A couple of months ago, I determined my future career path would lead me into UX Research. While I have a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, took a couple graduate level courses in HCI while an undergrad and even had a publication at an ACM conference, I knew I needed some additional education. There were things I knew I did not know and most troubling I was certain there were things I didn’t realize I needed to know about UX Research to be effective. Faced with myriad choices from Masters programs to attending conferences, I spent considerable time weighing these options.
My story is not unique, most professionals in the field of UX did not do their academic training specifically in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) or UX. Rather, they got degrees in adjacent fields such as Computer Science, Design or Psychology. A debate is raging in the community around the need for professional accreditation and more specifically the role continuing education plays in the UX practitioner.
Traditionalists believe in formal education of the field of HCI through specialized programs such as a Masters of HCI. They argue that User Experience, much like Computer Science or Geography, is a field upon itself that requires rigorous study in order to build a reflective practice based on the principles learned. Someone with a background in Computer Science or Psychology may not have the background to appropriately reflect on the questions surrounding the experience they're designing let alone have the knowledge to perform the research necessary to understand user needs. Simply put they believe you cannot be an effective UX practitioner by simply taking a course!
Pragmatists, on the other hand, see the field as constantly evolving, requiring professionals who can adapt to a changing climate, learning whatever skills they need in the moment. Nearly 10 years ago, the field of User Experience was primarily concerned with the design of desktop applications where people spent minutes or hours at a time interacting with applications. Today, the smartphone has taken over as the computation method of choice and people now spend several seconds or perhaps a minute on them at a time. The approach you take in designing the user experience for a desktop application is quite different than from a mobile application even if some of the principles may be similar. Professionals are also engaged in their work and won’t have the time to set aside the months or years required to pursue a formal education in the field. Fast and low cost learning options like online courses and workshops are the method they argue makes the most sense in this environment.
In reality, both sides have their merits. What ultimately matters at the end of the day is the career goal you’re attempting to achieve through continuing education. There is no one size fits all for user experience education, you can be effective in the field without a formal graduate program just ask Jony Ive! At the same time, those who have made lasting contribution in the field like Don Norman have pursued a path of rigorous scholarship. While everyone will have their own academic journey, I thought I’d share my journey.
Formal Education (i.e. Masters, PhD)
When many think of continuing education they think of pursuing a Masters or PhD degree. In fact over 50% of UX professionals posses a Masters degree according to the Nielsen Norman Group. There are a variety of Universities which offer some form of Masters or even PhD program in the area of User Experience/Human-Computer Interaction. However, the focus of each program can vary widely. Some programs have more of a focus on UX Design whereas others have a stronger focus on UX Research. In addition, the type of research an institution focuses will vary. For instance Carnegie Mellon’s HCI Institute is focused more on IoT applications of UX whereas the DesignLab at UC San Diego has more of a focus on designing for tomorrow’s automation technologies. Hence, before applying to a Universities you’ll want to do your homework on them to see if the University’s courses match the principles you want to learn and the professors are doing research you want to write your thesis on. Regardless of which approach you take, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to work professionally any capacity except for the odd paid internships that are interspersed.
A Master’s program provides a formal way for those who hold a Bachelor’s degree in adjacent fields (i.e. Computer Science or Design) to brush up on the principles needed to be an effective UX Strategist. These core principles are flexible and can be applied regardless of whether the technology or product you’re developing the experience for changes. Masters programs typically require a year of full time study, although some offer the option of pursuing the degree on a part time basis. Some Master’s programs offer a thesis option which allows you to conduct formal research in an area of User Experience with the result being a paper that is submitted as part of your degree requirement. This approach allows you to hone in on your research skills, an important requirement for tomorrow’s workforce. The cost of a Masters program varies depending on if you’re a domestic or international student as well as the institution you are studying. Conservatively, I would estimate a tuition for a Masters will cost between $10,000 USD to $25,000 USD depending on if you’re a domestic or international student.
A less common path practitioners pursue when seeking a formal post-graduate education is the PhD program, which typically consists of 4-5 years of full time study. Other than being referred to as Dr., the appeal of a PhD program is clear: you work for several years exclusively on an area of research with your advisor (i.e. Professor), getting papers published along the way and a long (i.e. 100+ pages) thesis which details the research you undertook. While you’ll also learn the principles of effective UX Strategy, the focus of the program will be on the research. Hence, students who are going for a Phd are taking a longer term, strategic view. Rather than focusing on what’s relevant today, their research looks explores what will become relevant in 10 to 20 years time. The benefit to such an approach is that you’ll be on the ground floor of the foundational research everyone in industry will count on then. Once that research materializes into commercial products, you’ll be the go to expert everyone will seek out to for advice. Don’t believe me? Ask Geoffrey Hinton, Bill Buxton or Yoshua Bengio or the countless other researchers who took a bet on a fundamental technology that took off! However, the PhD student is also taking a huge risk, as many PhD graduates base their career on a topic that may not become relevant in their lifetime. In spite of that, having a PhD degree provides you with the ability to conduct rigorous research across a variety of fields, a skill that will become increasingly in demand as our economy becomes innovative. Keep in mind, a PhD program can easily set you back $100K in tuition alone. While it’s possible to get stipends and bursaries to offset those costs you cannot assume that will apply to you. To summarize this learning path is a long term one that has high risk and high rewards.
Accredited training programs that result in a certificate are another education path to the aspiring UX Strategist. These programs consist of one or more modules (i.e. courses) which cover a topic of series of topics in detail that match a high level goal (i.e. Project Management). This avoids a common criticism of formal education: you often spend time on courses you may already know or that are irrelevant to you. They are ideal if you are missing a well-defined skill that will prevent you from doing your job (i.e. Project Management). They are also great if you want to “upgrade” the skills you have in UX such as Usability Testing approaches for virtual reality products. Many are available accredited by institutions like UC Berkeley or well known organizations like Nielsen Norman Group, which many employers recognize. The length of these programs varies from a week-long course to several months. Generally, they can be taken part time and are often offered online allowing you to complete your studies anytime, anywhere while maintaining a job. However, many are also offered in person, allowing the learner to receive 1 one 1 teaching, perhaps leading to a more engaging learning experience. The cost of these programs varies from a couple hundred US dollars to several thousand US dollars.
There are a couple of points to keep in mind when considering if professional certification makes sense for you. These certifications primarily teach the immediate skills you need to learn today with most of the theory being stripped out of the curriculum. As a consequence, what you learn in that course may or may not be relevant in 5 or 10 years time when technology changes. They also aren’t a great option if there are many holes in your domain knowledge as they can only “patch” an area at a time. This is an issue formal programs like Bachelor’s and Master’s programs are precisely designed to solve.
Conferences & Workshops
Last but certainly not least there are the conferences, seminars and workshops that crop up from time to time. They generally last from half a day to a couple of days at most and can either be broad like the ACM’s annual CHI conference which focuses on all aspects of Human-Computer Interaction, or they could be narrow such as User Research or Information Architecture. These are great when you want to develop a basic understanding on a concept in a short period of time to help you determine if its worth learning more about that topic. These conferences are also great if you want to keep yourself abreast with the latest developments in the field. Attending talks at ACM’s CHI conference this year and seeing the various posters and courses at the conference allowed me to get a sense of research directions researchers and institutions are taking in User Research. Another major benefit to these conferences is the costs are relatively low. In some cases you’re spending $25 for a weekend conference on design! These events are also great venues to meet people who share your interest and come from a diverse backgrounds. Who knows, you may meet your next mentor or business partner!
Other than major conferences, like CHI which are scheduled years in advance, most events happen sporadically, so it’s helpful to use a site like MeetUp or EventBrite to find relevant events. In addition, many UX websites feature an event calendar you can refer to that break down upcoming events by date, topic and location.
What did I Choose?
In the end I decided to apply for a Masters degree in HCI, as my Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science will not set me apart from my peers alone and I have some genuine research interests in the field. Upon researching the Universities offering a Masters program focused on UX Research, I came across two relevant Universities that were both accepting applications for the Fall and were researching topics that were of interest to me (evaluation methods): University of York in York, UK and Brunel University in London. I applied to both Universities and received offers from both!
I’m excited to announce that I will be commence my Master’s at the University of York’s MSc in Human-Centred Interactive Technology this Fall! Depending on how things go during my Masters in terms of both career opportunities that may come my way and research opportunities I discover, I may pursue a PhD program (more on that later).
The journey through learning is not an easy one. There is no silver bullet that will turn you into a knowledgable, reflective practitioner who knows how to apply just the right knowledge and intuition to frame and solve the real problems at hand. Continuing education, such as Masters programs and professional certification play an important role in filling the knowledge gap of beginning practitioners. It also requires a commitment to continuous learning by consuming journals, articles, talks and books on areas where improvements can make a real difference.