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Mar 02, 2005: User Experience Education

Tom Smith's diagram (95Kb GIF) is yet another illustration of the multidisciplinary nature of user experience. His network diagram shows connections between multiple fields, methods, and thinkers, clustered like so:

  • Knowing the technology (e.g., content management)
  • Knowing what you have to work with (e.g., content inventory)
  • Knowing how the mind works (e.g., mental models)
  • Knowing what people really want (e.g., story boards)
  • Knowing what people really have done (e.g., log file analysis)
  • Knowing what users actually do and think (e.g., ethnography)
  • Knowing what users want to hear (e.g., marketing)
  • Understanding users are not alone (e.g., social networks)
  • Knowing how you are doing (e.g., metrics)
  • Knowing how this all fits together (e.g., ROI)

The obvious implication of Tom's and similar UX illustrations is that one person can't be expected to demonstrate expertise in all these areas; organizations need to invest in multi-disciplinary *teams* if they're serious about UX.

The less obvious implication is really a question: why have so few academic institutions jumped on this opportunity? Seems to me that UX education is natural for liberal arts programs. By definition, they're multidisciplinary. Many are looking to reach students interested in new media. And applied UX would provide an obvious path to partnerships with and, eventually, funding from the private sector.

I don't mean to ignore what an uphill battle liberal arts institutions will face in forming UX programs. Many academics view design of any sort as a vocation. Existing kernels of UX understanding and offerings are often contained within a single academic department; this might scare off potential partners from elsewhere on campus. Colleges and universities certainly are at least as susceptible to silo-ization as the private sector.

But in a time when higher ed is hurting for funding, I'm wondering if we'll soon see more academic provosts coming around to at least repackaging or otherwise "productizing" existing course offerings as a UX program.

In the meantime, I'll keep dreaming about an Amazonized course catalog that unearths interdisciplinary paths and other interesting patterns that might lead to self-designed UX curricula among other things. Which, ahem, leads to another question: would a college first need such a souped-up catalog to support a UX curriculum? Or would it already need to have drunk the UX Kool-Aid before it was capable of developing such a catalog?

Sorry for the ramble; and thanks to Tom for his thought-provoking diagram.

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Comment: Bud Gibson (Mar 2, 2005)

Having been on faculty at an academic institution for 8 years, the central problem you have is that academia is built around disciplines. These disciplines get decided upon, and it is very hard to add new ones or change old ones. It's really a matter of years. Further, all promotion is done within disciplines, so those that make it are those that have figured out how to please the discipline.

As a result, traditional universities are simply not agile. In their defense, that might be a slightly good thing. For someone to get a university degree in a topic implies that some standards have been set for what it means to be good in that topic. That process also takes years to shake out.

Therefore, this is a great opportunity for entrepreneurs and people who want to create new disciplines IF there is really a need in the marketplace. You can create these standards and sell people training.

Unfortunately for universities, the new competitive intensity probably tends to mean a loss of revenue opportunities that may be permanent.

Comment: Lou (Mar 2, 2005)

Of course, this begs the question: if universities aren't going to leverage their various disciplines in a collective way, why have universities at all?

Comment: Bud Gibson (Mar 2, 2005)

Well, universities are under pressure for their survival, so that may be the answer you seek.

As far as I can ascertain, universities largely serve a certification function. They certify students (their biggest moneymaker), and they certify knowledge.

It used to be that universities acted as knowledge centers, and that was a big moneymaker. But, the speed of knowledge creation has really increased.

The problem for universities is that people are willing to take less certified knowledge because the value of time is so high. Imagine you created an innovation such as folksonomy (just a for instance) 5 years ago (average time to get some things to press in highly regarded outlets) and had to wait until now to let people know. Would it still be valuable? Well, maybe if the rest of the world operated under the same constraints, but they don't.

So, the university through its review process kills the marketability of its intellectual product and increasingly so as the pace of change speeds up. That said, universities have been out of touch since at least the time of the discovery of the americas when commercial maps of the new world exceeded those of academics in quality.

Then as now, charity has been the lifeblood of unviersity finance (called development).

Comment: Lou (Mar 3, 2005)

Bud (and any other academics that might be reading): how about American Studies as a model for UX programs? Seems like it might be a successful example of a relatively recent interdisciplinary program...

Comment: Richard Eskins (Mar 8, 2005)

Lou, you may like to take a look at what we are attempting for undergrads at what is/was a Library school. Having recently met with an International company (who do the full UX), who are very excited by what they have seen we do; we think we are on the right track. Our problem is convincing 'would be' students that this an exciting area to get into.

Comment: Erica (Mar 10, 2005)

I think that UX or really any flavor of interdisciplinary field is better off as a completely individualized program of studyói.e., someone who commits on paper to one or two disciplines and then reads voraciously from the professional and popular press, tasting everything while keeping a specific non-disciplinary focus/slant (like virtual communities or Web experience). In general, when Iíve seen universities try true-blue interdisciplinary programs, the programs and students arenít particularly rousing. (Iím referring to conglomerations of many disciplines--not just two, like math + biologyóI donít have any doubt that those types of dual-programs are not only effective, but necessary for the future.)

Iím sure there are exceptions to both (rousing yet formal interdisciplinary programs and students), but I wonder if creating interdisciplinary degrees and trying to cultivate interdisciplinary students in a formal course of study is a little like providing a step-by-step guide to entrepreneurship. In the end, if you have the right spirit, a good guide will help. But, if you donít have the innate spirit and drive, no amount of hand-holding and guidance is going to get you where you need to go.

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