Meet Rachel Wendte, UX Design Immersive Instructor at General Assembly Chicago
Designing for Empathy
Rachel Wendte is a designer, content strategist, and marketer who teaches the User Experience Design Immersive course at GA’s Chicago campus. She is passionate about communicating design for connection, and uses her skills in client management, user research, and strategic thinking to craft meaningful solutions that are user-friendly and aligned with client goals. Before learning UX, she worked as an arts administrator and social media consultant for companies including Rockit Ranch Production. Rachel is currently the managing director of Route 66 Theatre Company. Read Rachel's articles "A Beginner's Guide to Affinity Mapping," and "A Beginner’s Guide to Personalization in Digital Marketing."
How would you define user experience design in three sentences?
User experience design is an exercise in functional empathy. We no longer just interact with a service or product, we experience it. As designers, we aim to make it as pleasant and intuitive as possible.
What do you love about UX design?
I love the opportunity to problem solve and uncover user needs that were previously unseen — the discovery process is the best!
What’s an example that embodies the best of what UX design can and should accomplish in real life?
User experience design is thoughtful and deliberate. The skill of learning from your user and keeping things user-centered is so important, and we focus on that at GA. As a result, you’ll start to notice it when it’s done well. The example that stands out to me is the first apartment I rented in Chicago. I was looking at the bedrooms and noticed that in a few of the rooms, the light switches were placed much lower than adult height. My first thought was that a previous tenant had needed them accessible because they were in wheelchair, but it was in the bathroom too, which was much too narrow to accommodate a chair. I asked the real estate agent about it and she said, “The owner raised his children here. They were five and seven, so he wanted to make sure they could reach the switches.” Way to think of your user!
Why should someone learn user experience design’s essential skills at GA?
Learning here means growing here. GA’s strongest advantage is the course structure. By creating curriculum that is lesson-heavy up top, students get a comprehensive look at tools and theory and build a foundation. As the course goes on, lessons give way to larger chunks of workshop time so students can put that theory into practice.
Please describe exceptional strengths in GA’s curriculum, teaching style, and community.
Our biggest strength is the diversity of instruction, as we teach with both a lesson and project model. Giving students the information they need to succeed and also providing tools to make their ideas into actual solutions is powerful, and, combined with our career coaching and outside input from industry experts, makes our students well-rounded and strong. Plus, you can’t beat the support of the alumni community!
What personal qualities will set someone up for success in UX, both in class and as a designer?
A superstar is someone who goes one step further. When a user tells them about a problem, they (gently) probe to make sure it is the most prevalent one. Sometimes it’s what’s not said that’s important, and a student who can recognize that will ultimately produce a better solution. A successful UX designer never forgets the “user” part of UX. Keep the user at the center, practice empathy, and approach a problem from multiple angles. This requires a lot of persistence and drive but always yields high-quality work.
What was your path to becoming a teacher and leader in user experience design?
I’m actually a User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) grad who loved their experience. I have background in arts management and social media marketing then added UX to that mix. I was asked to come on at GA as an assistant instructor and have loved translating my experiences both in class and in freelance work to my students. It’s been a challenge to teach some of the lessons that I myself struggled with as a student, but in the best way. Teaching really is the best way to reinforce skills, and I know I’ve become a stronger designer as a result.
Why did the opportunity to teach at GA appeal to you?
I’ve been teaching at GA since 2017, and the main reason I wanted to be a part of this community was because I had such a fulfilling experience as a student. If there was a way I could make the same happen for future students, I wanted to do it.
How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
My teaching philosophy is to teach with joy and lead with experience. I try to approach every area of my life from a place of appreciation and enthusiasm, and I work to deliver lessons and feedback through that lens. I’m always looking for ways to connect and by reminding students I’ve been through this process, too, they’re more comfortable approaching me with design struggles and questions.
What has been your favorite memory as a GA instructor?
I love whenever a student has a light bulb moment in front of me. For example, a student was telling me a story, and she said a phrase that accurately conveyed something new she’d learned. I let it sit there, and she turned to me and said, “That’s an insight! I’m thinking like a designer now, just like you said would happen.” It was awesome to see her own her experience, and I’m grateful to be that support for students.
How do you help struggling students break through to meet or go beyond their minimum GA course requirements?
When students are struggling, I do my best to encourage them in areas that are going well and give an action plan. Sometimes students who are having a hard time to meet requirements are not managing their time effectively. So, we’ll go through project feedback together, and collectively identify some mini-goals they have for the next project. This gives them an opportunity to have multiple small wins and multiple chances for feedback. After approaching projects from this way, I find that most students self-identify the areas they need to improve, and we work to find more tools and resources to make them stronger.
How do you push high-achieving students to go beyond the minimum GA course requirements?
As I’ve identified students who are grasping concepts well, I make suggestions for ways they could go further with their current projects, whether that’s upping the fidelity of wireframes and prototypes, doing more extensive research, or doing an outside project in an area of interest. My other trick is to ask them if there are areas they wish they had more practice in. One of my students said specifically that she wanted to be a stronger UX writer. With the writing experience I have, I’ve created a few writing prompts for her to complete on her own time. As she completes each prompt we have feedback sessions to continuously improve. Just like asking students when they need help, asking high-achieving students if they want more challenge opens doors, too.
What is the best way to get practical, real-world experience in UX design?
Seek improvement everywhere. I always gave myself exercises to keep using what I learned. I downloaded new-to-me apps and went through the onboarding process to see if I would’ve done it differently. I asked friends if they needed help with small projects, and I attended events and workshops to keep my skills sharp and my connection pool wide. If you need help or a chance to prove yourself, ask!
What are some free resources and tools a student can use to stay up to speed with the industry?
The email newsletters from Marvel App and InVision are stellar — it’s great content that addresses tools, best practices, and think pieces on trends and struggles. I also recently started Daily UI to refresh my design chops; it provides you with a fairly broad prompt each day and encourages you to share your progress. Finally, Twitter! So many designers are having insightful conversations on the platform. Do some exploring, follow designers you love, and watch the inspiration roll in.
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