Designing a remote UX mentorship program

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Lessons learned from the creation, challenges, and constant iterations of the remote UX Mentorship Program at Shopify

Scrolling through (what can feel like endless) lists of Slack channels, squinting to make out the scribbles in your own onboarding notes and diving deeper and deeper into your company’s internal knowledge base. What was intended to be a five minute search slowly grows longer and longer. “What in the world was the name of that person who said to reach out to them if I had more specific questions related to auto layouts in Figma…”

Meanwhile, the person with all that juicy Figma knowledge reviews their latest performance review and scratches their head as they try to figure out a way they can share their knowledge and level up their entire team.

Both of these people existed on the UX team at Shopify and I’m sure they exist at your company, too.

Sharing knowledge happened in less-than-perfect ways when we were in the office. Questions openly thrown out to the people sitting at your pod, chance encounters in the coffee dock, or connections made and questions asked over a beer at the end of the company town hall on Friday were a common occurrence.

Remote working quickly exposed the cracks in that ad-hoc approach, however. The need for programs that were designed to offer support and structure to team wide knowledge sharing and learning in a digital by default environment became immediately clear.

The need for programs that were designed to offer support and structure to team wide knowledge sharing and learning in a digital by default environment became immediately clear.

As a technical program manager on the UX Operations team, I lead programs that aim to tackle the challenge of learning, craft development and community building within our 500-person-strong UX team. We have a handful of programs running currently (that I’m really proud of) and each one helps us tackle that challenge.

For example, we run our UX Expert Series program — where once a quarter we invite an expert in their field to join us and share knowledge with the team in a live event or we have our ‘Own Your Own Development’ program that offers UXers a budget dedicated to their own personal growth that they can spend on a book, a course, a conference, or whatever other opportunity they think will help them expand and grow.

And since we became a fully remote company (or a digital by default company as we call it at Shopify) we also created a fully remote UX mentorship program. That program is a constantly evolving one and with every 6–8 week cycle that we run, we learn more about what our team needs and how this program can better serve them.

(We found a 6–8 week timeframe enables mentors and mentees to connect and make progress without too much of a time commitment for either party.)

Launching a remote mentorship program

110 people signed up for our first cohort and when we asked what people’s favourite part of the program was we heard things like “I enjoyed connecting with someone I never would’ve met otherwise. Even though we work in completely separate areas of the org, we had so many parallel problem spaces…I learned so much more than I expected.”

But it wasn’t all sunshine in the feedback; we also received candid and constructive feedback about things like how transparent we were about our matching criteria in our comms, how we could extend and improve the list of skills to be matched on, and how we considered timezones when matching people.

If you’re thinking about creating a mentorship program for your team, you’ll learn as you build and will probably get some constructive feedback too. If you can be truly open to it, this feedback is golden. It will be the making or breaking of your program and how well it suits your unique team.

But to help you get started, here are some of the biggest lessons I learned as we launched this program.

Define what mentorship means to you

Probably the most important piece in solving the puzzle of mentorship was defining what WE meant when we said mentorship. This might seem like an unimportant step but it’s crucial in guiding the direction of the rest of your program. There are numerous interpretations and definitions of mentorship and getting clear on which specific one you want to use as your ‘north star’ will impact how you match people, who you invite to apply as mentors, and how you measure success. It’s a step you’ll regret skipping, trust me.

When we did sit down to tackle answering this question, our final definition of a mentoring relationship was: a relationship that is built on trust, where there is an exchange of knowledge, experience and skills.

Our program focused on developing skills in individuals on our UX team so that they could make great decisions easily. I also really believed in creating a program structure that would provide learning opportunities rather than just handing down solutions. The exchange of knowledge we referenced in our definition of mentorship kept us honest and ensured that we built a program where reciprocal learning happened.

We wanted both the mentor and the mentee learning and growing from the experience. This meant that we didn’t need to involve our job levels in our matching rules. We also didn’t subscribe to the idea that seniority of title equates to the ability to mentor, so, in our program, you could find a junior designer mentoring a UX director. And we love that.

In our program, you could find a junior designer mentoring a UX director. And we love that.

Get clear about what success looks like

As always for goal setting, we tried to make the goals as measurable and clear as possible. Our specific goals were to provide a program to enable skill pairing and craft development, to provide an opportunity to develop mentorship skills (which are key parts of the role expectations of our more senior UX job levels), and last, but not least, to provide opportunities for folks to grow and strengthen the relationships that they have with others UXers.

Our intake form collected some baseline data about our participants that we later used to help measure success of the program. For instance, we asked mentors how easy they felt it was to improve their people leadership and mentorship skills, to deepen their own understanding in their area of expertise, and to gain experience giving and receiving feedback.

For mentees we asked them how confident they felt dedicating time to learning, expanding their network at Shopify, and getting 1:1 help and craft support. When we wrapped up the cycle, we collected feedback and asked these same questions again. Knowing where our baseline was on these things each cycle really helped us spot patterns and validate if we were having the impact we intended.

Some example KPIs we set for ourselves:

  • 90% of respondents say they would recommend the program
  • 90% of respondents rate value for time spent 4/5 or 5/5
  • On average confidence levels across both mentor and mentee specific questions increase by 5%

Your KPIs and goals will of course be different but I highly suggest that you take the time to set meaningful ones if you ever really want to be able to prove the value of your program. Great feedback and qualitative validation is of course wonderful but without the quantitative data that comes from intentionally setting and tracking metrics, it’s extremely difficult to know where your value is highest and where energy and focus should go to make meaningful improvements.

Do a pilot

Before landing on the current version of our UX mentorship program, we ran multiple pilots with smaller groups and teams within the UX org to help us do two things. First, to validate that there was in fact interest within the team for a mentorship program, and second to make sure we were designing the right kind of mentorship program.

One of our pilots let mentors and mentees have full control over the process. It was extremely low-fi (in all honesty, it was a glorified sign up spreadsheet). You expressed that you wanted to be mentored or to mentor, you expressed what your area of interest was, and the rest was up to you to manage.

Another pilot was the total opposite — we added all the structure. We created templates for each meeting, defined the outcomes for each meeting, managed the pairing of mentors and mentees in a very high touch way (making changes to matches based on personal preferences of individuals) and defined the duration of the mentorship relationship, sending bi-weekly updates and check-ins.

Ultimately, we landed somewhere in between the two of those approaches. We currently offer resources and suggest templates for meetings but leave the final decisions on exactly what approach to take to the individuals.

We removed the mental overhead and potential friction of having to ask someone to be your mentor, or figure out who to “pick” as a mentee, by matching people and introducing them to one another but leave all the scheduling of meetings and further logistics to them to manage in a way that worked for them.

Without our pilots and all of the quick and dirty feedback we collected, we would have shipped a much less effective mentorship program to our entire team.

Without our pilots and all of the quick and dirty feedback we collected, we would have shipped a much less effective mentorship program to our entire team. Prototype, pilot, practice — call it what you want—but start scrappy and make sure you’re building the right thing before a full rollout.

Invite participation

The single most effective thing we did to help drive engagement and participation in our program was share video testimonials from participants who took part in the pilots. We asked mentors and mentees to speak to the value they got from the program. We also asked them to share the fears or apprehensions they had before the program. Seeing the faces and hearing voices of the people sharing their first hand experience of mentorship was so much more powerful than me listing all the reasons why our UX team should get excited to participate in this program.

Once we had created that hype, the team all received an invitation to sign up to express their interest in either or both roles in the program. Sign up stays open for two weeks and then there is a week of matching and contacting the individuals with some suggested next steps, such as reaching out to one another on Slack and getting acquainted, and scheduling their first meeting in the calendar.

In terms of time commitment, we are pretty clear about the ask from the get go. In our signup form, we outline that people will need to commit:

  • In total 1.5hrs per week for 8 weeks.
  • To spend ~1 hour with their mentor/mentee per week in the session and were advised to allow some time (~20mins) before each meeting to prepare and make sure they’ve done any follow up work they agreed on at the end of their last session.

We also reiterate that people should only consider signing up if they will be available for at least 7 of the 8 weeks in the cycle (considering time off and other commitments). We do this not to be overly strict but to protect the reputation of the program. We need to ensure we have enough mentors and mentees to run the program next cycle and the best way to do that is to make the experience of taking part as positive as we can.

Decide how you’ll match mentors and mentees

If you’ve done the work of defining what mentorship means to you early, this is a pretty easy decision to make. The biggest question to answer here in my opinion is “will job level impact who mentors who?” For us, the answer to that question was “no”. So we picked two other simple matching criteria:

  1. Skill match — have selected the same areas to focus on developing/mentoring in
  2. Being on different teams (with different leads)

This obviously meant that it wasn’t guaranteed that the mentor will be at a higher job level than the mentee. Some people on our team didn’t love this decision. And that’s okay. It was aligned with our goals and how we were defining mentorship so we were able to stand over it. We knew we wanted to base the match on the mentor’s confidence and desire to mentor another UXer in a certain skill, and we didn’t believe job level dictated someone’s ability to do that.

Support your mentors

Like I mentioned earlier, we tried extremely informal, and we tried super structured for this program when we were in the piloting stage. For the launch of the team-wide program, we tried to find a balance. We had a suggested meeting structure outline and optional templates for meetings agendas each week. Confident mentors who knew how they wanted to direct the sessions were free to ignore the suggestions if they liked, and mentors who were in the role for the first time had some support and a starting point to help them gain confidence.

Confidence is a huge piece of mentorship that I think a lot of programs overlook. It takes a lot of confidence, kindness, and bravery to step forward to mentor someone else. (Even the most skilled designer in the world is taking a big step the first time they attempt sharing their knowledge and taking on a mentee.) It was extremely important to me that we acknowledged and celebrated that kindness and bravery in this program.

It was extremely important to me that we acknowledged and celebrated kindness and bravery in this program.

Creating resources that felt supportive and welcoming to new mentors, who are stretching outside their comfort zone in a bid to help other humans, was the kind of structure I didn’t want us to compromise on. So we also shared suggested activities and types of mentorship meetings to have with the mentors, for example, a new contact meeting where you invite another relevant person from your Shopify network to meet your mentee, or a role play scenario meeting where you might practice a difficult stakeholder conversation with your mentee.

We also created a private Slack community for mentors where they could share wins, ask questions and just connect with one another. For us, this felt like the sweet spot between empowering our UXers to define their version of mentorship, and ensuring they felt supported along the way.

Create a feedback loop

You should collect feedback on your mentorship program, duh right? The collecting feedback part is obvious and any program worth its salt is probably going to have some mechanism for collecting feedback, but the loop part is where so many programs fall short. If you don’t a) do something with the feedback you receive and b) tell people what you’ve done with their feedback, then honestly, don’t ask for it at all.

For example, we added multiple new skills to the list that we offered based on suggestions we received from the team and we created a template for mentee <> mentor feedback at the end of the program based on a request for exactly that. Most importantly, we highlighted these changes to the team and also highlighted that they came as a result of thoughtful feedback.

There is nothing more demotivating for your program participants than taking time to offer thoughtful feedback that falls into a Google form black hole. It’s fine to say we don’t have bandwidth to make all these changes, or we don’t agree with them all, but share that context and include your participants in the process. So, when you’re creating your comms plan, make sure you bake in an email or a Slack post focused specifically on explaining what you’ve done with the feedback and how vital it is to your program.

While we’ve learned a lot, we’re just getting started with this mentorship program. In 2022 I have big plans to expand the program even further. We have plans for new resources and training for future mentors so that anyone who joins the mentor community heads into their first meeting feeling confident and excited. We also have a Q1 pilot planned for a UX Management track of the mentorship program so that we’re actively supporting the development and growth of potential leaders and managers within our UX community.

Stay tuned for the follow up blog post where I’ll share all the lessons I’ll no doubt learn on that journey, too!

Designing a remote UX mentorship program was originally published in Shopify UX on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.