are looking for the glimmer of good judgments from these graduates. The managers don’t need amazing experience. They realize that starting from zero experience is a lot more difficult than starting with some experience.

Experience can’t be layered on top of a design education

Schools are trying to give students experience. They put projects into the classes. They encourage internships.

Unfortunately, the class projects are usually too short and narrowly focused. The students don’t get the breadth of experience needed to complete a real-world UX-design project.

Apprenticeships could also be a great solution (especially thanks to folks working hard on them, like Fred Beecher ). However, today there aren’t enough businesses offering them. It’s hard for a graduate to find one that also pays well enough to help with student loans and post-school expenses.

Internships and apprenticeships layer experience on top of the student’s design education. It’s not baked in. They are not bad (in fact, they are quite valuable), but they won’t work by themselves.

Experience baked into the education

We think the best solution is to build experience into the education, integrating it directly with the studies. To accomplish this, we’ve made long-term projects a core component of the student’s curriculum.

As each Unicorn Institute student learns a new UX-design topic in their classes, they’ll return to an ongoing 3- to 5-month project. Under the guidance of our full-time faculty facilitators, they’ll look at integrating what they just learned into the project work.

These long-term projects will be 60% of the students’ time in school. They’ll see how design projects start. They’ll see them go through the research stage and see first-hand how solutions are chosen. They’ll take the project through the development stage, working with professional developers to implement their ideas and deal with real-world constraints.

In the two years each student will be studying at the Unicorn Institute, they’ll have as many as six of these long-term projects under their belt. That’ll give them a diverse set of experiences they can bring to their first job.

We also give our students experience working with one of our Partner Companies through an internship. But we don’t just lob our students off into space. It’s all connected to the program. We know that these internships will actually give our students quality, real-world experience.

That’s exactly what will make the hiring managers and students excited!

What Kind of Designers Should The Unicorn Institute Produce?

By Leslie Jensen-Inman

What Kind of Designers Should The Unicorn Institute Produce?

The first question we asked when we started designing a new type of design school program was: What kind of designer?

All designers work with the basic underlying notions of where design comes from: Every designer starts with an intent — what they want to accomplish. They create their designs to change and enhance the user’s behaviors. They create great designs when they delight the users, or they create poor designs when they frustrate those users.

This is what a design school teaches students to do, whether we were grooming the skills of designers to build physical products, to design public spaces, or to create great service offerings. When Leslie and I sat down to work on the Unicorn Institute, we had a big choice for what we wanted to do.

Leslie and I have each spent our careers working with digital design. Leslie’s been deep in web design education for many years. She has created web design curriculums and truly understands how to create highly skilled web designers.

I’ve been running UIE, which started with studying the designers of software products — everything from email clients and word processors to molecular modeling tools and the software embedded in the International Space Station. Eventually, we moved to web sites and now are spending a lot of time with mobile applications.

Since we were most familiar with creating designers of digital experiences, that’s where we’ve decided to focus our initial work on the Unicorn Institute’s research. But did we want to narrow this focus further? Did we want to look at maybe the visual side of digital experiences, or just the information architecture skills? Should we focus primarily on great interactions and flows, or maybe look at content and copy strategies?

As we’ve done throughout this project, we turned to the hiring managers to find out. We set out to talk to the folks who would hire the graduates from a Unicorn Institute-style school. Immediately, we got our answer.

The User Experience Designer

Our ideal UX Designer has general skills, compared to many of the folks working in UX jobs today. She has a good sense of the visual, understanding sophisticated use of layout, typography, and color. She can organize content and navigation, increasing the design’s findability. She knows how to craft persuasive microcopy and create publication tools for the organization’s content providers. She knows how to craft design flows and envision the microinteractions that deliver great experiences.

These general skills are a lot for designers to learn, especially those folks new to design. Fortunately, our prototype Unicorn Institute program is two years in length — plenty of time to dive deep into each essential area. And 75% of our envisioned curriculum is project-based, giving the students more than 1200 hours to practice and refine their talents.

For the next generation of industry-ready designers, we took the challenge and are aiming high. We think the students we’d attract to a program like this would be ready to take their skills to these heights. They’ll need grit and tenacity to develop their skills in all these varying areas, but we’ve seen enough people who are doing this today to know it’s possible. We still have a lot to learn about how to build a school for UX Designers, but that’s what makes a research project like the Unicorn Institute fun.

We’re hopeful that once other programs see how we’re making it work with the Unicorn Institute, they’ll start to think more about producing UX design generalists. Imagine what the world could do with hundreds of freshly-minted, skilled UX Designers crafting the next generation of digital experiences?

Jared Interviewed on Let’s Make Mistakes

By Leslie Jensen-Inman

Jared Interviewed on Let

I sat down with Mike and Jessie of Let’s Make Mistakes from Mule Radio Syndicate to discuss how to make better designers and the meaning of UX.

Check it out here: http://www.muleradio.net/mistakes/105/