Such a smart and successful bunch of UX and digital design veterans had agreed to share their wisdom with l'il ole me, a mature student in the final phase of an MSc in UX design. My main priority was to get through the day without embarrassing myself or giving them cause to regret inviting me to join their ranks.
The plan for my next three months was to complete my major degree project, which involved creating and testing a design prototype, on a topic that would provide value to the Clearleft team. James Bates and I had batted a few ideas around but nothing was concrete yet.
I spent some time in my first few weeks having one-to-ones with any member of the team that could spare 20 minutes, which was a great way to break the ice and understand how all the elements of the agency machine work together. I was impressed by how multi-skilled every team member is, with expertise reaching well beyond the scope their job titles might suggest. This 'T-shaped' approach is something that is at the heart of how Clearleft operates and has no doubt played a part in developing the high level of mutual respect and camaraderie that exists within the team.
One piece of sage advice I got in the first week - I forget whether from Jeremy or Richard (or both) - was "You might not be invited but you'll always be welcome". It became clear early on that there wouldn't be any hand-holding at Clearleft, so if I wanted to get the most value out of this experience, I needed to find my own ways to get included. I started scanning through the meeting room calendars to see what projects or workshops were coming up that I could observe or participate in. This was a great way to get involved in projects that I wouldn't have otherwise had the opportunity to work on - a useful learning hack for any juniors in a similar position.
I was fortunate to get the chance to participate in several design sprints, one with the BBC and two with Virgin Holidays (although one of the Virgin projects was actually three weeks long, so it's arguable whether the term 'design sprint' strictly applies there). This gave me the opportunity to get fully immersed in these projects and observe how the team approach collaborative client sprints. I found it interesting to see which UX methods they chose to help us reach our project goals and I learnt a few useful new techniques along the way.
After discussion with James Box and the UX team, I decided to focus my project on devising a toolkit to enable the sharing of materials on UX techniques. Initially my focus would be to develop an internal system for the team to use but with a longer term goal of opening it up to the wider UX community. This was a great opportunity to delve deeper into a wide range of techniques and learn how expert practitioners choose which ones to apply. Getting input from the Clearleft team was hugely valuable throughout the project and the advice I received really helped me to grow as a UX designer. I'm planning to build the toolkit over the next few months so hopefully it will be coming to a screen near you in 2018.
I learnt a huge amount in my time at Clearleft, observing practitioners at the top of their game, working with some fantastic clients and developing my own skillset as a result.
Here are a few more of my takeaways:
"It depends" can and will be used to answer almost any UX question.
I had realised that there are many shades of grey in the world of UX, but I gained a deeper appreciation of just how comfortable with uncertainty UXers need to be. "It depends" is actually the only responsible answer to many questions, as nobody can ever truly predict how users will behave.
Grey highlighters can improve literally any sketch.
My drawing skills are yet to be successfully fine tuned (I flunked my art GCSE), but in the meantime I have grey highlighters on my side. I don't leave home without them.
Design sprints are exhausting.
Especially when they're three-week long (sort-of) sprints. Focusing all your efforts on collaborating with your teammates is a tiring business, so if you're not feeling drained by the end of the day you're probably not doing it right.
Everybody works totally differently and that's ok.
Each practitioner uses different tools, techniques, thought processes and styles, but they often achieve the same goals. I realised that as I develop as a UXer, I need to find my own path that resonates best for me, rather than trying to copy anyone else's.
My time at Clearleft made a huge impression on me and I'm so grateful to have had that opportunity. I now have a clearer sense of how I want to develop my skills as a UX practitioner and I'm excited about the journey ahead.
Find Kate on Twitter @katerickard_x