Real world UX vs. University UX 101

Real world UX vs. University UX 101

Thursday 23rd of February 2017
Written by: Akanksha Hirokawa

For those who want to foray into the field of User experience (UX) design, it should be noted that the elements of UX that you learn at university are very different to real life experiences in the industry.

UX design is often integrated into undergraduate university courses – not a course in itself, but you can major in UX design if you opt for a Bachelors in Information Technology and want to escape the lifetime of coding that looms ahead. However, if making the digital experience easier for people to use sounds like something you want to devote a large chunk of your life to, then reading this article may help you become UX design industry-ready.

Testing with actual users vs. university students

Incorporating UX design into the structured university curriculum is hard when every student is privy to your projects. Nearly all courses where usability testing was a component, were structured in a way that testing with people outside the student cohort was not always feasible.

This made it especially hard to experience how our university project would be received by real world users, especially if the target audience was vastly different from our peers. For example, one of our projects was to build a prototype for an aged-care facility located on the outskirts of Brisbane; the course structure made it difficult to test the prototype with real users, and potentially formed the impression on some students that it isn’t important to test with real users. This has a follow-on effect when these same students, entering the real world with the impression that you can test with anyone.

Furthermore, the structure of some universities is such that students need ethical clearance before they can test their projects outside of the university. While the projects nearly always turned out to be very cool, we weren’t sure just how usable they were or if they even met users’ real needs.

University teachers ≠ Client stakeholders

Possibly the most important lesson university doesn’t teach you is that half of UX design is balancing user needs and business needs.

It’s very challenging to get any traction on projects if management doesn’t approve it, or if there isn’t a clear correlation between business goals and the user experience. Getting key business stakeholders involved (in the actual UX process) is one of the key stages in UX design, something I learned on the job.

Soft skills, for example, communicating and designing a UX approach with business stakeholders and clients, is a large part of UX – something you don’t anticipate when you’re at university.

Software you use at university

I used a lot of Balsamiq and Invision at university. I thought it was cool, and had the impression that I was using cutting-edge industry standard software. Little did I know that there is no industry standard software. With so many useful design tools, every company has their own preference. What university teaches you, is not how to use software, but ‘how to learn how to use software’ – so that when you are faced with a different tool, you can apply what you learnt.

At university the focus is on learning one tool and students often lose sight of what is really being taught i.e. how to use the tool to design.

The experience divide between graduating and getting a job

My first interview with a UX company didn’t go very well (I thought). My UX knowledge was pretty rough compared to professionals with 15 years of experience (understandably).  I felt like there was a gap in my experience and what they were looking for, e.g. I’d only ever done usability testing with university students. Most jobs (even junior roles) required 3+ years of experience. Knowing I didn’t have that made it daunting to apply for these roles. I had prepared for this interview but after it I felt really deflated.

In spite of my lack of industry experience, I was confident that I had the low down on what all could be done in the actual UX process (but I was wrong). I had never heard of some the methodologies potential employers asked about (what was card sorting??) as it wasn’t part of the university curriculum. I hadn’t performed a lot of the UX processes they asked me about either, and it made me feel unprepared.

University is very theoretical

You certainly learn a lot about the newest trends at university. You’re meant to read the latest conference papers and journals and incorporate learnings from them to give worth to your own reports. I remember most of the stuff I learnt was pretty cool.

I also found out that when you start working, self-learning takes a backseat in the midst of performing day-to-day work-related tasks. You’re often performing the same tasks every day and you forget to come out of your productivity bubble to absorb new things which would actually help you enhance and streamline what you’re working on. It’s easy to forget to do this, especially when you start work as a junior. But the educational grounding you get at university is still very apt in the workplace – UX is an ever-changing field and keeping on top of it is worth your while.

In Summary

If you’ve just graduated and UX Design is the path you are pursuing, don’t give up on landing your first UX role. Just remember that not everything you are taught at university is necessarily the whole picture (although some of it is) – there is still a lot to learn. I learnt a lot more from the 3 day Peak Usability UX design course about real-world UX design than I did in my 2 years at university.

Some useful strategies I found to help me be feel better prepared:

  • Joining forums like UX Mastery and LinkedIn groups like the User Experience group
  • Subscribing to online resources such as UX Magazine, UX Booth
  • Attending talks at local UX meetup groups

University is great (and I wouldn’t have landed my current role without my qualifications) but self-learning and being confident to apply for jobs (even when you don’t think you’re experienced enough) go a long way. Networking with new people, keeping in touch with professors from university days and reaching out for tips from friends already in the industry could tip the balance in your favour.

Usability tip

Designing for the colour blind

Nearly ten percent of all males have some form of colour blindness. To ensure that your website contents are visible to everyone, try converting all your designs to grayscale and see if everyone can still read the important content.

Colour contrast

Colour contrast between foreground and background elements on your web page promotes good colour visibility. You can use tools like Vision Australia’s Colour Contrast Analyser to determine whether the colours you’ve used on your web page are easily read by people with visual impairments.

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