How Important Are UX Degrees and Certifications?

By Janet M. Six

Published: January 23, 2012

Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from some of the top professionals in UX.

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: ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.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

“You can have a wonderful career in the field of user experience without a degree in a related area of study.”
—Adrian Howard

“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.

“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.”—Steve Baty

“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 will get you an instant network of people in the field of user experience—your classmates.”—Adrian Howard

“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.

“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.”—Jim Ross

“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.”

“Having studied a discipline that teaches a scientific way of thinking is a big advantage. A key skill in user experience is being able to look objectively at evidence and make decisions based on it.”—Peter Hornsby

“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.”—Carol Barnum

“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.”

Coursework

“Having a degree in user experience might make it easier for you to promote the skills you’ve acquired….”—Carol Barnum

“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.”

Certifications

“Certification … might be the right choice if—and only if—
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.”

14 Comments

To the comment, “unaware of any degrees specifically in UX,” I’d encourage readers to examine the Masters in Human Factors and Information Design at Bentley University. If the program were created today, it may have been called UX; it’s certificate program is. I’m a student, and I find It directly applicable to my work as a UX manager.

John McGloon

Hello. Are there any online degree programs available or training or certification in UX/IA? Thank you.

Hi Afshan

I am a Web designer based in India. I am looking for an institute for certification in UX design, in India. Where should I go for that?

I am also working as a senior Web designer and want to take forward my career as a UX designer. Is there any valuable UX degree or certification? Do HR people consider this kind degree?

I work as a programmer, but I’ve done UX design work for two products, and I love it. I’m trying to build a portfolio and find a job as a junior UX designer, and I’ve applied for grad school at SJSU in human factors and ergonomics. Am I on the right path? Am I likely to find a junior UX designer job before I start school? I’m also digging into books on usability. Is there anything else I can do to increase my chances of getting a UX job ASAP? Thanks in advance.

Hello—I recently decided that UI/UX is the direction I want to take in IT. I have absolutely no IT experience, and I have a BA in Human Development with a minor in Psychology from 14 years ago. Should I have some type of IT experience first before pursuing a UI/UX career? My goal is to find a certification program and begin this coming Spring. What should be my very first class? Do you know of any in the San Francisco Bay Area? What is a practical career path for someone like me?

Thank you!

Hi, any links to online courses or certifications for UI or UX? Which is the top institute or university doing online courses?

Rutgers University also has both a certificate program and a Masters Degree specifically in UX. They teach the certificate program in boot camps of 3 to 6 days. The Masters Degree is combined with Business Courses, which teach both how to run your own consulting business and work strategically with corporate management. Parts of the Masters program can be obtained online, although for crucial courses, we believe in continuing mentorship with students working on real projects. Find out about the

As a hiring manager in UX, I look at formal education and experience, as well as expertise demonstrated in interviews, which is mostly related to experience and portfolio. While online courses and certifications provide theoretical knowledge, this is a field where doing counts more than knowing. I’d be happier to hire someone who spent the last year revamping their company Web site and can show me their work in IA, page design, and/or usability testing over someone with a certificate, regardless of their official role in the company.

There are some really great programs out there. Look for ones that have the students do a lot of practical work. These departments often run consulting practices, and the students primarily do the work. There are also some really awful programs, and when I see these turn up on a resumé, the candidate has to show me that they have unlearned the bad habits taught in the program. Unless you’ve been actively working in the field for 5+ years, you will probably need proof of some kind of training to get a first or junior job in this field.

This is so helpful. I’m looking at NYU’s certificate program.

I’m coming from an editorial background, trying to move into content strategy, and this program seems like it would fill in a lot of the information I don’t really have an opportunity to learn on the job. I wonder if I would be in over my head as someone without a Web design background, though.

Hi—If you are really interested, my company has an industry-driven UXD training course called imaginXP.

I would love to get into UX design. I am a seasoned film / video editor and motion graphics artist. How can I transfer my visual skills from presentation to usability. I have created Web sites and Flash presentations from scratch as well. I find that learning new software is something I can do without much trial and error. I have also dealt a lot with how viewers engage and retain content throughout my career. I would like to become a manager in the UX design landscape, as opposed to being a production person. I have worked in broadcast film / video in NYC since 1999, so my time for doing / creating / working all hours. Is there a certain position I can go out for to accomplish this transition into UX design without starting at the bottom? I’m looking to remain fresh in a changing media landscape.

Hey,

I am currently pursuing B.Tech. in Computer Science and looking forward to doing a masters in UI/UX Design or any related degree. I’m searching for a school that provides lot of projects and practical experience during the program. It can be located in any part of world. Any suggestions?

Masters and PhD programs in Human Factors and/or Human Computer Inteaction are available at many colleges in the United States.

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