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Learning by doing: how bootcamp chewed up amateurs and spit out apprentices


This post was written by Mel Choyce, a Fresh Tilled Soil apprentice. Check out all our apprenticeship posts.

When they called it “bootcamp,” they weren’t kidding around.

We’re the class of ‘13 Winter apprentices, a motley crew of designers and developers. We come from different places, backgrounds, and jobs. Some of us left our current jobs to become apprentices. Despite our backgrounds, we’ve come together for one thing: become bloody brilliant UX designers.

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind. We’ve had daily seminars, various reading assignments, one massive challenge, and an office move. If you’re interested in becoming a future apprentice or are looking for more information on how the AUX program works, here’s a recap of Bootcamp:


In the past two weeks, we’ve been given seventeen different seminars. Almost every single Fresh Tilled Soil team member has presented to us.

We learned about a breadth of design and development topics: color theory, typography, design patterns, progressive enhancement, web architecture and performance, accessibility, and even a three hours long workshop devoted to learning how to prototype in Fireworks.

While some topics were familiar to us, others were wildly new. Almost all topics were presented through the lens of user experience. Probably our most enlightening (and challenging) seminar was Designing Your Career by Richard, whose ambitious talk prompted us to figure out what we want to do with the rest of our lives.

These seminars were all integral in setting the stage for what’s to come in our apprenticeship. They’ve formed the building blocks for every challenge or assignment we have to come. Now that we have the basics, we can work on honing each individual topic.

The Challenge

Towards the end of the first week, we received our design challenge: complete the discovery and strategy phase for a hypothetical green travel app. Our focus was on understanding our users and their goals.

We started with some basic product research, then we narrowed down some potential users and did some brief, but thorough, qualitative research. Through various connections we each had to friends, family and acquaintances who frequently travel, we conducted interviews and compiled our findings into what we thought were the application’s four key user personas.

Dave and Mat write down persona characteristics while Sean advises Dave at the whiteboard Xin and Sean brainstorming Sketches of our four user personas

Together, we researched our user’s habits, actions, and goals. What tasks would they need to accomplish in our application? What influence did they have over product adoption? Where did they book travel plans? On what devices? How would users flow through the application to accomplish their goals?

Betty, our administrative assistant persona A chart describing the influence and frequency of product use for user personas vs customer personas: The devices our personas could use, with desktop circled as the most frequently used device

We found that our primary users were business people, and that they mostly booked travel arrangements on their desktop computers at work. Most of the trip booking was done by people like administrative assistant, who would book flights for other employees. With this in mind, we switched gears and proposed a website solution instead of the native app the client proposed.

Once we charted out our users’ goals, habits, and tasks, we each came up with a different set of wireframes to address our personas’ needs. Despite working individually on solutions, we checked in with each other frequently, providing advice, guidance, and encouragement.

Once we finished our wireframes, we presented our overall findings together and then our individual solutions to the Fresh Tilled Soil office for critique. Having my work thoroughly examined by a room full of incredibly talented professionals was daunting, but that kind of critique was one of the key reasons I chose to apply to the AUX program. Throughout my career, I’ve had a distinct lack of helpful, constructive critique, and my work had definitely suffered because of it.

This first challenge was a great way to get introduced to UX research, and was an essential way for the Fresh Tilled Soil team to gauge our individual and collective skills. We learned by doing, following closely along with our readings from About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design. As a result, I feel much more prepared for future project strategy and discovery phases.


Easily the most important theme of Bootcamp was teamwork. It came up in our seminars: working with fellow designers, working with fellow developers, being a part of a team. It came up in our readings: Mike Monteiro tells us that “working with other (talented) designers makes you a better designer, and is essential to your professional development, especially early in your career.” (Design is a Job) He implores designers to work together and overcome the pettiness, self-superiority and unhealthy competition that plagues our community.

Most importantly, though, teamwork was a key piece of our challenge. Our seminar was researched, written, and presented together. We were told that if one of us failed, our entire team failed. We were being judged as a whole.

Teamwork, without a doubt, is one of the most important skills to learn as a web professional. Even as a freelancer don’t work alone—you still have clients, whose teams you’re temporarily joining. You’re not just working for someone, you’re working with someone.

I’ve worked on teams before. I’ve worked with fellow designers and developers, project managers, content strategists, startup founders, and clients from all kinds of industries. I’ve had positive experiences, negative experiences, teammates that didn’t respect me, teammates I didn’t respect, and frankly, way too many time where I’ve been that designer—arrogant, overbearing, and quite frankly, a total ass.

This was one of the first times I really felt like I belonged on a team. This project would not have succeeded if we were working individually. Together, we triumphed.

I think I’m finally learning what it really means to be a great designer… And it only took two weeks of getting my ass kicked.

Mat, Sean, Xin and Dave researching


Supplementary Readings and Resources

In addition to seminars, we received some supplementary reading assignments to help beef up our design and UX chops.

Before the program even started, we had some prework assignments based off of Tim Wright’s Learning JavaScript, which was honestly the first time anyone’s ever managed to successfully explain JavaScript to me. I feel pretty empowered to tackle JS issues in the future based on the working knowledge I’ve gained from Tim’s book.

(You can check out our assignments: Mel, Dave, Sean, Mat, Xin)

Additionally, we read Andy Rutledge’s Design Professionalism and Mike Monteiro’s Design is a Job, which I’ve written on before and consider to be the ultimate web designer’s handbook. These assignments were incredibly important, as they form the basis for our behavior as web professionals.

During bootcamp, we were given three books to start reading: About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design, a beast of a textbook on UI, UX and interaction design, Thinking With Type, a really great book on typography, and Steal Like an Artist, a fun little book full of inspiration, encouragement and advice.


Author Mel Choyce

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