CX/UX Apprenticeship Program

Background of Our Experimental Apprenticeship Program

In August 2020, I was tired of crappy UX research SaaS systems, and decided that I should build my own. My second thought was: what if this project were mostly done by apprentices with unlimited coaching from me? My third thought was: how can I turn that into a model others can follow? 

Colloquio was born. It’s a CX/UX research SaaS that will save the day. I’m hoping it will go live in summer 2021. Yes, you will be able to use it.

Solving job problems through apprenticeships

Problem 1: Most free and paid UX internships and apprenticeships I have seen require previous work experience (often a year, sometimes more), a uni degree in a UX-related topic like HCI, or college coursework towards a degree. It seems like companies want slightly experienced CX/UX practitioners to call them interns/apprentices so they can pay them less than a junior job (or pay them nothing).

Problem 2: Most bootcamps, programs, and even uni programs aren’t making people job ready. You will learn something! But if you do not have enough knowledge or skill for a first job, these can be a partial or complete waste of time and money.

Problem 3: There are tens of thousands of people out there looking for their first junior CX/UX job. Since so many aren’t job-ready, companies adjusted for that by requiring that juniors already have 1+ years of experience. That’s the paradox: how do you get your first job when you can’t get your first job?

Problem 4: There are unfortunate voices out there saying that we should just give newbies “production designer” jobs, where they assist seniors and take grunt work off their plates.

  1. “Drowning in grunt work I wish I could give an assistant” isn’t a common problem for seniors and higher.
  2. Very few up-and-coming CX/UX practitioners want to do production or grunt work. They want to do real work.
  3. If we give newbies production or grunt work, what will they put in their portfolio? “The senior made these tablet wireframes in portrait mode, and I made these derivatives in landscape.” ??? That doesn’t level anybody up and help them get their next job.
  4. Production work is often an order-taker job. We need this, please just do it. CX/UX are problem-finding, problem-solving, and far from order taking. Why would we tell newbies to just take orders from seniors as a supposed stepping stone to being a critical thinker, deductive reasoner, Low Ego Action Hero?

There are many talented and high-potential people out there who haven’t started or done a uni degree, have no work experience, don’t want to do production work, and are being ignored. The question is how do we find those people?

The Short Version

What I Got Right

  • I picked great people. 
  • I had a real project that would be like any project they would have to do at a real job. 
  • The project was a full version 1, not a stripped down MVP. This allowed different people to work on different features, and then collaborate where the features met.
  • I focused on what they needed to show in their portfolios, especially solo projects. Bootcamp and uni grads sometimes have only done projects with other students, which makes it hard to judge their individual abilities in a portfolio.
  • I gave them unlimited access to mentoring, coaching, and work reviews.
  • I held classes.

What I Got Wrong

  • Since I had nearly no budget, I had to ask apprentices to agree to be paid in the year 2021 for their work in the year 2020. That fills me with daily guilt. More later on that when I cover how much apprentices need to be paid.
  • Given the budget issue, I couldn’t ask people to dump their day jobs. This meant that the apprentices has less time together as a team since it was hard to coordinate team time.
  • Colloquio was an innovative new product with a roadmap that constantly evolved. I didn’t have a clear outline of what everybody had to accomplish by what date. Given the budget issue, I didn’t want to give people aggressive or demanding deadlines.
  • With people not working regular or scheduled part time or full time hours, when people did things was a bit random.
  • We’re not “Agile” in that we had to do a lot of research and design before we had something ready to send to the programmers. I hope in the future we can plan better and look more Agile. We’re certainly Lean!
  • I’m sure there are other things 🙂 but those are the main issues.

In the future, I hope to have enough budget to take people on full time so that we can coordinate things better and have more team bonding and collaboration.

Now let’s go into detail so that you can emulate and improve upon my Delta CX Apprenticeship Model.

If Internships Are For Students, Why Would We Need Apprentices?

Many companies offer internships. In 2021, these often require people who:

  • Currently in a bachelors or master’s degree program, or have started taking accredited college courses.
  • Have had a previous internship or can show previous work experience.

This immediately kills diversity and inclusion. It only includes people who had time and money for university. You’re missing out on some great talent who didn’t want to go to uni, didn’t have time, or couldn’t afford it.

Internships are supposed to be for people to explore a job or industry, start learning, and see if that’s really the career path they want. If you are well into a uni degree, especially a graduate degree, you might not be testing out the career. You might have decided on the career. What can we offer the people who might not want to spend years in uni until they can learn more about the the job by doing an internship or apprenticeship? If your internship is only for students, then we have to create another program.

Degree + work experience = entry level job (not internship)

Many internships ask for a year or more of real work experience. I have even seen internships claiming you must show “innovative” work in your portfolio. Once you have a year or nearly a year of work experience, you should be in a real junior-level full time job. You should not still be doing internships and apprenticeships. Internships and apprenticeships are supposed to open a door to an entry-level junior job. If you have a degree and work experience, you are hopefully ready for a real job. You should qualify for and get that job as an Associate CX Researcher, Associate CX Architect, etc. And if your portfolio shows you innovating something nobody has never seen before, you are probably past an internship.

But the government pays for some or all of our interns’ salaries!

Congrats. You can run an internship for students. You can run an apprenticeship for non-students. See my later sections on what will this cost and the advantages it brings to your company.

Who Did I Choose and How?

Everybody came from my Delta CX Slack workspace or had booked a free coaching call with me. I didn’t look at anybody’s resume/CV or portfolio. I didn’t care if or where they went to school or which certificate(s) they had. I tapped into my existing community as a place to start versus opening up applications to the public. I Slack chatted and/or had video calls with people to get a sense of who they were.

Did the apprentices have extensive education?

I wanted them to have some CX/UX education so that we weren’t starting at zero, but didn’t care where they got that education. Ultimately, most of my apprentices had done UX bootcamps. A few were self taught. One was finishing a master’s in UX. Nearly all are career transitioners, having worked in some other field before falling in love with UX.

I chose them by personality. I looked for:

  • Low Ego Action Heroes who were open to being coached.
  • Resilience to not take things personally or badly if they messed something up or had room for improvement.
  • Kindness and heart.
  • Intelligence.
  • Raw talent.
  • Curious researchers at heart who were likely to Google the easy questions and ask me the hard questions.
  • People who weren’t looking for the fastest, easiest way into CX/UX.
  • People who didn’t believe in “UX shortcuts,” fake UX, or pseudo-micro derivatives like design thinking, design sprints, and Lean UX (I call these Aspirologies™). I wanted people who really wanted to understand and apply principles of UCD and HCD.
  • People looking to really push themselves on a complex project and probably go out of their comfort zone. Chances are their bootcamp did not have them working on a B2B SaaS. 🙂
  • People who would be patient with me as I experimented my way through trying to create an apprenticeship model.
  • People who expected to have a UX job by now, but found they were in the Grand Canyon between finishing a program/self study/online courses and being job-ready.

I judged people’s personalities based on the conversations I had with them. I asked questions about why they wanted to go into CX/UX, and what they felt most passionate about. Answers like, “I heard you can make a lot of money,” or, “I think it would be more fun than graphic design,” weren’t as good of a match as people who spoke immediately about feeling driven to create better products and experiences for everybody (and why they felt driven to do that).

But there are so many great people out there…

Tomorrow’s juniors are our seniors in 5 years. I asked myself: who should be that senior in 5 years? Who are our future change agents?

  • The person who bitched me out on LinkedIn because I didn’t answer his questions fast enough? No, he’s probably not gonna make it long in CX/UX.
  • The newbie “UX researcher” who asked me to explain who Don Norman was (versus Googling him)? No, that shows laziness and a lack of curiosity.
  • The person who had a public LinkedIn freak out at me because we disagreed? No, we have lots of disagreements in UX. You’re gonna need resilience!
  • The person who said, “Yeah, I’ve kinda been doing UX work,” and then showed me a jewelry design business or a website project that included zero users and just built what the client asked for? If you think that’s UX, then we don’t agree on what UX is. And if you’ve been “doing UX work,” then you don’t need my apprenticeship, right? You’re employed!

The trick was to find the cream that should be rising to the top, as we say, and look for who had the most potential to do great work while having the right personality for the job. Who is likely to be successful in this career? Not everybody will be successful. CX/UX can be thankless, high pressure, and full of conflict. Who is going to handle that best without resorting to being an order taker to make people happy? 

That’s who I looked for, and I’m very happy with who I found.

You interviewed everybody. That doesn’t scale. What if we have 500 or 10,000 applications?

First of all, close applications after 500 or whatever number you want to stop at. You can create a limit!

A standardized corporate assessment test that’s supposed to look for all of these qualities in people could miss great people. A cognitive test can’t find the same things you will learn from talking to people. We also know that from CX research! I don’t suggest weeding people in or out from cognitive or logic exams. Also, not everybody takes tests well.

Give people a simple online application. Don’t make them write essays and essays and essays. Do you have time to read all those essays? Is that fair to candidates? Then don’t do it. We care about the candidate experience.

Remembering that we are looking for people stuck between education (bootcamp, self study, etc) and qualifying for a first job. You might weed people out for two main reasons.

  1. Exclude anybody who has already had their first CX/UX job. No matter what the title was, if they had a job, that will help them get their next job.
  2. Exclude anybody who should qualify for an entry level job, ie: someone with 1+ years of real work experience. This might include anybody who has been freelancing for 6+ months.

Now let’s make a human connection.

I didn’t try this, but perhaps having candidates sending in a short video or audio talking about themselves, why they want to get into CX/UX, etc. will be a shorter way to weed some people in or out. VideoAsk might be a good tool for that (#notsponsored).

Ask for a 2 minute video from the people who are left. This does not replace an interview. This helps you create the short list. Perhaps you ask candidates to record themselves talking about the most interesting aspect of CX/UX that they’ve learned so far. Or something that surprised them about CX/UX work. Now it’s speed dating time. As these videos play, you might not make it past 15 seconds for some of them. Move on if you have set out clear standards and they don’t meet them.

Even if you have 400 videos to watch, and even if you watched all 2 minutes of each, this is maybe 15 hours of work. The person or people leading your apprenticeship program can narrow 400 people way down in just 3 days, maybe less.

What Roles Were in v1.0 of the Program?

We had:

  • 1 UI/branding apprentice
  • 3 research apprentices
  • 2 active IA/IxD apprentices (who did a lot of work), 2 lurkers (who didn’t have as much time to devote to getting work done)
  • 1 writer/editor

Did anybody quit or find jobs?

Yes. One IA/IxD quit after a few weeks to focus more on the UX of gaming. Our UI apprentice took on a full time job about halfway into their work, and couldn’t make time anymore. 2 researchers got jobs and left after their apprentice work was done (as would be expected… that’s how the program is designed). One IA/IxD apprentice is just starting a part time job, but we hope they will stick around through the end of the first cohort, if they have time. One of our researchers is ready for an entry level job, and we hope they will leave the nest soon. 🙂

Can we combine or hybridize roles?

No, it’s too early to try to make people into mini Jacks-of-All-Unicorns. I suggest that you let researchers learn research and testing. Let architects learn information architecture, interaction design, and prototyping. The point of the program is for people to really dive into one area of CX/UX, level up, learn, practice, and get closer to an entry level job. They are more likely to be hired into your company or impress a future employer if they show some depth and true ability versus shallow but broader skills. Our work is mission critical. Shallow skills don’t usually cut it for long. People can always add specializations and more skills later. Let’s start them with focus and depth in one area

Can this be done remotely?

Absolutely. Mine was. Stop making people come into offices. Pick great people no matter where they are. We lived in Slack and Zoom since we were located in the USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, and Italy.

Do we have to pay these people?

Yes. In 2021, the going rate appears to be $15 USD (and it’s non-USD equivalents) per hour. $15/hr is now minimum wage in some US states. This doesn’t mean we pay minimum wage, but we can use it as a guide.

  • Unpaid internships or apprenticeships might be illegal where you are based. Check labor laws.
  • Unpaid work can be a signal that you don’t really value what they do.
  • Unpaid internships and apprenticeships can run against diversity and inclusion. People who can not afford to work without payment will not be able to join the program.

For my first cohort in 2020, I had no budget. The project was my own SaaS that will eventually be a real paid product anybody can sign up for and use. I gave the apprentices a contract saying that since this was a real product likely to go live and have paying customers in 2021, would they accept a deferred payment. I feel guilt about it nearly every day. I wish I could have paid them in a more timely fashion. Budget and normal, timely payments are part of the plan for cohort 2 and the future.

Do we need Architects and Researchers on our apprentice team?

Totally up to you. Later in this document, I’ll go into the role of your Lead practitioner in this program. If you have a Lead Researcher who can oversee researchers, great. If you have a Lead Architect who can oversee architects, great. If you have a great Lead Architect who hasn’t done much research, they might not make the best apprentice team leader for researchers.

Match the program you can offer to the skills and expertise of the Leads who will oversee the apprentices.

How Much Time and Help Did Apprentices Need?

Between the time they really booked, the time they should have booked :), and the team meetings we should have had but rarely had, I would estimate that each person requires around 1-2 hours per week individually. I also experimented by not forcing anybody into a certain meeting schedule or cadence. I wanted to see who would ask for help or work review, and how often. Left to their own devices, most apprentices only booked an hour with me every 1.5 or 2 weeks. With people juggling jobs, life, and covid-19, plus given that these weren’t officially part time or full time jobs, I didn’t want to push anybody to take on more than they could. 

I’m no fan of endless meetings, but part of coaching apprentices is staying on top of what they’re doing to help them keep leveling up. In the future, I’d like to try a schedule more like this:

  • 60 min 1:1 with each apprentice 2 times a week. 2 hours total for them individually. This could be Tuesday and Friday.
  • 60 min team/peer meetings 2 times a week. Maybe one of these meetings is apprentices only, and one meeting has the Lead/mentor/coach to help. Let’s say we have 4 IA/IxDs on one team. They could each have 15 min to show their work (twice a week) and get peers’ suggestions or brainstorming. This could be Monday and Thursday.
  • 60 min “Apprentice School” each week. This could be live or it could be video courses that you require everybody to view. These could be taught by your team, taught by outside experts you bring in, videos from my YouTube channel, or anything else that is high quality content.

Outside of “normal” work and other meetings like project planning, this would mean 5 hours per week devoted specifically to the program. I like to say that there are 30 real work hours in a 40 hour week (remove lunch time and breaks). Therefore, roughly 17% of the apprentice’s week is related to the program. The rest is getting their work done and having other meetings.

Warning: 

I see too many companies clumping a group of interns together and giving them a project. They guess and stab mostly alone. Someone looks at them for a half hour every week, often telling them they’re doing great. At the end of the term, they present their wacky ideas, and are usually let go. 

I don’t think this makes sense, especially in an industry where most of us agree you learn by doing, and expert coaching is invaluable to learning the right things the right ways from the right people. Let’s not do this with our apprenticeship program (and let’s not do this with internships either).

Who Would Oversee Apprentices?

You need very senior people with years and years of experience. I recommend Lead-level people with 6+ years of experience. When I was a Principal UX Designer at Constant Contact in 2014, part of my job was to mentor 4 juniors. We had 1:1 meetings each week. Plus I ran group classes on various topics to help them level up. 

Make it part of someone’s job.

If you don’t specifically assign someone to the apprentices, it won’t happen organically, especially if everybody is 100% allocated to projects. People will get too busy with meetings and work, and leave the apprentices to themselves like I see too often with internships.

Using my figure of 30 real work hours in a 40 hour week (factoring out lunches and breaks), what allocation should a Lead have for an apprentice team? If 4 apprentices need 2 hours each weekly plus an hour for the apprentice team meeting plus an hour for Apprentice School, then that’s 10 hours of your Lead’s 30 work hours each week for an apprentice team of 4 people. Allocate 35% of that worker’s time to the program. The other 65% can be to projects. 

When I published my Delta CX book in Sept 2019, I estimated that a Lead should be allocated 25% to mentoring and coaching juniors. 25% (7.5 work hours per week) would still be good, but given my apprenticeship experiment, I would suggest closer to a 35% allocation (10.5 hours per week).

Your Lead is the center of this program.

They will probably be selecting who gets into the program. They will decide what they teach, how, and when. They will create standards and review work. This highlights the need for you to hire or have a highly-qualified Lead with at least 6 years of experience in CX/UX Architecture and/or Research.

What if we don’t have Lead/Principal CX/UX staff to oversee apprentices?

Delta CX offers Fractional CX Leadership. We can quote you on a package where our expert mentors can oversee your apprentice team for a certain number of hours per week. We can assign as many coaches as you need for the number of weekly hours we agree on. It will cost a little more than a full time Lead position might cost you, but we’re available! Contact us for a free proposal.

What Might This Cost Our Company?

Let’s say your Lead makes $120,000 USD per year. Let’s say your apprentices each make around $35,000 USD per year ($16.83/hr before taxes are taken out). Thinking of the USA, let’s add 30% on those numbers for perks, benefits, and other costs companies incur for salaried employees. So that’s $156K and $45.5K respectively.

4 apprentices cost you approximately $182K per year in their salaries (4 x $45.5K). 35% of 1 Lead’s time = approximately $55K per year. Now we’re around $237K in human-power for one team for one year. 

If you wanted someone from Delta CX to be your Fractional CX/UX Lead and devote 10 hours per week to a 4-person apprentice team, that’s $78K per year (corp to corp, $150 USD per hour). Add this to $182K in 4 apprentice salaries and that’s an annual budget of $260K.

Later on this page, I’ll examine the many reasons why this is financially worth it. There are many ways for this to pay off. Additionally, companies don’t always calculate the effects of improving CX/UX, but they should. Then things like this would be less of a mystery. It would be clearer what bringing on an apprentice team could improve at your company.

But Debbie, people aren’t loyal. They will get trained and quit!

If your workplace sucks, you’re right. People will seem disloyal, quitting as soon as they can. I always say to workplaces: create a job for me that I enjoy, where I’m appreciated and understood, and where I’m given the time and resources to do great work… and I’m not going anywhere.

If people are flight risks or are quitting, or if your CX/UX department tends to have a CXodus, then you need to make improvements to what’s going on at your company. A great apprenticeship program can help attract people, but it can’t keep them for long if working there sucks. You’ll probably want to check out our Delta CX training program for HR, recruiters, and hiring managers (launching in late February 2021). It teaches how to improve our department, teams, and jobs.

Don’t try to lock people into staying at your company with a work contract that keeps them there. That’s not legal in some places as it can be seen as “indentured servitude.” It’s better to retain people by having great jobs at a great workplace versus trying to contractually force them to stay there.

Yes, that means you’re going to have to improve jobs, culture, and working conditions there so that you are more likely to retain people. Happy people want to stay. Create the job where people want to stay.

What Are The Advantages for My Company?

If you care about people and the strengthening of the CX/UX profession, then maybe you’re not asking how your apprenticeship program makes money. You allocate 35% of your Lead’s time for each group of 4 apprentices, and you just do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Most of the advantages of an apprenticeship program can’t be directly put in a spreadsheet and turned into math. How about the advantages and value of:

Diversity, Equality, Inclusion

This program isn’t just for those who had time and money for college. This is for anybody who shows the right talent, promise, and personality. This program will also bring diversity of age (since you’ll have more career changers), diversity of background (since you’ll have people who previously worked in interesting domains), and – especially if you’re open to remote – diversity across ethnicities, perspectives, and disabilities. 

Passing the Torch

Many seniors and Leads love working with juniors. They find it rewarding. Coachable juniors who are open to feedback and tough love will probably be grateful their whole lives to the chance they got at your company. Which means…

Positive Word of Mouth

People will actually say at least some nice things about working at your company. You might even find people fighting to get those jobs. Be the place people want to work at, not just out of desperation, and not for the minimum time they think they need to for it to not look weird on their resume/CV.

Attract Fresh Talent

Many companies claim to want “fresh” talent. Often, this whispers at ageism because it semi-secretly means “young.” But there are many people of varying ages starting now in CX and UX. They are fresh! Find the dedicated ones who show some skill and promise, the right personalities, and give them a chance.

Create Career Paths

An apprenticeship program is the start of a potential career at your company. Hire the strong apprentices into junior jobs. Keep that knowledge in your company. Save on recruiting. Improve morale.

Also, many Lead-level people want a path to being a Manager. Running an apprentice program, helping people level up, coordinating a team’s work, and semi-managing them provides a path for Leads to be promoted to Managers.

Apprentices Can Find and Fix Problems

Apprentices can research and architect new products and features. But for faster ROI measurements, what if the apprentice team fixed problems that are burning customer support time, hurting customer trust, and bleeding customers? They can research, architect, built, test, and iterate on important fixes to the products and services.

The ROI of High Performers

Companies always want high performers. What if you find apprentices who are high performers? What is the ROI of that? We need to find better ways to measure good and bad work performance in CX/UX jobs.

PR Opportunity

Some companies spin their internships and apprenticeships into PR opportunities, showcasing how they welcome and develop up-and-coming talent. Good PR for doing something great sounds OK. 🙂

Where Do We Start?

Reach out if you need help, but hopefully this page will give you the basics for a model. You mostly need:

 

  • A Lead CX/UX Researcher and/or Architect – who can run the program and oversee the apprentices as part of their job.
  • Standards – who will get in and who is likely to be offered a junior job during or after the apprenticeship. Your qualified and talented Lead should be able to determine who is a good fit.
  • Real projects – don’t give apprentices fake projects, stakeholder ego projects, or the typical internship “hey just come up with something you can improve.” But you won’t want to give them mission-critical projects without extra oversight. They are still learning.
  • Time – You need a Lead who can devote roughly 35% of their allocation to this program. They’ll start with formalizing and documenting how your company will execute on the program. They will review and select candidates. They will teach classes or choose whose video courses the apprentices must go through.
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