Designer or Mechanic? UX Design as Vocational Education

In Margaret Rhodes’s March Wired article “Forget Welding. The Hottest New Vocational Schools Do Digital Design” the author explores the recent rise in popularity of user experience design as a vocational course. Vocational education — an educational course designed to directly segue the student into a trade workforce or technical career — has traditionally been conceived of as a non-academic, blue collar path to employment. Vocational schools of the past have typically been two-year programs designed to educate a student in a craft or technical skill such as mechanics, welding, or accounting that in turn make them an immediate asset to a large, essential workforce. In the present day, Rhodes argues, one of the most essential and marketable skills is that of UX design, and hiring managers as well as vocational schools are taking notice.

The article focuses primarily on Chattanooga, Tennessee’s “Center Centre” — a small user experience design school which works with investors and hiring managers to treat UX design as a form of vocational education. According to the article, the Center Centre founders “modeled it after traditional vocational programs, in which students receive hyper-focused training in, say, welding or radio engineering, to meet the needs of hiring managers. And right now, hiring managers need UX designers.”

The status of UX design as an essential workforce is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the article, within the last ten years UX design has gone from a concept that was only vaguely conceived of to totally integral in any industry which has a digital component. This increased demand for UX designers has ushered in an era where UX design can be considered a teachable, marketable trade rather than something people “stumble into through a side door” as it was previously. The Center Centre founders suggest that their approach to teaching UX design as a career-focused educational curriculum sets it apart from other several-week training crash courses and UX degrees recently added as majors to more academically focused learning institutions.

The history of the reputation of vocational vs academic schooling programs is interesting as well. The author suggests that a traceable pattern exists between America’s interest in vocational programs and large socioeconomic shifts. While some European countries maintain a steady level of respect for and interest in vocational training programs to provide a strong workforce, Americans tend to ebb and flow in their preference for two-year vocational vs. four year academic schooling as most valuable. While vocational training was extremely popular and essential during WWII, the post-WWII years brought in a new era of white collar jobs in which vocational school was viewed as something lesser. The current boom in technology’s importance to any and all fields brings with it an increased need for the new type of vocational education in coding, UX design, etc to satisfy the demand from hiring managers across industries.

I found this article really interesting because I hadn’t much considered what type of education coding or UX design fits under. In Pratt’s case, it’s a major at a design/art school, leading one to believe that perhaps it’s something more academic or creative in nature. However, the simple fact that it revolves around learning a directly applicable skill set to a work force immediately after graduation certainly permits it to fit underneath the vocational umbrella.

I’m also interested in how stigmas and perceptions of “vocational career paths” will change with the inevitable increase of tech-focused careers. I certainly have noticed that those who pursue academia tend to look down upon vocational training, and I’m interested in tracing how and if those ideas change as more creative/intellectual courses become the new face of vocational education.

Design Critique: Spotify Mobile App

Spotify is a popular streaming music app, with both free and Premium paid plan options. With Spotify Premium, users can stream unlimited music, create and curate playlists, and discover new music all through the mobile app, available for both iPhone and Android through the corresponding app stores. Full access to Spotify is dependent upon either a mobile data plan, or connection to wifi, though certain saved playlists can be synced for offline play.

After launching the app, users have access to a clearly discoverable navigation bar along the bottom of the screen with five main categories. Upon first download of the app, Spotify is not well tailored to a user’s preferences. Unlike Seamless or Yelp or similar apps that might make use of location services to immediately make suggestions relevant to the user, Spotify’s mobile app relies solely on repeated use and saving of data to craft the experience to match the needs/wants of the user. As one continues to use the Spotify app, the “Library” tab will fill with saved playlists and albums, the “Home” tab will populate with recently played songs and podcasts to resume or select again, and the suggestions in the “Browse” tab will learn from the user’s tastes and recommend music of related genres, artists, and themes. The usability and effectiveness of the Spotify mobile app increases and improves with use, similar to the general functionality of Amazon.com.

The Spotify app makes use of culturally recognized signifiers to create positive, intuitive mappings for music playback. The familiar triangular play button, double-lines pause button, and arrows pointing “forward” and “back” to skip to the next or previous track while listening. Some extra features are discoverable in immediate ways that make themselves known, even if the user had not previously been aware that they existed.

One of these features is a built in lyrics database, that one can access by dragging down while listening to a track (album cover “bounces” down to reveal this while listening to a new track) and perhaps the coolest of these is that if the account linked to the mobile app is open and being used to play music elsewhere (for example, on a laptop) the app will prompt the user to decide which they would prefer to continue streaming on. This works both ways, so if a user had been streaming on the desktop application and opens their phone to travel, the user can seamlessly transition from desktop to mobile app without interrupting playback. This is an example of positive feedback as it clearly indicates to the user that the app has recognized activity on the account. Feedback is also received by the user audibly when music can immediately be heard playing from whichever device was selected from the pop-up menu.

The cog/gear icon is also used as a common signifier to indicate the “Settings” menu, however, this is unnecessarily difficult to find, as it is for some reason only visible above the “Your Library” tab and does not appear on any of the other five category tabs. If one is looking at the “Browse”, “Home”, “Search”, or “Radio” tabs the settings icon is absent from the upper right hand corner. This makes the settings unnecessarily difficult to find, and could be remedied by putting the gear icon at the top of each panel, allowing a user to access settings from any facet of the app without hassle.

The app also makes good use of constraints with regards to online/offline usage. If a user is out of service range or using airplane mode, only the lit-up song titles with a green download icon afford clicking, and the song titles which appear in a dim gray cannot be clicked until internet access is restored to the mobile device.

In general, I consider the Spotify mobile app to be very user friendly and to adhere well to Norman’s definitions of usability. While some small changes could always be made to maximize functionality, I use this app multiple times daily and have no significant complaints.