Back to school for UX?

“Pushing the Envelope” from ACM <interactions>, May/June 2005

By Fred Sampson

For some students—to the dismay of their parents—lifelong learning means staying in school because they’re afraid of having to find a job. For some adults, continuing education is not only a way of life but a way of ensuring employability. In a world in which all job categories are going global, continuing (or continuous) education is a necessity.

So, the question for students, teachers, and practitioners of HCI is: what is the state of today’s educational offerings for HCI and UX practitioners and would-be practitioners? Does a formal education (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) guarantee gainful employment? Or is it real-world experience that gets the job? Are there internship opportunities, and if so, are they valid entrées into satisfying, productive job opportunities?

It’s clear that an effective user experience practice requires a multidisciplinary team approach. And the team’s leader, its project manager, could represent any of the many interrelated disciplines. Is it possible for one person to absorb expertise in a wide enough range of disciplines to be expert at everything? Do we need to expose those focused on one discipline to the theory and practice of other UX disciplines to ensure good multi-disciplinary teams? Is good HCI and UX training really like the classic liberal education, with exposure to a broad range of theories and concepts? Or do we run the danger of training jacks of all trades, masters of none? What are employers and clients looking for—education or experience, or both?

And just where is the aspiring UX practitioner to get this training? How are educational programs attracting HCI students? Can traditional universities fill the bill when they’re so rigidly structured around single-discipline silos? Or do we look to university extension programs and private or commercial endeavors to provide training? Some schools are better at crossing academic boundaries than others: thirty-five years ago, U.C. San Diego had a poet heading up its art department, musicians composing with computers, and a professor (and later technical writer) named Jef Raskin teaching art, photography, and music—oh, and some computer subjects, too. And that was before Don Norman arrived.

Then there’s the astonishing rumor that dozens of design schools are opening up in China. Where are the teachers coming from? Will they be imported from other countries? Where do teachers for existing programs get trained? Do they come from academia, or from UX practice? Can professors of HCI who have never shipped a product really prepare us for how to do it?

Like many Silicon Valley technical writers, I learned through a combination of a certificate program, internship, and on-the-job self-training. And like many information developers, my work is moving toward user experience practice, where I can continue to grow. There’s seemingly no end to the titles, roles, and disciplines available to someone interested in pursuing such a career: information architect, Web developer, interaction designer, graphic artist, information developer, human factors, UCD, user experience designer, and so on.

I was a tolerably good writer to begin with, but I’m a much better writer after some training, and better still after an editor has bled all over my pristine text. I imagine (not being one) that artists combine some natural ability with training in tools, techniques, and exposure to other art and artists, and so become better artists. Is it the same with designers? Or do we run the risk of stifling creativity by sending budding designers through formal educational programs? I’m certainly a more competent designer, albeit still amateur, having taken come classes and gone to CHI and read some books and managed some Web sites.

What about the idea that one good teacher—one who can motivate, push, cajole, encourage—is worth more than a handful of mediocre, although credentialed or tenured, instructors? The right one can make all the difference.

Where’s UX training coming from? From an assortment of conferences (such as DUX, STC, CHI, UPA) and commercial offerings (for example, HCI International, User Interface Engineering, Nielsen-Norman Group), from books and magazines, from seminars and presentations hosted by various local organizations (STC and UPA chapters, BayCHI, BayDUX, even co-sponsored meetings), from associating with experts, picking their brains, watching them work, sharing perspectives, and working on multidisciplinary teams. Sometimes we’re lucky, and our home society reaches out and reels in a presentation by someone outside our immediate field, as when Silicon Valley STC brings in Jared Spool to discuss usability and user needs for an evening.

Some of us went through formal programs at universities. Some of the UX professionals I work with at IBM hold doctorates in human factors or cognitive psychology, and have long strings of published works and lectures behind them. They lead organizations like UPA or SIGCHI or HFES, have networks reaching around the world, and are recognized as leading practitioners. Others share my experience: one or two degrees from a liberal arts school (OK: B.A. in General Literature, UCSD; M.A in. English, UCLA, if you must know), work experience in managing small businesses, with no intention of ever going back to school. Until a career change is forced on us, by changes in industry or global economics, and reality strikes: starting a new career means acquiring new skills, and that means taking classes wherever we can find them. That may mean a local community college, a university extension program, or digging in to a full formal masters or doctorate program.

What’s your experience with HCI and UX education? How good is it? Is it worth the money, especially in terms of increased earnings? If a co-worker asked you to recommend a program, what would you say? If you’re a teacher, what kind of experience and interest do your students bring to the classroom? Are they there just for the certificate, or are they there to learn, to increase their value? Tell us your story, give us your perspective, contribute to the next special issue of interactions.

If you had it to do over again, what approach would you take?

And here’s a final thought: how are our children going to learn about designing usable products? Is HCI training happening in elementary school? Should it? What do you think?

About the Author

Fred Sampson is a co-chair of BayDUX,, a member of SIGCHI, and a senior member of STC. In his spare time, Fred works as an information developer at at IBM’s Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. Contact him at

Copyright Notice

© ACM 2005. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in <interactions>, Volume XII.3, ISSN 1072-5520 (May/June 2005)