Every now and then, I get an email or a Twitter message from someone who says, “I’m new to UX. Will you be my mentor?”
I always say no.
It’s not because I don’t want to help people. I love helping people. I coach and manage my students at Center Centre, the UX design school where I’m a faculty member. I write blog posts for UX career shifters. I’ve had dozens of conversations with aspiring UX designers who want to break into the field. Helping people learn UX design is something I do every day.
I say no because “Will you be my mentor?” sounds like a huge, intimidating request for my time and my energy.
When someone asks to be their mentor, I wonder, “How much time does this person expect of me? What do they need from me? What if I give them guidance that doesn’t get them to where they want to be? Will I fail at being a mentor?”
People have even offered to pay me to mentor them. I politely decline their request. I point them to my blog post articles so they can read the guidance I’ve already shared.
Mentorship — I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means
Even though I decline requests to mentor people, I’ve actually mentored plenty of people.
A few years ago, a UX designer said to me, “Thank you for all of your help, Jess. I consider you my mentor.”
I was flattered. I was also dumbfounded. I had no idea I was her mentor.
She never asked me to mentor her. I met her through the Philadelphia design community in 2012 when I still lived in Philly. I got to know her at industry events and established a professional relationship with her. When we talked, she often asked me how to become a UX designer. I answered her questions to the best of my ability.
A few years later, I became a faculty member at Center Centre. Co-founders Jared Spool and Leslie Jensen-Inman explained their perspective on mentorship.
Leslie told me mentorship is about building relationships. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who can help you grow and learn.
Jared said many people consider him a mentor. Like me, he was surprised to hear people call him a mentor over the years. Jared wasn’t formally mentoring anyone. He simply talked with people about their work and their careers.
After Jared and Leslie explained this to me, I realized I’ve also been mentoring people for years. I just didn’t know it.
How Not to Find a UX Mentor
I’ve seen many well-intentioned UX designers ask for mentorship, and then the relationship doesn’t work out. Here are two things to avoid when seeking mentorship:
Don’t ask someone to be your mentor. As I mentioned earlier, “Will you be my mentor?” sounds like you’re asking for a very serious commitment. People will likely decline your request or ignore your request if you ask them to do this.
Don’t rely on formal mentorship programs that match you up with a mentor. UX mentorship programs are hard to find. Also, in my experience, they yield mixed results.
The best mentorships emerge when you build relationships with people who invest time and energy in the mentorship. It can be hard to craft a meaningful relationship when a program matches you up with a mentor. You may or may not click with that person. I’ve seen much better results from mentorships that form through natural relationships.
How to Find a UX Mentor
Finding a mentor is simple. Seek out someone you admire who can help you learn.
You may meet someone interesting at a design meetup or another networking event. Introduce yourself and get to know that person. Ask them about their professional experience.
A great conversation starter is, “What’s an interesting design challenge you’re facing at your job right now?” As the conversation flows, follow up with other questions that help you learn.
You don’t need to prepare a set of questions. You can let the conversation flow. Ask follow-up questions about what you find meaningful or exciting about their responses.
Most people appreciate it when you ask them questions about themselves and genuinely listen to what they say. Asking and listening is a fantastic approach for building relationships with other people.
As you build a relationship with someone, you can ask them specific questions. For example, let’s say you want to learn how to make your designs accessible to people with disabilities. Ask them how they address accessibility throughout their design process.
Take what you learn from that conversation and apply it to whatever you’re doing. If possible, update that person the next time you see them. Tell them you applied what you learned from the previous conversation and how it’s going.
It’s often a good idea to keep professional relationships warm after you meet someone. Following up on a previous conversation is a great way to do that.
Designers Are Already Engaging in Successful Mentorships
I recently asked my Twitter followers about how they participate in UX mentorship. I received many thoughtful responses.
Bibiana Nunes, a UX designer in Mexico, explained how she found mentors by building relationships with other designers through the IA Summit, an annual conference:
Many of the people who responded to my tweet participated in meaningful mentorships by helping other designers or by seeking help from other designers.
Speaking of Twitter, this tweet by Marc Köhlbrugge sums mentorship up beautifully:
Your Boss is Not a Mentor
It’s worth noting the difference between a manager and a mentor. In her presentation, Each One Teach One, Kim Goodwin argues that your boss should not be your mentor. Kim says a mentor is to a manager as a big brother is to a dad. You can experiment more safely with your big brother than you can with your dad.
You can have candid conversations with a mentor that you may not be able to have with your boss. A mentor can also give you a fresh, outside perspective on any challenges you’re facing within your organization.
It’s okay to learn from your boss and learn from a mentor. Just know that they’re not the same thing.
Things I’ve Learned from My Mentors
I recently spoke with two of my contacts in the UX industry. They both mentored me without knowing it.
Mentor #1: Navigating Organizational Politics
I recently had lunch with a designer I worked with earlier in my career. When we worked together years ago, I was less experienced with UX design. He taught me fundamental UX skills in interaction design, information architecture, and user research.
During our recent lunch, he mentored me about something very different. He explained why his role recently shifted from managing UX teams to leading UX strategy at his organization. He described the internal politics at his company. Those politics influenced his decision to change his role.
It was a fascinating conversation that helped me understand the political challenges I may face as I become more senior in my career.
Mentor #2: Maintaining Work-Life Balance
A few weeks ago, I spoke with a friend who leads a UX team at a Fortune 100 company. I asked her how she maintains work-life balance. She told me:
I’ve learned to set boundaries. Some organizations will take everything you’re willing to give. As a manager, l lead by example. I don’t work ridiculous hours. I have a personal life. My weekends are mine. If a superior approaches me and says, “We need you and your team to do X by tomorrow,” I respond with, “What can I de-prioritize to make X a priority?” I’m not going to make my team work late hours on short notice. I’ll burn them out, and they will leave.
I appreciated her perspective. Standing up for a healthy work schedule is something I’ve struggled with in the past. Thankfully, long hours and burnout are not an issue for me at Center Centre. They could become an issue for me later in my career if I move to another organization.
The conversation helped me think through how I’ll set boundaries in the future when I need to do so.
Mentorship is Simple
Now that I have a fresh perspective on mentorship, I seek it regularly. I meet with people I admire who can help me learn new things. I never ask them to mentor me. I keep in touch and ask them to catch up over lunch, coffee, or video chat. I ask them questions about their careers and their current challenges as designers.
During these conversations, I rarely talk about myself. I ask about them, I listen, and I learn.
The next time you look for a mentor, consider skipping the question, “Will you mentor me?” Instead, find someone you admire and ask them about their work. You’ll likely learn something new, and you’ll build a stronger professional connection as you hear what they have to say.