The UX of Learning UX is Broken

By Dan Maccarone & Sarah Doody

It’s May of 1999, the heart of the dot-com boom. I walk into my first “professional” job as an information architect (what we would call User Experience today). I was an arrogant 22-year-old who had not only been creating websites since I was the age of 18, but had been paid well for it. From Photoshop to HTML to (limited) SQL, I knew how to do it all. And IA (information architecture) was only one slim facet of what I knew. As I sauntered through the overly-designed office of people pods, I was clearly the youngest person in this department — but there was no way anyone was more experienced in the Web.

Several hours into my first day, as I’m sitting at my desk, one of the Lead IA’s strolls over to me and sets down a pile of printouts of about 200 wireframes. Every page is redlined with changes, some super simple and others that need to be thought through entirely. I’m told to work through the revisions and see what I can get done by the next morning. Three problems here: (1) I’d never seen a wireframe in my life; (2) I didn’t know how to use the software they were created in; (3) I’d never worked on a project this large and complex in my life. My four years of “experience” weren’t worth crap because this job and company required a whole different set of skills for me to do my job.

Almost two decades later, I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with a range of User Experience (UX) designers creating and evolving a variety of successful digital products such as Hulu, Foursquare, the Wall Street Journal, and Rent the Runway. Each of these experiences not only required unique sets of knowledge — they forced me and my colleagues to wrap our heads around interactions and situations we’d never thought through before. About four and a half years ago, I met Sarah Doody when General Assembly (GA) asked us to create, design, and teach the first version of its User Experience Immersive Class, a 12-week program that promised an introduction to the world we’d both been working in for over a decade (more on that later).

For those who don’t know, GA opened in 2011 in NYC as both a co-working space and a destination for technology learning. Over the past few years, the company has pivoted to mainly focus on immersive education classes for UX, design, and development that “transforms thinkers into creators through education and opportunities in technology, business, and design.” To date, they’ve raised $119.5 million in order to do so.

Recently, we received an email from GA with the subject line, “Learn UX Design in Our New One-Week, Accelerated Program.”

This course, to us, is that last straw in a recent string of programs offered by GA and other organizations touting to teach you the skills you need to be a UX professional in an accelerated period of time.

From 12 weeks to one week — that’s quite a jump for an already compact course timeline.


The Failed MVP: You Can’t Timebox Education

The claims of these courses appear to be that once you’ve spent your time and, more importantly, gobs of money, you’ll be ready to showcase your UX portfolio and knowledge in interviews that you’ll quickly parlay into a job. Indeed, in this one week course alone, General Assembly claims that you will “compile a full suite of UX documentation” and “create a portfolio piece featuring a start-to-finish case study and clickable prototype to showcase your new UX design skills at interviews.” Promises like these define everything that is wrong with these courses and, furthermore, are a taint on the UX industry — or any industry that requires myriad skills and years of training. Not to mention that for us, this far into our careers, we are still learning everyday as new technologies, platforms, and habits emerge.

Think about it — would you want a plumber who only has one week’s training? How about a psychologist? Or an architect? A high school teacher? Even the training to become a Starbucks barista takes more than a week.

Returning to that first day of Dan’s career, the thinking he had to do to fix that product wasn’t mindless replacement of copy or a paint-by-number exercise. The work required understanding how technology worked and how people were actually using the internet. Remember, this was 1999 and the only platform prioritized was Windows (the Apple resurgence hadn’t quite happened yet), Netscape and Internet Explorer were the only browsers that mattered, and most people still used dial-up, making connectivity speed a factor. The internet was fairly new and most people’s habits were still forming, but there were some general tenets you could follow. To be perfectly honest, the experience Dan had designing for the web up to that point did in fact contribute to his ability to solve those problems, and ultimately qualified him to do that job.

Jump ahead 17 years to today … there is a lot more to consider in design: platforms, devices, and audience habits (plus expectations, goals, etc.) have changed drastically.

We design on desktop for Chrome, Safari, IE (a little), all for both Mac and PC. We design for Chrome and Safari on iOS across 2–3 different phone sizes. We design for Chrome on Android. Nevermind thinking about responsive breakpoints for tablet, as well. And we know a whole lot more about how people use the internet and how different audiences have different habits that require different design thinking. Creating experiences for Millennials requires different thinking than for Boomers or GenXers.

But according to General Assembly, after a week in 9–5 classes, you’re ready to go out into the world with a prototype portfolio and smoothly sail into a career in UX. What a farce.

We didn’t always feel this way about the current state of education around UX. Like we mentioned earlier, we were asked by GA to create the first immersive UX course — a 12-week program that met for three hours twice a week.

The original page on General Assembly’s site for the first 12-week UX Design intensive in January 2012.

We set out to design a course that was meant to give our students an overview of what UX is all about, touching on topics as varied as the basics of user research, the range of deliverables, general principles to start with when solving problems, and what the various roles are in the world of UX (yeah, there are a few). We even wanted our students to get practical experience, so part of our 12-week goal was that our students could walk out of this course with a product in hand (or at least all of the UX done for one). We were ambitious. We were excited. And boy, were we wrong.

Our students for this course split themselves into two groups: mid-career folks who were looking to understand how UX could fit into their current jobs, and people who were thinking about a career change and needed to get a grounding in UX to figure out which part of it suited them best. Either way, what we put together amounted to 144 hours of class time that barely scratched the surface of what we wanted (needed?) to communicate, and, in the end, while we hope our students got a decent overview of the industry, there was much we simply couldn’t cover in 12 weeks.

While we would have liked to evolve our original curriculum (in true UX fashion) to be better suited for a high-level experience, that was the last immersive class we taught. There were a variety of factors involved that have nothing to do with the quality of the course or with how GA ended up creating its program. There was one thing that we both couldn’t stomach: at the end of a program — no matter how long or short it was — we would have to guarantee everyone would get a certificate proclaiming that they were ready for primetime.

The fact is, many students probably could be ready to take on a junior or intern role, but many weren’t, and that’s okay. UX isn’t for everyone. And while it could be upsetting to pay thousands of dollars to take a course only to be told you’re not ready for a career in this field, we’d rather be honest than put our names on something we couldn’t defend. In what other profession can one get “certified” just for showing up?

We are not alone in our point-of-view. Since then, we’ve spoken to a variety of other User Experience professionals to see what they had to say about these programs.

When looking at these programs, Kevin Kearney, CEO of New York-based product design firm Hard Candy Shell, commented, “Great, now you can draw boxes and make up a persona.”

“The problem with these programs is they are churning out junior talent faster than anyone can hire them. With the idea they might get jobs.” Kearney, who has lectured at the School of Visual Arts’ undergrad program for design students, continues, “you can’t ‘learn UX’ in a vacuum. That’s like saying someone is a designer because they know Photoshop.”

Austin Govella, an experience director at Avanade Experience Design and co-author of the book “Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web,” asks, “Can you learn enough in a few days to switch to a career in UX? Not any more than a few days with Rails makes you a developer or a seminar on Gantt charts makes you a Project Manager.”

We’re not saying you can’t learn some basic skills over the course of a few days. But you aren’t ready to jump into a career. “You definitely need some formal training with experienced practitioners,” says Govella. “And, you need to read. And look at other people’s work and think about what works and doesn’t. And fail on some projects of your own.”

Sophie Freiermuth, a UX designer and founder of Baguette UX in London, has first hand experience with these programs, having previously taught GA’s one-day “Introduction to UX,” in addition to being involved in its intensive course as a project judge and topic instructor. She’s also been teaching UX within large organizations. She commented, “when the UX training emphasizes the creation of a portfolio, often populated by team work, these people can easily become strong applicants on paper.”

The creation of a portfolio during a course also presents a challenge for recruiters and hiring managers.

Freiermuth notes that designers trained in this way “will likely project their genuine confidence and smartly highlight their strengths while being completely unaware of how junior they actually are. They do get the job, then struggle immediately, without knowing when they are well outside their realm of competence.”

Freiermuth brings up a good point in that a lot of the graduates don’t know what they don’t know. The professional facade of the course gives them the confidence to believe that they are qualified. However, their lack of real world challenges leaves their competence truly untested.

Abby Covert, a leading independent information architect and author of the book How To Make Sense of Any Mess, echoes this concern: “I feel like I want UX to be a teachable set of skills and places like GA are trying to do that, but I worry that their business models demand a turn around time for these skills that is not reasonable, which means they likely turn out a lot of graduates that think they are ready to work, but in many cases they are not. I also wish that the price tag for these lessons wasn’t so high as I worry that is a sure fire way to lower diversity in our industry.”


The State of the UX Education Ecosystem

User Experience design matters and more and more people and companies are taking note. AirBnb, Warby Parker, and Uber are all companies that made a conscious effort to focus on design and as a result, created great experiences that their customers love.

It’s clear that experience design plays a critical role in attracting audience, building trust, and getting users to take action. Because of this, it’s not surprising that there is increased demand for User Experience designers today. Companies realize the return on investment when they hire good designers.

But, the rapid increase in popularity of UX has lead to increasingly broad definitions of what a User Experience designer actually does. Ask five people what a User Experience designer does and you’ll get five answers.

Companies understand they need to invest in User Experience, but they’re not sure what that means in terms of what types of people to hire. Many times, they simply look to hire one person who can do it all (cue the unicorns) rather than a team of people with a balance of generalist and specialist skills.

As the perceived definition of design has matured from “make it pretty” to “make a great experience,” the skillset of the designer has also matured. However, the ecosystem of how to learn about UX is unfortunately more confusing than ever.

If you do a Google search for “UX courses” you’ll be flooded with a wide range of options to match any budget and schedule. For example, Udemy has a two-to-three week course for $40, General Assembly has a 10-week part-time course for $4,000, and Center Centre has a 24-month program for $59,980. The School of Visual Arts in New York City offers three types of education programs on interaction design alone, ranging from workshops to a Master’s degree. And that’s only a very small sample of the diversity of courses available today.

“Obviously there’s a huge difference between a one-week course and a six-month course. It depends on what the end goal is,” says Alex Rainert, VP of Product at Nucleus and former head of product for Foursquare. “To be a UX designer and think like a UX designer, it takes a lot more. It’s not something you can do in a vacuum, understanding users, understanding behavior, interaction design, it takes experience to know those things.”

We have nothing against design education. The point is that most User Experience courses are a great entry point for people who want to learn about the field. But completing a course should be the beginning of your journey, not a badge of competency.

When we created and taught the first iteration of General Assembly’s UX Design Immersive in 2012, we fully intended it to be a foundational course where you could learn the basics and then continue your learning with future courses that would focus on specific aspects of User Experience. What we fundamentally disagree with is the idea that in a matter of weeks you can have enough knowledge to make a career switch and get hired as a junior User Experience designer. Yet, so many of the courses are marketed this way.

“The problems I’ve seen are folks coming from those programs whose book looks polished and professional, but they’re actually more green than their book reflects,” says Ron Goldin, a product design consultant, founder of New York based product design firm Akko, and former Director of Design at Kitchensurfing.

“In one case, I had one designer looking for a relatively senior salary and role based on an intensive, which makes me think it’s actually how they frame those courses and what kinds of expectations they’re setting with students.”

With the vast number of UX courses and programs pumping out graduates with certificates of completion, the market for junior UX designers is completely saturated, as echoed above by Kearney. It’s wonderful to see so many people who are excited about the industry and who want to be a part of it, but if they truly believe it’s the right career path for them, we’d rather they earn the experience than try to buy their way in.

Does this create a supply and demand problem? According to this Quora thread, the answer is yes. One anonymous graduate said, GA seems to be intent on reckless and exponential expansion. UXDi (UX design immersive) has 2 classes, and WDi (Web Design immersive) has 4 classes, each semester. This doesn’t take into account the other part time courses. Combined with lack of admissions standards, the graduation rate only appears to make things hard for each graduating batch.”

The same person went on to say, “I received several competitive job offers within a month of graduating, didn’t have to apprentice / intern at all, and I’m fully employed as a User Experience designer in what is pretty much my dream job. I do extensive research and usability testing, steer project strategy, and also do wireframing and prototyping.”

However, this should not be considered a normal outcome. Rainert says, “That’s not to say there aren’t people that are empathetic and get it faster,” but the reality is that “someone with a 12 week experience joining a team where there’s an opportunity for great mentorship and a path to growth, that can be a great foundation.”

The rapid rise in UX courses creates many false perceptions about what it takes to succeed in the “booming” and “exploding” field. Here are just a few that stand out:

Certification does not matter
Many courses offer certification, often after as little as one week. In our careers, never once in an interview did someone ask if we had UX certification. Similarly, never once in the process of hiring someone did we ever look to see if they had UX certification. To be frank, we’d have to do a Google search to actually know what certifications are even out there. Would someone with a degree in interaction design or human factors stand out? Of course. But at the same time, a certificate doesn’t equal competence. A certificate doesn’t mean you can do “it” in the real world. A certificate just means you showed up and are a good test taker — if there was even a test at all! We often ask ourselves, if we had to take the certification exam, would we pass it? Maybe not. Because User Experience design is so subjective — there are no true rights or wrongs for the most part — working through problems may have the same process but there could be ten different answers.

Best practices aren’t always the best practice
A couple of years ago, we were whiteboarding with someone who had taken a certification course. When most of us had agreed on the solution to the particular problem, the “certified” UXer objected, saying that the instructor had said you can never use that specific interaction paradigm. The issue is, there’s no such thing as never. In design, the idea of best practices and design patterns is rampant. The concern we have is that every product you make will have a different context — the users will be different, the purpose will be different, the device could even be different. What works well for one audience may be a disaster for another. You must carefully dissect whether or not a best practice or design pattern actually fits the context in which you’re working. It’s not enough to know best practices and patterns — what matters is that you know when to use them, and when not to use them.

Knowing how to think trumps knowing a tool
When we interview potential UX team members, we rarely get to the portfolio. It’s generally a conversation about what’s going on in digital, how we all approach solving problems and, in some cases, geeking out over both our favorite and most mortifying experiences. With the rise in prototyping and design tools available, it’s not that difficult to get a good template or stencil set and start arranging things on a screen. A lot of courses focus on using software. We never start by putting pen to paper because anyone can learn to use a tool. It’s all the thinking and conversation that lead up to creation where most true experience work is done.

One of Sarah’s first bosses gave her some great advice: know your tool, know your tool as fast as you can, know your tool as well as you can. So that’s what she did. But then she realized she had to learn how to think like a designer in order to use the software to create smart, thoughtful designs. A great designer doesn’t just create a deliverable.

Great designers justify every decision they make along the way to getting to the final product. And learning to think like a designer doesn’t happen in a few weeks.

Process is not a deliverable
A lot of courses teach processes and formulas. But every project is different — different timelines, budgets, and goals. Not to mention the different personalities you’ll deal with, and the challenge of navigating clients and stakeholders who often times want to be very hands on. Therefore, the process constantly needs to be tailored to each project. Being able to tailor your process requires confidence that only comes from experience.

Creating truly successful products starts with understanding people — and not just the people you’re designing for (though that’s critical as well). Often the User Experience designer is sitting in center of the conversation, navigating the challenges faced by business requirements, conflicting users needs, technical limitations, and design opportunities. Marrying all of these into a single product means gaining as much of an understanding of all sides as possible, and then communicating effectively, fairly, and clearly to all team members. And that is before the pen ever hits the paper.

As an individual, you need the confidence to back up your ideas or to push back on ones you think don’t fit the product thesis. You need to learn how to listen to great ideas from all sides, build the talent of persuasive communication, and, ultimately, understand when you’re wrong and why. Experience design is, at its crux, an experiment in collaboration.

Quality Assurance: Fixing the Bugs in UX Education

Just as we’d approach designing any product, we understand both that the system will never be perfect and that it’s an ever-evolving process. As it should be. And to be honest, we don’t know how to fix it right now. But what we want to start is a conversation. A conversation about the characteristics of a great User Experience designer.

Why now? Because our field is in a state of change. As the field changes, we’ll have to learn new software and new ways to design for different devices and platforms. But the principles behind how we design an experience won’t change because we’re designing for people. And the best User Experience designers fundamentally understand people.

In his 2016 Design In Tech report, John Maeda (Design Partner at KPCB and formed RISD President) addressed the current state of design education.

Maeda notes that, “There is a gap between what is being created in the education space versus what’s needed in the tech industry.”

KPCB conducted a survey of 329 current and former design students to understand what skills design programs teach versus what students wish they had learned once out in the real world. The study found that current design programs focus on the pillars of communicating and articulating your design, using empathy to design, and defending your designs. However, in hindsight, the pillars that past design graduates wish were pillars of their education focused on understanding business, finance, user research, analytics, leadership, and teamwork.

As we think through the list of qualities that a User Experience designer should have, these are the ones that immediately rise to the surface for us (but please feel free to add your own in responses below):

Communication & Collaboration
To be a great designer, you have to master the soft skills. A huge part of the job will involve stepping away from the design software of choice and dealing with people. Designers must be master communicators, possessing the confidence necessary to have the tough conversations. And they will happen. Designers need to know how to deal with stubborn stakeholders, tell people they are wrong and why, admit when they’re wrong, and master the art of explaining their design decisions. Designers must also learn the art of collaboration. Working with people in many different business roles means they have to quickly be able to understand others’ perspectives, what matters to them, and how they can contribute to the UX process. Also of importance is the ability to collaborate with other designers, which involves being able to quickly recognize each other’s strengths — and assign responsibilities accordingly.

Technical Literacy
The great debate concerning whether or not designers should learn how to code isn’t going away. We firmly believe that designers do not need to know how to code and that it’s more important to be literate in the wide variety of other skills we mention in this article. However, this doesn’t mean that designers should ignore technology — and if the want to take the time to learn the ins and outs of code, it certainly can’t hurt. To design effectively and collaborate with developers, designers must be technically literate. Designers should have a basic knowledge of HTML and CSS so that they understand how their design will ultimately get built. Technical literacy is similarly valuable when it comes to troubleshooting. Not all designers will get to see their design through the product development lifecycle, but these skills are useful for designers who find themselves helping with quality assurance.

Always Be Learning
Technologies are changing faster than ever before. New platforms and devices mean that our medium is always shifting. In order to stay current, designers must commit to lifelong learning. Technologies change and user habits change (and go away). This constant state of innovation means that we always have to be re-thinking what we know. We cannot simply rely on old knowledge, templates, patterns, and habits. We must always ask ourselves why we’re doing things a certain way. We must always challenge each other to justify our design decisions so that we don’t fall prey to being too comfortable and complacent.

Existing Resources
There are a ton of great existing resources available to help people at whatever level of User Experience they’re at. We are both completely self taught. Our learning was a combination of reading blogs and books, engaging with people we looked up to on Twitter, watching videos, and simply doing it all over and over and over again.

We put together this Google spreadsheet of resources to help jumpstart your learning about User Experience. From time to time, we’ll update this document with new resources. Of course, if you have additional resources please tell us about them in the comments section of this article or tweet us.

Learning From Other Industries
At its core, a User Experience professional is a storyteller. Every project involves looking at the paths a variety of users will follow in order to achieve their goals with the product we are creating. Often, we find that examining the process of other storytelling professions can give us insight as to how to be better organizers of information. And, often, people with experience in these other disciplines make great UXers, particularly those from the worlds of film, theater, journalism, psychology, architecture, and library science.

“One of the best UX designers I ever hired was an architect,” says Rainert. “Architects have a very useful way of looking at problems and space and it translates well into interface design.”

Rainert’s experience isn’t unusual. One of the biggest challenges with creating education around User Experience is that so much of the expertise comes from experience and the ability to empathize with your audience, as well as truly understanding how to collaborate. He goes on to say that “it’s less about wireframes and deliverables and more about understanding users and behavior and that comes from talking to users, sketching stuff out, trying things that don’t work. It’s more of a process than that. Especially if you’re looking at what the expectations are for great design. It’s not something that can just be churned out.”

Bringing experience to the table from other industries or from true research is the best way to learn. And if there’s a system to be designed that can allow for that, we are all for it, but trapping folks in an academic environment for weeks on end isn’t the solution our industry needs. We don’t spend our days in cubicles producing documentation, we speak to people and most of those people live outside the tech world. Alternate perspectives allow for more diverse and original thinking.


In Conclusion

Where do we go from here? It’s easy to try and make General Assembly and its peer companies scapegoats, but that’s not productive or solution-oriented. GA isn’t the problem. It’s the symptom. The problem is that the UX industry is misunderstood. For wonderful reasons, we cannot be defined as one thing and there’s no one true path to success. We’ve been fighting for almost 20 years now to just gain the recognition that our role in the creation of a product not only matters — it is critical. And now we’re at a place where it’s trendy to be in User Experience. That’s a huge victory for the profession, but we need to fight to not let it be cheapened by thinking just anyone can do it. Just like not everyone is fit to be a doctor or a carpenter or an astronaut.

Whenever we kick off a project with a new client, we have a slide in our deck that says “Creating a product is hard. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” User Experience, with all of the facets that comprise it, is a challenge everyday. Be proud of that. Embrace it. Love it. Live it. We do.

As designers, we are problem solvers. So let’s solve this problem together.

What can we as a design community do to fix the broken way that people currently learn how to become great at UX?


This is the first article in a series about the state of the UX eco-system:
1. The UX of Learning UX is Broken
2. The UX of Hiring for UX Positions
3. The UX of Getting Started in UX


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Dan Maccarone is the co-founder of Charming Robot, a digital product design agency in NYC. He also hosts the podcast Story in a Bottle, chronicling the stories of tech and media professionals. Follow him on Twitter @danmaccarone.

Sarah Doody is a User Experience Designer in NYC. She teaches people how to think like a designer through her weekly UX newsletter, UX courses, and her YouTube channel. Follow her on Twitter @sarahdoody.

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