Boot Camp or On Campus: Where to Study UX
Thinking about a career as a user experience designer? We look at the differences between college, university and boot camp programs to help you choose the type of education that’s right for you.
Is user experience design calling your name? Not only is the skill set in high demand, but its combination of design, technology, research, and psychology also make it appealing to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. Beyond a world of opportunity, the median salary of a UX designer averages $72,000, according to payscale.com.
There is no one right way to study UX design either. Unlike some disciplines, UX designers often enter the field from other careers entirely. They use the tools they’ve learned as graphic designers, marketers, psychologists, developers and so on to create amazing user experiences. Some UX designers are self-taught, while others learn from a more formal education. How do you know what’s right for you?
In this piece, we look at some of the differences between college, university, boot camp and hybrid UX design programs in America.
UX Boot Camps
UX boot camps are often perceived as one of the quickest gateways into a career In UX design. With no governing board, each program offers something different. They each have their own curriculum, focus on specific tools and skills, vary in the caliber of the professors and the learning environment, and offer different formats (typically immersive, part-time or full-time) at various costs and for various lengths of time.
Some boot camps partner with local organizations and businesses to provide students with real world experience. Others focus on their history of placing graduates in jobs and market their ability to adapt their curriculum at any time to suit contemporary UX design issues and trends. Some of these programs churn out rock star designers. Others do not.
Bootcamps are popular choices for people who are looking to transition into a new career, or who have some related experience but want to learn more about how UX design works and what it looks like to put things together.
Some notable boot camps and certificate programs include:
- General Assembly
- DesignLab (online)
- Nielsen Norman Group
- Human Factors International
However, says Dylan Wilbanks, founder of design consultancy Hêtre, too many graduates of boot camps expect to immediately find success as a UX designer.
“All a boot camp is meant to do, in the old army parlance, is to turn somebody from a civilian into a soldier. It’s not about making you a General. It’s about making you someone who is a soldier,” he said.
“I think too many people go into these boot camps with the belief that they’re going to come out as Generals. It just doesn’t work that way. You’re going to be a grunt and you’re going to have to work bottom up. You’re always going to be in some ways behind people who have more experience and more education, so how are you going to fight through that?”
Wilbanks, who sometimes consults teachers at General Assembly, says these programs are great for a certain kind of person, one who, to borrow from Hamilton, is “young, scrappy and hungry.” They’re not for everyone though, and he encourages would-be UX designers to do their research not just into the programs themselves, but also into what you hope to get out of the program.
“Know what you want. Be willing to do the practice necessary to learn what you want, what you need and what you love,” Wilbanks said.
University or College
For those who are either just beginning their careers or who don’t already have a four-year degree under their belts, university or college is often the natural choice. Many academic programs are nationally recognized with established curriculums and reputations for producing high-caliber designers with both soft and hard skills.
However, you may be hard pressed to find a program with “user experience design” explicitly stated on the diploma (though, there are a few). Instead, those taking the higher education route may gravitate towards undergraduate or graduate level specializations in:
- User Experience Design, MFA (Savannah College of Art and Design)
- Human-Computer Interaction (example: Carnegie Mellon)
- Interaction Design (example: California College of the Arts)
- Integrated Digital Media (example: New York University)
- Human-Centered Design (example: University of Washington)
- Web Technologies (example: Utah Valley University)
- Design and Technology (example: The New School, Parsons)
These are just a few examples. Often it is through these programs that many first discover user experience design, while others will choose electives and specializations strategically aligned with UX.
University degrees carry weight in the job market and show a commitment to learning a craft. According to Wilbanks, many people find deeper fulfillment from these programs. He recommends pursuing a degree if you don’t yet have one, though again this is a personal choice that may or may not be right for you.
Postgraduate Level UX Certificates
Additionally, many colleges offer postgraduate level certificates in user experience design. If you like the college-style of learning, already have a degree in something, or need something that aligns better with your schedule, this option might be for you.
Many of these programs require students to complete a handful of mandatory courses as well as several electives, allowing you to choose the courses that interest you most. The certificate program at Bentley University, for example, has electives in three streams: user experience design, user research and assessment, and human behavior. There is a wide variety of options for students to choose from, allowing for a more customizable education.
Some other notable certificates from universities include:
- California State University, Fullerton (UX and Customer-Centered Design)
- San Francisco State University (Mobile UX/UI Design Intensive)
- University of Baltimore (UX Design)
- University of Washington (User Centered Design)
- UC San Diego (UX Design)
- Pratt (UX/UI Mobile Design)
Boot camps have the flexibility of updating their curriculums as they go due to the fact that they don’t have to go through rigorous and lengthy approval processes. Many postgraduate programs share this flexibility, but also maintain the tried and true methodologies of academic institutions.
Unique UX Programs
Somewhere in the middle of a boot camp and a university sits Center Centre, a two-year, full-time UX design school based out of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Co-founded by Jared Spool and Leslie Jensen-Inman, Center Centre is an authorized post-secondary institution currently in its first cohort. After interviewing hundreds of hiring managers and UX professionals, the curriculum was built to generate “industry-ready” professionals that are ready to take on a job upon graduation. It is tailored to feel more like a job than a traditional university experience, and the projects the students work on come directly from real organizations. Each student graduates with their own portfolio comprised of projects that take weeks and sometimes months to execute, giving students something tangible to show potential employers.
The program has attracted what Spool calls “career shifters.” Since design experience is not required, many students have never worked in technology before, though some do come from illustration or graphic design backgrounds.
“For the most part the students we attract are people who don’t like the way their current career is going, are looking for something new, and have heard that UX design is a cool place to do that and want to become really awesome at that,” he said.
Center Centre is becoming well known in the design community for its innovative approach to UX education. Other unique programs are slowly popping up too, including the one-year Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship program offered at the Austin Center for Design. With so many different programs, how does one decide which path is right for them?
“What you’re really doing is you’re making a bet,” Spool said. “You’re making a bet on, is this education going to give me a job that will then give me a salary that will give me a quality of life that allows me to easily pay for this education? You’re betting on your future. That’s different than say, buying a car. I’m going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a car, but at the end of the day it’s just transportation and most of the time it’s going to sit in our garage or a parking lot. It’s not going to be used. But your education is something that is fundamentally going to change your life if you make the bet right.”
Questions to ask about any UX program:
Before betting on your education, the experts interviewed for this piece recommended asking the following questions:
- What is the program’s success record in terms of graduate employment?
- What do successful graduates of this program look like one, three, five and ten years down the line?
- What sort of industry connections does the program have?
- How does the program leverage, complement and expand your skills set?
- What specific skills, programs and issues does the program concentrate on?
- Who are the teachers and of what caliber is their expertise?
- How much does the program cost, what funding opportunities are available, and how long will it take to pay back?
- What is your goal upon graduation of the program and how can the program help get you there?
As UX grows in demand and popularity, UX design enthusiasts will have more to choose from in terms of education. At the end of the day though, employers want to see that you can do the work. No matter which route you take, make sure it’s the one that will take you wherever it is you want to go.
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