Lessons to be Learned

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Ivy-covered halls are filling up again with eager students of the user experience fields ready to change the world (or at least to study out the recession). But are these programs really teaching them what they need to know?

There are serious problems with the way user experience-related programs are being taught. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against academic degrees. My father was a professor and I’ve been an instructor myself. But that experience makes me worry that current academic programs aren’t well-suited to serving the needs of their students, nor our professions. Let me count the ways…

Research vs. practice—To be fair, academia, especially at the graduate level, has a two-headed mission: to train future professionals and to advance the discipline. Unfortunately, academic culture is heavily weighted toward research at the expense of teaching. No one gets tenure for being a great teacher; getting tenure means publishing or perishing.

The problem is that no one seems to pay attention to whether the published articles are meaningful. Dr. Bob Bailey of Human Factors International estimates only 5 percent of the roughly 1,000 usability-related articles published each year have any practical, long-term value to working professionals. These are the professors who are teaching our future colleagues? And this is only one arm of the user experience collection of disciplines.

Granted, Bailey has an ax to grind because he wants you to sign up for HFI’s seminar where they present their “best of” summary of the latest research. But having read a decade’s worth of SIG-CHI papers and a couple years of ASIS&T journals, I can tell you that the amount of useful research is far too small. (And unfortunately, the good research that exists is hidden in academic jargon, a less than user-friendly format for practitioners—particularly ironic given our field.) Much of it’s been simply irrelevant. Some of it has been laughably bad, where it was obvious the researchers were venturing into territory where they hadn’t a clue—nor bothered to involve someone from that field who could’ve prevented them from making basic mistakes. Which brings us to the next problem…

Specialties vs. convergence—Too often academia fetishizes specialization. This is compounded by the departmental turfwars that seem as much a part of colleges as the ivy covering the halls. The Computer Science department doesn’t talk to the Design department, which doesn’t talk to the Library and Information Sciences department…

The problem here is that user experience is a new and convergent field, although the lines of its individual roots may run deep. It requires skill in a variety of disciplines to integrate content, presentation and functionality. In the past these were typically separate—for example, no one thought about the information architecture of a software product, or the branding implications of a categorization scheme—but first interactive multimedia and then the web caused these once-separate concerns to begin overlapping and blurring. Even if you choose to specialize as an information architect, an interaction designer, or a usability engineer, it’s essential you understand the wider context if you want to be effective.

Universities have developed innovative cross-disciplinary programs in other disciplines. For example, the University of Southern California recently overhauled it’s journalism program to require a “core curriculum” of reporting, writing, and producing for the three primary media formats—print, broadcast, and online—before students can specialize in one area, rather than the traditional educational format in which each medium is an independent track. Students aren’t realistically expected to excel in all mediums, but the program is intended to make them comfortable when asked to do something outside their normal specialty.

There is some hope in our fields. Last year the University of Baltimore created a Master’s Degree in information architecture and interaction design. Even better, the program was designed to allow students take their elective courses in four focus areas: technical, arts and culture, cognitive and ethnographic, and management and entrepreneurship. Likewise, for several years, AIGA has been trying to develop an appropriate broad-based curriculum for “experience design.” Both of these are the sort of forward thinking we need. The problem is…

Time vs. breadth—Back in March, Jess McMullin asked for help in compiling a list of what professionals in the field should know so he could talk to a local college about creating user experience certificate program. As you can imagine it was long, long list.

The problem, of course, is that having a decade-long degree program just isn’t realistic, even though that’s what it would probably take to combine classes from all the fields that are relevant and cover them in-depth. Most programs are only two years, some like Carnegie Mellon’s Master’s Degree in HCI are only a year. Carnegie Mellon is highly regarded, but how much can you really teach in a year? Other programs may be longer, but often there’s even less time devoted to relevant topics, since information architecture or interaction design is only a recent (and smaller) add-on to a larger traditional program.

There’s no good solution, so students just need to be mindful about how much they’re really learning—and not learning—in amount of time they’ve got. Focus can be a substitute for time, but many programs aren’t focused well enough, especially in a rapidly changing field, because few experienced professionals have a hand in their creation. Why, you ask?

Degrees vs. experience—Without an advanced degree—doctorate definitely preferred—it’s nearly impossible to become a tenured faculty member. Lecturers are at the bottom of the departmental hierarchy and consequently aren’t involved in setting the direction.

The problem is that those who’ve spent years in the trenches—nurturing these disciplines, building websites and software, making mistakes along the way and learning from them—just aren’t likely to go back to get an advanced degree in something they can probably teach, and arguably teach better than someone who’s only experience has been theory and research. But in academia—no degree, no tenure.

To their credit, a number of professors I’ve talked with recognize this problem. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be resolved without an overhaul in the way academia works so that masters of the crafts are valued as much as a master’s (or doctoral) degree.

Education vs. experience—This lack of real-world experience also has other side-effects. One professor complained to me about how a number of his usability students come to him expecting to be “saviors,” protecting users from ambiguity and other horrors.

Such, ah, enthusiasm, is the nature of students and school should provide a hothouse for them to explore ideas. But ultimately it’s healthier for students to be exposed to the cold winds of reality, in measured doses, before they graduate. The instructor of my final design class began the course by saying, “For the next 12 weeks, I’m going to act like a client and you’re not going to like it.” She was right. But I learned some my most valuable lessons then, and learned them in an environment where the worst consequence was a bad grade, not getting fired.

However, being able to impart those lessons requires experience outside the ivory tower. A professor who’s never had to work effectively in a team, who’s never had to balance competing demands, who’s never had to make the hard trade-offs to keep a project on schedule and within budget just isn’t equipped to convince students that life is a bit more complicated than theory. While I disagree with Jakob Nielsen on a number of things, I do agree with him that it often takes a decade’s experience in the field to really master a discipline. The question is how to get those who do to also be those who teach.

Business schools offer a potential model for how academics and professionals can work together. They’re far from perfect, but from what I’ve seen they take a much more balanced approach between the competing demands of the research world and the professional world. The papers may still be in academic form, but I’ve seen far higher percentage address real-world concerns. The professors still teach, but working professionals are frequently invited as guest speakers to complement theory with practice. In an even more radical departure, USC’s journalism program intentionally now relies primarily on adjunct faculty, who are working professionals, to do most of its teaching.

But unfortunately the wheels of academic bureaucracy move slowly, so don’t expect to see these sorts of changes spread through academia soon. In the meantime though, there are things we can each do:

  • If you’re a student, insist on getting practical hands-on experience in addition to classroom lessons. With the current job market, getting internships may be tough, but there are almost always departments on campus who could use help. And remember, while you’re getting an education, you’ll still be lacking experience when you graduate. So it’s wise to show a little humility. Recent grads who claim to be the “expert” only undercut their own credibility.
  • If you’re an educator, reach out to the professional community to act as guest speakers and to talk with them about what kinds of research might be useful for them. Likewise, ask professionals what skills are really necessary and make sure your students get out of the lab and into the field. Encourage students to think about the bigger picture beyond just their particular specialization.
  • If you’re a working professional take some time to start talking to academia to ensure students get the sort of education that’s going to be useful for them after they graduate. If you can, bring on interns. Volunteer to guest lecture. You’ll probably learn something yourself by dealing with students who don’t have preconceptions and/or interesting in pushing the boundaries of new ideas.

After all, we can only benefit by having practitioners who are better prepared to meet today’s challenges.


  1. With reference to this topic, I would recommend the first Chapter of Winograd’s “Bringing Design to Software”. Winograd sets out what is required to teach Software Design students (Winograd uses the term ‘Software Design’ in the interface/interaction sense of the term).

    Winograd’s main recommendation is that the discipline be taught in a similar way to design school with lots of practical projects where students can practice & hone their skills and subject their work to peer review. This could then be balanced against the accumulation of theoretical knowledge.

    I would also recommend Norman’s article on this subject:
    [the part about a curriculum for applied social sciences]


  2. Hi all,
    I’m studying a Master of Arts in Virtual Communication out of RMIT, in Melbourne, Australia. Even though it’s not strictly IA related, it is a great course, as there is no thesis as part of the assessment, but lots of really practical assignments, intended to focus the students on collaborative work across global teams.

    Depends a LOT on the coursework i think, as to how useful studying is… I was always a hands-on learner, which is why i find this course is suiting me so well.

    Sure you get to research what you are interested in, whether it’s a speciality or not, but isn’t that the point of postgrad study?


  3. The difference between academic training and practical usability engineering skills is why I am seeking to offer a usability engineering certificate program. I also teach HCI at the university level on a part time basis and fully realize that there is a profound gap between academic programs and their research interests, 1-3 day workshops with essentially cookbook methods and serious job related training. My program consists of 7 six week programs intended to train working computer professionals to perform usability engineering in support of their company’s software products. The focus is on repeatedly performing procedures which are monitored and evaluated so that students build working skills and are not simply exposed to information about usability.

    geoff willcher, Ph.D.
    Lead Usability Engineer,
    Cobalt Group

  4. The biggest problem is what people thing University should be. In a traditional sense University is a place were you learn how to learn as an undergrad. If you expect to come out known how everything your wrong, you will learn a little about a lot. Then you are in a position to make one of two step, that being apply your learning skills in the so called “real” or learn how to conduct research as a post grad.

    If you want to do a course were at the end you are spat out ready for the workforce do a certification or some other for of institute course.

  5. I agree learning to learn is an important part of higher education. But how is that incompatible with learning specific skills as well?

    When I’ve hired recent college grads in the past, I didn’t expect them to be experts, but I did expect them to have basic knowledge and skills needed in the field.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable for business graduates to know (in principle at least) how to run a business, design graduates to be able to design, journalism students to be able to write. So why should UX fields be different?

  6. When I say you “learn a little about a lot” the little should be the fundamentals of that field. Then with the skill of learn you are able to expand on the fundamentals. For example when you learn about programming at uni, you learn object oriented (OO) techniques, you may well do this in one language (say Java) but that is not the point. The point is the fundamentals of OO and how to apply them in any language. If you want to learn Java you should not go to uni is what I am saying. Sorry to use a programming example, but it was the first one in my head.

    Thank you for the article and the response.

  7. I understand your point, I just don’t agree with it. I think it’s possible to learn fundamentals in a way that also imparts practical skills, and that doing so is ultimately more beneficial for students when they graduate.

    For example, teaching design students the fundamentals (color theory, typography, etc.) is critical, but if they can’t apply them in concrete situations — for example, designing a brochure — then to me their education has been incomplete.

  8. Thanks for the excellent article, George Olsen! I’m deeply involved in the confusing process of researching HCI-related graduate programs, and your piece offers great information from the grad-school trenches, the sort that I haven’t been able to find written elsewhere.

    One question not addressed here was: in UE fields, is there a substantial difference between the art/design schools and the more traditionally academic/research schools, in what they teach and in how they teach it? In more traditional subjects, art schools are known for the studio approach and projects, and academic schools are more focused on readings, publishing and research. To what extend does this hold true in teaching of UE disciplines? And are there any other differences of note?

    Unfortunately all CHI/UE people I’ve spoken with went to “academic” schools (forgive the oxymoron); I need to sit down with some art/design school students and grads to get their

    (I -did- read the teaching chapter from Winograd’s “Bringing Design to Software.” This thoughtful chapter suggests how HCI -should- be taught; but I also want to know the reality of how it -is- being taught now.)

    Incidentally, here’s another good resource for anyone else considering grad school in this field: “Preparing for a Career in Human Factors/Ergonomics: A Resource Guide” available from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Details: http://hfes.org/publications/CareerHFE.html

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