“I Have a Master’s in UX Design” (Part 2)

In Part 1, we examined whether graduate programs in UX design really help get that UX position. Now we ask whether there’s really a thing as a “UX degree”.

And then comes another bombshell. 

Adam Dunford, a design leader based out of Sweden, shared his Master’s Thesis on a competency framework for interaction design after failing to find “an interaction design degree”.

View at Medium.com
WHOA! Is my UX life a lie now?!? 

Considering he presented this at an Interaction Design Association main event, I was genuinely surprised that he didn’t get burnt at the stake for something nearly heretical!

But I’m glad that he did because there is an education and industry problem that’s going unanswered. And if Part 1 was any indication, we do have a UX and Interaction Design education problem that’s begging to be solved.

Here are some highlights from Adam’s fun (and sobering) exploration and my views about it:

Too Much Product, Too Little Process

Adam begins with a comment from a student design conference he was presenting at. He was told that his presentation focused too much on “products” and not on “process” and soon wondered, “Was I not learning what I ought to [have learned] from my time in school?”

“All you Scandinavian schools are too focused on products and not enough on process!” 

Design Professor from another Design School

This product vs. process debate is alive and well in UX circles. Unlike Adam’s case where the professor separated process from product, designers today are being told to put process and product together lest they get rejected even before a phone screen happens.

The best portfolios should provide not only explanations of work, but should give insight into the personality of the designer as well. Be wary of portfolios that only show glossy images of the final product – design work takes work, and these cases should have a compelling narrative about the constraints and goals for the project, the role they played relative to others, and how they and their team arrived at the ultimate solution. 

However, a key failing of many interaction design portfolios is they overwhelm the reader with documentation, and while understanding the process is important, nothing is more important than the final results and the impact it had. 

Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner, Org Design for Design Orgs (2017)

To Adam and his Professor-Commentator: Don’t worry that designers today will be about process or product. They will do both because it is in their interest to do both. The age of the gallery portfolio is over and anything less is a reason to reject. So expect more process + product portfolios; case studies that show they solved a problem and what came out of it. Their careers will (literally) depend on it.

So Portfolios Matter. Or Do They?

So we now know that a portfolio is really needed for UX jobs. But the plot thickens and Adam has a very revealing insight about hiring managers that must be quoted in its entirety:

Even worse, employers begin to ignore degrees entirely. From the aforementioned survey of interaction designer job listings, 40% did not ask for any degree. They asked for other qualifications or experience instead, something new graduates don’t have.

Without a degree to rely on, employers instead turn to portfolios to assess candidates… Yet they all also admitted it isn’t a great predictor for an employee’s long-term success. In fact, two design managers said they had recently dismissed employees who had great portfolios. After a few months working, they weren’t showing the kind of strategic thinking needed to solve problems for their clients.

Even with that direct experience, the managers admitted they were still using portfolios to evaluate replacements. School degrees remained unimportant.

Adam Dunford, “There is No Such Thing as an Interaction Design Degree”

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Just when you thought the portfolio was winning, those with mad design skillz were the ones let go. And those UX degrees? They “remained unimportant”. #help

This tells me that education seems necessary but insufficient for success in UX. It is one thing to know design fundamentals. But it’s another thing to be able to apply them.

Jon Kolko explains why craft is still important in the practice of design.
It’s not all about “design thinking”. It is also about “design doing”.

So if design “doing” is the credibility piece of the design practice – i.e. you will know I’m a designer by my craft –  then what does a UX/design degree realistically do? What role does it really play in a designer’s formation and is it still a worthwhile pursuit when design is really measured at the craft and practice level?

To be continued in Part 3…

Published by Jem

Jem is a UX practitioner who builds insightful, creative and usable digital experiences. A journalist by trade, he transitioned to digital media upon discovering its power to create compelling (longform) stories that captivate and motivate. Today, he combines both UX research and strategy to design digital experiences that people love.