I distinctly remember complaining about the assignment my engineering design professor gave me during my first semester of college. To my (admittedly naive) freshman sensibilities, a book report had no place in the hands-on engineering class I ostensibly thought I was taking.
But it was a book report he had tasked, so I found myself thumbing through the pages of a paperback titled Don’t Make Me Think, a sort of how-to guide on web design. Written by Steve Krug, a pioneer in this industry, it was my first introduction to the phrase “UX design.”
The disconnect between reading and doing
Fast-forward a few years, and I found myself writing for a UX design agency.
When I started my position, I wanted to learn anything and everything I could about the practice. I re-read Krug’s book, pored over countless articles, reports, textbooks—anything I could get my hands on that would bestow upon me the principles of UX.
But when I examined the work our designers did, I’d often notice a disconnect between what I’d read and what they’d actually done. They seemed to know when to break which rules, when a standard principle wouldn’t be effective, and when to create something entirely new.
At first, I attributed it to their years of experience—a fact that certainly was the case for many of my agency’s designers.
“Did your degree really teach you *everything* you know about design?”
But even the younger members of the UX team seemed to have an inherent intuition that I lacked, despite both parties having the same amount of formal design education (read: zero).
I began to wonder if it were possible that UX design could be taught, or if was more akin to athletic ability or a sense of humor—an innate skill that you’re born with, a quality that some people have and some people just don’t.
Before we explore the different sides of the argument, I want to reiterate that this isn’t a question of whether a degree is necessary to succeed in UX design (just about everyone agrees the answer is no).
Rather, I’m more interested in the philosophical debate of whether it can be taught. If you have a degree, that’s all the better. But did it really teach you everything you know about design? Or did it provide helpful tools and invaluable practice to exercise an ability you already naturally possessed?
Design schools and the technical perspective
I believe UX design is an intersection of different fields, including art, engineering, experimental research, interpersonal skills, and several others. UX design is a mixture of technical and creative skill sets, and many of these can arguably be learned through education or practice.
Well, the technical side certainly can be. Anyone can become proficient in design software programs like Illustrator, Sketch, or InVision, whether it be through a college course, an online class, or a self-taught approach. Engineering and research skills fall into this category as well.
Take the scientific method for example, an essential tenet of UX design. Informed decision-making in UX design must be backed by comprehensive user research; otherwise, you’re basically just creating a surface-level aesthetic, rather than designing with a purpose.
The scientific method is the mechanism behind all research practices, whether it’s A/B testing or a statistically representative survey. It’s been carefully honed over years of human experimentation, and it’s certainly not an innate skill.
“Can schools actually teach the intangibles of design?”
How can one eliminate confounding variables without knowing what they are, and how to combat them?
The same argument applies to the results of the research: the ability to turn qualitative research into measurable, quantitative data—and then translating that data into informed design choices—is a discipline that must be learned and practiced.
This statistical analysis can be particularly daunting for UX designers without a formal education. Between regression analysis, chi-square tests, and Pearson Product-Moment analysis, it’s often the case that an artist’s intuition is simply not enough.
So while these heavily scientific components of UX design must be learned one way or another, the more creativity-based abilities, such as art, are a bit murkier. There are some however, who believe that design, or even art in a broader sense, can be learned.
Many schools have formal design programs, which seems to suggest that someone can enroll, participate, and leave with a level of expertise, regardless of an inherent talent or not. But many believe these schools can’t teach the intangibles of design, and rather just offer an opportunity to hone these skills in a low-stakes environment.
There are those who even disagree with the idea of “intangibles.” Code School students, for example, claim the design program they experienced taught them creative intuition, a concept that I’m sure many of us would consider something you’re born with, not taught.
But Code School’s course says it can, to some extent, teach this “designer’s intuition.” They showcase a software program that can validate design selections and recognize poor design choices.
Some even argue that not only can design be learned, but those who have forgone a formal education for a self-taught approach are actually missing several key tenets of design.
So does all of this translate to UX design being teachable? Could I take any person off the street and through schooling (either formal or self-taught) and experience, make them just as a good of a designer as anyone else?
Straight from the designer’s mouth
When I talk to Codal’s UX designers about the projects they’re working on, or their personal design process, they speak of abilities that I certainly have never possessed, ones that seem unteachable.
“I have a crystal-clear end vision,” says one the UX designers I work with. “I know what the finish line looks like—the work comes from finding the path there and being able to communicate it with the team.”
He believes there are many facets of UX that can’t be taught, one of which is the interpersonal skills required of the job. Client and user communication is inextricably linked to the day-to-day operations of a UX designer.
They need to discern what the client says they want, versus what they actually want. They need to connect with users when conducting research or testing, and they need to seamlessly collaborate with their team, and balance each member’s differing ideas and approaches.
Like art, it’s debatable whether these sorts of skills can be learned. Not everyone who reads Dale Carnegie transforms into a social butterfly. It’s tough to identify which facets of UX can easily be taught, and which cannot—and what that means for learning UX design as a whole.
For me, it seems the conclusion comes down to a resounding “sort of.” From both my research and my own anecdotal evidence, it seems that you can be taught UX design to an extent, but it’s an innate talent that separates the good designers from the great ones.
The UX design industry is still in its infancy. Its malleable and ever-changing nature means there’s no set path to becoming a UX designer. The design team I work with are of differing backgrounds, fields, and levels of education.
Their commonality lies not only in that inherent design intuition, but also their acknowledgement that they’re lifelong students of UX, and always striving to improve.
What do you think?
Can UX, in fact, be taught? We want to know what you think, so tell us on Twitter.
More posts on UX design
by Sean McGowan
Sean is a technical researcher & writer at Codal, authoring blog posts on topics ranging from UX design to the Internet of Things. Working alongside developers, designers, and marketers, Sean helps support the writing team to ensure Codal produces engaging web content of the highest quality. When not writing about the latest innovations in app design, Sean can be found cooking, watching old movies, or complaining about the shortcomings of his favorite Philadelphia sports teams.