Relevant: here’s a curated list of the best free and paid UX courses.

Prospective UX designers often wonder whether they should spend money on UX classes.

Get an informed decision by considering the 2 dimensions of free vs paid courses and in-person vs online training:

  1. Free Online UX Courses (skip to section)
  2. Paid Online UX Courses (skip to section)
  3. Free In-person UX Training (skip to section)
  4. Paid In-person UX Training (skip to section)

Let’s jump right in.

The “Should you pay for a UX course?” Diagram

Give this matrix a quick overview to determine your learning preference. Don’t worry, I’ll follow up quickly with detailed explanations behind each quadrant.

You’ll notice there’s a tradeoff in each “quadrant” of the diagram.

  • Generally, online UX programs trade completion rates for flexibility in time & location.
  • Generally, offline UX training trades that flexibility for deeper learning & high completion rates.

Across the board, paid UX courses correlate with increased completion rates because of the Endowment Effect; the more students invest in their training, the more they value their training.

Quadrant 1: Free Online UX Courses

The best option for UX students who need maximum flexibility at minimum cost.

Pros of free online UX courses:

  • Location and time flexibility. These are self-paced programs fit for busy schedules.
  • Though free, many of these courses are high quality.

Cons of free online UX courses:

  • Because they require such low commitment, student completion rates and motivation are low.
  • Typically lack personalized attention & community due to large class sizes.

Extra things to consider when taking free online UX courses:

  • Free online UX courses work best for independent learners who are DIY (do-it-yourself) in nature and are comfortable with focused solo work.
  • Sign up for just 1 course at a time to maintain your focus.
  • Consider signing up with friends or colleagues to motivate each other to stick with the course.

Most free online UX courses only cover the basics.

These fundamentals are important, but not the best fit if you’re looking for quality training on specific topics.

Quadrant 2: Paid Online UX Courses

My personal opinion is that paid online UX courses are the most valuable for learning specific topics, such as putting together your portfolio, technical software programs or learning how to do UX interviews.

Pros of paid online UX courses:

  • Flexible, self-paced courses that experience a bit higher completion rate than free UX courses.
  • More specific design training on niche topics & specialties.

Cons of paid online UX courses:

  • They cost money, but many are low-cost.
  • Their completion rates are still lower than in-person classes.
  • The quality of paid courses are hard to gauge. That’s why I put together a curated list of the best free & paid UX courses here.

Extra things to consider when taking paid online UX courses:

Paid online UX courses work best “just in time” — when you have a specific topic you want to learn, or a problem you want to fix.

For example you find that a new project may require user testing and you haven’t done that before, so you pick up a course on that topic.

Paid programs are a a quick way to learn + apply specific skills in a short amount of time.

Quadrant 3: Free In-person UX training

There are not many free offline courses per-se. Instead, these are usually one-time events like UX meetups, conferences and hackathons.

Pros of free in-person UX training:

  • A variety of topics are available, ranging from VR to resume workshops
  • Great way to network and build relationships in the design world

Cons of free in-person UX training:

  • Most topics will be introductory-level, as the time doesn’t allow for deep-learning. There’s no homework or accountability, but you will get insights. A lot of times events are promotional in nature, e.g. for a designer’s new book, or to sign up with a UX recruiting firm.
  • The cost of traveling to and from events.

Extra things to consider when taking free in-person UX training:

  • Half the value of going to in-person events is for the networking. You can potentially find a UX mentor here.
  • New designers: to prevent burning out, stick to something manageable like going to 1–2 events per month.

This is a no-brainer to take advantage of. Go to free events for networking, learning and free food. Pretty low commitment here.

Quadrant 4: Paid In-person UX Training

Now we enter the realm of UX bootcamps and degree/certificate programs that all require significant investment, often in the thousands of dollars.

Pros of paid in-person UX programs:

  • Highest completion rate. Because of the monetary investment and consistent schedule, most in-person programs have high completion rates of 80% or more.
  • Deepest learning — instead of doing it solo, you have access to instructors and peers to ask questions, collaborate with, and learn at a faster pace than just on your own.

Cons of paid in-person UX programs:

  • Requires significant investment in money, time and energy.
  • How the class is run will largely determine your experience. The quality of the instructors, the caliber of your peers, and the projects you get to do (or not do).

Extra things to consider when taking paid in-person UX programs:

Make sure to talk to the course instructors and administrators to get a sense of the teaching style and format of the class. If you have a chance to meet other prospective students, do it.

After all, if you invest in the program you’re going to be stuck with these other students for 8–12 weeks, for better of worse. If not, ask if there are past students they can connect you with so you can ask questions.

Also, ensure your paid in-person UX training includes hands-on projects. You want to walk out of the class with at least a couple solid UX case studies so that you can start applying to UX jobs.

Just tell me what to do, Oz.

So know you have a good sense of the pros & cons of these 4 training options. Let me simplify for you on what to do next…

  • New to UX and just exploring? Take advantage of all the free UX resources you can, from free workshops and meetups and courses.
  • Serious about learning UX? Then prioritize a paid option to increase the likelihood of completing a course.
  • Looking to upgrade specific skills? Invest in a course or get a UX coach to help you navigate specific programs.

One of the dangers of staying in the “free zone” too long is that it makes procrastination — and avoiding commitment — much too easy. If you have a pile of free ebooks of courses to go through, you know what I mean.

A study of MOOC completion rates found that the average completion rate of MOOCs was a low 7.6%.

Not all paid training options are perfect, but investing in one has the effect of making a casual UX learner into a serious UX student.

Social pressure is one of the most valuable learning tools. Showing up to class, and showing your work and getting feedback from other humans can be invaluable.

This is especially true if you’re a collaborative, experiential learner. Some people do fine with just because they have a very independent, solo-focused learning style, but I’d venture to guess these people are in the minority.

I hope the above analysis helps you navigate the plethora of options in UX learning options, whether they’re online, offline, free or paid.