Mentoring as an investment

Original author: Chris Poteet
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Have you ever asked how is your project, in which you invested a huge amount of time and energy, to hear that “from that time they completely changed the design”?

I had it, and it left me with a feeling of desolation.

Having floundered for a while, I realized that I needed to find a new way of thinking about how I work, and what really matters in my career as a consultant. And my answer is: a sign of a really good consultant is investing in people. The emphasis on investing in people ensures that you will continue to work and see the results even after the redesign of the application, and that this is the very change that matters in the long run.

In this article we will consider three areas on which we can focus our efforts: mentoring, training clients and members of our own team. I hope this helps us to be the best consultants and make the best investments.

Mentoring for clients as an investment

There are always opportunities to invest in people “on the client side”, but these opportunities may not always be obvious. I will give two examples.

On a recent project, I acted as a designer paired with a recently hired UX director, who was a little puzzled by the new work. When we talked, it became obvious that he needed a mentor who would deal with him, since he was not able to cope on his own.

I spent lunch with this man, talking about the UX strategy, how my company drew up the process description, and ultimately I worked on a project in which I invited him to help me with a study of the user audience.

You will probably decide that this mentoring was not part of my work. I did it because it was right. It was an opportunity to invest in something more than the current project, and see how someone blossoms right before your eyes, and this makes the investment of time much more valuable.

Towards the end of working with this client, he was incredibly grateful that I spent my time on him to direct him in the right direction, which allowed him to manage the UX capabilities much better than before. For me, this turned out to be the most satisfactory work that I have done over the years. Fortunately, both my company and the client were incredibly grateful for the time I spent on their people.

The second example relates to an implementation. I was an interface designer for an intranet project, and the client had a talented user interface specialist who had some questions about the CMS and the approach we used. The situation was complicated by the fact that we took up the project after they fired another company for its inability to complete the task. This woman received meager advice from a previous artist, and she really had a lot of questions about how to implement everything correctly. It’s pretty easy to get tired with external consultants, and I wanted to make sure that she and her team could trust us.

I made an appointment with her twice a week for all four months of implementation. Before we even started development, we marked out the volumes of work and discussed all the details, down to such little things as class names in CSS. Constant meetings gave her the opportunity to understand and contribute throughout the process.

Another advantage of this approach (except for those that accumulate in the process of cooperation) is that in the end there was no significant transfer of knowledge. It was something that was part of the project from the very beginning.

As companies become more rational, we can reap the double benefits of closer collaboration and knowledge sharing: firstly, we spend much less time writing a lot of documentation, as we exchange everything along the way, and secondly, the solution has a much greater chance of long-term success, since we spend time investing in these people who will take over when we leave.

Customer training as an investment

We can also educate clients, even if they do not personally live in the world of UX. The large intranet project I was working on was originally supposed to be responsive, but back in the beginning it became obvious that the design developed for it was not done in the best way so that my company could implement it; it was not designed for mobile devices.

I had two options: either I simply score on it, do my work and move on, or I spend time trying to get the client’s attention and train him. I knew that this project was already moving on, but I could lay the foundation for the future success of the client.

The first thing to evaluate is whether the client is interested in such a relationship. Sometimes, despite your good intentions, clients are only interested in deadlines, and do not want to spend a large amount of paid time learning or retraining.

And I had to ask myself a question: what is valuable to me? Am I here just for the money, or can I help make a lasting change and provide real value?

This client was not a UX practitioner, and he needed an expert whom he could trust. It’s quite difficult to work with people who are not connected with UX, since you have to explain to them in detail why it is important to do everything right, even if they don’t understand the consequences or don’t appreciate the time it takes to do everything right.

I pulled him into several personal meetings where we talked about everything, starting with the correct definition of responsive design, understanding mobile-oriented design, and even about things like using and misusing carousels on the home page. In the end, this not only improved our relationship, but also gave me a higher level of trust and understanding from the client.

It was this client who was ready for discussions and was even delighted with the expansion of our cooperation, but if you come across a client who doubts, do not give up. Show him the quantitative advantages of expanding cooperation, focusing on your past experience, or on the fact that the time spent on you will turn into dividends in the future.

Remember that even if some things cannot be changed in the short term, you can invest in people for the next project and in the longer term.

Teams as an investment

There is another last group that we should not forget about - our employees. These are people who become almost a family, which will never happen to customers. Project by project, these are the people with whom we work, and to some extent these are the most strategic people to invest in, but at the same time it is sometimes very difficult to do, because we can simply not notice them.

When our company introduced SASS CSS preprocessors, my team consisted mainly of young people who were looking for leaders in all areas. This time I got the opportunity to help others use this powerful tool. I took the lead in understanding the implications and how to use it in our team, after which I spent a lot of time with each member of the UX team to help them understand how to use the technology in terms of program and process. Using this opportunity improves relations with members of your team and shows them that you care a lot about their professional development.

To date, members of this team are contacting me with questions and in search of best practices, since they trust me. It's amazing how such a small thing as a CSS preprocessor can help you in your relationship with your team.

Each of us has our own motivation for the work that we do, and I imagine that for most of us money (in the best sense) is not the main factor. Instead, talented people try to become experts, introducing change and guiding the rest. True leaders are not given the opportunity to lead — they find such an opportunity. Leadership within your organization will make you as indispensable as possible.

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