How Important Are UX Degrees and Certifications?
Published: January 23, 2012
In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss whether UX professionals need to have degrees or certifications in areas of study relating to user experience to practice in the field and the value that they provide.
In my monthly column, Ask UXmatters, a panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: email@example.com.
The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:
- Carol Barnum—Director and Co-Founder, Usability Center at Southern Polytechnic State University; author of Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set … Test!
- Steve Baty—Principal of Meld Studios; Vice President of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
- Peter Hornsby—Senior Information Architect at Friends Provident; UXmatters columnist
- Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
- Jim Ross—Principal of Design Research at Electronic Ink; UXmatters columnist
Q: Do you need a degree in UX to have a career in it? Are there online programs that you would recommend? What countries and colleges are the best places to learn UX? Would you recommend certifications in UX if you already have a degree in another field?—from a UXmatters reader
“Short answer: No, you don’t need a degree in user experience to have a career in it,” replies Adrian. “You can have a wonderful career in the field of user experience without a degree in a related area of study. I don’t have one, and people are quite happy to pay me for my work!”
Steve agrees, also saying “The short answer is no. But it sure does help if you do have a degree. User experience is a very broad field, and many of the specialties within it have their own rich body of both theory and practice. Interaction design, information architecture, and usability—all have very extensive associated bodies of knowledge, plus related theories from disciplines such as design, architecture, psychology, human factors, and management.
“A degree in user experience—or more likely, a degree in one of these specialties—provides you with an opportunity to learn this body of knowledge in a structured manner. Through course assignments and assessment of your work, you also have opportunities to put that knowledge into practice in a controlled and protected environment. A degree program also ensures that you don’t skip over parts, that you lay a solid foundation, and that you do, in fact, apply knowledge in practical ways.
“However, you’ll find that, if you ask most UX professionals with eight or more years of experience whether they have a directly relevant degree, they’ll answer no. They learned by doing; through trial and error; by reading, sharing, and putting what they learned into practice daily. There were probably some occasions when they had greater or lesser success along the way—it certainly wouldn’t have been a smooth ride. But they stuck with it and arrived at a point where they had expertise that combines practical experience with theoretical knowledge—both of the hands-on, pragmatic kind and, to a lesser extent, the academic kind. However, you might also find that these people sometimes have knowledge gaps that would seem astonishing to a recent graduate of a contemporary course in interaction design, for example. Their knowledge may not be as well rounded as it might have been if they’d earned a degree. But it would probably be very deep in places as well.”
The Value of a Degree
“A degree or a certificate isn’t going to magically get you respect, make you employable, get you on the speaker circuit, cure acne, or make you more attractive to the love of your life,” says Adrian. “A degree is not going to instantly improve your UX skills. Only lots and lots of practice can do that. All of the employers of UX professionals that I know—myself included—are looking for experience first and above all. However, that doesn’t mean a degree is useless.
“A degree will get you an instant network of people in the field of user experience—your classmates. They’ll all go off to different places and have different work experiences. Keep in touch. You’ll learn a lot from them.
“Universities tend to be full of fairly bright folks. Knowing bright people outside your field is useful, too—whether in academia or in industry.
“It can be hard to get a broad overview of a field when you’re working in the trenches. If you’re employed doing visual design for Web applications, getting the spare time to learn how to do ethnographic studies or usability testing for desktop applications isn’t easy.
“Of course, having a degree gets you past foolish HR departments that require a degree. However, remember that people who require a degree also look at applicants’ experience. The most experience wins—the degree just lets you take part in the race.
“I’m glad I got my degree—in Computing and Artificial Intelligence—because it gave me knowledge and skills that I couldn’t otherwise have easily gotten in such a short period. Indeed, it was the cognitive psychology aspects of my degree that were an important part of my journey toward working in UX. However, my having a degree didn’t make me employable. What I did with the contacts and knowledge I obtained in the course of my studies did.”
“No, you don’t need a degree in a UX-related area, but it certainly helps,” answers Jim. “Many people have made the transition to user experience from related fields. Experience in Web design, for example, can translate easily to UX design through your incorporating more user-centered activities in your process. Most companies will consider relevant experience in lieu of a degree.
“However, a degree in something related to user experience is becoming more and more necessary these days, because so many people are now graduating from UX-related programs. Now, many companies look for someone with at least a Bachelor’s Degree, and many companies now prefer at least a Master’s Degree in design, human-computer interaction, anthropology, psychology, or a related discipline.”
“While it’s not essential to have a degree—or any other particular qualification—in user experience, having studied a discipline that teaches a scientific way of thinking is a big advantage,” asserts Peter. “A key skill in user experience is being able to look objectively at evidence and make decisions based on it. Any competent UX person should be able to design a test to assess the effectiveness of a user interface as objectively as possible.
“While I’m not aware of degree courses specifically in user experience, human factors and psychology qualifications are both fairly traditional routes into the field. I don’t believe getting certification in user experience is essential, but many employers will look favorably on it. Becoming a more well-rounded UX professional is generally beneficial. This means learning more about human behavior, group dynamics, research and testing techniques, bread-and-butter psychology that informs how people employ user interfaces, development tools, and graphic design. Even if you don’t become an expert in these fields in your own right, you will still benefit from having a greater awareness of the broader aspects of user experience.”
Moving Into User Experience
“Since the field of user experience is so broad and still growing, you need to decide what aspects of user experience you want to focus on,” recommends Carol. “Do you want to be a designer or a researcher—or both?
“If you’re in college, can you get an internship that gives you some experience in your area of interest? If you are currently working in a related field, can you create an opportunity to do some informal testing or user research at your company? If so, can you then share what you have learned from your work and convince the company you work for that you can, and should, do more of this type of work to improve customer satisfaction and sales?
“If you’re looking for a job that does not currently include UX work, you can ask questions during your interview to learn whether your potential employer is open to letting you do some work in this area, if you are hired. A number of my former students have started UX groups at the companies where they work by being the internal advocate for such work. Of course, they started small, but they were then able to expand this type of work within their company.
“If you have a college degree and a job, and you want to get more specialized education at the graduate level, there are Master’s degrees and certificates that specialize in human-computer interaction, user experience, information design, and other related fields. Some of these programs are online. Many provide opportunities to work as graduate assistants, helping you to pay for your coursework and giving you some relevant UX experience while you are studying.”
“I’m guessing that most people would say that you don’t need a degree in user experience to have a career in it,” replies Carol. “But you do need to have skills and aptitudes that you can demonstrate to a potential employer, so you can get started on a career in user experience. Thus, if you’re a new college graduate, you’ll need to play up the courses that have given you the skills and capabilities you need to start a job in user experience. Having a degree in user experience might make it easier for you to promote the skills you’ve acquired, particularly when your course titles fit naturally with the job requirements.
“However, you can get these skills through other types of courses or programs. I direct graduate programs in information design and communication at Southern Polytechnic, and you can complete a graduate certificate or MS degree online. Courses in our program that are foundational for UX practice include information architecture, information design, Web design, mobile user experience, project management, content strategy, graphics, and usability testing—to give you a short list. So, don’t assume that you have to get a degree in human factors or cognitive science to have a career in user experience.”
your employer values and rewards certification.”—Carol Barnum
“Whether you should earn a degree or get certification depends on what you want out of your study,” says Adrian. “It’s not an instant ticket to success. It is a way you might get some useful fuel to help you be more successful.”
“Certifications may be useful for your own education, if you don’t have the time or money to get a degree, but they aren’t valued as much as a degree,” replies Jim.
“You should bear in mind that a graduate certificate is not the same thing as certification,” cautions Carol. “Certification, however, might be the right choice if—and only if—your employer values and rewards certification. While some companies do have a policy to award and promote employees who have certifications in their discipline, others do not.
“If you want to take courses toward a certification because you want to learn about the field of user experience, that might be another reason to go this route. However, it might prove more interesting and cost effective just to read the best books on the subject and attend local, regional, or national conferences where you’ll likely find sessions and workshops for beginners, as well as for experienced UX professionals. Organizations that sponsor these conferences include UPA, CHI, and STC, to name a few.”