Accreditation for UX Professionals?

By Chris R. Becker

Published: February 24, 2014

“A growing number of jobs are going unfulfilled, and the skills that are necessary to fill them are shifting.”

In an increasingly fast-changing marketplace, where commerce and the Internet are indistinguishable from one another, a growing number of jobs are going unfulfilled, and the skills that are necessary to fill them are shifting. As a rule of thumb, consider that 60% of the jobs that will be prevalent in 10 years don’t yet exist.

Are educational institutions equipped to prepare UX designers for the workplace of the future as advances in technology outpace those in education? Should the UX community be pushing for levels of accreditation to verify that someone has the skills and education necessary to call himself or herself a UX designer? How can an employer ensure that a candidate meets their expectations for a role in user experience?

Supply and Demand

User experience has become the de facto, catch-all term for several new positions that organizations and corporations are creating in the shifting landscape that is our global digital economy. As we open new markets and extend existing markets, there is a growing need for both skilled workers in the field of user experience and the innovative design solutions that they create. But it is becoming apparent that both industry and education have underserved the UX community.

As a freelance UX designer in Los Angeles, I have noticed the lack of availability of qualified candidates though the constant stream of messages from LinkedIn and recruiter contacts. The challenge for employers is to find and retain qualified, systems-thinking people. I get the sense that the demand for UX professionals is far outstripping the supply, and both companies and UX designers are trying to fill the gaps despite their limited understanding of the need.

Educational Deficiencies

“The fracturing of design thinking in academia leaves many students—who want to pursue human-centered design and learn the necessary skills and problem-solving methods through their courses—unfulfilled and disconnected.”

To compound these supply issues, educational institutions are incapable of teaching systems thinking because, in academia, Human-Computer Interaction/Computer Science (HCI/CS), Graphic Design, Architecture, Art, and Library Science are all separate colleges with separate curriculums. The fracturing of design thinking in academia leaves many students—who want to pursue human-centered design and learn the necessary skills and problem-solving methods through their courses—unfulfilled and disconnected.

Educational institutions’ curriculums are concentrating on technical skills development—for example, learning to use Photoshop and other applications in Adobe’s Creative Suite—while they neglect the teaching of analytical skills and narrative processes that let a UX professional relate research, data mapping, and storytelling to user experience. I am not suggesting that I have a quick solution to this problem or that the curriculums of our educational institutions are totally out of date. The real issue is the narrow focus of curriculums that fail to prepare students adequately for the workplace. I regularly hear people say, “I am a print designer,” and I have a very difficult time not saying, “Well, good luck that!”

Graduate-level curriculums could fill some of the gaps in UX education. An undergraduate can learn only so much in four to six years. (I would not feel qualified to call myself a UX designer if I had not received an MFA in Media Design from the Art Center College of Design.) However, I believe that teaching the systems-level thinking that any UX designer requires is not as prevalent in BA or BFA programs as it should be.

We rely on our education systems to prepare our next generation of UX professionals. Helping nascent UX designers to understand, relate, and express UX methods is important to our profession. User experience has become established as a career, and industry now recognizes its importance.

The Role of User Experience

“The most effective UX designers function as catalysts within organizations that are attempting to solve problems or build things.”

As UX professionals, we need to engage in human-centered problem solving on a daily basis. In my experience, the most effective UX designers function as catalysts within organizations that are attempting to solve problems or build things. Devising solutions requires systems thinking. UX professionals must balance the technical aspects of building products and their relationships with developers with the needs of the business and their collaborations with product managers, while ensuring that design, aesthetics, and usability get adequate consideration and are not underserved by any involved parties, including clients.  

User experience is becoming an established business practice for any successful company that makes things for human beings. (I know that is broad.) And technology companies—especially software development companies—are at the head of the curve in realizing that creating great user experiences is becoming a necessity, not just a luxury. Companies like Apple, Samsung, Yahoo!, and Google have large, well-funded User Experience departments. The design of better user experiences has contributed to the improvement of computing platforms, including operating systems, applications, and Web sites. More recently, social media have highlighted the importance of great user experiences at companies like Instagram, Path, and Paper.

User Experience Skills

“These skills are … key to the value that the UX community provides to industry. They can manifest themselves as deliverables or as ways of thinking or as part of a larger process. They are essential and should be required knowledge for UX professionals.”

Most digitally based businesses, startups, and product companies have only recently seen the impact of implementing UX design as a core pillar of their organizations. User experience remains a large umbrella encompassing all of the professionals who think about and solve problems through user-centered methods. The skills that UX professionals employ include

    • human-centered design
    • design research
    • problem assessment through asking questions
    • feedback as a teaching tool
    • iterating and failing fast
    • task assessment
    • process mapping
    • articulating interactions
    • system flows and mapping
    • user needs and wants
    • the speed of tasks versus the quality of engagement
    • heuristics
    • best practices
    • user interface patterns
    • wireframing and prototyping
    • information architecture
    • technical specifications
    • and this list goes on and on…

These skills are essential to solving UX design problems, and they are key to the value that the UX community provides to industry. They can manifest themselves as deliverables or as ways of thinking or as part of a larger process. They are essential and should be required knowledge for UX professionals.

Accreditation

“Should there be an accreditation process to prove this required knowledge?”

Should there be an accreditation process to prove this required knowledge? Though I loathe standardized tests, I believe the UXPA, IxDA, AIGA, and IAI could come together to create an agreed-upon set of skills in which UX professionals could be tested.

Before writing this article, I queried the UX community on Quora, where a number of responses gave me a resounding no, because our profession is too new and too diverse. (See the conversation on Quora.) This may, in fact, be true.

However, as UX professionals, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard and ensure that we all reach minimum levels of knowledge and capabilities. If we want industry to recognize our profession as valuable, we should look to other professional practices such as architecture, law, medicine, finance, and accounting, all of which require some level of accreditation to practice in the field and establish expertise.

We could use accreditation testing of UX professionals to demonstrate our knowledge of best practices or heuristics or human factors—or all of these together. Although user experience is a relatively new profession, I don’t believe that we should reject the opportunity to raise all UX professionals to a minimum standard by testing for accreditation. Not only would this engender trust in our abilities as UX professionals, it would also help to establish user experience as a valued profession in industry. We need to set the bar high because the sphere of user experience is expanding and will continue to become more and more important.

7 Comments

Accreditation, yes—the quick, easy way to make money selling fluff.

A very well known marketing strategy, very profitably used in the fitness and health sector, where you can find fantagazillions of different accreditations subdivided by style, school, method, or even make of tools you should

I think we already have universities. They just have to move faster forward to online education and shorter courses.

Also, if internship were what it was supposed to be—the learning of the craft in the most renaissance-like sense of the term—that would be the most valuable accreditation. (If I were IDEO or Frog, I’d definitely move in that direction—internships as certified industry accreditation. Maybe they’re doing it already?)

But, again, the last thing I’d wish for would be for the various organizations like UXPA, AIGA, or whatever other acronym to be the holder of accreditations. Only the thought of it makes me sick.

This is a great article, and I think it’s time for the UX community to start taking our credibility seriously. I’ve often said that UX misses out because there are no qualifications. Anyone can get into UX, and the general corporate populous does not know how to identify the real talent. I’ve been a UX designer/consultant/specialist/managet—call it what you like…and therein lies another problem—for over 10 years, and I continually see people tack on UX to their title, gain senior levels, and claim to know what UX actually is. It’s only until someone of my experience questions them that they realise they are not qualified. I’ve recently seen a rather substandard front-end developer gain a position as a Principal UX Lead simply because he knows a bit about wireframing. Would he know about the skills in a typical UX job? No. Does his manager realise this? Clearly not.

We have a serious problem in our industry. The wrong, unqualified talent is using UX as a throw-away title, and the lack of quality reflects on our community as a whole.

It’s great that the likes of Google, Apple, and Yahoo! have built UX functions. But they are unique global enterprises that few are fortunate to work for. What about the 90% of corporations remaining? I can assure you, their HR Managers wouldn’t have a clue what to look for in a UX candidate.

Ready? Pre-hire working interviews. Done.

Luisa—Maybe the position called for a substandard front-end developer that could wireframe sketches in a fast and agile manner, then produce reusable front-end code. Perhaps the company did not want a traditional UX candidate who gets bogged down in process, research, or documentation. Just a thought.

As a community, we can’t even agree what UX is, so how on earth could we accredit it. The author writes from the perspective of a User Experience Designer, a relatively new term in the taxonomy of UX. At one time, such a person would have been an IA—at least in agency land. These days, they could have come from Web Design, Graphic Design, Product Design, Architecture, or in some cases, Software Engineering. None of this makes their profession any less valid. Each of these people brings their own perspective and view of what UX is.

And that’s just UX Design, the most common role in the UX space. Then we have people that focus on research / usability testing, as much entitled to the UX label as anyone else. There are also the Content Strategists and Information Architects who can also fall under that umbrella, as will some Service Designers. How to craft an accreditation for them all?

I personally don’t think that organisations like the UXPA—run by whoever happens to have the most ambition / free time at a given time—should be anywhere near accreditation. If you really want to go down that route, you need a proper academic body to certify the qualification, and bear in mind that it will be out of date as soon as it’s issued.

I’ve been in this field for 15 years, and I think that one of the great benefits is that it’s such a broad church and can flex with the different needs of UX at any given time. We welcomed the mobile developers, we welcome the ethnographers, and so on, all of whom make us a richer and stronger community.

We can bat away the marketers, middle managers, and other hangers-on who seek to benefit from the UX title. We should be flattered that it’s desirable and be proud of the progress that we’ve made to get to the point where people want to be associated with UX. As little as 5 years ago, it was a battle to be heard. No longer.

But please don’t let us be regulated by professional bodies whose only barrier to entry is being in possession of $100. It won’t make things better.

I can’t agree enough, Kurren and Jeff, from experience, and I have also experienced Luisa’s points and the authors, too—with project-affecting results. I might be detecting the distinct aroma of company politics as potentially causing the mis-hiring and a UX-ownership battle in-company; accreditation may or may not help there. Every project I’ve worked on has required different skills—some slightly different, some completely. Having wide umbrella within UX seems to be an enormous strength.

I like the idea of working interviews, and they can also measure working style, fit, analytical communication skills, and so on, but they’re quite time consuming and, in some contexts, don’t fit company culture or a corporate HR process.

So what happened to the value of experience measured by years in UX? You might learn to operate Axure, but the perspective, understanding, and skills that are needed to appreciate all factors surely need time to develop—so they’re not what a newly UX-titled newbie can offer. That’s slightly chicken and egg—for example, how do you start anywhere without experience? Specialist agencies here in London seem to filter candidates by their having a Masters in HCI or a formal Psychology qualification.

Then you have the other side of things: paid accreditation by private organizations with their own approach and, dare I say it, self-perpetuating agenda. I was interviewing candidates for a range of UX roles in 2011, and one was interesting: he had just passed through the entire accreditation course from HFI. (CUXA?) He seemed to think he was, therefore, deserving of any role he chose to grace—whilst an uncertified candidate in the same area, or skillset, had none of these presumptions and was much better all round—not just because of the attitude.

In theory, accreditation sounds super, but in the implementation? How the hell do we answer those challenges? I don’t have the answers yet.

There are qualifications for this practice. I graduated in Digital Interaction Design, making me a qualified practitioner of User Experience and Interaction Design. This course in Dundee was one of the first, led by industry professionals from various companies such as Ideo.

The thing I really despise—and that makes me want stricter rules and accreditation within this practice—is people who are Web designers or developers that see there is a new trend and re-title themselves. Thinking either that Interaction Design is just about what a button does on a Web page (developers) or that, to become a UX professional, all you need is a little compassion for the users and the ability to document sitemaps.

No, there is a vast array of other skills and know-how that is needed here—not least the psychological element and the right mindset toward the processes that we go through to really understand the whole concept and the discipline. I studied for four straight years on the subject, but there are others in the industry who just feel that their current title doesn’t suit and decide, yes, I want some of that, then take the bloody lead roles when they can’t even do the job.

Granted, industry veterans in such areas as Web design have developed, throughout their career, an understanding of many methods and know how to do things such as usability testing, but they just haven’t been through the proper training to take these roles away from those who are directly qualified.

I live in Scotland, where the idea of UX is just taking a hold on companies here, including government, yet the roles that I am suited for are filled with those who know not how to represent the field properly. There’s just so much more to UX and IxD than listening to a client say “sexy” and “tangible,” then creating a site that looks and works just a little better—after stealing designs from elsewhere.

Way too much passion involved in this young field for bored office workers to just decide that they want a piece of that pie.

Join the Discussion

Asterisks (*) indicate required information.