Five Rules for Mentoring in UX


To succeed, both mentor and mentee need to derive benefit

I try to follow five rules for mentoring new user experience professionals, from my perspective as a mentor. But before I go over these rules, I’ll start by discussing a few key concepts.

Note: a 5-minute IGNITE presentation of these 5 rules of mentoring is available here:
5 Rules for Mentoring New User Experience Professionals

What’s the difference between teaching and mentoring?

To mentor is “to teach or give advice or guidance to (someone, such as a less experienced person or a child)… “
− Merriam-Webster Dictionary

However, teaching (or coaching) is related to tasks and often comes with a specific agenda (the teacher’s). Mentoring is related to personal choice and also comes with an agenda (the mentee’s).

With teaching, the teacher drives the agenda, as in, “I’m going to teach you something.” If I’m your teacher, you may be working for me. With mentoring, the person being mentored drives the agenda. And the mentor may or may not be your boss.

In mentoring, both people benefit. The person being mentored gains something that has a perceived value, and the mentor has a chance to give back knowledge given to him when he started out in this field.

People new to this field find it helpful if someone can explain what we do. I usually differentiate among three areas: (1) usability research & testing, (2) information architecture, and (3) design. Then I try to see how people’s interests match up to one of these areas.

Rule #1: Sometimes your boss can be your mentor

As a boss, I mentor people interested in usability research & testing, in terms of practical techniques & methods. I also advise around classes & degree programs that may apply.

If you establish a UX practice, people will seek you out. As someone who’s established a UX practice in my company and someone who graduated from Bentley’s program in Human Factors, people do reach out to me. In many cases, people observed a usability test and got excited about it, as in,“What’s all this usability stuff everybody’s talking about?”

Mentors can provide learning opportunities for mentees. As your mentor, I can show you – in 3-6 months – how to run usability tests with participants, which is about 75% of the usability testing work I’ve done. You enable your mentees to shadow & observe, then note take; and, after training, moderate sessions by themselves.

What you’re ultimately giving your mentees is confidence. So this relationship can work if both parties concentrate on UX as a *PURE* learning experience. Why is this important… because…

Rule #2: Sometimes your boss can NOT be your mentor

The problem with having your boss as your mentor is that he may have a limited worldview that may not extend to you. This almost always derives from company goals.

One thing all bosses have to focus on are the overall goals of the company, and these are driven down to employees as performance-based objectives. And you, the mentee, are the performer. These objectives can introduce conflict.

If you’re a mentee, your own objectives for gaining UX experience may not fit in with your boss’ objectives for you. For example, you may want to go to a user experience conference, but your boss may want you to go to an industry conference instead. So if you’re a mentee, seek out someone who is not your boss for your mentor.

Rule #3: A mentor is responsible for guiding and assisting the mentee, based on a social contract

The mentor is responsible for guiding and assisting the menthe, and the mentee is responsible for her learning or progress. This is a social contract that both parties set up and agree to (formally or informally).

A mentee might ask such questions as:

  • “How can I break into this field?”
  • “Is now the time to switch careers?”
  • “Any classes you would recommend?”
  • “How do I set up a portfolio?”

When there are no right or wrong answers, a mentor is there to present options, based on the goals laid out in the social contract.

Rule #4: You can’t mentor a stone

Does mentoring work all the time? Of course not. Sometimes, menses are not self-aware and believe that their skills and abilities are greater than they actually are.

Some times the mentee is technophobic, or unable to listen, can’t collaborate, or is incapable of moderating usability sessions, designing solutions, or collaborating with others. In these cases, you have to tear up that social contract. As a mentor, you have to be prepared to accept failure.

Rule #5: Perspective is additive

Rule #5 is the most important rule: Perspective is additive. We all have a unique way of thinking and we all have different experiences to draw on. So we need to add other people’s perspectives into this big UX mix.

Because let’s face it: we can’t make carbon copies of ourselves. And anybody who tells you otherwise probably needs his ego re-aligned.

As a UX community, we benefit celebrating differences. For example, in usability research, some people want to try new methodologies, while others master tried and true methods.

By mentoring, we’re enabling people to share with us their unique points of view. This collective perspective gives us a better outcome. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t learned from my experiences as a mentor and as a menthe.


  • Rule #1: Sometimes, your boss can be your mentor
  • Rule #2: Sometimes, your boss can’t be your mentor (in other words, find someone else)
  • Rule #3: A mentor is responsible for guiding and assisting the mentee, based on a social contract
  • Rule #4: You can’t mentor a stone
  • Rule #5: Perspective is additive

A 5-minute IGNITE presentation of these 5 rules of mentoring is available here:
5 Rules for Mentoring New User Experience Professionals

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