Hacking the AUX application process

by Alex Holachek

Featuring input from current AUX participants: Trevor Waldorf, Brian Madrigal, Lindsay Burke, and Alex Holachek

The Fresh Tilled Soil Apprenticeship in User Experience (AUX) program receives up to fifty applications each session for five or fewer open spots, and the application process can initially seem a bit daunting.

In this blog post, the current crop of AUX participants will walk you through the application process, discussing each step in turn and offering tips on how to prepare. To learn more about the AUX program itself, stay tuned for our upcoming blog posts, or check out the AUX page.

First, a brief overview: Approximately twice a year, Fresh Tilled Soil announces that applications for the AUX program will be open for the next two weeks. The announcement goes out on Twitter and in email form to anyone who has signed up using the form on the AUX homepage. To apply, you send in two items: a link to your online portfolio, and a link to a specific case study. A week later, those who have made the initial cut are invited to an in-person workshop at Fresh Tilled Soil headquarters in Watertown, MA. At the close of the workshop, participants are given a week-long UX challenge. The following week, everyone joins together once again, this time on a remote conference call, to present their UX projects for approximately 10 minutes. Fresh Tilled Soil notifies the accepted applicants the following week.

Initial application: submitting a case study and portfolio

Every round of applications to the AUX program so far has required a portfolio and case study, yet all of us waited until the official announcement of the two-week open period to make sure we had the necessary items. Don’t do this! Trevor and Lindsay saw the announcement while they were traveling, and had to work hard at the last minute to get everything ready. Brian suggests continually “being proactive about making top notch work to add to your portfolio,” and Lindsay says, “I would recommend that every designer have a case study that you feel proud of, and a live portfolio website.”

Ok, you should have a portfolio and a case study ready, but what should they look like? Trevor did some background research beforehand so that he could understand what Fresh Tilled Soil might want. “I scoured AUX reflection blog posts, public resumes and case studies of past participants,” he says, before writing his case study.

Design Thinking bootcamp: learning to think like a Fresh Tilled Soil designer

Once you get invited to the bootcamp, the first consideration, especially if you are not local to the Boston area, is how you are going to get to the Fresh Tilled Soil office in Watertown. From downtown Boston or Cambridge, if you don’t have a car, you can take a few public buses, but you might want to spring for an Uber in the morning to make sure you get there on time.

If you’ve never heard of design thinking (I hadn’t), check out this handout for a brief overview in preparation.

Don’t be intimidated by the name “bootcamp”! As Lindsay recalls, “the whole experience just felt more like an interactive workshop than a bootcamp,” and Trevor says that although he was initially nervous, “everyone at the bootcamp was smart, humble and extraordinarily kind. It was like spending the day with 20 new super-achieving friends once I got past the ‘oh-no-I-have-to-interact-with-other-humans’ anxiety.”

Brian advises any future participants “to try and be confident and understand that if this opportunity isn’t for you, then keep moving forward and don’t be discouraged.”

Design Sprint: a condensed UX challenge

The challenges are different each session, but ours was to redesign the ticket purchasing flow for a major airline’s website. The week-long design sprint is undoubtedly the most intense part of the application process, doubly so if you are juggling a full-time job or other obligations at the same time, as Lindsay and I were. But there are a few things you can keep in mind to make sure you are optimizing your time.

First, play to your strengths. As a developer rather than a designer, I ended up spending much of my time (after doing my user interviews) building a prototype web app to show off my solution to the challenge. I was worried that this would hurt me, as I had less time to focus on traditional UX deliverables, but I was able to show the individual skills I would bring to the program.

Trevor had another unique approach that paid off when it came time to present his work:

“I knew I had to do something interesting that showed initiative and pushed my comfort zone,” he says. “Not being from Boston also meant I had no in-person network to draw on, so I bought a clip board at Staples on Monday morning and took the free bus out to where the travelers hang – the airport. Approaching people cold and asking for five minutes of their time (Bostonians, no less!) was low-key terrifying, but after spending the morning interviewing people in different demographics I had pages of notes with which to build personas and characters.”

Second, make sure you are doing everything with an eye to the final presentation, which is after all what you will be evaluated on. Brian says, “I spent more time brainstorming than building and iterating, which was a huge mistake. I started building on Wednesday, so that left me little time to do much. I spent Wednesday-Saturday building the prototype. I realized on Sunday that I left very little time to make a presentation deck.”

Presentation: Explaining Your Process

The presentation is where it all comes together. Your ability to articulate your individual process and how it led you to potential solutions is key. As Lindsay says, “be ready to back up your design with the research you complete during your sprint.”

Don’t shy away from talking about what didn’t end up working. Trevor says, “The presentation sufficiently portrayed my process and a prototype while showing how two of my three associated hypotheses ended up mostly wrong.”

As always with presentations, practice several times before the big day, and make sure that you’re hitting the big points: the problem statement you articulated, the potential solutions you explored, and the particular solution you chose and why.

Finally, think about sticking around for at least a few of the other applicants’ presentations. The different approaches used by your peers can be eye-opening and inspiring.

In conclusion

The most important point we can collectively convey is that the application process itself, independent of outcome, is very valuable for UX designers and developers. The initial application is a great impetus to polish up your portfolio and case study, the workshop on design thinking is a fantastic UX skill-builder, and finally, the week-long challenge is an invigorating test of your skills.

About Fresh Tilled Soil

Fresh Tilled Soil is a Boston-based user interface and experience design firm focused on human centered digital design