My Fast and Furious Cooper U: UX Bootcamp Experience

It was early June when the Cooper Journal came to my In Box and the lead story announced the next UX Bootcamp.  Over the years I heard Cooper was one of the best places to go for UX training and I longed to find a way to go.

Four things in Cooper’s UX Bootcamp description stood out:

  • The class is built around hands-on activities, conducted in pairs and small teams.
  • At the end of this course, you’ll have new tools in your design toolkit, and a well-articulated design concept for a real product that you can add to your portfolio.
  • Students will learn Cooper’s goal-directed design process while working on a real-world product for nonprofit, (WEA).
  • To inspire great work while learning, the course is also part friendly competition. Each team will present their design concepts to a panel of WEA and Cooper judges, and the concepts will be given to the nonprofit at the end of the course.

I later learned Cooper would make a $1,000 donation to WEA in the winning team’s name and the winners would be featured on the company blog.  The Philanthropist in me was ecstatic. The Fame Whore in me was thrilled.

Hitting the forward button I wrote to my boss:

Why does this sound like a dream come true?  Cooper’s UX Boot Camp.  Doing real work.  Only 30 seats. And you get to pay for the privilege for the low, low cost of $2150.00.  And be in San Fran.

So this is totally in our budget right?  😉

In a normal year this kind of price tag is so far beyond our budget it’s not even worth asking about.  But if you never ask, you never get, right?

So imagine my surprise when the reply read:

“I think that, yes, this year it could be.  No guarantees for the future years, so if you can get it, we’ll send you.”

And that’s how I found myself in San Francisco, CA.

Half teasing, half serious, I declared to a respected colleague who I was going to see while I was in San Francisco, “I am going to win this!”

He replied, “Of course you will!”

(I could hear him laughing even though it was an email.)

As the days until my departure dwindled I thought about all the group dynamics I had experienced in workshops like these and all the things I wish I had not done so I could truly get the most out of the experience:

  • No!  I would not sit around politely waiting for someone else in the group to take the lead, even when no one did, because I didn’t want to step on any toes.
  • No!  I would not allow my group to get so bogged down in the details that we lost a chance to try the very technique we were there to learn.
  • No!  I would not hold back from asking questions when I felt like my team was stuck because I wanted to be considerate of other attendees and not monopolize the instructors’ time.

I was hell-bent on squeezing every last ounce of goodness out of this experience because it quite literally might be my last career development opportunity for two years. I did not want to leave feeling like I had made a $2,150.00 mistake!

And since I stupidly declared that I was going to win this competition (even before I met the team I would be working with) I did what every smart girl does:  I started workin’ the ways of The Secret.

Okay, that’s a lie. But there has got to be something to that system…

When I walked in to that deluxe design studio in the sky, I felt like I was movin’ on up.

The Bad. Assery. sketch on a Cooperist’s said it all.

The Bad Assery sketch that greeted me at Cooper.

I felt like I was going to throw up the moment the instructors, Kendra Shimmell (@kshimmell), Teresa Brazen (@teresabrazen), and Nikki Knox (@knox_nikki) asked us to tell them who we were, where we were from, and what we wanted to get out of the experience.  There were people from all over with a range of backgrounds and I was so excited to work with them.

Even though I did not work the ways of The Secret, the law of attraction seemed to be working for me. I got partnered with a terrific group of people, Laura Cochran (@cochranism), Christen Penny (@hobo66), and Kevin Hollingsworth (@kevvvy1).

The first two days we had incredible synergy.  All those awkward group dynamics I had experienced in other workshops didn’t exist.  We were on fire (and I think we knew it)!

That’s me sketching personas with my team.

But then Day 3 came and I think the fast and furious pace of the previous two days caught up with us.  We hit a wall.

What the heck was our design concept?!  We were delivering it to a real client the next day!

It felt difficult to move forward with the amount of uncertainty we faced.  I felt frustrated, lost, didn’t know how to recover, and was completely bummed we lost our mojo.  In the process I inadvertently brought my team down.

For better and worse, I eat, sleep, and breathe my work.  Yes, it was ONLY a workshop, but there were very real people on the receiving end of our work.

Maybe because I work for a nonprofit and understand the financial challenges most face I was overly sensitive to delivering something that WEA could use.

Maybe my love of competition had gotten a little out of hand.

Maybe I had lost my way and forgotten what I was there to do:  learn.

When you feel defeated have lunch with Alan Cooper (@MrAlanCooper).

Lunching with Alan Cooper. It’s nice when people you deeply admire turn out to be super cool.

That is what we got to do on Day 3. I felt a little star struck listening to him talk and laugh.

Afterwards I apologized to each of my team members for my behavior and promised I would try to chill the heck out.  I promised myself that I would focus on learning, not winning.

Our instructors gave us a choice at the beginning of Day 4 – work on our final client deliverable or learn. My team picked learning.

It was the right choice for me because what we learned that morning was one of the most valuable techniques I got out of the entire workshop.

The downside to learning was we still had to come up with our final presentation for the client who arrived at 2:00 PM that day.  But Laura, Christen, and I seemed to have regained our mojo.  We were coming down the homestretch.

We worked fast and furiously and finished our presentation at 1:59 PM (not even lying).  There was no time to rehearse our client pitch as a group. I was nominated to give the pitch solo.  Each team was given 5 minutes total to present their concept to the client.  And Alan Cooper was once again in the room (as if we needed to feel a little more pressure).

As my palms sweet profusely and I felt once again like I was going to throw up, I remembered the words of a theater director I once worked with:

“Having stage fright is good.  It means you are about to do something great.”

I was told I completed our client pitch in three and a half minutes. I mostly remember Melinda Kramer, the founder of WEA, smiling, standing up, and clapping at the end. Her kindness was a huge relief.

Our score tied us with another team, but we were awarded the win.

Alan Cooper, who was not a voting member on the panel, said later that if he had been voting he would have picked our team as the winners too.  That was one of the best moments of my trip.

Like giddy little school girls we ran to be photographed with Big Papa (a.k.a. Mr. Alan Cooper).

My terrific team from left to right: Me, Alan Cooper, Laura Cochran, and Christen Penny.

Then like grown-ups we went out and celebrated at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar at The Fairmont.  There were no flaming skull drinks as I had been led to believe, but that’s okay.  It was one of the few touristy things I had time to do while I was out there.

Check out the blog post Cooper wrote about our UX Bootcamp and see even more photos on Flickr.

If you’re considering Cooper’s next UX Bootcamp, here’s what I would say:

Working directly with a real client and conducting research interviews with real people was unlike any of the other training experiences I’ve had over the years.

Learning with written case studies is good, but there’s no substitute for the real deal.  People are unpredictable.  Cooper is giving students a chance to learn, fail fast, and not lose their job in the process.

Happy Learning.


8 thoughts on “My Fast and Furious Cooper U: UX Bootcamp Experience

  1. For the record, I was not laughing.

    Thanks for the thoughts. It’s incredibly helpful to see for all of us hoping to spread the knowledge we have in house.

    • Really? You weren’t laughing? Awww, shucks. Appreciate it.

      This was a really interesting experience. In some ways I learned more from watching how the course was taught than from the material itself.

  2. I am thinking of doing the same course but don’t have a benefactor to foot the bill. Is it really really worth it. How much of what you learned do you still practice?

    • Hi Carlos,

      Thanks for your questions! These are great.

      Is it really worth it?
      I think the answer depends on what you want to get out of the experience. It’s a wonderful overview of the different areas of UX, but it does not take a deep dive into any one area. That is extremely beneficial if you are just getting in to UX. You will get a taste of many things and get to experience it in a real world setting. Even though I’m a seasoned practitioner, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to focus on areas I don’t get to work in everyday.

      If you’re looking to network with a lot of different people, this may not be the best fit. I enjoyed the small classroom setting, but it was very intense and there were not many opportunities to meet other people taking the course. Meeting the Cooper staff was one of the best aspects of the experience.

      How much of what I learned do I still practice? Quite a bit actually. The Experience Workshop they teach has proven extremely beneficial. Cooper’s “paired design” concept has helped me manage relationships with my colleagues in a new way that has helped push designs forward. I was already comfortable with interview techniques, so not much has changed there. It was very helpful to see how Cooper develops personas and uses insights to bring them to life. And lastly, as you’ve seen from my article, the art of giving the pitch has probably been one of the things I use most.

      It’s been over a year since I attended their Bootcamp, so to say that I’m still using that much seems pretty impressive to me. More than I’ve gotten from traditional design conferences.

      Hope this helps!

  3. Hi – was the final day “Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar at The Fairmont” a Cooper thing or Student thing. Just planning my Stay – coming from interstate. Cheers!

    • Hi Don,

      The Tonga Room was a student thing, not a Cooper thing. A colleague of mine who lives in San Fran recommended it and several of us decided to go. If you can, make a reservation a day in advance. We waited about an hour and half for a table and enjoyed drinks upstairs. Have a great time!

  4. Hi Megan,
    I am a graphic designer who is really interested in Copper’s UX bootcamp course. I am kinda in a same situation as you are. My company is sponsoring me on this course and I want to make sure I am spending their money with the right course. I have a quick question. When you were attending this course, did you get to actually design the concept digitally? meaning using any type of software program like photoshop or illustrator? I am really thrilled to read your review but want to know little more on the technical side as well. I would greatly appreciate if you can help me on this. Thank you so much! –Jane

    • Hi Jane,

      When I attended the emphasis was on creating a lightweight concept. Time wasn’t a luxury. Teams were allowed to use whatever tools they had with them. I remember being very glad I had my laptop with me. We used everything from sketches we made during the week to power point to our mobile phones. We needed a picture of a woman for one of our persona slides so another team sent us a picture of their Mom! It was like being MacGyver. The technical side of creation was not the purpose or emphasis. Creating on the fly, under pressure, with limited resources was more the reality. And that made it wicked fun!

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