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Teaching UX Designers to Always Be Learning

by Jared M. Spool

“Of the important things you do every day in your job, what percentage did you learn how to do in school?” When I ask user experience designers this question, most tell me less than 25%. Even those who have only been out of school for just a few years.

In fact, some of today’s best user experience designers never learned design in school at all. They taught themselves what they needed to know. They learned from peers, from seeking out their own resources, and through the painful process of trial-and-error. This is a long and arduous effort, taking them decades to learn everything they know now.

Right now, there’s a high demand for UX designers. Companies need all the designers they can get. They need designers to gain the skills faster. Self-learning is a great approach, but it’s hard to do quickly.

We’ve created our UX Design school, Center Centre, to meet the high demand for UX designers. We needed a program that launched our students on their journey of turning into lifelong self-learners. This meant rethinking the educational process from the ground up.

An alternative to Sage On the Stage

Conventional educational programs use a Sage on the Stage approach, where a smart person stands in front of a classroom pouring facts and raw knowledge into students’ brains. Despite considerable evidence that this approach rarely works, schools still try to teach new skills this way. This is part of the reason why fresh graduates we hire aren’t prepared for the work ahead of them.

People learn best when they take charge of their education. Some people learn well by reading a comprehensive book. For others, books don’t work at all, but they learn when they hear someone explain the concepts and techniques. Everyone has their own way of learning. A good school needs to adapt its learning options for each individual student.

Most skills designers need, they don’t learn in school

Every year, the collection of tools, techniques, and knowledge designers need changes considerably. It’s hard for seasoned professionals to keep up with these changes. Educators find it nearly impossible to update their courses with every new change. This means when students graduate, they’ll need to continually adapt their knowledge to fit the growing discipline. They’ll need to continue learning important skills while on the job.

In addition, there are some things schools can’t ever teach their students. They can’t teach designers about what their users will need or how their users will interact with their designs. Sure, we can teach research techniques to uncover these important details, but the designers can’t learn about actual user needs until they’re working on the job.

Nor can the school teach designers everything they need to know about the domains they’ll work in. Today’s designers are designing an array of interesting problems. Designers help medical professionals deliver better medicine. They provide better financial systems to help the economy. And they help government agencies provide better services to their citizens and constituents.

Schools can’t teach design and all the ins and outs of medicine, finance, or government. In many cases, the designers don’t even know what domain they’ll work in until after they graduate. They’ll have to learn the domain on the job.

Teaching UX designers to always be learning

How do we design a school, knowing what we teach our students will only be 25% of what they’ll use when they’re on the job? By ensuring that what we give them builds a strong foundation for everything they’ll learn after graduation.

That’s why, at Center Centre, we’ve implemented a three-pronged approach to our program. We ensure our students embrace their journey into life-long learning.

The first prong is to provide students with the latest expertise. During their two years as a Center Centre student, they’ll each take thirty classes. Each class starts with a two-day workshop taught by a leading industry expert.

For example, for the User Research Practices course, we’re bringing in world-renown expert Dana Chisnell (who literally wrote the book on usability testing, coincidentally called The Handbook of Usability Testing). In her workshop, Dana will take the students through hands-on activities. Students will learn user research techniques such as usability testing and field research. They’ll explore what it takes to plan, moderate, and observe usability tests, along with how to synthesize the observations into solid design decisions.

Every three weeks, our students will meet a new industry expert as they start each new course in the Center Centre UX Designer curriculum. Each time, they’ll learn the essential skills for that topic through the expert’s hands-on workshop.

Providing a resource-rich self learning environment

The second prong is the rich collection of resources we provide. We’ve filled our library with the latest books, adding new ones every month. Every student has access to state-of-the-art online training tools like UIE’s All You Can Learn, lynda.com, and teamtreehouse.com. We give each student a brand-new MacBook Pro, loaded with the latest design software. They’ll be learning with the same tools they’ll use when they’re on the job.

Our full-time faculty—we call them facilitators—spent months compiling resources for each course. They’ve identified the seminal articles, helpful videos, and other materials to answer any student’s question.

The facilitators monitor each student’s progress and tailor each student’s education to help that student learn best. Facilitators work with each student to create a personalized learning plan. Each student crafts this unique plan to achieve learning goals for the course. More importantly, the facilitators work alongside the students to identify relevant, high-quality learning resources. Our students get the practice of knowing where to look when they need to learn something new.

Practice through experience

The final prong is the project work. Center Centre students will spend more than two-thirds of their education working on real-world projects. We designed these projects to give them exactly the real-world experience they need.

Companies and nonprofit organizations submit projects for our students to work on. (We’ll even have a few of our own, so our students can build designs they’ll have to use themselves. It’s always eye-opening when you have to “eat your own dog food,” as the kids like to call it.) The students will work on projects from concept all the way through deployment and beyond. They get the entire experience of building and measuring a design.

Each project will integrate the techniques our students learned so far, plus some techniques they haven’t yet encountered. For example, before Dana shows up to teach her User Research Practices course, the students will have already observed live usability tests during their project work. That way, when Dana gets there, she’ll build on the experiences they had, explaining the underlying theory that made it all work.

On-the-job learning, intentionally designed

We started with a premise: We need to prepare our students to be lifelong learners. This forced us to rethink how to build Center Centre. We knew we had to cherry-pick the best UX techniques to give our students a solid foundation. We ended up with a modular curriculum. We can quickly update our courses to accommodate the latest, best practices and tools.

Most importantly, we’ve infused every course and project with the educational goal of teaching students to improve their own learning capability. Every Center Centre graduate will be ready to learn exactly what they need to create the best designs, no matter the circumstances. They’ll be lifelong, self-driven learners.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.