Why I Like Being Self-taught

When I made the decision to become a UX designer, I had one main question: How do I learn all that stuff?

UX is in fact a profession consisting of a large number of diverse disciplines which themselves comprise various theories, practices and tools:

screenshot-talk-jared-spool_how-do-we-design-designers
source: Jared Spool, How Do We Design Designers?

One answer to my question how to learn all these disciplines seems to be pretty obvious: Go back to university and enroll in a User Experience Design course.

This advice mostly comes from parents or people who went through the “normal” career path of school > Bachelor > Master > (PhD) > job – assuming there’s still a kind of “normality” in today’s life stories.

But do I really want to go back to university?

Nope.

Don’t get me wrong: I love studying. There is probably no other experience in life which enables you in the same way to think, to find yourself, to meet new interesting people and exchange your ideas with them and, most important, to learn.

But this form of studying doesn’t necessarily involve going to university and spending 6 or more semesters following a predefined timetable. Instead, the characteristics and benefits of studying as described above are part of a lifelong learning process, which doesn’t start or end with a course at the uni.

So when I say “I don’t want to study”, I mean the conscious decision to not enroll for a course at a university in favor of more flexible and self-regulated ways of learning.

Here is why:

1. Design courses are rare and expensive

I recently watched a talk by usability expert Jared Spool about the imbalance between the growing business need for design on the hand and the lack of design professionals on the other hand. One reason why we don’t have enough qualified designers is simply that there are not enough design schools. In case you’re looking for very specific studies like UX or service design, it gets even harder to find a suitable university.

And once you’ve found a good course, the second problem comes into play: You need to be able to afford your studies.

Compared to Germany, studying in London is an expensive business. Besides tuition fees of about 10K pounds for one year of studying, students are faced with extremely expensive costs of living, mainly driven by ridiculously high rents.

2. Design schools don’t teach you how to work

Another talk by designer Mike Monteiro discusses a similar topic, but he considers the way design schools teach their students as the main reason why there are not enough qualified designers entering the business world.

He explains that design schools teach statistics, theory and how to use tools, but they don’t teach how to explain decisions to clients, how to present ideas or how to read clients’ emails. In addition, students in design schools are mainly surrounded by fellow students who all speak the same language, but not by stakeholders from different backgrounds they will finally work with.

Both leads to the issue, that students are not prepared for the real working environment when they leave schools – and this is according to Monteiro also a reason why design schools aren’t worth their money.

Jared Spool mentions this problem as well and adds the point that the pace of change in the tech and UX industry is too fast to get covered by a university course, as its accreditation process takes three years to add new material.

3. Time pressure kills practice

The most false prejudice about studying is probably that students have lots of free time beside their studies to do further research, exploration and practice. This might have been true long time ago when diploma courses still existed. But since bachelor courses have been established, students have to follow a strict curriculum with deadlines at the end of each semester. The result: about 8 projects need to be delivered at the same time.

To keep on track, students need to learn how to work efficiently. While this is indeed a good training for later jobs where dealing with deadlines becomes daily routine, it happens at the expense of trial and error experiences forming deep understanding and expertise.

The time issue becomes even more critical within creative projects, characterized by the iterative process of crafting, editing and refining. According to Spool, students are expected to spend on average 30 hours on each class project. This is not even a whole full-time work week – and barely enough to understand the full complexity of a problem, to solve it and bake the solution into a fancy presentation.

But if not studying at a university or design school, what can I do instead to learn UX?

In fact, most designers grow up and get trained on the job. But to land a job in UX requires at least some basic skills and know how. Here’s what I’m currently doing to approach this:

  • Participating in an online course on coursera, e.g. Interaction Design by University of California, San Diego.

    Compared to studying in the traditional way, online courses provide learners more flexibility, are affordable (180 pounds for a 8 course specialization if payed at once), and still include a certificate from a real university.

  • Attending meetups related to anything listed in the figure above (UX, Service Design, Analytics, Content Strategy …)

  • Consuming content: reading books and blogposts and following individuals and companies on Twitter.
    I highly recommend InVision’s blog. With regard to mobile interface design, it’s definitely worth to follow Luke Wroblewski. He also published some short instructive "how to" videos on his own YouTube channel)

  • Practice, practice, practice – or in the words of Jared Spool: Produce crap.
    
I would prefer the term “artifacts”, but the point is to apply what you’ve learned. Creating this website really helped me to get an understanding of what’s possible on the screen and at the same time, I got familiar with Sketch 3. Also online courses (see point 1) are a great opportunity to produce things and get feedback from others.

  • Teaching myself tools, like design software (e.g. Sketch) and prototyping apps (e.g. InVision, UXPin, marvel, principle).

What’s next?

The next thing I’m going to do is applying my knowledge acquired from these practices to solve design problems directly on the job. This step doesn’t only give me the chance to challenge my skills on real design tasks and learn from stakeholder's feedback. It’s also an opportunity to find a mentor teaching me how to actually work.

And in the long run, the goal should be to teach other designers. Whether on the job, by giving talks or writing books: sharing knowledge and helping others to improve their skills finally closes the circle and makes the learning experience rewarding.

This definitely makes a point on my bucket list, but for now I’m at a stage which is all about trying, failing and getting better.