How to Teach UX: Methods and Philosophies

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When General Assembly decided to add a new full-time, immersive program to its suite of educational offerings, user experience (UX) design was the clear topic of choice. UX is a rapidly growing field looking for talented designers passionate about shaping the future, and we were excited to design a program that prepared these folks to do just that. With that, the User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) program was born.

UXDI is truly the first of its kind. We’ve been able to take skills and methods that have developed over the last 20 years and turned them into one of the first formal programs to teach UX design. Through the process of creating the course, we learned a lot about how UX should be taught, and developed the following three guiding philosophies:

1. Embrace Ambiguity

“It depends” is a key part of any UX designer’s vocabulary, but its use in a classroom environment can lead to pretty significant frustration. There are plenty of reasons why teaching UX is quite ambiguous; this is, after all, a rapidly evolving field that prides itself on prioritizing the user and not trying to find the best answer, but rather going after better answers.

UX Design: Embrace Ambiguity

Ambiguity, like anything in life, should be used in moderation in a classroom setting. Too little ambiguity leaves no room for learning; students shouldn’t have all of the answers provided to them. Too much ambiguity gets in the way of students trying to answer the right questions, and the learning experience begins to quickly unravel.

It was our goal to have UXDI walk the fine line of ambiguity-nirvana. We constantly ask ourselves, “is this the problem students should be struggling with?” From the very beginning, we establish a culture that embraces failure and experimentation, and sees ambiguity as a design problem waiting to be solved. The next step was to give students the skills and opportunities to solve those problems.

2. Teach People How to Cook

UX is a hands-on field, and therefore should be taught as such. As a UX designer you are constantly researching, sketching, building, testing, and presenting your ideas. The only real way to learn those skills is to do them, over and over again.

We were fortunate to have incredible designers join us as curriculum authors and instructors, including Christina Wodtke (@cwodtke), Hong Qu (@hqu), Aynne Valencia (@aynne), and Donna Lichaw (@dlichaw). As a group, we spoke a great deal about the learning experiences we cherished the most. We wanted UXDI to feel like a cooking class: a healthy mix of demonstrations and lecturing with a heavy emphasis on hands-on practice and experimentation.

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We designed every day of UXDI to be comprised of classes, where students learn about new concepts and skills, and workshops, where they get to actually apply those new skills to team-based projects. This structure has allowed our students to truly learn by doing, and therefore create dishes far more delicious than we had ever expected.

3. Create a Culture, Join a Community

The UX community has always relied on conferences, books, and the web to pass on methods and practices. The entire field has been built on a word-of-mouth system that has created an incredibly tight-knit network of UX designers. It was crucial for us to continue that tradition in UXDI.

The first step was to build a strong community within the classroom. We spent most of the first day of class getting to know each other, and deciding, as a group, what we wanted our classroom culture to be like. The following weeks involved class happy hours, group outings, rooftop parties, and late-night dinners, culminating in a graduating class of close friends.

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We also wanted to connect UXDI to the larger UX community by creating guest speaking opportunities. Students got to hear from and hang out with some of the best user researchers, information architects, content strategist, and designers in the field, including Luke Miller (@younglucas), Indi Young (@indiyoung), Abby Covert (@Abby_the_IA), and Tomer Sharon (@tsharon). We also got to visit some amazing companies – such as Tumblr, Google, R/GA, Citrix, & Meetup – to meet their teams and talk about what the day-to-day life of a UX designer looks like.

These outside perspectives kept us all motivated, and reminded us of the much larger UX community out there.

We are constantly adjusting the way we approach teaching different topics, whether in UXDI or our other long-form courses, and would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Tweet us @GA or to me directly @andreplaut to keep the conversation going.

Andre Plaut is the Education Product Manager for General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive program.

Peek into our classrooms. See sketches, wireframes, and reflections from our current class of UXDI students in New York City and San Francisco.