Certification by UX Organizations: Is There a Business Case for This?

May 19, 2014

I frequently receive email messages from recruiters, asking whether they can submit my name to their client for some UX job or other. I always like reading the job descriptions because they help me to stay current on what skills are most in demand in the field of user experience. However, one thing that is always a cause for concern is when UX job postings say “UX certification preferred” or, even worse, “UX certification required.”

While, at least here in the United States, project managers have their well-established PMP certification and, a bit closer to User Experience, ergonomists can be board certified in professional ergonomics (BCPE)—there’s even a UX component of this certification—there is no broadly accepted UX certification. I understand that hiring managers want an easy litmus test to determine whether someone is a qualified UX professional. User Experience covers such a wide range of skills that it may be difficult for them to fully assess whether a candidate is a good fit for a job—particularly if managers are not immersed in User Experience themselves

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Thus, I enjoyed reading Chris Becker’s article on UXmatters, “Accreditation for UX Professionals,” in which he promoted the idea of a UX organization-led accreditation program. While my goal in writing this response to his article is not to offer an opinion for or against certification, I want to share my observations about why it is difficult to make a business case for UX organizations’ offering certification in User Experience. Creating a UX certification program would be a huge and expensive undertaking, and it is unclear what the cost justification for such a program would be.

How Many UX Professionals and Employers Want UX Certification?

A professional organization that wanted to create a UX certification program would need to understand the market and know what percentage of employers and UX professionals would like such a program to exist. This is true for both philosophical reasons—Would they be helping the field of User Experience as a whole?—and practical reasons—Would they be able to justify the cost and effort of creating a UX certification program? About this point, as Becker points out, the answer is rather vague.

Over the years, I’ve had conversations with people who really would like UX certification to exist as an additional job credential, an indication that they’ve gone through a program of required training, and general validation that would help hiring managers to know who to employ. But I’ve had just as many conversations with people who would not want UX certification to exist because they don’t believe that certification would, in fact, be a valid indicator of a person’s ability to do a UX job.

To make the business case for UX certification, a large-scale market research effort would need to assess whether there is enough market demand for such certification.

Certification Must Not Mean a Static Approach to User Experience

While a UX certification program could, in theory, be flexible, the field of User Experience continues to change very rapidly. This change is a byproduct of both changes in technology and the development of new methodologies—both within and outside of User Experience. Would a UX certification program of today need to include responsive design and touch-screen interfaces? Would a certification program that was created five years ago have included these aspects of User Experience? And what is the landscape going to look like in another five years? Any certification program would have to take into account the rapidly evolving UX landscape and continually be updated.

Certification Would Mean a Common Definition of User Experience

Becker suggests that UX organizations should come together and create a certification program. While several of my recent publications describe my strong belief that UX organizations should work together and collaborate toward the betterment of the field, I acknowledge that each organization very legitimately has a little bit different lens on the field of User Experience. While that diversity of perspective is welcome, to develop a certification program, UX organizations would have to agree more firmly on exactly what User Experience is—and that could be difficult.

What Aspects of User Experience Should Certification Include?

There are so many aspects of User Experience—Becker describes a good number of these in his article—and so many job titles that overlap each other that UX organizations need to try to be as inclusive as possible. To actually be inclusive of all aspects of User Experience, a UX organization’s certification program would likely need to include training modules in visual design, interaction design, qualitative user research, quantitative user research, evaluation methods, information architecture, accessibility, and, perhaps, in coding good user experiences and UX project management. Each module would need stand on its own, so someone could be certified in only specific aspects of User Experience. I don’t think any UX organization would want to demand that UX professionals be the elusive UX unicorn.

Would Certification Need to Be an International Standard?

Some countries have their own national certifications. Would any large-scale certification effort need to be global from the start? Or should such efforts scale to multiple countries over time? Would certification testing need to include questions that are relevant to only a certain country—or different questions for different countries? Should academic qualifications be adapted for specific countries and languages. While the need for an international standard seems justified, it would also increase the scope and, thus, the expense of the effort tremendously.

Those Providing Certification Training Would Need to Be Certified

Not only would creating a certification program necessitate the development of training materials, it would also mean that any set of training materials would need to be certified as appropriate. Some kind of licensing system for certified trainers would also need to be developed to validate the qualifications of the people being approved to do certification training. Plus, there would be the expense of developing online and possibly print study guides and other ancillary materials for students. All of these necessities would increase the expense of developing a certification program.

Rolling out Certification Would Be Expensive

To be truly valuable, a certification program would have to be a large enough effort that it could really become the gold standard. Creating and validating a certification process, then rolling out a certification program would be a very expensive undertaking for organizations that run largely on volunteer efforts. Thus, developing a certification program would perhaps require some kind of venture capital. Developing such an initiative would likely require a large initial outlay of cash—plus justifying the effort to get significant buy-in and additional money for marketing. How would it be possible to translate revenue from those who want to get certified and would pay for training, materials, and testing; or companies who want to hire certified UX professionals into subsidizing the initial, large outlay? Would engaging in what might need to be a commercial effort cloud the non-profit status of these organizations?

Since Certification Is Not Likely to Exist Soon, What Should Organizations Do?

While the goal of UX certification—creating an international gold standard that would determine the quality of UX professionals—is certainly a laudable one, developing a UX certification program would present significant challenges, and it does not appear likely that this will happen any time soon. So what can UX organizations do now?

Having a UX certification really means having a collection of certain skills, knowledge, and experiences. So, UX organizations should instead focus on helping UX professionals to gain the background they need to do a great job. Toward that end, UX organizations could aim to help in the following areas:

  • learning—Offer opportunities for learning and training, and help connect their members with the right training opportunities.
  • coordination—Work with colleges and universities to make sure that the training they offer matches real-world needs, and ensure that students know that UX organizations are there to help them with their careers.
  • mentoring—Provide mentoring opportunities, connecting those who have experience in the field of User Experience with those who are new to the field.
  • networking—Facilitate networking opportunities for UX professionals to meet each other and learn from each other.

UX organizations can and do provide a lot of value right now. While different organizations don’t necessarily define User Experience in exactly the same way, when it comes to facilitating learning, coordinating mentoring, and providing networking opportunities, any slight variations in their definitions are not a problem—and the diversity of their perspectives is appreciated. UX organizations should collaborate internationally, nationally, and locally to help UX professionals grow in their careers. Maybe, if we all focus on these opportunities, we can put off the large challenges inherent in UX certification for another day. 

Owner and Principal User Experience Consultant at Lebsontech LLC

Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

Cory LebsonCory established his small, successful UX consulting firm in 1997 and has been a UX consultant for nearly 20 years. His core client base has included a number of Federal government, commercial, non-profit, and educational organizations. Lebsontech focuses primarily on UX strategy, user research, and associated training. Cory greatly enjoys teaching topics relating to user experience and technology and frequently gives talks and workshops on UX career development, usability, user experience, information architecture, mobile UX, and accessibility. Recently, he has been a guest on a radio talk-show and published several articles on user experience. Cory has an MBA in marketing and technology management, as well as an MA in sociology and a BS in psychology. Cory is Past President of the User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA) International and is Past President of the UXPA DC Chapter. He is also author of the forthcoming book UX Careers Handbook.  Read More

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