The Craft of UX: What We Can Learn From Bakers’ Guilds

When I entered the job market, bright-eyed and clutching a newly-minted Human-Computer Interaction diploma, I was confident that a lush future lay ahead of me. I had a serious rude awakening when I hit the real world.

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It turned out that despite my brand-new degree in human-computer interaction, I wasn’t the well-rounded practitioner that I needed to be. I was far from a UX craftsman.

Luckily, I landed a job by the seat of my pants, and even more luckily, I scored a fantastic mentor. She was whip-smart, patient and supportive, and she shaped me into a bona fide strategist and user experience architect. This story ends happily for me, but I was lucky, and that’s frightening. It shouldn’t be a matter of luck whether a hardworking user experience professional can learn how to produce quality work; it should be standard and expected.

As Lane Halley puts it, “There’s often a mismatch between academic programs and the demands of employment.” We need to address this mismatch. We should comprehensively train those new to the field so we can be confident that everyone calling themselves a user experience practitioner is capable of actually doing the job.

We can do this by taking the practice of user experience seriously as a craft, and training new practitioners as craftsmen. What do other crafts value? How do other crafts grow their talent? The German Bakers’ Guild makes for an excellent case study, full of inspiring examples that we can mine and apply to our own field.

Guilds care about building foundational skills

Germans demand over 300 varieties of fresh, high-quality bread, and about 70% of master bakeries in Germany belong to their local guild. German bakers take very seriously the task of growing new talent, and incoming bakers take very seriously the task of becoming a baker. It takes quite a lot of work to become a master baker; one doesn’t decide to do it overnight. It starts with about two years as an apprentice, attending school half time and getting their hands dirty in the bakery half time. Apprentices can then become journeymen, and with another couple years of night classes, they can qualify to be a master baker. (The privilege of taking on new apprentices requires additional certifications.) All in all, this amounts to six to eight years of training.

Why do they go to all this effort to train their bakers? Isn’t bread kind of a simple thing? Nope. Baking is a craft, and master bakers care deeply about maintaining a high standard of quality for their products. This system allows guilds to determine what foundational skills are necessary, and then lay out a path for acquiring those skills. Apprentices don’t just learn how to follow bread recipes, but instead acquire a holistic, sensory understanding of math and chemistry and ratios, one so rich that they’ll know by touch whether the bread is done and by taste whether the yeast is fully fermented.

Similarly, the user experience profession has foundational skills that are essential in producing quality work, and user experience problems can’t be solved following a simple recipe. All the pretty wireframes in the world doesn’t do any good if you haven’t nailed down essentials like active listening, storytelling and problem-solving. These are some of the skills that make user experience valuable, and they should be taught and practiced at that foundational level.

What ideas can we steal from guilds today?

How can we bring these principles to UX? We could overhaul UX and institute a guild system, or more immediately, we could look for little things we can do on an individual level, as mentors and bosses, as people with something to teach.

1. Hire for potential

Someone who wants to be a baker in Germany really wants it; it’s their calling and their passion. This is a quality we should look for in UX as well. We should be picky and take on those who have the greatest potential over those who know the greatest number of software tools. We should hire someone who is curious, someone with humility, someone who genuinely wants to learn.

2. Set expectations

In a guild, everyone knows what their role is: the master, the apprentice, the guild organization itself. Similarly, user experience as a field needs to set expectations for these relationships. Mentors understand that in bringing on someone green, they’ve committed to shaping him or her into an accomplished craftsman. They understand their obligation to provide this person with learning opportunities, not just crap work.

Similarly, a good apprentice understands that they are to develop foundational skills and they won’t be rock stars right out the door. These skills (storytelling, problem-solving, listening) are not sexy skills to the untrained eye, but they are really damn important. Someone whose expectations are set accordingly will be absolutely thrilled for the opportunity to develop these skills.

3. Provide mentors

It’s essential that new craftsmen see how accomplished masters handle tricky situations, and receive personal guidance and feedback from those masters when they themselves take on challenges. While it’s not always possible in tough business environments to create a true one-to-one apprentice:mentor model, there are many ways to satisfy the core need to expose practitioners to brilliant problem-solvers and the creative solutions they employ. For example, while pairing juniors and seniors together on projects is actually fairly common, it isn’t always done well. Sometimes the pair opts to divide and conquer rather than doing things together. Alas, it’s not helpful to stick the junior in a back room to churn out wireframes while the master goes to an important strategy meeting.

It’s essential for the junior to see the senior, the master, in action. Equally important is the opportunity for dialogue about and critique of the junior’s work, so that the junior can learn and grow and improve.

4. Build a network

A guild is a network of professionals. If you’re part of a guild, you know all the other bakers in town. User experience professionals also build vast networks of personal connections, and in fact, that’s how a lot of us got our jobs. We should pay it forward and help new people get their own networks started. Don’t be the only designer this person knows, because that’ll just suck for both of you. Introduce them to people, take them out to happy hours, and be creative about helping them grow their networks so that when they leave your tutelage, they have a network to build on.

It’s worth the work

We may not be able to institute guilds overnight, but perhaps we don’t need to. There are things we can do tomorrow as individuals, and every little bit counts. Even if you don’t have much experience yourself, there’s always someone, a student perhaps, who can benefit from your knowledge and experience.

Growing people who are capable of doing all that UX requires is no trivial task, but it’s important. The good name of our profession rests on it, and our ability to work with brilliant, inspiring colleagues rests on it. If we take it upon ourselves to grow our professionals, we wind up with smart, competent people who make functional and delightful things, who are a delight to work with. That’s worth working for.

Midwest UX 2012

Want to know more about this topic? Leanna Gingras will be one of the speakers at the Midwest UX Conference in Columbus, Ohio (US).

Leanna Gingras

Leanna is the User Research Coordinator at ITHAKA and a problem-solver by trade. As part of her calling to create holistic and delightful experiences, she manages research studies, conducts social experiments on teammates, and juggles between quantitative and qualitative analysis.

3 comments on this article

  1. Karl Fast on

    As a professor who teaches UX, I’ve come to see the master’s degree as less about mastery and more about the path to mastery.

  2. Jared Comis on

    As a current HCI student myself, I found this post very valuable and absolutely agree with everything you said here. I really wish the industry would start thinking in this way when hiring and developing talent.

  3. Rob Gillham on

    I do agree with you that we need an industry that polices itself, I’m increasingly annoyed by the number of no-nothing cowboys who can get away with calling themselves ‘UX’ -this or -that.

    I also agree with your point that academic HCI routes to a UX career can disadvantage one initially, compared to graduates of more vocational, hands-on design subjects.

    Nonetheless, I resist the notion that UX is a ‘craft’, and there’s nothing wrong with a solid theoretical foundation for one’s work. Having a proper framework to hang my hat on has stood me in great stead over the years – particularly when I have found myself in ambiguous situations where a craft-based designer would be saying ‘hmm, I’ve never worked on anything like this before!’

    So I like your comparison to a Guild, but I’d rather be Chartered Profession ;-)