Hack Your Bootcamp I: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Illustration by Freepik Storyset

This is the first in a 5-part series called “Hack your Bootcamp”, ideas to make the most of the UX/UI Bootcamp experience.

First things first. No, this is not going to be another one of those articles listing out the pros and cons of a UX/UI Design bootcamp. If you have read any of those articles, then you’ve already seen the list of cons:

  • Group work often…doesn’t work
  • Mentors can leave much to be desired
  • Limited networking opportunities outside your cohort
  • “Cookie cutter” portfolios with very few projects
  • Easy content that covers breadth, not depth

If you’re anything like me, however, then you’re a firm believer in the idea that education is what you make of it. That’s what this series is all about: planning for your time in an immersive bootcamp to make the most of your experience.

Hopefully someday soon, bootcamps will adapt their models to better meet student needs. Until that happens, use these hacks to fill in the gaps your bootcamp will leave.

Let’s tackle our first complaint today, that bootcamp group work doesn’t work.

HACK NUMBER ONE: MAKE YOUR OWN GROUP.

PART 1: Why Does Bootcamp Group Work Suck So Hard, So Often?

Most bootcamps shove the members of their cohorts into randomly generated groups to work in, claiming that learning to collaborate and give feedback are key soft skills for UX/UI Designers, and these groups will be the key to developing those skills.

Ok. Yes and no.

Yes: collaboration and giving feedback are important for UX/UI Designers.

No: group work in a randomly assigned group in an educational setting will always be different from project teams in a work environment.

Why? Let’s Take a Look.

Bootcamps Accept Almost Everyone

Most bootcamps will accept, honestly, just about anyone. They’re not bragging about rigorous entry requirements, they are bragging about how accessible they make careers in tech to everyone. The socialist in me loves this. Let’s level the playing field! Lower the barrier to entry! Power to the people!

Unrestricted Entry = Unrestricted Levels

After teaching elementary schoolers for three years, I have to burst that bubble. Elementary education is for everyone. The schools I taught at were public charters-we took every student who enrolled in our school.

What did this mean for me as a teacher? Well, some of my 2nd graders were reading on a 3rd grade level when they arrived in my classroom. Some of them were still learning to read. Most of them were somewhere in between.

This doesn’t change when you shift from accepting elementary schoolers to accepting adults. If you choose to make a bootcamp accessible for all, then that means your students are going to come to you with a wide swath of experience levels.

3 team members work together to create a large lightbulb
3 team members work together to create a large lightbulb
Illustration by Freepik Storyset

Unleveled Instruction = Teaching to the Middle

This isn’t such a big problem if you are differentiating instruction (breaking students into smaller groups by level and teaching to each group independently). This is the solution that you’ll see when you walk into most elementary and middle school classrooms today, and we know that it works.

But most bootcamps do nothing of the sort. Instead, they throw all of their students into whole group lectures twice a day and then randomly place them into groups. Instructors are left with no choice but to “teach to the middle”, and these randomly selected groups are an uncomfortable mix of very different levels.

Unleveled Groups are Just Plain Awkward

The social dynamics of a group like that attempting to learn the same material in the same time frame are almost impossible to navigate. Those who are struggling with learning a software like figma when they’ve never touched design software before will feel guilty and ashamed of all of the help they would need to ask of their colleagues. People who have experience using InDesign or Illustrator will feel frustrated at how much time has been allotted to learning a software that took them approximately five minutes to understand.

We know that small group instruction in similar level groups works. But since bootcamps aren’t providing it for us, we can do it ourselves by self-selecting group mates around the same level as us so we can meet each other where we’re at and push each other to go farther.

Feedback is only as good as those giving and receiving it.

Bootcamp students are encouraged to give each other feedback starting on day one, with instructors emphasizing the importance of feedback in the design process.

Absolutely! Feedback will be a vital skill in design careers. But should we be giving it to others on day one of a bootcamp, with no framework in place for it and no guidance? Absolutely not. Why?

  1. Students haven’t yet developed taste. In order to give feedback on anything, students will need to develop some sort of concept of what “good” even looks like, which takes time.
  2. Humans are often a source of error in giving feedback. Bootcamps often encourage students to ‘give feedback’ before modeling for them what good feedback looks and sounds like (if they do at all). If giving feedback is such an important skill for designers, why isn’t it being taught explicitly, early, and thoughtfully?
  3. Trust must be built before feedback can be accepted. Students thrown into a randomly assigned group of students with widely varying levels are going to ask themselves: If I don’t know these people or their work, why should I trust their feedback?
A man presents a concept to two other team members
A man presents a concept to two other team members
Illustration by Freepik Storyset

Since the norms and expectations around feedback are often not provided in the large-group setting, create your own group, and harness the power of that small group setting to level-set around giving and receiving feedback.

Organically formed groups work better.

My freshman year of college, I joined a group that still stands as the most seamless and effortless team I’ve ever been a part of: an improv troupe named Full Frontal Comedy (FFC).

What made FFC such a successful team?

  1. The group was formed organically. Team members were brought on only if 100% of the troupe members wanted them in, and we frequently referred to our audition process as “picking our friends”.
  2. The group organizational structure was flat, or organic. Everyone had an equal say, from the oldest member to the newest, and leadership over practice structure rotated between all members from week to week.

As a result, everyone in the troupe felt the weight of their responsibility to the group. We viewed it as an honor to be a part of, and we were all focused on finding ways to support and lift each other up so that we could see the team thrive.

It’s the same in a bootcamp setting: Groups that are placed together randomly can feel disconnected and purposeless. But when students select their own teammates, all of the members feel a sense of ownership over group success, and everyone is invested in seeing the group flourish.

Part 2: How do I Make a Good Group?

Diversity and inclusion have to be top of mind.

The first step in making a group of your own is, of course, figuring out who should be a part of it. We spoke above about the importance of finding people around your skill level for differentiated learning, but there are plenty of other things to keep in mind when self-forming a group, the chief of which should be diversity and inclusion.

One Cannot Design on Their Experience Alone

Since you’re just one person, if you don’t include the feedback of others, then your design will likely only consider your experience. As soon as you solicit the feedback of others, you open yourself up to more human experiences (user experiences), and open your eyes to a world of factors you may not have even begun to consider. Inclusive designing starts with inclusive teams.

A group of men and women of different races
A group of men and women of different races
Illustration by Freepik Storyset

With that in mind, outside of the obvious types of diversity, keep in mind:

  • Diversity of cognitive and physical ability

Selfishly, teammates with colorblindness, dyslexia, ADHD, MS, arthritis, blindness, etc. will be able to open your eyes to a world of accessibility concerns that might not have otherwise been top of mind to you, such as the importance of hierarchy, thumb reach, or alt text.

Big starred thought here: Differing levels are a result of differing exposure to concepts and experiences, NOT differing levels of “smartness”. Differentiated learning is not an excuse for bigotry. Find teammates on a similar level to you by examining their work and your own work objectively, not by making assumptions about their work based on their cognitive or physical ability.

  • Diversity of Skills

The study group I formed includes a former science teacher, one masters of divinity, one masters of arts management (me), a graphic designer, a sociologist, a personal trainer, a project manager, and a singer/songwriter, all with very different strengths. UX/UI design encompasses a variety of skills, and some of my teammates are fabulous researchers, some are innovative visual designers, some are great at thinking through information architecture. It’s this diversity in skill set that makes the team great-we push each other to do better overall by bringing our own strengths to the table.

  • Behavioral Diversity

We are often tempted to limit groups by including only people who we say are a “cultural fit” or have “the right vibes”. I urge you to think deeply about who you would choose to include or exclude and ask yourself if you’re choosing to exclude someone because they’re really not a good fit or if they just push you out of your comfort zone a little too far. As Ibram X. Kendi espouses in How to be Anti-Racist,

“To be antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right- inferior or superior- with any of the racial groups.”

And on a similar note…

Hold out for the quiet ones.

This one is for my fellow extroverts. If you’re anything like me, you’ll automatically gravitate towards more outspoken cohort mates and want to snap them up before anyone else forms a study group with them.

For once in your life, please, take. your. time. Keep an ear to the ground for the introverts who are quietly absorbing information in the background and maybe not raising their hand as much in class. I get some of my best feedback from the introverts in my study group: they will often reveal more than I noticed after taking that extra time to digest.

Clarify your purpose.

Now that you’ve got a good group of people, it’s time to set some structure. We already talked about setting norms and expectations around feedback, but the first thing you should do when gathering as a group is clarify your purpose. Spoilers: it’s not “to be a study group”.

As Priya Parker writes in The Art of Gathering,

“We get lulled into the false belief that knowing the category of the gathering — the board meeting, workshop, birthday party, town hall — will be instructive to designing it. But we often choose the template — and the activities and structure that go along with it — before we’re clear on our purpose.”

A man looks at a mountain with a path to his goal, the peak.
A man looks at a mountain with a path to his goal, the peak.
Illustration by Freepik Storyset

What Is It You Need?

Think deeply with your group mates about what you all need to get out of this group. Ideally, when you pitched the group to them, it was with your vision in mind, as a way of determining whether the group was a good fit or not for them. Now that you’re all together, think about what you all need and want out of this experience to expand the fit. Here are some ideas:

  • Emotional and mental health support
  • A push to do more than the minimum
  • Sharing learnings
  • Partnership in accountability

Purpose Guides Process

The purpose you select will guide group behavior. A group formed for emotional and mental health support, for example, might have a text chain of coping strategies and regular emotional check ins, while a group formed to share learnings would have a text chain of links to articles and tutorials they found useful.

Know Who to go to for What

You may select one purpose for your organic group but approach a single group member for another purpose. One of the members of my study group and I, for example, both suffer from “analysis paralysis” when our to-do list gets a little too long. We both text each other regularly to check in on whether or not we froze that day, and serve as each other’s “accountabili-buddies” to push through our frozen moments.

So. We’ve talked about why bootcamp-formed groups often don’t work. Then we talked about the solution: forming your own study group to get what you need out of the bootcamp experience. This study group should be a diverse group of people on a similar skill level coming together for a single clarifying purpose with set norms and expectations around feedback.

If you liked what you read, stay tuned for Hack Your Bootcamp II next week, where I cover why the mentorship experience in bootcamps is all too often hit-or-miss, and what you can do to overcome that obstacle.

UX/UI Designer | Masters of Arts Management | Former TFA Teacher | Shameless Dog Mom | Living Meme | emilychervony.com