Foundations of UX Design — My experience in a graduate UX program.

This is the first post in a series of posts recapping the courses in my UX Design graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Date: September 7th — October 12th

Books: Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services by Kim Goodwin and How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert

What’s the best way to learn UX? I ask because there are so many. There’s YouTube, Udemy, General Assembly, graduate programs at accredited institutions, and of course, learning by doing.

Although nothing beats learning it in the real world, there is a business forming around “teaching user experience”. I chose a graduate program but I’m still wondering, “What’s the best way to learn UX”? I’ve asked, and everyone seems to be on the fence.

The Online Experience

My program at MICA is online and will last for 15 months. It’s broken up into ten courses, three residences, and one class a week. My first course, Foundations of UX Design, meets every Wednesday at 7:30pm.

Although we only meet for two and half hours, much of our work is done outside of class, as you’d expect. And much of this work is split between reading and homework exercises.

We used Adobe Connect for class which let all the students in the cohort (a total of 9 including myself) see our professor, view the slides, and chat amongst the group. We took it upon ourselves to create a Facebook and Slack group for ‘out of class’ communication.

Did it work? Yes. Did it work well? Kind of.

Class was fine for the most part after we ironed out the connection and hardware issues. Some nights our screens froze, Some nights our browsers crashed, and some nights our mics were too loud.

Another issue is online etiquette. Nothing beats just simply raising your hand, but you couldn’t do that when your professor is miles away. Adobe Connect offered a number of ways to speak up in class. You could click a “raise hand” button, type your question in the chat box, or simply unmute your mic and speak. But which one do you choose? Which one is appropriate? Most people went to the chat box, but it takes a little longer to type than to speak. When the keyboard was hit accidentally, it informed everyone you were typing, which required the class to pause for the upcoming question that never came.

This only ate away at a little bit of class time here and there, but it definitely added up.

So, did it work? Yes. Did it work well? Kind of. Can you really complain when you’re on your couch going to class, I can’t.

A Foundation

The class was focused around a foundation in UX, and that’s exactly what we covered. We briefly went over user research, information architecture, visual and interaction design, prototyping, and usability testing.

After the course, I did get a firm understanding of things like what a UX designer is, what their goals are, how they communicate, how they work with other team members and stakeholders, and what deliverables they produce. Much of the technical information was learned from the reading. Class was used as an opportunity to reach consensus, not learn new information.

The Project

The homework consisted of readings in the book, articles, watching videos, and exercises like creating a user journey map. Our main project for the course involved researching, prototyping, and testing an interactive prototype, which really solidified the idea of design being a process. This wasn’t elaborate by any means — this was just a 6 week course. We picked from pre-selected sites, used coworkers and friends as users and testers, and made a very simple prototype.

We were tasked with picking a website, picking content on that website, performing a card sorting exercise, generating a sitemap with the results, creating a prototype from the sitemap, and testing that prototype with users. Having recently come back from a backpacking trip on the AT, I went with REI.com.

Here is a recap of my project.

REI.com Homepage

We needed to pick 30–40 pieces of content since this was a manual card sorting exercise. I chose to pick content from the “Camp and Hike” section of the site because the content was similar enough to be related but still categorizable, and I could test out the current sub-sections that REI chose.

That’s penny, she didn’t care much for the card sort.
Finalized Sitemap
Rough sketches for a watchOS app

I chose to make an Apple Watch prototype since the amount of content I had fit the size of the device. I downloaded a GUI Sketch file and referenced Apple’s watchOS Human Interface Guidelines.

Here are the tools that I used. Our card sorts were in-person with index cards but I needed to use OptimalSort to get a couple more participants. We were advised to use Axure which has a free student license, but I chose to use Framer JS.

To test, I gave my participants a small list of items and observed if they were able to find them or not. The results weren’t that accurate for a whole host of factors, but I learned a lot from the process. I learned a lot from getting in front of real people, watching, observing, and asking.

Being a UX designer isn’t about any one deliverable. It’s involves a range of communication tools to bridge the goals of the user and the business. It’s data driven yet humanistic. Designs can be quantifiably successful but learning why a design failed through in-person user research can’t be boiled down to any one metric.

If you’re on the fence about how to learn UX, I can’t tell you which side is right. I do suggest you figure out your goals, and try be descriptive. What sorts of projects do you want to work on? What type of team do you want to work with? What resources do you have currently or can acquire, and will they help you achieve those goals? Figure out where you stand and then read on about my experience.

I hope these posts will give you insight into my UX program, what a graduate UX program can offer, and if those benefits can help you achieve your goals.

Here is a list of my classes. I’ll be covering each class in an article much like this before the class is wrapping up. Human Computer Interaction starts in late October.