Jasper Stephenson

UX engineer, friendly ghost.
Header image – How to be a Cross-Cultural UX Mentor

How to be a Cross-Cultural UX Mentor

I've seen a lot of discussion in the past 5 years around top-down UX, the idea of earning a seat at the table and convincing higher-ups that UX is worth pursuing companywide. This is very, very important. However, it can also lead to what I've seen at most "User Experience Designer" jobs I've had: UX being brought in as a feel-good buzzword, interaction design getting rebranded as being "user centered," and no real methodological changes. That's not to mention the enormous time and effort it can take to gain enough trust to convince leaders, especially in a foreign culture, especially as an outsider.

That's where a bottom-up mentorship approach to gaining acceptance can also be crucial in cultures where UX isn't common – you can help build a foundation of local UX champions who will spark their own user centered revolution from the inside.

In this post, I'll present ideas and advice for mentoring in UX across cultural boundaries, with examples drawn from real experiences I had in my time mentoring teammates in Japan.

Not just abroad!When I say 'cross-cultural' in this post, I mean across both worldwide culures and work-environment cultures, meaning that this advice applies just as well to an international experience as it does time spent working in a scene unacquainted with the idea of UX.

Let's get started!

Finding a Mentee

UX is really, really popular in major cities in the U.S. and Europe. It's fairly easy to find designers or engineers there that are ready to learn how to become UX champions in their role.

That isn't always be the case when you find yourself in environments less engaged with newer Western design trends. That could mean you're working in a foreign country, or it could also mean you work in a company rooted in more traditional methodology. The outcome is the same; nobody really seems to be stepping up to the plate to join you on your user-oriented quest.

So in that kind of situation, where do you turn when looking for UX mentees? I suggest looking for candidates in two groups:

  1. Front-end developers who have worked in lean or agile workflows, and
  2. Interface & interaction designers who feel like they've hit walls in their professional growth.

Also, PHASE IT IN.

Don't try to throw them in the deep end of the pool while they're learning how to swim. Especially for learners who are still working in their original field, striking a gradual pace to their participation and looking for casual ways to include them in your process can open up more hesitant participants to the possibility of wading in deeper with you. In short: show potential mentees that you respect the demands of their existing job.

Real-life example

In 2017, I was part of a team that was looking to grow grassroots UX at a game company in Tokyo. We recruited a new member from another department named Kitamura: a young Android developer who had heard about our team working in UX and was curious about what we were doing. He had learned the term "UX" through books on Lean methodology, and although he had no experience working with or around UX, he agreed in principle with the concepts of data-driven design and A/B testing. Excited to work with quantitative data, he agreed to join our team.

He rose admirably to the challenge, and leveraged his experience creating interfaces to shift his perspective to a user's. He rapidly become fluent in research methodology, from planning and carrying out user interviews to turning research outputs into usable feedback for a design team.

As we worked together, he prioritized work on more technical projects with more demanding deadlines. As our UX projects moved forward, though, he began to find excuses to sneak an interview debrief or a design review in between his other responsibilities more and more. Eventually, he was a key part of our larger UX discussions, and would always come to work excited to share ideas he'd had during the previous night.

Staying Confident

Teaching UX in a foreign language is awesome. It gives you opportunities to reconsider everything you took for granted about your UX philosophy.

In teaching another person a skill, you come to terms with exactly how well you understand that skill's fundamentals. Doing so across a language and culture barrier means that you have to break down your ideas even further, simplifying your explanations to the point that it feels like learning to be a UX designer all over again.

All the effort you put into communicating an idea will pay off; your mentees will recognize your passion and strive to meet you in the middle. Finding out what type of communication works well is an amazing chance to understand how critical thinking and problem-solving are approached in the culture you're immersed in.

Real-life example

In my time working in Japan, there were many times when the simple matter of figuring out how to vocalize my thoughts in Japanese brought me out of the territory of untranslatable buzzwords and into the core of what I was trying to accomplish.

For example, the term "design pillars" simply did not work. I could not find a way to say this that properly got to the core of the idea, and thus I spent a long time discussing back and forth with my team, trying to figure out what exactly design pillars are and what they're useful for. Eventually we settled on a translation of 評価軸, which roughly means "judgment axes," ('axes' as in the plural of 'axis') which is a term I love the imagery of.

Helping Unconfident Mentees

It's understandably difficult to be one of the only people at a company learning an unfamiliar skill, with next to zero support or encouragement from higher-ups. It's no wonder, then, that your mentees will often feel overly afraid to make mistakes.

If one of your mentees feels uncertain about the choices they're making, that's a perfect opportunity to run through the research you've done previously, just like you would with a hesitant client. Seeing that their design directions are supported by evidence is a big confidence boost to learners, and it helps to embed a positive pattern: if there's friction in the work, back up a step and make sure everything lines up conceptually with the groundwork laid before it before proceeding.

Also, always be clear to mentees that UX is NOT about getting things perfect the first time, but rather about making informed decisions and testing them so that the next output is incrementally better.

Another great way to build confidence is to encourage your mentees to share their skills with others. Whether they give a lightning talk, or they adopt a mentee of their own, sharing knowledge does the same for your mentees as it does for you – it heightens understanding of the basics and imparts confidence as a real UXer.

This has the added bonus of spreading UX in a grassroots way in a culture that isn't used to the idea yet.

Real-life example

I don't think a day went by while I mentored Kitamura that he didn't balk at the idea of committing to a direction for our research, or the concept of having a share-out with the larger team.

It was in this situation that oddly my lack of language skills came in handy. Instead of relying on me to handle all of the interviews and client meetings, he stepped in to clarify when I couldn't get my point across clearly. Over time, this led to less and less hand-wringing before presentations and more confidence in his ability to communicate clearly and ask the right questions.

Kitamura was also a classic overthinker. He would always doubt whether his findings were really backed up well enough with data, and would second-guess his decisions from the day before. It was extremely helpful at this point that we'd kept very clear documentation of every step of our research, because it allowed him to look back at specific points of data and realize that yes, he had in fact done his due dilligence.

Some intermediate concept groupings. Yes, it's in Japanese.
Some intermediate concept groupings. Yes, it's in Japanese.

So don't be intimidated! I spent six months feeling ineffective at a job when faced with the mountain of convincing an huge company in a foreign country that UX was worth placing their trust in. Eventually I decided that I was focused on the wrong problem, and gathered the courage to start teaching and building a UX squad instead. Once I did, I was amazed at how excited the developers and designers around me were to start bringing user-centered thinking into their work.

The point is: if you're in a foreign environment, literally or otherwise, you can still find people around you who are ready and excited to learn about UX.

There's so much for you and your mentees to learn, both about UX and about the worlds you each live in, so just go for it!