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The Pathway to User Experience

Group shotEarlier this month, I taught a two-week course based on user experience principles.

That’s not a sentence that existed ten years ago. Even now, a course in UX might mean ten different things to ten different people. Unlike an American History teacher, who has a fairly consistent curriculum to follow, a UX teacher has only his or her own reading and experiences to draw on to invent a way to teach something that he or she has “picked up” along the way. At one point, as we created our curriculum, I thought “I’m trying to cram eight years of work experience into a two-week course.”

That’s not to say UX can’t be taught. On the contrary, UXMastery has even curated a list of UX degrees offered worldwide. But what does the formalization of teaching UX mean for the field?

Creativity in design

UX designer Seung Chan Lim recently wrote a series of articles examining the connections between design and creativity. As a UX designer from the field of human-centered design, and focusing constantly on human/computer interactions, Lim believed design was a science, and the creative arts were forms of expression rather than communication. All the same, he took a risk and enrolled in a series of art courses, and he soon began to identify many ways in which the creative arts could inform and improve upon his design process.

I found it completely unsurprising that a UX designer might see ways that “free expression” or “creativity” or “artsy” experiences could help him find new ways of connecting and communicating. A theater major/music and creative writing minor myself, I found my way to UX design in part because it spoke the language I had learned in theater classes. In fact, former theater majors are so common in the field of content strategy specifically, that karaoke night has become an assumed part of every content strategy conference.

In short, though we learned to create wireframes and write usability reports post-college, our college courses instilled in us the empathy, listening skills, and outside-the-box thinking that makes UX practitioners (be they content strategists, user researchers, or designers) so unique.

Creating method out of madness

This brings me to a big question, which only time may answer: how will the world of content strategy and UX design change when students are no longer coming from arts backgrounds?

Ten years ago, I was spending my summers waitressing tables, taking improv classes, and taking the time to do some creative writing and journal every day. Today, future UX designers spend their summers interning at design firms. They will leave university with practical skills years ahead of where I was when I graduated, but will they take a gap year and see how the rest of the world designs interactions? Will they stumble on the path a few times, and begin to meet people who challenge their world views? Will they experience real-world chaos and uncertainty that will make project chaos in the future feel comparatively tame and manageable?

I love the thought of creating a major in UX or a major in content strategy that requires, among the design and writing courses, Theater 101 and Psych 101. Part of my interest in Atlas Workshops comes from my deep belief that we are teaching these students not only about their topic (smart cities, for example) and a methodology (design thinking) but also the ability to see what is around them, and take in new cultures.

It’s an exciting time for UX practitioners. We’re identifying best practices and processes – we’re designing the future of our field. I hope we don’t lose the wonderful variety of perspectives and backgrounds as we formalize the UX education pathway.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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