6 Steps for Launching a Seamless UX Mentorship Program
Offering a UX mentorship program at your company can hugely benefit everyone involved—but there are some pitfalls to avoid.
Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Sáenz
Mentorship is one of the best and fastest ways to up-level your user research career. I learned this quite a few years ago. I was a user research team of one who never had formal training unless you call Googling "What do user personas look like?" or "What are insights?" training.
Often, I would create a report or deliverable, send it out, and that would be it. I wouldn't look back on my work because I didn't know how I could improve or change it. So instead, I spun my wheels, trying to pull feedback from colleagues. Was this report helpful? What did they think of my journey map? Was that even what a journey map was supposed to be like?
As I grew in my career and encountered different organizations, I realized that management did not equal mentorship, even in companies with multiple researchers or where I had a UXR manager.
However, I could tell people were looking for mentorship. There were constant asks for feedback or learning new skills. So, I decided to implement an internal mentorship program to help the team grow.
What is an internal mentorship program?
My goal behind creating an internal mentorship program was to help the team strengthen and improve their skills. Not only did this program help with technical skills, but it also gave people a chance to understand what it was like to coach others. By connecting people on the team, there were more opportunities for people to learn and flex skills they weren't using daily.
This internal mentorship program also took away pressure from the team's managers. People wouldn't rely solely on their manager to provide mentorship or learning opportunities. Instead, they had a pool of people to talk to and learn from. The mentorship program helped them understand what projects they might be able to shadow, or parts of the process they could help with to form new skills.
The mentorship program broke down silos and got the team to communicate better about current projects and past work. We all became aware of the "go-to" person for specific skills, and who we could pull in to support us in our projects. Not only were we learning new skills, we were also learning about each other—and how our team could best operate.
I assumed that a mentorship program would fix all the problems that my colleagues were facing, and that it would be the perfect solution to get them what they needed. However, that wasn't the case. I launched the mentorship program, and no one came.
Founder, User Research Academy
It took me several iterations to create a mentorship program that was effective and efficient. But over time, I gathered feedback from colleagues and implemented it in several different organizations — learning something new each time.
If you decide to start a mentorship program, make sure you are ready to gather feedback and iterate! Here are the steps I go through when creating a mentorship program at an organization.
Step 1: Determine interest levels
This step was the first I failed at when I started. I assumed that a mentorship program would fix all the problems that my colleagues were facing, and that it would be the perfect solution to get them what they needed.
However, that wasn't the case. I launched the mentorship program, and no one came. Colleagues cited various reasons: the commitment was too significant, they weren't sure they would get what they needed, and they didn't know how to contribute.
Since I didn't gauge interest in the topic, I also didn't learn what people needed and expected. So, before starting a mentorship program, I begin by asking people:
How would you define a mentorship program?
What are two outcomes you would expect from being a part of a mentorship program?
What would you expect the commitment to be like if you were a part of this program?
How might you contribute to a mentorship program?
Have you ever been a part of a mentorship program? Why or why not?
What are two reasons you would join a mentorship program?
Would you be willing to be a mentee, mentor, or both?
I know these are a lot of future-based questions, which I always say never to ask, but the stakes are lower in this case as we are talking to our colleagues rather than users.
Step 2: Define your program
There are many ways to create a mentorship program at your organization. Define your program once you see enough interest. Ideally, this definition would be directly related to your initial research. So, based on what your colleagues mentioned, you could cater to their expectations and needs.
There are three ways I have set up mentorship in the past:
1. One-on-one mentorship matches
In this program, I facilitate match-making based on current skills and opportunity areas each person says. This is my favorite type of program because I believe it fosters the most growth, but it can also be the trickiest to set up.
2. Group mentorship
In a group mentorship program, the interested colleagues decide on different topics to cover together. We then choose a facilitator who is strong in each given topic. This person then leads a discussion, activities, or a feedback session on the subject. As a result, group mentorship can foster great conversation and become less complicated with scheduling and match-making.
3. Book club
A user research book club is a loose form of mentorship that doesn't require quite the same commitment. As a group, you choose a book and select a facilitator to lead the discussion for each session. The book club could be one chapter a week or a quarterly conversation after everyone has finished the book.
There are plenty of other forms out there, but these have been the programs I’ve tried. Getting that initial feedback is pivotal in defining the best type of program for your organization and colleagues.
Step 3: Structure the program
Once you decide on your program type, it’s time to get started! Since one-on-one mentorship programs are the most complex and my favorite, I’ll walk you through how I structure these programs.
The first thing I do is create a document or deck to explain the program. In this document, I include:
The purpose/goal of the program
This section contains why I set up the program and what I hope it will achieve.
What people can expect
Within this section, I list out:
What value people can expect from the mentorship program
How they can participate in the program
The type of commitment the program requires from them
Skills - You can expect to learn new skills or improve upon your opportunity areas based on a colleague's experience. If you volunteer to be a mentor, you can also gain coaching and mentorship experience.
Participation type - There are three ways to participate in this mentorship program: as a mentee only where you are learning from someone, as a mentor only where you are teaching others, and as a mentee and mentor where you are both learning and teaching.
Time commitment - The commitment is up to you and your match, but please aim for a one-hour bi-weekly catch-up, shadowing or mentoring hours within the week, and a quarterly review.
Continuation - This mentorship program will "renew" every six months, in which you can decide to get re-matched with a new mentee/mentor or stay within your current match.
How it works
This section details how match-making will occur and when the next match-making meeting is.
For this section, I think about any potential questions or concerns colleagues might have about the program and try to pre-answer them in this document.
Step 4: Gather interested people
If you haven't already, gather all interested people and send them the document you created.
If they want to sign-up for the mentorship, I send them a short survey asking:
Whether they want to be a mentor-only, mentee-only, or both
What their typical availability is every week (ex: mornings, afternoons, best days for collaboration)
How often they can commit to a mentorship meeting (ex: weekly, bi-weekly, monthly)
If they’re willing to mentor more than one person
I then pick several dates/times and poll the group to see the best day to set up the match-making. All of this information goes into helping me determine the best matches for people.
Step 5: Create the match-making deck
Create the match-making agenda and deck in parallel to the above document. The best way I’ve found to start a mentorship program is getting everyone together to go through several exercises. After that, I'll take information away to match-make. You don't necessarily need to do this in a group, but it has been helpful for me to do it this way.
This deck is mainly about gathering information that helps me match-make. Here are the activities I include:
Learning and anxieties - In this activity, everyone brainstorms three skills/topics they want to learn in the next six months, and then three areas they are most anxious to get feedback on.
Strengths - During this activity, each person brainstorms their top two strengths that they would feel comfortable teaching others.
Development areas - In this activity, everyone takes stock of their last performance review and other feedback to list their top two development areas.
Once we finish those activities, everyone else takes a 15-minute break while I do initial match-making. I review everyone's areas of learning, development, and strengths and match people into what I believe will be the best one-on-one mentorship.
Sometimes mentors will have multiple mentees, so it’s essential to ask first if each person has the capacity for this. However, I do my best only to give each person one mentee.
After the 15-minute break, I use breakout rooms to get everyone in their first meeting, where they set expectations, talk about goals, and create a rough schedule. I provide a list of questions and examples to help them with this step. If there is anyone I can't match, they stay with me while I work out how to best fit them into the program.
Finally, I ask everyone to take a quick, five-minute survey on the session.
Create your own match-making deck with this downloadable template.
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Step 6: Retrospective and check-in
I used to leave it at that point and hope that people would move forward with the mentorship. However, I later learned that sometimes people felt the match wasn't helpful, or had difficulty getting started.
From then on, I implemented several check-ins:
Two weeks after - Checked in with the groups to see how everything was or if they needed additional help/resources.
Every quarter - Had a quick check-in with groups to see how it’s going or if we need to make any changes.
End of the six months - Had a group retrospective on the program, made any iterations, and held a "re-matching."
The feedback was critical for me to improve the program and make it helpful for colleagues.
Overall, I’ve watched a team grow and understand each other better through mentorship programs. I have also seen people learn new skills and excel in their careers, including management. Starting a mentorship program can be challenging, but it is an immensely rewarding process to help your team thrive.
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.