Teaching/Learning UX: Considerations for Academic-Industry Partnerships

Written by: Guiseppe Getto

Higher education is poised to help produce the next generation of user experience designers, but we can’t do it alone. In the wake of Fred Beecher’s recent “Ending the UX Designer Drought” and studies by Onward Search, UserTesting, and the Nielsen Norman Group, it is clear that the UX market is booming and that UX designers enjoy a high level of job satisfaction. It is also clear that too few UX professionals exist to meet current demand.

And while apprenticeship programs like Fred’s can help meet much of this demand, those of us in higher ed who have hitched our research, teaching, and service agendas–our entire professional identities–to UX are uniquely positioned to help students navigate to those apprenticeship programs, or even to help take the brunt of some of this training.

If we are to do so, however, we need members of industry to partner with us.

Obstacles to establishing UX workflows in higher ed

Before discussing ways that higher ed can help produce UX designers, let me discuss obstacles that we academics face, obstacles that make it difficult to nimbly respond to industry realities. I’m sure it won’t be news to anyone, for example, that the academy is very siloed.

At the same time that knowledge in the academy is often chopped up into discrete units called disciplines, however, there are other obstacles to establishing UX as a real concern that are specific to state- and federal-funded institutions of higher learning. The first of these that must not be underestimated is a status quo mentality that is endemic to academia but that doesn’t come from academics.

That may sound confusing, but remember that our schools are tied to state and federal budgets that are ultimately decided by politicians, not educators. Every program, major, minor, course, or even revision to an existing course, has to be vetted by administrators under increasing pressure by legislators to make every dollar count. This is often called a “strategic plan” in higher ed, and is our version of a business process model.

In this context, administrative response historically has been to veto any new programs that don’t clearly extend from an existing and well-established discipline. This may sound like a death knell for UX, an interdisciplinary practice that by its nature draws on knowledge from a wide variety of contexts, some academic and some not. And though it is a significant challenge, it is not an insurmountable one. It simply means that being a UX professional in higher ed means working within, and sometimes against, disciplinary boundaries.

What I mean by “disciplinary boundaries” is that every academic must do work that is understandable as a form of research, teaching, and/or service to a particular academic discipline and to a particular academic institution. Let me give a personal example to demonstrate what this workflow looks like. From my own discipline of technical communication and my own program seated at East Carolina University, I’m responsible for doing research, teaching, and service work that is recognizable as a contribution to the field of technical communication as well as to mid-size, doctoral-granting, state university.

This means that whatever I research has to be intelligible to other members of my field or I won’t get published and I won’t get tenure. This also means that I’m responsible for teaching a dizzying array of skill sets from technical writing to web design to UX design. Service is notoriously ill-defined in higher ed but typically requires serving on committees, serving on boards of professional organizations, and some form of community service (e.g. service-learning or volunteering).

I also should mention that there are exceptions to this workflow. Academic programs capable of reliably training students in the discipline of UX all on their own have  relatively recently sprung up at places like Kent State, Michigan State, and University of Washington. Largely interdisciplinary, these programs require a kind of perfect storm to form, such as a massive restructuring of a university system, a cluster of faculty hires in a particular specialization, or some very adventurous college administrators.

For the most part, what I’ve described is the uber-structure many academic professionals must work within. But there are ways to inject UX practices into this structure. Say I’m asked to teach a technical writing class, for instance, which is a central course in our program. A big focus of this class is the creation of documentation, because that’s part of the course description that was approved. But how is “documentation” increasingly being produced? In agile environments, where UXers or tech writers often build it directly into the information architecture of the product they’re designing. Following this trend, my recent technical writing course featured a series of learning modules that focused as much on traditional modes of documentation as it did on content strategy and IA.

For UX partnerships to work in higher ed, they must be enacted as a form of research, teaching, and/or service.

Why is this important? Because if many academic professionals must engage in work that fits this basic workflow, it means that we must always produce scholarship, teach courses, and engage in service that furthers the missions of our institutions as well as the knowledge-making practices of our disciplines. For UX partnerships to work in higher ed, they must be enacted as a form of research, teaching, and/or service.

Why academic-industry partnerships MUST exist

At the same time, it is also arguable that industry organizations cannot meet the need for new UX professionals alone, and more importantly, they shouldn’t have to. Currently, there are over 20 million students enrolled in institutions of higher education. And though of course only a fraction of those students might have the inclination to become a UX designer, that is simply too big a pool of potential new designers to pass up.

Academics can’t train UX professionals by ourselves, either. The discipline moves too fast and we are tied to a workflow that is very different from that of industry. This is thus a partnership that must happen to sustainably produce sufficient UX professionals to meet current demand. Millions of people from all walks of life pass through our classrooms, and if we can reach even a tiny percentage of those people and can set them on a path towards a career in UX, then UX professionals in both the academy and industry have an obligation to do so.

So, how can academic-industry partnerships be built that allow academics to keep their jobs? That’s what I turn to next.

Research partnerships

Academic research can be produced in many forms: empirical, theoretical, practice-based, quantitative, qualitative, and the like. All we really need from industry is access. We need to be able to see inside your organizations, to pick your brains through research interviews, and to survey you about new trends. We need to do focus groups about theories we have held for years to see if they pass muster with industry realities.

The best thing you can do for us in this context, in other words, is collaborate with us on our research projects.

Teaching partnerships

The largest venue within which UX could take off in higher ed is through teaching. In my own tenure as a college-level instructor for over ten years now I have taught 4-8 courses per year of 20-30 students per course. That means that conservatively I have personally taught over 1,500 students ranging from college freshman all the way up to graduate students, and in topics ranging from basic writing to UX design.

The only reason I know what UX is, and how to give students some practice in it, however, is because I have reached out to folks in industry and they have responded. I have gone to conferences like the IA Summit. I have completed dozens of webinars and workshops. I am an active member of my local chapter of the UXPA. And I have collaborated with industry partners on projects ranging from individual articles on how to teach UX to entire courses in UX.

If it weren’t for these partnerships, when I was recently asked to teach a graduate level course in UX for our program, I wouldn’t have been able to do so.

We know how to teach, but we will never be as cutting-edge at UX as those of you who work as UX designers every single day.

The best thing you can do for those of us who have opportunities to teach UX, then, is to help us with the subject matter we teach in our courses. We’re educators. We know how to teach, but we will never be as cutting-edge at UX as those of you who work as UX designers every single day. We need help with what to teach.

Service partnerships

There are also endless opportunities to get involved in academic service that fuels the UX discipline. This can range from the creation of book clubs and informal meet-ups to service-learning partnerships and other forms of contextualized learning. In any given community, there are thousands of local non-profits and schools in need of UX help, from content strategy to CMS development to usability testing existing websites. Hardly any of these organizations can afford to hire a UX professional, but students could work in partnership with a UX professional to serve them, and could develop expertise as a result.

On any given college campus, there are also dozens of student organizations on everything from business management to community service to web design, many of whom look for guest speakers to talk to them about career opportunities, how to land a job, how to gain traction in a new field, etc. It simply cannot be overstated that there is simply no shortage of mentoring opportunities for industry professionals to entertain.

Mentoring is thus the simplest and yet most valuable form of service. And it is incredibly simple: think about the first opportunity you got in UX and try to steer someone else toward that kind of opportunity, or even create one for them in your own organization.

This is what these partnerships could look like

We academics are the people who write those textbooks you were forced to buy in every introductory class in college. Imagine if they were relevant. Imagine if you helped us write them. Or imagine if you helped us write how-to articles for our academic journals so that other academic professionals could learn about UX in a venue that is intelligible to them. Or imagine if you helped perform research projects that were actually sound instances of UX design so that we could begin to solve our own UX problems and maybe even contribute some new solutions for you as well.

Imagine if you volunteered to come speak at our conferences about any of these topics, or even at informal meet-ups and colloquia at our institutions. We can rarely afford to pay you what you’re worth, or what you get for industry-sponsored conferences, but we will always appreciate the knowledge you bring.

Those of us in higher ed are in a position to introduce UX on a scale upon which it has never before been introduced.

Think of it this way: how many eighteen-year-olds graduate from high school and when asked by their guidance counselor what they want to be, say: “I want to be a UX designer!” Few, if any. Many of those bright young people enroll in college courses, however, part-time or full-time. Perhaps they decide to major in computer science, where they first learn about usability and its role in application development. Or perhaps they take a class in technical communication where they first encounter the central concepts of information architecture. Those of us in higher ed are in a position to introduce UX on a scale upon which it has never before been introduced.

But we need your help. If you don’t think we’re preparing students for opportunities as UX designers fresh out of our programs, then tell us that. Better yet: agree to be a guest speaker in our classes. Better yet: help us create learning modules on UX that we can use in multiple classes. Better yet: help us create and advocate for an entire class in UX. Better yet: volunteer to co-teach the class with us. Better yet: help us form an industry advisory committee for our entire program. The list goes on and on.

If you want that 18-year-old who is fresh out of high school to consider going into a field they may have never heard of, a field that probably first makes sense to them as a subset of an existing major, partner with your local university or community college to make sure that 18-year-old does hear about UX, to make sure they get some training in it, and to make sure they’re on a path toward being useful to you someday.

This is how all of this makes for a stronger UX community

If nothing else, I hope to start a conversation around expanding UX partnerships between interested professionals within both higher ed and industry. These partnerships exist, but they need to be the norm, not the exception. If every industry professional who reads this article volunteers as a research partner, teacher consultant, mentor, or service-learning partner at their local university, UX could become one of the most sought-after careers in higher ed. Students could be beating down academic doors asking for more experience in UX.

That kind of demand could create the kind of pressure we academics need to start new courses and majors in UX. If our students are demanding UX, then we can give it to them. If our students have no idea what UX is because they don’t hear about it until their senior year, then it becomes very difficult to create high-quality UX learning opportunities.

In the past three years, since my real interest in UX began, I have been working diligently to introduce students to UX in every course I teach. That’s a tall order considering that I can’t simply teach five sections (my current teaching load) of “Introductory UX Design” every year. I have had the opportunity to teach some standalone UX courses, but, as I mentioned above, mostly I introduce UX through individual learning modules and homework assignments in classes in technical communication, business writing, and web design.

But I have also met resistance, and not only from the academic side. A lot of industry-based people have helped me and inspired me in immeasurable ways, but I have also been met with downright suspicion. I have been asked if I feel like I am a form of competition for industry-based apprenticeship programs and for the newly formed Unicorn Institute, the UX field’s first standalone design school. Mostly, I have been asked repeatedly how I know enough about UX to teach it.

And the simple fact of the matter is: I don’t. I have been researching and practicing UX for three years now, research that has included in-depth practice with nearly every UX method on the market. I have published both research and practice-based articles on it (some of which were co-authored by UX designers), and have taught numerous courses in it, but I am not a full-time UX designer. Professionals like me are also all that stand between industry organizations looking to hire new UX talent and those 20 million people I mentioned earlier, few of whom start college even knowing what UX is.

My invitation is to see us as partners in helping to improve the quality of UX education regardless of where students and mentees are getting that education.

So, rather than seeing professionals like me as a form of competition–we simply don’t have the resources to compete with industry-based organizations, even if we wanted to–my invitation is to see us as partners in helping to improve the quality of UX education regardless of where students and mentees are getting that education.

Let’s face it: UX is difficult for many of us who study it, teach it, and do it for a living to define. We owe it to the next generation of UX professionals to introduce them to UX as soon as possible in their professional development, to be the frontline of UX education, so-to-speak. That’s the only way to make certain that students who are dedicated to becoming UX professionals have the opportunities they need to make that possibility a reality.