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The State of UX Design Education, Part 1: Undergraduate Degree Programs

May 3, 2021

The year 2020 was a big one for many of us—and not for the best reasons. It was the year of COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) Year of the Nurse; and working, teaching, and schooling from home. That year may also become known as the Year of User Experience—when UX design graduated from something nice to have to being essential.

According to a LinkedIn Learning survey of “The Most In-Demand Hard and Soft Skills of 2020,” UX design ranked #5 worldwide on their top-10 list of hard skills. User Experience dominated four of the top seven job titles in Onward Search’s world of creative, marketing, and technology careers. The 2020 Salary Guide placed product designers and UX designers in first and second place, respectively, with UI designer and user researcher in the fourth and seventh places.

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Organizations that provide courses and support for aspiring UX professionals jumped on this news. For example, the UX Design Institute claimed, “There’s never been a better time to pursue a career in UX.” Career Foundry wrote, “Are UI Designers in Demand? Here’s the Current Industry Outlook.” The answer was yes. Even Google announced, “UX to Become a Google Ranking Factor.”

With demand for UX professionals outstripping the supply, now seems like a good time to assess the state of UX design education. I’ll start this three-part series by looking at some undergraduate degree options and examine the pros and cons of liberal-arts programs versus those of art colleges.

Understanding the state of UX design education requires that we share a common definition of the discipline. UXmatters defines UX design as follows:

“A holistic, multidisciplinary approach to the design of user interfaces for digital products, defining their form, behavior, and content. User experience design integrates interaction design, industrial design, information architecture, information design, visual interface design, user assistance design, and user-centered design, ensuring coherence and consistency across all of these design dimensions.”

 If we revisit Dan Saffer’s elaborate 2008 Venn diagram of The Disciplines of User Experience Design, we see that UX design comprehends all aspects of digital-product design. Saffer’s illustration captures the essence of Don Norman’s original definition of user experience: encompassing “all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” Although the Nielsen Norman Group acknowledges recent “vocabulary inflation.” The term customer experience (CX) has become a distinct practice that better meets Norman’s original definition, while user experience more often refers to device interactions.

Regardless of where you land in the user experience versus customer experience debate, this question remains: how do you train for something that’s represented as the uber-discipline of all things human and experiential in an experience-driven world?

Do I Even Need a Degree?

I’ll first address the question of whether UX professionals need a college degree. If you search Google looking for an answer to this question, you’ll find plenty of blog posts claiming that you don’t need a degree to jumpstart a career in User Experience. Some of these posts are trying to sell you a professional certificate or bootcamp course in User Experience. Other posts speak from the perspective of mid-career UX professionals who have a degree in some relevant area, but learned User Experience on the job before the emergence of related undergraduate programs. For those who hope to pursue a career in User Experience, the belief that you don’t need formal, academic training in User Experience has likely become moot since the explosion of User Experience–related undergraduate and graduate programs over the last fifteen years.

However, for those of you who are just now embarking on your careers without a degree, progressive organizations such as Ovia Health, which is based in Boston, Massachusetts, may waive degree requirements now and in the future for all entry-level jobs. In such cases, a self-starting attitude, a portfolio of projects you’ve completed for friends and family and your ability to demonstrate LinkedIn’s in-demand soft skills—creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence—might be enough to land a great first job.

But many organizations want candidates who have some academic experience. Based on my informal research, there is no uniformity in degree requirements among job descriptions for UX designers or UX researchers on LinkedIn. Depending on the company, they might require no academic degree, a bachelor’s of arts (BA) degree, or a master’s of arts (MA) degree. Some require post-graduate experience. The UX positions that require degrees range from specific majors such as computer science and human-computer interaction to vague requirements such as “a field related to user experience design.” All of them require previous experience—at a minimum, two-years of prior work. Thus, most companies expect their UX candidates to have either an undergraduate degree in something or several years of experience. Because the requirement for an entry-level UX position is some experience or a degree, if you’re planning to go to college, read on to learn about your options.

But, having said that, if you’re already three to six years into a career—any career—I would not recommend your starting on a new undergraduate degree program. I’ll look at graduate and certificate programs in Part 2 of this series. If school is not your jam, I’ll discuss other career-training options in Part 2 as well.

The Good News: A Wealth of Options

Thanks to the lack of a standard in company’s degree requirements and because User Experience is such a broad field, you can turn nearly anything into a related major—from design to English, communications, journalism, digital media, mathematics, computer science, anthropology, or cognitive psychology. You should play to your strengths and study within your areas of interest. Just be aware that you may be self-selecting a particular job or organization—at least for the early part of your career. For instance, an employer might expect a recent graduate from an English or communications program to work on content rather than user-interface design. It would be reasonable for an employer to expect an anthropology major to be a better junior UX researcher than a computer-science major. The same employer might expect a computer-science major to be a better UI developer than a communications major. This doesn’t mean your boss would keep you in the same job forever. But these are starting points from which to build your on-the-job skills. The great news is that you have many options for translating academic experience in the arts, humanities, sciences, and engineering into a career in UX research or design.

Even better news: you can now major or minor in User Experience at community colleges, state schools, and private universities all over the country—if you don’t mind their lack of consistent labeling. Many schools do not use the term User Experience in the name of their program. For example, you could minor in Human-Computer Interaction at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. University of Michigan offers a Bachelor of Science in Information with a UX Design path. The University of Washington offers a Bachelor of Science in Human Centered Design and Engineering. Students at DePaul University in Chicago get a Bachelor of Science in User Experience Design. We have a nomenclature problem. But don’t let the wording fool you. These are all User Experience programs.

We also have a categorization problem. Depending on the school, UX programs might live in the College of Art and Design, the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Computing, the School of Engineering, or the School of Communications. Although these differences are frustrating from a user-experience perspective, they do convey meaning. A program in a School of Art and Design focuses on the screen-based aspects of UX design, while a program in a School of Information focuses on how User Experience fits into software and information systems.

As a result, a side-by-side comparison of programs might feel more like chalk and cheese than apples and oranges, but it is interesting to note the wide variety of formal schooling that is available to aspiring UX professionals. If your interest lies in the computing aspects of User Experience, look for a program that includes software development, computer science, and development methodologies. If you’re interested in user-interface design, focus your search on design or graphic design programs. If you’re interested in UX research, you should gravitate toward a program that is based in the humanities and sciences or a human-factors program. Again, you can take your pick of programs, emphasizing your own strengths and gaining academic experience within your area of interest.

More Good News: You Don’t Have to Rob a Bank

There is no need to attend an elite college or private university. Many state schools and community colleges across the country offer programs that relate to User Experience. According to Niche, North Carolina State University is #20 among the Best Design Colleges in the United States. Their list also includes the University of Florida, Virginia Tech, and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, which people often mistake for a private school. MassArt is a state college. State schools offer all the advantages of a traditional learning experience without the hefty price tag.

If even a state school is out of reach, you can pursue jobs that have vague degree requirements by getting an associate degree. In my own backyard in the Boston area, Bunker Hill Community College has a Visual and Media Arts department that offers a degree in Integrated Media, including courses such as interaction design, social-media strategy, and quantitative problem solving. On the other coast, City College of San Francisco offers a degree in Graphic Design. Their curriculum includes design fundamentals, User Experience, and a social and behavioral sciences requirement. These programs—and many more that are similar to them—are well established and welcome new students with or without a portfolio.

Having Trouble Deciding? Take My Advice

For those of you who are leaning toward UX research, I recommend a liberal arts, sciences, and humanities or human-factors program. Learn the scientific method, get grounded in data sciences, and hone your communication skills. If the interaction design aspects of User Experience speak to you, enroll in a design program.

If you really can’t decide or want to become a UX generalist—who is responsible for user research, design, and usability testing—choose a design program over a liberal-arts program. While I wholeheartedly believe in the value of a liberal-arts education, the arts part of the label is a misnomer. Art and design programs, from associate degrees to PhDs, require courses in the sciences and humanities. Design programs train students in the basics of written and verbal communication, as well as research techniques. However, most liberal-arts programs do not require courses in art or design. Plus, a design program is the fastest way to build a portfolio and land an entry-level job with little or no previous experience.

No matter which path you choose, you’ll need to continue developing your UX skills throughout your career. New modes of user interaction will come along—as well as new technologies such as voice recognition and augmented reality—so you should at least be aware of any emerging design subspecialties, even if you’re not fluent in them. Expect to become a life-long learner, ask your boss for a training budget, read industry blogs and magazines, attend UX conferences, and recognize what you don’t know.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, in which I’ll discuss certificate programs and graduate degrees for both UX professionals and aspiring job changers. 

Principal/Founder, Black Pepper

Brookline, Massachusetts, USA

Sarah PagliaccioSarah is Founder and UX Guru at Black Pepper, a digital studio that provides customer research, UX design, and usability consulting services. Sarah designs complex mobile and desktop Web apps for healthcare, financial services, not-for-profit organizations, and higher-education organizations. Her focus is on UX best practices, creating repeatable design patterns, and accessible design solutions that are based on data-driven user research. Sarah researches and writes about bias in artificial intelligence (AI)—harnessing big data and machine learning to improve the UX design process—and Shakespeare. Sarah teaches user-centered design and interaction design at the Brandeis University Rabb School of Graduate Professional Studies and Lesley University College of Art + Design.  Read More

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