A college-level curriculum for UX

Closing the gap between design education and the professional practice of making digital products.

The path to a career in UX isn’t clear

Many of today’s design college graduates aren’t equipped with the right combination of tools, processes, and experiences to successfully transition into user experience (“UX”) jobs in digital product design. While this isn’t a new phenomenon, its inadequacy hinders partnerships between engineering and product management that are critical for creating successful products in most organizations. We — a broad range of industries, a spectrum of companies, a community of passionate UX professionals — are looking for opportunities to change that.

As modern product design concepts, tools, and processes continue to become more specialized and complex, it’s apparent that higher education is struggling to keep pace. For example:

  • The lack of a base model for a digital product design program makes recruiting faculty especially challenging.
  • Schools have varying strategies for developing new programs.
  • Innovation is often stalled by theoretical legacies and inter-departmental politics.

This also means that there are various paths to a career in digital product design, each with their own challenges of efficiency, scale, or both. For example:

  • Study design fundamentals and computer science or human-computer interaction.
  • Develop an interest in products and focus on tinkering and making at an early age.
  • Start your career with an internship, at an agency, studio, or startup to get on-the-job training and mentoring.

The need for better, more consistent education around digital product design has existed for so long that there are now fast-growing, independent, á la carte options. These options allow individuals to self-serve the training for skills and tools they feel they are expected to possess to be successful. General Assembly, Treehouse, and Code Academy are a few notable examples.

According to a post on Quora about General Assembly, “95% of their alumni get full-time jobs in the UX industry within 3 months of graduation”.

While these options may help provide some of the training to evolve a designer’s skills, their narrow focus and limited exposure don’t provide the the range of skills and experience required for a career in large-scale digital product design.

Changing education is hard

The change that we’re proposing requires significant momentum to overcome the friction of politics, bureaucracy, and limited resourcing. It also requires a clear understanding of what exists today, what we think is needed for tomorrow, and a practical plan for getting there. Not all schools are in a position to explore this type of change, only those that offer the diversity of programs to augment, the organizational flexibility, and the leadership’s willingness to change.

In recent years, I, along with a number of colleagues both inside and outside of Google, have visited several schools to better understand the landscape of design programs. We’ve met with faculty and students alike to discuss philosophies about what’s required for young designers to be successful today and into the foreseeable future.

When we shared our perspective with some of the faculty and administration from The Savannah College of Art and Design (“SCAD”), there was an optimism and enthusiasm rooted in “let’s make it better!”. With their diverse range of design programs, an eagerness to explore opportunities for improvement, and their cultural values around assessing performance and measuring success, our discussion turned to explorations that quickly gained momentum.

In September of 2015, SCAD launched their UX Design curriculum — the first program of its kind within higher education. While it’s certain that there will be refinements to the program, this early first step gives us an opportunity to drive positive change not only in design education, but also for a whole spectrum of design-oriented careers.

“SCAD is a top-tier, non-profit design school that really can make a difference by example, and we’re excited to be working closely with such a passionate group to help steer their new UX Design program.”

Shaping a pilot curriculum

Initially, we audited the courses being offered across several of SCAD’s existing design programs. From there, we proposed a reconfiguration of courses resulting in a structure and sequence of what a UX design curriculum could look like. We took some of the user-centered research courses from Service Design along with some interaction design and technical platform courses from Interactive Design and Game Development, then we added some fundamental courses from Graphic Design, and so on. Finally, we introduced some new courses that are specifically calibrated to digital product design.

Together, the core elements combine to make a cohesive program that emphasizes tools and methods such as:

  • Generative, formative, and evaluative research methodologies to understand and define problems.
  • Design fundamentals such as typography, color, grid, composition, and various contextual considerations to explore and craft solutions.
  • Problem-solving and logic to prototype, test, shape and evolve products.

As part of the program, students also have the opportunity to use these tools on client-sponsored projects with teams made up of cross-disciplinary members at the Collaborative Learning Center (CLC). The CLC offers the students a platform along with firsthand experience defining problems and exploring solutions for actual clients and their users’ needs. This project-based team format also helps students develop the soft skills necessary for successful cross-functional collaborations that they can expect to find throughout their careers.

To date, twenty two students have already switched their major to UX Design. Many of these students participated in Google-sponsored projects within SCAD’s Collaborative Learning Center this past fall. One of the goals for the project was to guide students through a nebulous design challenge that would better familiarize them with prompts that they might face in large-scale digital product roles. The course involved making appropriate use of tools related to research as well as prototyping, user testing, design iteration, and brand exploration.

“We were both impressed and inspired by the range of product concepts the students delivered — all of which were rooted in thorough user research and testing. The amount of creativity, ambition, collaboration, and overall enthusiasm shown by the entire cohort was, at the very least, remarkable.”

Now the hard work begins.

As with any new product or service, no matter how well planned, it’s essential that we measure results and iterate:

  • We need to observe and document what is and isn’t working.
  • We need to apply what we learn to continue refining the curriculum.
  • We need to open-source, evangelize, and propagate the model.

Launch, learn, refine, and scale

When we set out on this path, we had an ambitious goal of influencing a change at SCAD intended to better prepare students to meet industry expectations. Using SCAD as a model, we now need to encourage other institutions to adopt their own interpretation of a program that better prepares their students. To do this, we need help from both companies and individuals.

As companies, we need to:

  • Provide students with a firsthand look into what they should expect from industry jobs and we need to communicate our expectations clearly.
  • Participate in educational design programs at the college level through portfolio reviews, classroom lectures, workshops, and sponsored projects.
  • Develop, Invest in, and refine internship programs to ensure that students are getting the best possible experiences that will allow them to mature more quickly through the transition from education to industry.

As individuals, we need to:

  • Share our experiences, knowledge, and wisdom that we’ve collected individually through our own careers — stammy@’s write-up about the process behind making Twitter Video is a great example of this.
  • Talk to college and high school students to set career expectations and help them imagine what the first steps of their own career paths might look like.
  • Educate students on how a career in design can satisfy a sense of purpose through solving problems for people.
  • Inspire students to imagine a path for applying their creative passions and artistic talents — an outlet for exploring their intellectual curiosities.

It’s been quite a journey getting to this point, but it also feels like it’s just the beginning. Thanks to everyone who has been so encouraging, supportive, and optimistic about closing the gap!


Many, many thanks to Fred Gilbert, Daniel Burka, Jon Lax, Jay Runquist, Dantley Davis, Jason Fox, Justin Maxwell, Utkarsh Seth, Soleio Cuervo, John McCabe, Roman Nurik, Elizabeth Baylor, Rob Giampietro, Josh Lind, Rob Youmans, Xande Macedo, John Paul Rowan, and everyone else who’s helped shape this story.

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