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UX Education: The Rise of Educational Programs

An image of a hand-drawn user experience workflow, handed over from one person to another.
Figure 1. A drawn user experience workflow

Not so long ago, anyone with some design skills and some basic knowledge of research could find themselves stumbling into the UX field. But people who are perusing today’s job postings for UX positions will find that companies are seeking more highly qualified applicants, and depending on a company’s needs, more specialized job experience. To address companies’ increasing need for highly qualified UX employees, there has been a significant rise in educational programs designed to train people interested in pursuing a career in UX. As the UX field has begun to see the impact of these educational programs, it is clear that people entering the field will increasingly need to present both solid experience backgrounds as well as educational backgrounds.

The Wealth of UX Programs

Education for the UX field has exploded. There are more and more offerings for UX certification programs from online learning platforms like Udemy, Coursera, CareerFoundry, and edX. There are also immersive and part-time UX programs offered in a more traditional student setting, such as General Assembly’s UX Design course (this course is also available internationally), San Francisco State University Extension’s UX/UI Design Certificate, and Bentley University’s User Experience Center. And then finally, there is the University of Washington’s full-time graduate User-Centered Design Certificate or California State University, Fullerton, User-Centered Design Certificate.

Jason Goodwin, Director of Global Innovation Practice and Enablement in the Lab of Forward Thinking at Manulife/John Hancock and instructor at General Assembly, acknowledged that many people switch to the UX field because they realize “there’s this cool thing, another discipline—which is also much friendlier to women [with regards to job mobility], which is much more open and accepting.”

Goodwin pointed out that people tend to discover empathy within UX and become “addicted to the empathy.” UX researchers and designers start out deciding to build something to solve a problem, and as they are researching, they begin talking to people, learning “about whole other worlds” and perspectives. People who learn to understand problems through research and understanding learn how to care about users.

He goes on to highlight how learning to empathize with users broadens what designers can do. “It’s freeing to put yourself aside” and listen to people talk and open up about their problems (as they relate to a product or service). In the end, UX is about designing the solutions to people’s problems. Ultimately, there is a sense “of bigger purpose to what I’m doing. It’s almost like a superpower: You get to solve human problems.”

UX has been a field that attracts a majority of its people from various backgrounds; some have backgrounds in computer science and design, which are more closely related to UX, and some come from far more diverse backgrounds.

Going directly through a UX certification program could be more cost-effective than going through a four-year undergraduate program. Goodwin acknowledged, “People spend a lot of time going through a program [undergraduate], learning about themselves, only to learn they have to retool themselves afterwards when they discover alternative paths.” Short, immersive programs have the potential to at least help novice UX job candidates develop as generalists. From there, they can develop specializations, discover niches, and explore all the options a career in UX can offer. In certification programs, there is more of an urgency to learning a depth of knowledge; stakes are higher. However, in self-learning, people can more holistically develop and learn the strengths of their skills. “You can get better at what you want to get better at,” said Goodwin.

Dylan Kiley is a recent graduate of General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive program. He graduated from high school a year ago with doubts that a traditional college experience was the path for him. During his junior year of high school, he stumbled upon user experience and decided to enroll in General Assembly’s immersive program. As a recent graduate of the program, he said that the program “is all you think about for ten weeks. And it’s better than being self-taught and going through it all by yourself. You’re part of this network, with all wanting the same thing.” This immersive atmosphere—uniting the UX community with the General Assembly community—is extremely helpful to incoming designers and researchers. “Everyone was coming into this with different backgrounds.” Kiley recognized that people from different backgrounds tend to lend their perspectives to solve project problems more effectively. He also said, “There was more emphasis on team, which is essential to UX. You need to know how to work with a team.”

There were still so few universities offering UX programs, and in the end, Kiley weighed the 400-hours of classwork through the General Assembly immersive program against university programs. “I look at my other friends in four-year university programs. There’s resentment. It’s expensive. And some still don’t know what they want to do.”

UX Programs and Practical Knowledge

Tristan Harward of Appcues in Boston said that he likes the idea of UX certification programs and degree programs, as long as institutions implement hands-on experience. He cites Northeastern University’s co-op program. The program provides students with opportunities to alternate semesters of academic study with semesters of full-time employment related to their academic or career interests. Such programs, Harward considers, would allow students to learn the fundamentals as well as learn skill through application.

A person in a conference setting raising a hand to ask question.
Figure 2. UX research and design certificate and degree programs are becoming more widely available, but it is experience that still sets candidates apart from the rest.

Jason Reynolds, an instructor at General Assembly, remarked that in the past, there was no traditional setting to enter into UX. Most designers or researchers came out of computer-related programs, design programs, or scientific programs. He also said that most of today’s UX certification and degree programs are directed at UX designers and researchers with less than a year experience, who are most likely freelancers aiming to sharpen their skills and move into junior or senior level positions. Some programs like Udemy, Coursera, and edX are designed to introduce the concepts of user research and design at a fundamental level while General Assembly and Bentley University have shifted their focus to catering to the market of job candidates coming from different careers wishing to make the move to a career in UX.

Reynolds explained that at General Assembly (GA), the goal is to create a certain level of foundation, a spectrum of knowledge. “GA aims for the T: breadth and depth. Over the course of the program, students will learn the foundations of UX while finding their own specialization.”

Sarah Willis, a designer and front-end developer from Boston, and also a graduate of the General Assembly UX immersive program, came from a liberal arts background at George Washington University where she studied English literature. Shortly after receiving her degree, she decided to start a career in coding, leading her to take a coding program in Berlin. She found herself gravitating back to design and decided to pursue a UX career through General Assembly’s immersive program. “The best part of the program was the projects,” she said. The hands-on projects—five in total—educate students how to manage time in the UX process, as well as teach the process of a UX project from start to finish. “Knowing the process,” Willis explained, “makes a good UX person. If you are not utilizing the skills, you are not going to learn anything.”

Entering the UX Job Market

In today’s job market, experience is key. Hiring managers are looking for job candidates with at least three to five years of experience. And while the job title “UX Designer and Researcher” can have nebulous connotations, companies have recognized the value of good UX and have thus refined, in most cases, job descriptions. A search for UX job postings will yield titles like UI/UX Designer, UX Graphic Designer, Product Designer, UX Researcher, Product Designer, UX Researcher Specialist, Research Ops, and UX Writer. Hiring managers seek researchers and designers with a broad set of skills; however, after scouring job postings, it is clear that companies are seeking to fill roles with candidates who can understand fundamental processes of UX design and research, as well as come with highly specialized skills to serve specific functions in their company.

Harward described a recent experience of bringing on three new design team members in the span of three months. For Harward, and the business needs of Appcues, he knew that he had to find the right team balance based on the needs of the product and company, as well as supporting other teams. “To balance the team, every individual had to have team facilitation; basic interaction design, especially wireframing skills; ability to ideate.” He went on to say that product intuition and the ability to prioritize the impact of a product on the company are important qualities, too.

Lisa Douglas, who leads the UX research team at Rapid7, discussed the direction her team decided to take with their research internship program. Initially, Rapid7 sought out candidates with design and qualitative research skills; however, business needs required a refocus. Douglas’ team began looking for candidates with skills that emphasized scientific research, quantitative data analysis, and data analytics. When looking for intern candidates, she said, “Education doesn’t have to be the end all, be all. Really, it comes down to what the business needs.”

Harward noted that degree or certifications were not a major factor during his recent hiring campaign and added that certification programs are not always the best indicator of qualifications. “Immersive programs can be a great foundation, but UX, especially within more complex products, is a wide range of skills and experience, working on real products is always better,” Harward said.

“Companies have started to see the value of UX, and now know that they need a solid UX team and can be more specific to their needs,” Harward went on. “It’s a Catch-22, though, noting you can illustrate experience without experience, showing that you have a set of skills and with knowledge backing it up. The alternative to the two- to three-year requirement is internships or short-term positions.” Though, Harward would also like to see companies open up more junior positions to bring talented workers into the field who understand UX fundamentals but need to gain job experience.

When it comes to job candidates’ potential, “it’s portfolio before resume,” Goodwin said. In UX, skills are what matters. As long as candidates can demonstrate strong UX skills, by showing a dynamic portfolio, for example, “even if it is a school project,” those sharp skills are always more highly preferred, he added.

Goodwin discussed his own experience. He was self-taught in graphic design, and with a little luck of being in the right place and right time just as the Internet was starting off, he was able to enter the field without attending a higher education program. “I’ve never taken a class,” he said. Goodwin suggested that learning through a mentorship may be a better way to learn and develop skills. As he says, “You learn best from others.” And in the UX field, team collaboration is emphasized.

Continuous Education within the UX Community

The impact of the rise of the availability of certification programs may help to make UX more ubiquitous. Companies are becoming more aware of the need and value of a solid UX team. Depending on specific needs, a company may seek to establish smaller teams that need to have broader and more generalist skills, or a company may choose to establish larger teams that have specific roles defined for the team members to expand in either research or design, or both.

But on the whole, ongoing and continuous education is becoming embedded in the UX community. Reynolds pointed out that “just about every night, year-round, there is some kind of UX event, whether networking, educational.” The trends and changes in the market are always fluctuating, even foundational processes, and so the UX community routinely cooperates to discuss and understand these changes.

The future for UX depends on the people who choose to work in this field; their skills and experience are what companies are looking for. For the next generation of UX professionals, access to education, whether through traditional venues or online certificates and programs, is essential to gain the practical knowledge of ever-changing UX fundamentals and processes. UX certificate and degree programs may be a start for future UX candidates, but it will be experience that reinforces strong design and research skills.