Teaching Design at General Assembly

Posted on

Lecturing at General Assembly - photo by Kevin Pai


The Client

General Assembly is an educational institution that offers classes, workshops, and full-length programs on skills relevant to the 21st century — from UX design to web development to product management.

The Task

Over the course of two, ten-week terms, I taught and mentored fifty students through the UX Design Immersive program. I worked alongside co-instructors and staff to provide the most relevant, innovative curriculum.

Our Design Process

When I accepted a position as instructor of UX design at General Assembly, I expected to be taking a break from the daily design thinking and production I’d been doing previously as a freelance UX designer. I was immediately proven wrong and found myself doing the same design activities I was used to, daily and at a rapid pace — identifying design problems, ideation, testing, iteration, etc. This realization happened right away, but it took me a bit longer to understand the most significant difference in this type of design work:

I was the product.

The students in my classroom invested thousands of dollars in General Assembly’s product in order to change their careers. I was the most crucial feature in this product package: an industry-leading UX designer who instructs and mentors them throughout a ten-week, immersive course.

Mentoring studentsIt was largely up to me and my co-instructors to satisfy users of GA’s product. On any one day, we were lecturing, mentoring one-on-one, critiquing design after design, lesson and activity planning, managing student emotions in a high pressure environment, resolving team conflicts, managing logistics, communicating ideas and strategies to global GA staff members, and at least five or twenty other things that came up in the day.

Throughout the two ten-week terms that I taught, I received constant, realtime feedback (both verbal and nonverbal) from students and co-instructors. I iterated on my approach every day according to this feedback — everything from my lecturing style to my approach to team conflict resolution to my design critique methods.

This much constant feedback required an equal amount of analysis and synthesis. If I’d tried, I could have created any number of graphs and visualizations of the data. Instead, time and again, I synthesized in realtime — a skill I’ve realized is imperative, gratifying, and absolutely exhausting. For example, providing constructive, consistent critique to twenty-six design presentations in a row is an unparalleled brain marathon of synthesis.

Observing and mentoring - photo by Kevin PaiOver a few short months, I emerged a much different instructor, designer, and person from where I’d started. Not because I’d refined myself to the point of perfection, but because I’d spent those months in a sort of fast-forward version of my normal life. I witnessed constant human emotion, vulnerability, and resilience. I observed human behavior and created human connections at a rate unprecedented in my life previously.

I emerged a different person because I struck a balance between my needs and the needs of others in a way that I hadn’t been capable of before. I came to understand that my own needs, my own happiness, was just as important to my students’ satisfaction as an engaging lecture or a fruitful mentoring session. Rather, my own contentment was directly related to my performance in these types of activities.

There is an essential give and take in our ability to empathize with one another. In order for others to empathize with us, we must be willing to open ourselves, express our needs, be vulnerable. Each of us in the classroom, both students and instructors, lived a daily, real life exercise in human empathy. For me, an often tight-lipped and goal-focused human, this was a crash course in the importance of expressing my needs — emotional, mental, physical. I overcame my fear of expressing these things (the emotional in particular) by understanding its importance to my students and to their success.

We began by teaching our students to empathize with the users, the foundational skill of user experience, and in the process managed to elevate this skill to a life principle necessary for all human interactions. Teaching our students the importance of vulnerability by being able to be vulnerable myself is one of my greatest successes.

A happy product (me) equals happy users (students)!

Happy students!
I’ve only scraped the surface of the lessons I’ve learned from being a teacher. It’s true what they say about teaching any particular subject – it’s the best way to learn it as thoroughly as possible.

What I didn’t expect to learn was the extent of human goodness, emotion, tenacity, failure, compassion, love. I didn’t expect to leave General Assembly embracing my own humanity in a brand new way.
UXDi 2015