What is the best UX/HCI/interaction design school?

SO YOU’RE TRYING TO FIND A SOLID PLACE TO STUDY UX DESIGN— HERE’S A CHECKLIST

I’ll cut right to the chase: the “best” UX design or HCI degree, bootcamp, or program is the one that best matches your own goals, learning style, and budget. I’ve compiled a list of themes and questions to help you evaluate and make a sound decision. As you read through them, pause and reflect: What are your own expectations? What priorities float to the top? Do you naturally gravitate to certain themes?

Defining your expectations and objectives upfront will help narrow your choices and make the decision process easier. It also minimizes the likelihood of discovering too late that you’ve chosen the wrong program.

You may not be able to find answers to all the questions, and you certainly won’t find them all in one place. Starting with currently enrolled students or recent graduates of the program can often be a helpful first step. Many programs are happy to put you in contact with them so that you can make the right choice. Communities like IXDA , UXPA , Quora, and Reddit can also help.

WHAT DOES THE PROGRAM FOCUS ON

  • Is the emphasis on hands-on, practical (i.e. “vocational” or “production”) skills, academic research or conceptual, higher order skills?
  • How does the program balance theory vs. practical knowledge?
  • Do students tend to learn the subject matter in a traditional classroom setting (lectures/reading) or experientially?
  • What is the typical size and format for each class? (studio vs. lecture)
  • For Masters programs, do most graduates go into industry (or pursue a PhD)?

HOW DOES THE CURRICULUM EVOLVE

  • What are the core courses? What are the main learning goals?
  • How often is course content updated? Who is responsible for assessing the content and updating it?
  • How quickly can significant changes be made to course content or program curriculum — on a dime or over months or years?
  • Do administrators and/or instructors regularly gather quantitative and qualitative feedback from the entire ecosystem (not just current students but also industry, recruiters/hiring managers, and alumni)?
  • How long has the program existed? Have any significant changes been made since its inception?

WHO WILL YOU LEARN FROM

  • Who teaches the core classes? Is it in their area of expertise?
  • Does each class tend to be taught by the same instructor or does it change each time?
  • Do the instructors have connections to industry?
  • Where does the program draw the instructors from? Do they exclusively teach? For higher education, do they also conduct research and if so, to what extent?
  • Does the department/program publish academic research? If so, is it recognized by industry and/or the domains you’re interested in?
  • Are core courses taught by the institution’s own full-time instructors (for higher ed: tenured or teaching faculty) or hired on short-term contracts (adjunct)?

WHAT IS THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT LIKE

  • What physical facilities and working spaces are provided to students? Are they modern, safe, clean, staffed and well maintained? Do they echo what you would find in industry?
  • Is the ratio of space/tools appropriate for the number of students?
  • What tools are provided to students? Are they representative of what’s currently being used? Are they regularly updated and maintained?
  • What tools and materials will you need to pay for out of pocket?

WHO WILL BE IN YOUR COHORT

  • How diverse is the cohort? What are some typical backgrounds?
  • Does the program require that applicants have prior work experience? If not, what percentage come straight from undergraduate?
  • What is the criteria for a successful applicant (and student)?
  • What is the overall acceptance rate?
  • How much team work is involved?
  • How strict or lenient is the program with students fulfilling the program requirements to receive a degree/certification?
  • How large is the overall cohort?

WHAT ARE THE OUTCOMES

  • Does the institution publish job placement data?
  • Can the institution identify trends of their graduates over time — common job paths, salary, career progression, job titles/responsibilities, top industries and domains?
  • Is there a person responsible for connecting current students/recent graduates with industry recruiters, alumni and/or mentors?
  • What kinds of career resources are offered?
  • Are there any specialized UX job fairs and networking events?
  • What companies recruit students and do they return to hire from each batch of graduates?

WHERE DOES YOUR TUITION GO

  • How does the school/institution/department make their money (private funding from industry sponsorships, public funding, grants, student tuition)?
  • What does the institution reinvest in (i.e. program, faculty, physical space, research, events)?

DON’T FORGET…

UX Designers don’t exist in a vacuum. Now that you’ve checked your expectations, consider validating them. Get the perspective of senior designers or hiring managers to see what is really valued in industry (plenty of articles exist out there as well) and past graduates. A great starting point is Nielson Norman Group’s user experience careers report. Then revise. Flexibility will only help you grow as a designer.


This is Part 2 of a series on UX Design Education.

See Part 1 about where to study UX design.

Full disclosure: I was former director of the MHCI (Masters in Human-Computer Interaction) program at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a graduate of CMU’s Interaction Design program many moons ago.

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