Expert Voices Interview with Sarah Doody about UX Education

Sarah Doody

Sarah Doody is an NYC based user experience designer and product strategist. She works with startups to help them launch their initial product as well helping companies already in market optimize their user experiences. She is the founder of a popular UX newsletter – The UX Notebook. Sarah also teaching about user experience, she co-developed and taught General Assembly’s first 12 week UX course. Currently, Sarah has published three featured courses on her website. I’m honored to interview Sarah about her experience and latest thoughts about UX education:

Tell me a bit about your background in UX. (How did you get into the UX field? What’s your major focus in UX right now?)

I didn’t know UX existed! I started in graphic design and then learned web design and front end coding. At some point, I realized that it must be someone’s job to make sure that what gets designed is what gets built and that’s when I learned about UX. Of course, that’s not exactly the definition of UX, but that’s what lead me to the field.

I am completely self taught and when I was starting there weren’t tons of programs. So I practiced by DOING! I sought out freelance clients, I re-designed things that I thought were problematic on various products I used, and I kept doing that over and over and over.

My focus in UX is research and experience design. I love understanding the problem and using that research to help create a strategy for what the solution should actually be. I also love figuring out the userflows and coming up with the actual experience design — wireframes and prototypes. But I’m not an interface designer!

What made you choose UX education as one of your focuses?

I’ve always been a natural teacher. One of my first jobs was a piano teacher! The focus on UX Education really came out of research.

I noticed I received a lot of email and questions about certain topics in UX including how to conduct research and how to create a portfolio. After these observations, I continued to do research including having one on one calls with people to understand their exact problems. Then, based on this research I began prototyping various workshops on these topics to test curriculum ideas and content before I turned the workshops into fully on demand UX courses.

How did the UX education evolve since you started? (What did you learn? What made you change the way you were doing if any?)

Originally when I was testing these course ideas, I conducted the classes as small workshops which I taught live. However, a challenge with teaching live is that not everyone can make a specific time slot. So recording everything and making the courses on demand was something I did to make the programs more accessible for students.

I also learned that people are completely tired of programs that have a lot of theory. People want to take ACTION! So creating worksheets, templates, checklists, etc are very crucial to people actually implementing what they’re learning.

How do you think about the current education environment of UX? What are the gaps you see between UX education and the UX industry in the real world?

I think the landscape of UX education programs in general is still very confusing for people because of the vast range of prices, timelines, promises, and guarantees. Some programs even guarantee people will get jobs!

The missing link in the UX education environment right now is the element of experience. True real world experience. Of course some UX programs integrate projects into the curriculum, sometimes even with paying clients that the students do a project for. However these programs are not the norm.

Once someone gets educated, they need experience. And it’s a chicken and egg situation. Companies don’t want to hire people who haven’t worked in the real world. Especially in a field where certification isn’t the norm.

There aren’t enough UX internships or apprenticeships to give people a chance to practice UX in the real world. I don’t know the solution to this problem, but after spending 50 hours over the last few months having research interviews with UX designers, I know this is a real problem.

What advice would you give to someone who is receiving education and trying to get into the UX field?

Look for internships, although they are hard to find. It’s a huge opportunity to work on projects in the real world. But in the meantime, take it upon yourself to be a “problem spotter” — I always say that designers can’t just be problem solvers, they must also be experts at spotting problems.

If you get into the habit spotting problems, then you’ll always have a great list of project ideas you could pursue to get more experience. But keep in mind, if you do tackle these projects, then do some research, talk to users, look at competitors, see what you can learn about the company from articles, blogs, etc so that you can arm yourself with (hopefully) real world intel that can help shape your decisions. A challenge with these projects is that you’re doing it in a silo, you’re not encountering the challenges you’d face if you had the full story, the data, the limitations, etc. So try to find some of that through research.

(Sarah writes about user experience, design, and technology on her website, and can be reached on Twitter @sarahdoody, Medium @Sarah Doody.)