In our recent post ‘The Pro Guide to Becoming a UX Designer‘, we spoke to Clearleft co-founder Andy Budd, who offered up some forthright opinions on the current state of user experience education.
“If you’re unable to cut your teeth where you are, one of the few ways to gain experience is through study,” Budd told us. “The challenge is, the majority of courses aren’t worth the paper their loan applications are written on. As such, going to university to study UX is less about the course itself, and more about the time it gives you to build out your portfolio and study on your own.”
When a leading figure in the UX industry has this to say about the state of user experience education, it’s not surprising that many prospective students struggle to choose a UX course. Should you be looking at a degree? Is an online course appropriate? Is there value in accelerated learning?
“UX courses tend to fall into two different camps,” explains Jonty Sharples, mentor, speaker and co-founder of product and service design agency, Hactar. “You have self-study courses, usually online, which have a set of materials, and a series of exercises, and then you do a project over a week for 10 or 15 weeks, and they can be pretty good. If you’re a motivated kind of person, they can work, but it is effectively just like reading a book.
“And then you have the type of courses offered by the likes of General Assembly and Hyper Island, where you can do an accelerated course, which is full or part time over a period of weeks,” explains Sharples. “I do see some value in these. These courses teach you to work with others and share ideas. They teach people to not be afraid, and to explore, and to not worry about being wrong.”
– Hactar’s co-founder Jonty Sharples sees some value in shorter courses.
Considering a degree
The next step up from these courses is to consider a degree, where you will be embarking on study programme over a period of years, rather than weeks, and these will offer a much deeper insight and support network.
“I teach UX at Belfast School of Art, so I’m a little biased here,” says Christopher Murphy, who runs the BDes (Hons) Interaction Design degree. “I believe online courses are great, and there’s never been a better time to learn using web-based resources. However, I believe that offline, in person, courses are better for a number of reasons. An online course requires a great deal of self-discipline to get the maximum benefit. Without a mentor to check in and challenge you on your progress, it can be hard to find the motivation required to work your way through an online course.
“I believe online courses are great, and there’s never been a better time to learn using web-based resources. However, I believe that offline, in person, courses are better…”
“An offline course gives you a space in which to learn with other like-minded individuals. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Being a part of a peer-learning group, learning face-to-face, utterly transforms the learning experience. It forces you to raise your game.”
So, with a variety of courses available, both in terms of duration, content, and delivery, how should you go about choosing the right UX course for you? Some things may be out of your control, especially if you’re currently in employment, and need the flexibility to work around an existing job. That said, there are still some universal steps that you can take to judge the relative merits of a course.
“The best way to judge a course is by talking to students and graduates who have taken it…”
“The best way to judge a course is by talking to students and graduates who have taken it,” says Elizabeth Léonard, course leader and lecturer in Digital Design at Newcastle College. “Are they working in roles you would like to aspire to? Were they happy with the course? Is the course content current and updated regularly? All courses should allow you contact with graduates to ask questions, very often I find potential students just don’t ask these questions. Would you get on a plane without checking its destination?”
Research is essential
Despite his criticism of the current state of education, Andy Budd agrees that–should you choose to enlist on a course–it’s imperative that you do some serious research before you commit yourself to a specific path.
“If you do choose to head back to university, I would look at the background of the faculty, talk to past graduates and check out the end of year degree shows,” Budd tells us. “Are the lecturers practicing designers? Do they have a good network of mentors and visiting lecturers? Are the degree shows full of commercially relevant case studies, or is it all IoT nonsense? (There’s nothing wrong with the Internet of Things, but there are very few folks hiring designers in this space.)”
And as with the majority of vocational qualifications, one of the most important things you should be considering is the real-world experience on offer. We recommend you ask about placements for example, and ensure that your course will give you the opportunity to develop relationships within the industry, and hopefully find yourself a mentor.
“I strongly encourage my students to take a year out and undertake an industry placement. Doing so gives you a great deal of industry experience, which is critical.”
“I run a degree programme at the Belfast School of Art,” Murphy tells us. “I strongly encourage my students to take a year out and undertake an industry placement. Doing so gives you a great deal of industry experience, which is critical.
“Something else to look for are details of the curriculum. Not just a list of module titles, but in-depth material on the modules. When I started the Interaction Design programme in Belfast, I open-sourced our modules on GitHub, sharing everything. We’ve had fantastic input from professionals, from all over the world, helping us to shape our modules.”
– Christopher Murphy is an experienced UX educator.
Although a degree isn’t required by many employers, there are clear benefits that you will gain from taking a longer course (remembering to ensure that you research it well beforehand). But letters after your name don’t necessarily impress recruiters, who are also looking for certain traits beyond education.
“There have been a couple of people over the last four or five years that I’ve seen come off courses, where I’ve thought they could do a good job for us,” Sharples says. “They definitely had that rudimentary knowledge to set them on the right path. But I’m looking for an ability to write and communicate, not just take a lot of pictures of Post-it notes, and they must be able to clearly articulate what they do, and how they approach something. I don’t know if you’d call them a UX designer at that point; I wouldn’t, I would call them a designer. For me, it’s not until you have some years under your belt, and have defined your craft and skill that you can give yourself a moniker.”
What’s in a name?
The subject of naming is one that regularly comes up in conversations around UX, especially as people look to label what it is they do. And the question of which course will give you the right label at the end of it often overshadows the importance of other things that employers are looking for.
“I honestly don’t think anyone that comes out of a course–on or offline–should be calling themselves a UX designer. I don’t want to finger the people that go and take these courses, because the people that run them are complicit in this naming game,” Sharples says. “Now you have done this, we will turn you into that. You see it with most courses. And I think they are partly to blame for the proliferation of inexperienced UX designers. People should come off these courses saying: “I would like to be a UX designer because” or “I believe being a UX designer means this, this and this”. That’s the mindset graduates should have.”
“I honestly don’t think anyone that comes out of a course–on or offline–should be calling themselves a UX designer.”
Elizabeth Léonard also concedes that a degree isn’t as important in securing UX jobs as it might have been in the past, but–as with any degree–she is keen to talk up the benefits of undertaking a more structured and recognised route into a career.
“When I first started teaching eight years ago, most employers were asking for graduates to have a bachelor’s degree,” Léonard says. “Now they realise that a degree doesn’t always mean quality, and you can miss out on some serious talent by requiring a degree.
“And though the employers I work with don’t require qualifications, completing one does demonstrate dedication and work ethos needed. Also, a good course will allow plenty of employer engagement and work experience which often gives opportunities because it’s a platform for you to get close to them and show off what you can do. On your own you’ll need to work harder to get to speak to the right people, go to conferences, meet-ups and build your social media profile. You’ll need to shout a bit louder to be noticed but it’s not impossible.”
“…a good course will allow plenty of employer engagement and work experience which often gives opportunities because it’s a platform for you to get close to them and show off what you can do.”
What all our contributors agreed with was that, whatever educational route you might choose, it will only make up a portion of what’s required to have a successful career in UX.
“Learning is a deeply personal thing, so an actual course might not be the right thing for you,” Léonard concedes. “A course isn’t a key to a magical box of unheard information; if you want to know more about UX then there’s plenty on the Internet. Start there, check you understand what it is and that you are interested in it. And you feel like you’ve got a real interest and passion for the area and you want to put theory into practice then a course can facilitate your learning and help you grow.”
The fallacy of the perfect candidate
From talking to our contributors, it’s clear there’s no ideal background or direct educational path to your perfect UX job. Ultimately, the course you choose will be part of a much broader picture that recruiters and employers use to assess your suitability for a role.
“I met someone with a Classics degree who became a fantastic UX designer. They just had a real nose for strategy, and looking at the user and business goals and needs,” says Sharples.
“Hiring a new designer has to be about are they smart? Are they capable? Will they gel with our team? It’s not about what you’re called. Get into the community. Get yourself involved. Try and find a mentor, and if you want to work in an agency then go to one that’s sympathetic, and educates its staff. Go and stalk UX people on Twitter, and look at their backgrounds. How did they do it?
“And be well read. Honestly, you should be culturally aware. Read books. Fiction. Non-fiction. Just read things that make you think differently, and question things. And be inquisitive. These are things that are invaluable as a UX designer. Always be asking questions,” Sharples concludes.
Stu Collett, co-founder of UX Jobs Board and Super User Studio, a UX design agency in the UK, corroborates this, “When hiring we look for empathy, curiosity, attention to detail, an ability to creatively solve problems and clear communicators. Educational background can be a validation of these skills, but not the only way to evidence your skills and certainly not central to our decision-making.”
Have you taken a UX course recently?
If so, how did it pan out for you? Did it have an impact on your career? We want to learn more about your UX training experiences, so please comment below. Or check out our UX Training page for a list of courses.