Do I need a degree to become a good UX designer?

As a UX professional, I get asked all kinds of questions from clients, colleagues and friends about the industry I’m in.

One I often get asked is: “Do people need a degree to become a good UX designer?”

To be perfectly honest, the short answer to that one is neither / either / both / whatever makes you happy / it’s complicated. Does that clarify things? I thought as much!

There are plenty of opinions out there on this one, so I’ve taken the liberty of breaking the different opinions down into three for this piece: Team Experience, Team Bachelor’s and Master’s, and Team Best of Both Worlds. The tricky part is figuring out which one fits you best.

Oh, and since it has been brought up, I’d like to finish with a quick chat about what makes a ‘good’ UX Designer.

Let’s hear it for Team Experience

Tertiary qualifications don’t necessarily make for a better UX professional, as proved by the many highly-successful UXers out there doing amazing work without them. In this interesting article on UXmatters, Adrian Howard says:

“You can have a wonderful career in the field of user experience without a degree in a related area of study. I don’t have one, and people are quite happy to pay me for my work!”

— Adrian Howard

We also need to recognize that many UXperts have wildly different backgrounds, some that have literally nothing to do with UX as we know it. Some of the best UX minds that I’ve had the privilege of working with have included writers, a graphic designer with no tertiary training, a former HR person, two former school teachers, and a librarian!

The one thing they all have in common? They are creative thinkers with a knack for problem solving. A great example of someone coming to UX from the side is UX Designer (and explosions expert!) Gretta Jensen, who described her brilliant 10-minute talk at UX Australia 2015 as:

“My journey from a computer-illiterate explosives-truck operator to designing explosives control systems unknowingly using UX principles and defending the end users.”

— Gretta Jensen

In her job, Gretta found herself having to use a product that wasn’t fit for purpose, and so she designed a better solution — and found out later that what she was doing was UX. Amazing. Inspiring.

If you’re someone with a wealth of knowledge and experience in another field, some of it may easily transfer across into UX. Tap into all your networks and think about your skills, and you might just find a way in that doesn’t involve starting from scratch.

Sing out for Team Bachelor’s and Master’s

Many people out there also advocate the benefits that a Bachelor’s or a postgraduate tertiary qualification such as a Master’s Degree can give you. In early 2014, Susan Farrell and Jakob Nielsen published findings from a study that aimed to understand the backgrounds and starting-points of UX practitioners. Out of 1,015 people, 52% of respondents held at least one Master’s degree. Does that mean we all need one? Not at all. But it’s definitely worth considering.

The article goes on to say:

“It’s definitely not necessary to have a graduate degree. Still, if you want to get a graduate degree, it would make sense to aim for a specialization that targets user experience, because the percentage of relevant degrees is much higher at this level among your peers in the field.”

— Susan Farrell and Jakob Nielsen

The full research report is also available if you’re curious to dig into this one a bit deeper.

I also found a couple of discussions on this topic floating around on the internet including this one in the Boxes and Arrows group on LinkedIn. It started back in 2012, but the most recent post to the discussion was just a few months ago and is well worth a read. While you’re at it, check out this discussion happening on Quora about the usefulness of graduate degrees in UX which includes some pretty detailed responses from people who’ve been there and their take on the subject.

My story: Team Best of Both Worlds

This is the team that I feel most drawn to, so I’m going to tell you a bit about my story. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design, and it was at university (halfway through my degree) that I discovered UX. So if I hadn’t decided to pursue a degree, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog!

I enjoyed completing a Bachelor’s degree because it gave me a structured environment to learn and grow in. I learned how to draw, which improved my visual design skills. I learned how to take constructive criticism. I learned how to present my ideas. And I learned how to unpack a problem effectively.

Towards the end of my degree, though, the university changed the course structure and introduced a 3+2 model: a 3 year Bachelor’s degree followed by a 2 year Master’s. At the time, I experienced quite a push from those around me to stay on and do the Master’s Degree — but personally, I thought it was a load of crap. After three years in a classroom, I felt that I needed to get out in the world and get some hands on experience.

And you know what? It was the best decision I ever made. Technical skills are just one part of the picture. I gained so much from getting out into a workplace and solving real problems and learning those valuable, life-long people skills.

What does a ‘good’ UX Designer look like?

For those of you wondering if UX is for you, this is a decision that you need to make for yourself by weighing up your options and figuring what’s going to make you happy!

This appropriately titled blog post from UX for the Masses has a whole heap of insights into what makes a good UX Designer. I also found this awesome article by Patrick Neeman on Usability Counts where he discusses what he looks for as a hiring manager — it’s definitely worth a read!

I’ll leave you with this interesting blog post from UserTesting that covers a lot of different ways you can develop your skills as a UX professional.

This article is part of Optimal Workshop’s Ask UX Agony Aunt series. Click here for more articles, or here to submit your own question.

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