Designing a design curriculum
Taught 125+ students, facilitating workshops, coaching students-startups projects (Welcome To The Jungle, Konbini, Payfit...), and in March 2020, turning an IRL classroom experience into a full remote learning experience. Essentially helping people grow from 0 to hero no matter what
Bootcamps are all the rage right now in the EdTech world. Some people view them as the magic pill to kickstart a new career path. Others consider them a new form of Lower Ed or even just plain scams. And in the Design world, where most people agree that Design education must change, Product Design Bootcamps don't let anybody indifferent.
As a Product Design Lead Teacher at Ironhack, I never really removed my designer hat. I took part in an on-going improvement of the learning experience of learning Product Design.
In just six years, Ironhack managed to become the number one EdTech school in Europe and one of the top three independent schools worldwide. In nine campuses around the globe, we helped over 6500 students transition to a new trade in the digital job market.
Teaching Product Design to beginners
To teach Product Design to beginners is to treat each student as a novice in the following fields: art, business, strategy, psychology, technology, and problem-solving. Our challenge is teaching them the right skills, tools, and methods needed to find the correct problems to solve. We only have ten weeks to achieve that. In this short timeframe, our ambition is to succeed without formatting our students so much they become caricatures of designers.
To become job-ready in 10 weeks, our students needed to:
- Learn the basics of Design Thinking, User Experience, and User Interface Design
- Practice these new skills with real projects to build a Product Design portfolio
- Mature their Design practice to become critical problem-solvers
As a Bootcamp instructor, I see myself more as a facilitator than a teacher. I try to enable my students to learn by themselves through guided discovery. Concretely, it means starting with just enough theory so that the students understand the concept. Then I facilitate a design activity or a workshop to let them practice what they just learned. Finally, they apply this new knowledge to their projects.
Each project is managed as a Design Sprint focusing on developing a new feature or a new product. Teachers play the role of Product Managers or Product Owners, depending on the project type. That way, we help students define their product vision or strategy, anchoring their practice in a more realistic setup.
I also see my role as a mentor for junior designers. I try to go beyond the theoretical and technical aspects of things. I dig up the questions, doubts, and anxiety they experience. And I help them find the resources and the knowledge within themself to overcome their difficulties.
If Ironhack offers the right amount of freedom to its teachers when implementing the curriculum, we still have to follow a specific set of guidelines. The global modification to the curriculum is the responsibility of the Curriculum Specialist. Therefore, the improvements I'm going to detail in this Case study have been tested at the Paris Campus level. But several of our local experimentations have made their way into the global product.
My role in the project
Since April 2019, I have taught Product Design, User Research, User Interface Design, and Design Thinking, amongst other topics, to 150+ students, both in-class and remote. I was not alone on my journey as I worked alongside our Curriculum Specialist, several Lead Teachers, a Program Manager, and a team of Teacher Assistants.
The team organization
To help me in- and outside of the classroom, I recruited and managed a team of Teacher Assistants. Their job was to help me design the best learning experience for our students by solving their pain points and frustrations.
Hiring TAs that were good designers and good teachers was not enough. I selected highly autonomous individuals with complimentary soft skills: spontaneous problem-solving, excellent communication, fluid facilitation, comfortable with uncertainty, and the capacity to anticipate.
On the program side, The Program Manager helped us collect and analyze the students' feedback each week. From their feedback, we formulated assumptions that became the base of our continuous improvement approach.
The insights from the classroom
We perfected our product over eight cohorts, gathering feedback every week from 150+ design students. We captured feedback using different tools: weekly survey, Net Promoter Score, one-on-one sessions, observation, and journaling. We consistently focused on understanding the pain points our students faced during their learning experience.
Too much content can be hard to process
With so much content to digest in such a short time, our students sometimes do not understand specific tools. They either don't know how to use them or to what end.
I got a lot of catching up to do.
Very intense week, a lot to do, I would appreciate to have less areas to cover but deeper knowledge.
UI was too much theory, not enough practice
The students were frustrated that, unlike the UX lessons, most UI topics were never followed by workshops. Students expected courses like Moodboards, Typography, or Grids to be supported by practice to experiment before applying on their project.
I would have loved to have more hands-on exercises on UI, maybe one full day dedicated to UI (typo, colors, etc.) before the actual project to practice more. It was a little bit too theoretical.
Students wanted more personalized feedback
Even with teachers monitoring the projects' evolution every day, and even with teachers giving constructive feedback at the end of their presentations, we often heard students complain about the amount of feedback they received on their work.
[I would like] more feedback about the solution feasibility than formal comments.
[I would like] more feedback about our prototype itself (rather than on the interview)
They wanted more guidance
Students felt lost at times, which demanded a lot of attention from the teaching staff. They were expecting us to tell them what to do next; to hand them the priorities.
You should tell us: do this first. That's the minimum for the project to work, then if you have time and feel advanced, do this and that.
Should give more detailed goals that should be achieved each day.
I feel lost.
But those pain points always felt a little too down-to-earth, like a band-aid over a more vital issue. Most of the time, the students' feedback was linked to how we delivered the learning experience. They were not so much challenging why we did the things we did.
But I started to hear a different story during one-on-ones with students. And it had nothing to do with a lesson that was too theoretical or feedback that was not specific enough. They were not complaining anymore; they were now sharing genuine concern about their career choice. The real underlying worries had nothing to do with the delivery of the Bootcamp. No. They were afraid they would not become good enough designers to get hired.
Reframing the problem
Students were experiencing the impostor syndrome big time. This was partly due to an information overload, not enough UI practice, personal blind spots, and a lack of strategic vision.
We needed to answer the question of how might we help students overcome this tenacious fear of not being enough?
From there, it was clear that delivering the right ratio between UX and UI practice ratio while providing comprehensive feedback and more useful guidance would be good but never enough. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there wasn't room for improvement. We did our homework*. We deployed quick wins along the way. But to help students feel like they were ready, we needed to develop a vision.
*Continuous (and Lean) improvement
Our day to day process was very Lean. And because we focused on what was happening in the classroom, it was an iterative process of continuous improvement, with a fast time to market. This did not mean the modifications we made to the curriculum was less valuable. On the contrary, we could sometimes solve students' current issues without waiting for the next iteration.
Each Bootcamp brought a list of continuous improvements like Design Nuggets, a little piece of design wisdom delivered at 9AM sharp to sustain the designers who showed up on time while we waited for the dawdlers. Or the crazy assignments we handed to students for the Add a Feature project. Let me share one example with you: "You are in the middle of the recruiting process at Netflix. The Design Manager gives you a design assignment to finish by next week. Your task is to add a new feature that lets Netflix users watch their favorite shows at work without getting noticed by their boss."
Introducing the strategist designer. A designer capable of composing a Design plan answering the right problem for the users, aligned with the business goals, and that takes into account the time and resources available.
To reach that, the solution we developed is three-fold:
- Practice above theory in all the different Design areas
- Empowering students to create their own reasoned toolkit
- Shaping independent strategic Designers, not generic pixel-pushers
We will know we fix this if clients start to see Design as a strategical tool to help them in their product design vision and designers as strategic beings that can make this vision possible.
How you got there
Practice above theory
The Bootcamp is rooted in practice. But not enough to my liking. And from the insights we gathered, students tend to agree with me on that point.
We either used existing workshops like the famous "How to Make Toast" workshop to show them the power of thinking in systems.
Or we designed our own workshops. We took the same light and fun approach as "How to Make Toast" to create the "How to Take Shower" workshop to teach User Journey Mapping. We also designed a workshop with a more serious topic with the help of a video of an expert panel discussing the issue of Mental Health. It was used to teach Affinity Diagram and HMWs. It also showed our students that Design can be used to find creative solutions for very complex problems.
We also roleplayed different types of users regularly to teach more elaborate topics like "User Interview," "Job To Be Done," and "Usability Testing." I love roleplaying, and I developed a list of characters that I impersonated to evaluate my students. I could alternatively play the tech-savvy teenager that clicks through a prototype like a breeze or the conspiration-theorist that doesn't want the usability session to be recorded.
Help students becoming autonomous designers by empowering them to make conscious choices to compose a reasoned UX Strategy
We encouraged students to students feedback. During Dry Runs, Design Critiques, and project presentations, students received as much, if not more, input from their peers than from the teaching team. This forced students to exercise their critical thinking to formulate feedback as constructive next steps. We teach our students that feedback should be constructive, frequent, and action-oriented.
We organized retrospectives at the end of each group project. It was a moment for them to reflect on how they manage their time, priority, and deliverables. A time also to improve team collaboration. This helped them grow in their organizational process and implementation strategies. Two aspects that are critical in terms of project management.
Students were self-organized in how they utilized their time, which forced them to learn how to evaluate their workload and prioritize their tasks. I made them delegate specific tasks or adjust the scope of their project.
Shaping strategy Designers, not pixel pushers
For the Final Project, which is essentially a mix of an internship with a 2-week design sprint, I developed a Kickoff Strategy Workshop. The goal was to flip the table around. On the first three iterations of the Bootcamp, students were passively receiving the brief directly from the client. This situation created many issues like a blurred brief or a client miss-aligned with its users' needs. With this Kickoff Strategy Workshop, the students were now running the show and helping clients give birth to a real Product Design vision for their service or product.
Of course, a workshop was not the magic pill. We need to teach our students Stakeholder management. We also needed to mentor them to overcome the fear of " But who am I to take 2 hours of the client's time, they are going to feel like they lose their time" or "The client will never listen to me or take me seriously." The answer I give my students is, "The client will learn so much on his own project. It's not even funny. And I bet she/he will thank you for that." This is a bet I know I can't lose because I heard it from my students time and time again.
The improvement we made on the Ironhack UX UI global curriculum positively impacted our students' Learning Experience. We were able to attract companies like Vestiaire Collective, Welcome to the Jungle, and Konbini. They trusted our students to improve their products during their final projects. After graduation, students were able to find Product Designer, Product Owner, UI Designers, and UX Researchers positions at companies like Orange, Thales, UX Republic, Idean, Valtech, amongst others.