Accreditation for UX Professionals?
Published: February 24, 2014
In an increasingly fast-changing marketplace, where commerce and the Internet are indistinguishable from one another, a growing number of jobs are going unfulfilled, and the skills that are necessary to fill them are shifting. As a rule of thumb, consider that 60% of the jobs that will be prevalent in 10 years don’t yet exist.
Are educational institutions equipped to prepare UX designers for the workplace of the future as advances in technology outpace those in education? Should the UX community be pushing for levels of accreditation to verify that someone has the skills and education necessary to call himself or herself a UX designer? How can an employer ensure that a candidate meets their expectations for a role in user experience?
Supply and Demand
User experience has become the de facto, catch-all term for several new positions that organizations and corporations are creating in the shifting landscape that is our global digital economy. As we open new markets and extend existing markets, there is a growing need for both skilled workers in the field of user experience and the innovative design solutions that they create. But it is becoming apparent that both industry and education have underserved the UX community.
As a freelance UX designer in Los Angeles, I have noticed the lack of availability of qualified candidates though the constant stream of messages from LinkedIn and recruiter contacts. The challenge for employers is to find and retain qualified, systems-thinking people. I get the sense that the demand for UX professionals is far outstripping the supply, and both companies and UX designers are trying to fill the gaps despite their limited understanding of the need.
To compound these supply issues, educational institutions are incapable of teaching systems thinking because, in academia, Human-Computer Interaction/Computer Science (HCI/CS), Graphic Design, Architecture, Art, and Library Science are all separate colleges with separate curriculums. The fracturing of design thinking in academia leaves many students—who want to pursue human-centered design and learn the necessary skills and problem-solving methods through their courses—unfulfilled and disconnected.
Educational institutions’ curriculums are concentrating on technical skills development—for example, learning to use Photoshop and other applications in Adobe’s Creative Suite—while they neglect the teaching of analytical skills and narrative processes that let a UX professional relate research, data mapping, and storytelling to user experience. I am not suggesting that I have a quick solution to this problem or that the curriculums of our educational institutions are totally out of date. The real issue is the narrow focus of curriculums that fail to prepare students adequately for the workplace. I regularly hear people say, “I am a print designer,” and I have a very difficult time not saying, “Well, good luck that!”
Graduate-level curriculums could fill some of the gaps in UX education. An undergraduate can learn only so much in four to six years. (I would not feel qualified to call myself a UX designer if I had not received an MFA in Media Design from the Art Center College of Design.) However, I believe that teaching the systems-level thinking that any UX designer requires is not as prevalent in BA or BFA programs as it should be.
We rely on our education systems to prepare our next generation of UX professionals. Helping nascent UX designers to understand, relate, and express UX methods is important to our profession. User experience has become established as a career, and industry now recognizes its importance.
The Role of User Experience
As UX professionals, we need to engage in human-centered problem solving on a daily basis. In my experience, the most effective UX designers function as catalysts within organizations that are attempting to solve problems or build things. Devising solutions requires systems thinking. UX professionals must balance the technical aspects of building products and their relationships with developers with the needs of the business and their collaborations with product managers, while ensuring that design, aesthetics, and usability get adequate consideration and are not underserved by any involved parties, including clients.
User experience is becoming an established business practice for any successful company that makes things for human beings. (I know that is broad.) And technology companies—especially software development companies—are at the head of the curve in realizing that creating great user experiences is becoming a necessity, not just a luxury. Companies like Apple, Samsung, Yahoo!, and Google have large, well-funded User Experience departments. The design of better user experiences has contributed to the improvement of computing platforms, including operating systems, applications, and Web sites. More recently, social media have highlighted the importance of great user experiences at companies like Instagram, Path, and Paper.
User Experience Skills
Most digitally based businesses, startups, and product companies have only recently seen the impact of implementing UX design as a core pillar of their organizations. User experience remains a large umbrella encompassing all of the professionals who think about and solve problems through user-centered methods. The skills that UX professionals employ include
- human-centered design
- design research
- problem assessment through asking questions
- feedback as a teaching tool
- iterating and failing fast
- task assessment
- process mapping
- articulating interactions
- system flows and mapping
- user needs and wants
- the speed of tasks versus the quality of engagement
- best practices
- user interface patterns
- wireframing and prototyping
- information architecture
- technical specifications
- and this list goes on and on…
These skills are essential to solving UX design problems, and they are key to the value that the UX community provides to industry. They can manifest themselves as deliverables or as ways of thinking or as part of a larger process. They are essential and should be required knowledge for UX professionals.
Should there be an accreditation process to prove this required knowledge? Though I loathe standardized tests, I believe the UXPA, IxDA, AIGA, and IAI could come together to create an agreed-upon set of skills in which UX professionals could be tested.
Before writing this article, I queried the UX community on Quora, where a number of responses gave me a resounding no, because our profession is too new and too diverse. (See the conversation on Quora.) This may, in fact, be true.
However, as UX professionals, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard and ensure that we all reach minimum levels of knowledge and capabilities. If we want industry to recognize our profession as valuable, we should look to other professional practices such as architecture, law, medicine, finance, and accounting, all of which require some level of accreditation to practice in the field and establish expertise.
We could use accreditation testing of UX professionals to demonstrate our knowledge of best practices or heuristics or human factors—or all of these together. Although user experience is a relatively new profession, I don’t believe that we should reject the opportunity to raise all UX professionals to a minimum standard by testing for accreditation. Not only would this engender trust in our abilities as UX professionals, it would also help to establish user experience as a valued profession in industry. We need to set the bar high because the sphere of user experience is expanding and will continue to become more and more important.