Where should I go to learn UX design?


You’re intrigued by User Experience design, Interaction Design and/or Human-Computer Interaction. Now where to get started and get some credentials? If you haven’t already discovered, there are LOTS of options out there: degrees, online courses, certificates, workshops, bootcamps, conferences, books, blogs…each promising to give you the foundational knowledge and skills to make it as a successful UX designer.

For those who are new to UX

 A word of caution before you launch. First get familiar with the various interpretations of UX, and the different types of roles (yes, there’s more than one!) as well as the hard and soft skills required.

I know that might sound counterintuitive — shouldn’t a school or bootcamp teach you all of that? Well, it should provide an overview, but particularly for the shorter programs, there are going to be some significant edits and whittling down of content. You need to know what content will be emphasized and what won’t. You can’t learn everything in a matter of weeks (Don’t want to take my word for it? See Dan Maccarone and Sarah Doody’s excellent article). And you might find that the parts that really interest you are taught in a cursory manner and the focus is instead on something you find excruciatingly boring or pointless.

If you don’t have a strong footing yet in the world of UX, but know enough that you want to learn more, it’s time to hunker down and explore. Committing to a short, hands-on, team-based course is going to give you a crash course in human-centered and iterative design. It might be a bit loose, fast and furious but you’ll get a feel for the parts that you enjoy. It could be General Assembly or one of the many other bootcamps, but it doesn’t have to be. There are free, or lower cost options, such as IDEO’s Design Kit or the Coursera classes taught by UCSD’s Scott Klemmer. Another option would beInteraction-design.org’s courses. If you’re feeling ambitious and motivated, you could construct your own design challenge and tackle that (be sure to document what the problem you were solving for, what you did and what you learned). Many aspiring designers will flex within their full-time jobs, taking on design(ish) problems that no one else wants to touch, and learning more through that path.

Build in some time afterwards to consider what parts intrigued you the most. Read up on different types of specialties: interaction design, UI design, information architecture, prototyping, user testing, user research, project management, product management. It’s okay if you don’t know which one you want to pursue — the idea is to understand how broad the UX universe can be. Take time to take a look at job descriptions that map to these different areas and compare and contrast them.

Lastly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, get comfortable with the idea that your UX career will very likely not magically appear once a diploma or certificate is issued. It’s a level up, not the final boss battle.

(Sure it’s from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama but applicable nonetheless)

For those who have some design experience

Dig into the experiences you already have. Reflect on what you enjoyed most and where it aligns with the different educational offerings. Weigh these considerations:

  • How much do you want to pivot from what you’re currently doing to your new UX career path? Are you starting fresh or building off something you already have some experience in?
  • How much exposure do you already have to UX? What parts are you comfortable with already? What are you most eager to learn?

Now that you’ve narrowed things down a bit…

Begin to get specific. Work backwards from where you’d like to be to better understand what you need to get there. The more you can nail down what you’re looking for, the more likely you are to find a program that will supports you on that journey.

  • What does my dream UX job look like? If you don’t know, talk to some UX designers you admire and ask them what their day-to-day is like. What do they feel is the most important skill in their role? Does their job require knowing specific software production skills and did they learn it on the job or in school? Ask them what their path looked like and what they did to get their foot in the door. If you can’t find people to talk to, take a look at the resumes of more seasoned designers and see how their career has progressed.
  • Am I more drawn to the big picture or the hands-on making? Do I value theory? Or do I just want the pragmatics? i.e. Do I want to focus on defining interactions and behaviors? Refining detailed UI specifications? Building functional working interfaces or products?
  • Do I see myself in a leadership role in the future? i.e. Will I need non-design skills too like project management, marketing, business development, finance? How about soft skills like conflict management? Will I need to be able to “speak” other languages like code, finance, production? So many students focus on the tangible design production skills to meet their short-term goal of getting that “first job out of school” and neglect to take the long view. If you think something like joining senior management or running your own company might be in the cards, take the long view my friends. Embrace all the messy, fuzzy, frustrating ambiguity that comes along with soft skill territory.
  • Do I have a design background? For higher ed, be forewarned that you often need to already have a design background and portfolio to get into an MDes, MA, or MFA program. Don’t let this entirely discourage you because some programs have a pre-program to backfill this knowledge gap. Other applicants will choose to instead apply to related disciplines in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), Information Sciences, Human Factors or business schools. Often these non-design programs are multidisciplinary in nature and encourage applicants with diverse backgrounds. However, understand that these programs will not be as design-intensive and you may not go deep into the backbone principles of design.
  • How do I learn best? Are you someone who needs external factors (a teacher, grades, peer competition) to make significant progress/keep you accountable or are you intrinsically motivated? Do you prefer to learn step-by-step with guidance or are you comfortable jumping in and figuring it out?
  • Do I need an immersive learning experience? Do I need the time and freedom to be fully immersed in something or do I have the discipline to juggle my learning with other things vying for my attention? This applies to virtual learning and/or holding down a job at the same time.
  • Crunch a few numbers — what will the pause of taking time away from work cost you and what is the ROI? Is it worth it? How much time/money can you realistically invest?

Onward and upward…

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned where to go study. Though it’s one of the most common questions I get asked, it’s often not the right question to begin with — it really should be What are my goals? What do I need to study? Now that you’ve deepened your understanding of what criteria will make your schooling ideal, you’re in a better place to explore your options. Some places to start: UX Mastery’s UX degree list, a list on Interaction Design programs on Wikipedia, and HCIBIB’s somewhat daunting list of HCI programs.

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