Do a HCI Masters or attend a UX course?

UXswitch asked me to run through my decision process in choosing how to take my User Experience skills to the next level through education.

Taking the decision to pursue User Experience (UX) further is a huge step and should be taken carefully. It’s not a simple decision to make either.

On the one hand, you have short courses that can last up to a day and on the other you have University Masters’ courses that last up to a year. The cost also varies drastically as well. A User Experience short course from Lynda starts at $50 whereas a University Degree would set you back at least a couple thousand pounds (GBP) in the UK.

I spent over three weeks to sift through the internet and ask various people about how they made their decision on what course to take. So, let’s begin by taking a look at what’s out there.


What’s there to choose from?

I started looking into where I could study User Experience in London because that’s where I lived (incase you live outside of London a larger list of Academic courses and short courses are available on the UXPA-UK website).

To help me visualise my choices, I made two tables to analyse the details of each option. The first table looks at long courses (lasting longer than or equal to a year) and the second at short courses.

For each course I looked at the cost, time required, the course modules and anything about the course that stood out to me:

Now for the hack schools and other short courses.

This table is by no means a comprehensive list but it does give you an idea of what’s out there.

I think that the most interesting difference besides how much each course varies, is how some courses focus on the theoretical aspects of UX whereas the others have a more practical focus. Ultimately though, I based my decision on 3 factors: the cost, the time required and what they are teaching in the course.


What is the difference in cost of the courses? (Cost)

The online courses are definitely cheaper but they are highly specialised and focused on building practical skills. At the same time, I think that when compared to university courses or hack schools, they are not as comprehensive. This means that you would have to research and then pick out a combination of courses in order to develop to become well rounded designer.

On the more expensive end of the spectrum there is the General Assembly course or the Masters courses at the different Universities. If you have a Bachelor’s degree, both options look similar except that the time required is very different, this brings me onto the next point.


How much time do you have on your hands? (Time)

The Masters courses will always take at least a year. If can commit to the full time course, it would take you a whole calendar year to complete, otherwise (if you are working) the part time course will take a minimum of 2 years. Note that although the Masters lasts for a year, the actual classes and lectures normally take place on a couple of days per week. The workload will obviously vary depending on the time of the year. For instance, during the dissertation period, you will be extremely busy in comparison to the first 3–4 weeks of term where the workload is low.

The General Assembly course is much shorter but it is full time only. To complete the course you would need to dedicate two and a half months of your time, Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. I’ve heard that each day is pretty intensive and you will have homework on top of attending lectures and workshops during your day. Although, at first sight, 10 weeks does not seem like a lot of time, I’ve been told that a large majority of your weekends will be spent working on your projects.


What are they teaching in the course? (Course modules)

User experience is a relatively new discipline that comprises of both theoretical and practical elements. As you can see from the the table, each course has a different focus. The ones that teach about User Research, Cognitive aspects, Evaluating and User testing tend to emphasise more on the theoretical elements of User Experience. The more practical modules are those involving Interaction Design, Prototyping and other “Design” related titles.

It’s important to add that different courses will expose you to different perspectives on User Experience. By “perspective”, I am referring to device types as well as current and future technologies. For example, in general, University courses that teach cognition and novel technologies will equip you better for designing for new technologies. At the same time, a lot of Universities focus on designing interfaces for complex systems like hospital equipment which mean that they lack focus on current trends/technologies like responsive or mobile design that are vital for the workplace.


What I eventually chose?

These 3 factors are interdependent and you should definitely choose what suits you the most. For me, as I have had practical experience designing websites and I was changing careers (from Finance) which is why I prioritised my decisions by course contents, then time and then price.

I wanted a course that had more emphasis on the theories behind human cognition as well as how humans may interact with future technologies. I thought that the theory would be more useful for me because I had never studied Human Computer Interaction before and I had only studied Design up until A-Level.

I was especially interested in learning about the psychological and cognitive aspects of a user’s’ experience and how we can test and optimise the product to suit the user’s’ psychological needs. The practical elements would act as an update to bring me up to speed with current methodologies and tools.

It was difficult to choose a course based on time. I thought that if I completed a short course then after 10 weeks I could start applying for jobs so even if it took longer to find a job, I would probably get one sooner or later. In contrast to this, the University courses would take a full year to complete which meant that I would only be able to apply for a job or internship until 6 months into the course.

At first I wanted to study for less time so that I could quickly get a job but then I thought about it in another way. What could I do with the rest of the time that I had whilst studying at University? The answers to this (freelancing, reading books that I’ve always wanted to read, learning different things at the University’s clubs and societies) swayed me to study the full time Masters.

What about price/cost? Well, I had saved up enough money to pay for a full time cost but the living expense cost meant that in reality, the Masters course is much more expensive than the GA course.


Summary

I hope that this short article showed you the various ways in which you can study User Experience more formally. With this information, I hope that it helped you in deciding which User Experience education route to go down.

Please leave me comments or email me if you have any questions or comments.

Special thanks to Niyati Agrawal and Dylan Price for their help proofreading and providing valuable feedback.

This post is also available on UXswitch.com and UXstudent.co.uk