UX expert Caroline Jones on how to mentor others – and why you should mentor non-creatives too

Image: Photolibrary.com

Caroline Jones, who is manager of experience design at legal software company Aderant, says that designers and other creatives should look to mentor those outside of their skillsets – in other departments or companies.

She says her mentoring approach is cemented by a ‘Design Thinking’ ethos – and this approach is something people in all areas of business should be encouraged to develop.

“I encourage the person I am supporting to adopt a similar mindset to that which you find in human-centred designers. I’ve found this to be a key step in establishing a mentoring relationship. It gives the mentee the tools that they need in order to be able to ask the right questions, remove personal biases, and to consider perspectives they might not otherwise have considered. This in turn maximises learning and development potential."

She explains a Design Thinking mindset involves a specific approach to a situation where a person adopts the following ideas and attitudes as they work:

  • Building empathy by being human-centred
  • Being relentlessly curious
  • Having a bias towards action and learning by doing
  • Being collaborative and bringing together multidisciplinary teams to ensure diverse perspectives and expertise are explored (which also provides a platform for consensus),
  • Exploring many ideas first before narrowing to a few, and experimenting with and refining those ideas by building prototypes that are then put to the test with the intended audience.

“Once we have established the foundations of our mentoring relationship, we focus on matters and challenges that the person is facing, and I encourage reflective thinking through shared experiences and storytelling,” says Jones.

“I continue to refocus them on the application of the design thinking mindsets, and nudge them towards building different perspectives, collaborating with others, exploring and experimenting with their ideas, and ultimately having the confidence they need to move forwards and resolve issues.”

Getting into UX

Caroline says managing and serving as an advocate for Design Thinking has been a consistent theme across several of her previous roles. These include stints leading design teams at Fiserv and A&R Whitcoulls Group. She has also held more hands-on design roles, such as working as a senior consultant and interaction designer at Optimal Usability.

Caroline explains she shifted into human-centred design space after working in web design and online strategy for a number of years.

“I was frustrated as I continually found myself unable to answer the questions I was looking to answer, and others around me felt the same. We had a lot of the ‘whats’ figured out, but nobody seemed to be able to express the ‘whys’ or the ‘how importants’. It felt a little like we were driving in the dark.

As I was looking for answers, I started exploring Human Computer Interaction as a topic,” she says. “It seemed to be an area which could provide me with ways to find answers to my questions, so I went and studied a Human Computer Interaction paper at Auckland University and changed course with my career. I haven’t looked back since.”

What designers can teach businesspeople

Caroline has historically focused on mentoring those within an organisation’s design practice, but she says this is evolving along with the shape of organisations she is working in.

“Recently there is an acknowledgement that Design Thinking offers value far beyond an organisation’s design function,” she states. “Many businesses face challenges that are forcing them to be more agile, adopt leaner processes, work with increasingly distributed teams, and cope with increased diversity as a result."

With the focus that design-led thinking has on removing personal biases, working more collaboratively, embracing ambiguity, rapid experimentation, and having a bias towards action, organisations are now adopting Design Thinking as a way to allow for more integrated thinking and a more adaptive strategic mindset.

“So, as Design Thinking has grown further in importance, I have found myself providing mentoring support to people across a more varied set of functions, and as a result I deal with a lot more diversity."

Gap analysis

Caroline has a huge interest in fostering diversity, and acknowledges that a lot of attention is paid to the gender imbalance in areas like development.

While she says this gap exists in the sector, she believes the need for diversity extends far beyond gender.

Qualities that have traditionally been seen as feminine traits such as empathy, vulnerability and being highly collaborative, are intrinsic to the Design Thinking mindset and are now being recognised as ones of high importance, she says.

“The adoption of this type of mindset can lead to a strategic advantage when dealing with the evolving and diverse landscape that businesses now exist within,” she states. “Design Thinking is the perfect mechanism for better understanding the impact of this diversity and harnessing its potential for driving improved business outcomes.”

How to mentor your staff

Caroline explains she naturally develops informal mentoring with her direct reports. “However, I distinguish between the traditional supervisory aspects of management and the development aspects, where I focus on investing in an individual personally.

“Across the organisation I work in, I have informal mentoring relationships with stakeholders in a variety of different functions where I assist them in identifying new ways to build empathy, collaborate, and experiment in order to solve problems.

“I believe in the power of storytelling and hearing diverse perspectives, so a large part of my team mentoring style involves regularly scheduled activities such as TED talk lunches, field trips, and subject-matter explorations. These always have some relevance to areas where development would be beneficial, and are designed to inspire, engage, and provide a platform for conversation, reflection and growth."

For Caroline, a mentoring relationship never finishes but the nature of the relationship evolves to one of mutual interest and value.

“For example, a previous mentee and I are in different organisations and our relationship is now one of peers,” she says. “Her knowledge and experience has grown to the point that she is equally capable of providing insight.”

They recently attended a conference together and talked about what they were both doing in regards to mentoring their own teams.

“I believe that having someone you previously mentored, discussing their own mentoring initiatives, is the ultimate reward and payback for the time you have invested in them. It’s a ‘pay it forward’ type of thing,” says Caroline. “You don’t want to just mentor people, you want to create future mentors."

How to be a good mentor

Her advice for potential mentors? “Work with the person you are supporting as a partner, and strive to empower them to make their own decisions rather than relying on you for answers.”

“Grounding your approach by focusing on a Design Thinking mindset that encourages the person to have empathy for others and to consider differing perspectives will help them to let go of their own personal biases.

“These are useful precursors to reflective thinking, and will ultimately allow a person to remain open to ideas and options later on when they are problem solving. It will also equip them to be more effective collaborators.”

As your mentoring relationship evolves and you work through specific challenges, share real world stories and experiences, including past failures and what you learned from them, she says.

“Always work to instil confidence, even if it is the confidence to accept past failures and grow from them.”

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