The Evolution of UX Education

by Linn Vizard

posted on 12-19-2016

User experience is a relatively young discipline, that has its roots in human factors and ergonomics. Understanding how humans interact with machines, environments and products became increasingly important throughout the industrial revolution and has continued to today. In the 1980s and 90s the growing ubiquity of computers meant that human computer interaction (HCI) became a consideration for those exploring and designing digital systems. Donald Norman coined the term ‘user experience’ in the 90s. In his own words: “I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual. Since then the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose it’s meaning…”

User experience professionals come from a range of backgrounds, including industrial and graphic design, computer science and psychology. A Nielsen Norman study showed that 90% of UX designers have a degree, but in most cases the degree was not directly related to UX.

As the field of user experience and interaction design evolves, so too does the educational paths and options within it. The conversation about how UX professionals get educated and how junior people enter the field is ongoing, with increased attention in this area. For example, the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) now runs an annual design education summit.

So what are some of the trends in UX education today?

Industry and Practitioner Driven Education

Higher education is not meeting the workforce skills gap, and studies show that hiring managers and students have radically different beliefs about post-college workforce readiness. This is particularly true in rapidly emerging and shifting fields driven by technology – so UX design is a prime example.

In response to this, several practitioner driven, vocational schools have emerged. In many cases, these are not accredited or affiliated to a formal educational institution or private school, but have specific mandates.

The Austin Centre for Design, for example, is not-for-profit corporation founded by Jon Kolko. It offers a one year program in interaction design and social entrepreneurship. AC4D aims to “transform society through design and design education. This transformation occurs through the development of design knowledge directed towards all forms of social and humanitarian problems.”

Center Centre is Jared Spool and Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman’s vocational program that aims to create industry ready grads. As Jared Spool mentioned in an interview, one of the key challenges for getting students ready for industry is making sure they have experience working on real world projects:

“In order to make students ready to sit down and do the job the day they get there, they have to have a lot of experience. So we built an experience-based program that students work on real-life projects. Projects that are assigned. Projects that come from real-life companies, and community-based projects. They last 3-5 months, and students work on them as a team.”

The Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design is another example of a practitioner driven course in interaction design. These programs rely on the reputation of their faculty and graduates, and in many cases have become popular options in user experience and interaction design education.

Formalization: A Growing Space in UX Education

The list of formal undergraduate and graduate degrees in UX related topics at universities is growing. There is still quite a diversity in the naming and perspectives of these degrees – some are Bachelors of Art, some Bachelors of Science and some Bachelors of Design. This speaks to the range of angles user experience design can be approached from – a technical, engineering perspective, or an artistic one, or a design hybrid. ‘Interaction design’ is a fairly common degree title, however ‘interactive design’, ‘digital media’ and ‘human centred design’ all make appearances.

The number of graduate degrees in the space is also growing, with many one and two year programs popping up. Again we see a diversity of degrees, from Master of Arts to Master of Fine Arts to Master of Science and Master of Design. Several schools are well-known in the UX and interaction design space, for example the California of the Arts, Parsons New School, Umeå Institute of Design, and the Royal College of Art.

One of the challenges that this landscape poses for aspiring UXers is understanding the differences between degrees and programs, and deciding what angle to study UX from. Many of the discussion threads on the IxDA’s Education topic are people asking for advice on how to choose between programs. As one commenter put it: “…am looking for a decent IXD/UX grad program, but they’re all so new it’s hard to tell which schools are good.”

Private Courses: Part-Time, Boot Camp and Online Options

There has been an explosion in the options available to people wanting to dive into UX without going to a formal institution. Many privately run education companies are offering courses in UX, interaction and user interface design. The range of online, part time, in person and remote courses is astounding and seems to be still growing.

Online options for UX education include or udemy courses and tutorials, as well as more intensive courses such as CareerFoundry or General Assembly’s online options. Courses range from entirely self taught to structured sessions with assignments, interactions with mentors and other students. Online UX education is of course a niche that has it’s own challenges, and is a very particular learning style.

Studying UX part time in a classroom setting is a core offering of many education companies, including companies like Hyper Island, General Assembly, BrainStation and NNGroup. Some of these include certification and exams, such as the Nielsen Norman UX Certification program. The approach, content and duration of this type of course varies drastically, and is not regulated or standardized. There are also many more local equivalents in larger cities, for example HackerYou in Toronto.

Many of these schools also offer full time ‘bootcamp’ style courses, which aim to rapidly ramp students up on core UX skills. These intensives are often about 10 weeks full time, and emphasize project work and portfolio development.

One of the critiques of the current state of UX education is that a lot of these courses are taking advantage of a relatively young and unregulated industry, and setting unfair expectations for their students. UX as a profession is diverse and exciting, with a range of skills needed, and there is no silver bullet to becoming a UX designer. Industry and project experience is crucial.

As UX designer Sophie Freiermuth notes in an article by Dan Maccarone and Sarah Doody, designers trained in this way “will likely project their genuine confidence and smartly highlight their strengths while being completely unaware of how junior they actually are. They do get the job, then struggle immediately, without knowing when they are well outside their realm of competence.”

Looking to the Future

User experience design will likely continue as a fairly open field with relatively low barrier to entry while it continues to evolve and mature. With technology continuing to play a strong role in our lives and in business models, the demand for UX professionals and thus education in the space will likely continue.

For people wondering how to assess the options available, the best way to make a decision to really research the program by talking to past grads. It’s also important to think about the end goal – all programs do something well, but finding the one that fits your goals is crucial.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that many of these programs are for profit endeavors, so before committing thousands of dollars, you want to make sure it’s the right fit by dipping your toes into UX. Attend local IxDA meetups or do some reading and self learning. If you are interested in getting started with some basics, we’ve pulled together a round up some great options for learning UX fundamentals.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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