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February 10, 2023
A career path in UX can be personal and at times overwhelming—but a mentor or coach can help you achieve your goals. Here’s how to find one.
I entered my first coaching relationship over 13 years ago—although at the time, it never occurred to me to think of it that way.
Wendy was my first manager at an undergrad job at Rochester Institute of Technology. She always had this uncanny ability to ask the most thoughtful questions.
But it wasn’t until I landed a job after college that I became more familiar with what coaching actually was. I was working full time and my boss had a PhD in positive psychology (which, if you haven’t heard of it, is a branch of psychology that focuses on building optimism and nurturing people’s strengths, as opposed to focusing on and correcting their weaknesses). I noticed similarities between this boss and Wendy: he would ask really thoughtful questions, champion me, and acknowledge my experiences.
Having someone to hold space, thoughtfully listen, and allow me to connect to my own unique wisdom was so powerful. These relationships ended up painting the backdrop of my career. They have propelled me to name my inner critic, overcome blocks, and build a more fulfilled life and career for myself.
Mentorship was such a powerful part of my growth that I decided to become a coach so that I could support others in creating the lives they always imagined for themselves.
Although coaching and mentorship is valuable in any industry, it’s become especially popular in UX research and design. This discovery study found that people who do research place a lot of value on mentorship, perhaps because user research is a relatively new industry.
Regardless of the reason, finding a good coach or mentor can help you gain the skills and confidence to succeed in your UX career.
People often use the terms coaching, mentorship, and consulting interchangeably, but the distinctions are important.
Consultants are professionals hired to provide expert advice—they tell you what to do. If you’re looking for career advice, a UX research consultant typically won’t be the right person to go to.
Mentors are trusted advisors who use their energy in service of a problem. People often seek out mentors in order to gain specific knowledge, skills, and experiences. The mentor will act as a guide or trusted advisor to the individual.
Coaches are individuals hired to help with your training and development, operating under the mindset that everyone is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. As coaches, we spend our energy in service of our clients. We use tools like creating a container or safe space, asking powerful questions, and active listening to evoke transformation for our clients.
Does this mean that coaches are less knowledgeable or skilled in your specific role? Maybe, but not always! I use my background in UX and research all the time with my coachees, but I’m not telling them how things worked for me. Rather, I'm helping them uncover what will work best for them!
TLDR: Both coaches and mentors can help you in your life and career. Choosing one or the other all comes down to what you're looking for. If you’re looking for:
Here are some tips to set you up for success when finding the support you need:
A paid mentor or coach asks a price in exchange for their services.
If you’ve never paid for coaching or mentorship, it may be a bit of a shock to you at first! Prices can often range from $400 per hour to $1000+ per hour. In my own experience, I have found it absolutely worth it to work with a paid coach to help me achieve my goals. The caliber or experience and support that I received was second to none.
However, the hefty price tag can make services inaccessible to many. Be sure to speak with your manager or HR team first, as some employers will hire coaches to support employees on the team.
You can also go the unpaid route. I’ve had many mentor relationships begin with peers in my own workplace. Just because someone is unpaid, doesn't mean that they are any less valuable. In fact, I along with others offer free time through ADPList!
The next thing you'll want to do is create a short list of the qualities you're looking for in your coach or mentor. Consider their style, background, and approach.
Make sure the person you're looking for has some kind of relevant background for what you're looking for. This could be in titles/roles, or experience in the space. Take the time to check out references or testimonials to see the type of clients the person may have supported in the past. (Many of the UXRs and ReOps folks in the 2022 User Research Yearbook have mentoring experience—check out the Tutoring Club to browse their profiles.)
For example, last year when I was looking for a coach, I knew that I wanted someone who incorporated mindfulness techniques, as well as a wide range of experiences and diverse clientele.
Credentialing of mentors and coaches is a bit of the wild west, which can make finding a qualified coach a bit confusing. The International Coaching Federation provides a certified coach finder that can help you on your journey. I also recommend networking with peers to get referrals from others. You may find that your teammates may have the perfect person in mind for you!
When you're looking for a mentor or coach, you're not looking for someone with the exact same experiences as you or a best friend.
Instead, they should encourage you to step a bit outside of your comfort zone while also making you feel safe. They should have a diverse perspective and be able to compassionately challenge you to look at things from a different perspective.
Although stepping outside of your comfort zone can sometimes feel unsafe, it’s important to do so from a foundation of physical and psychological safety—more on this in the next section.
The person you choose will be supporting you with your goals! It’s important to make sure that you feel safe with them and you're able to trust them.
This begins from the moment you first interact with them. They should take time to establish trust, confidentiality, logistics, and thoughtfully design an alliance of how you'd like to work together.
A few questions that coaches and mentors often ask mentees include:
❤️ A trustworthy mentor can be a wonderful influence on your mental health. Read the 2023 Self-Care Playbook for UX Researchers to learn why research can be an emotionally taxing career and practical advice from fellow UXRs and mental health experts on how to stay centered.
As you narrow down your search, be sure to take advantage of a free test session. Many mentors and coaches will typically offer a free 20-30 minute test session to see how your styles work together. This is your chance to see how well the person meets your needs.
It’s also okay if they end up not being the right fit for you! Listen to your gut if something feels off with someone, and don’t be afraid to withdraw from particular coaching sessions if they’re not working for you
For example, last year, while I was on my search for a new coach, someone wanted to dive into trauma work during our second session despite having no background in therapy or counseling. With a partner in social work, this was a huge red flag for me. I politely declined and decided not to pursue that coaching relationship any further.
You deserve a coach and mentor as unique as you! Use these helpful resources to help you on your journey.
Whether you’re an experienced user researcher looking to level up your career from IC to manager, a research team of one, or an aspiring UXR just breaking into the industry, coaching or mentoring can help you get to the next step in achieving your goals.
VP, User Research
Roberta Dombrowski is a (former) VP, UXR at User Interviews. In her free time, Roberta is a Career Coach and Mindfulness teacher through Learn Mindfully.
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