The UX Research Certificate program is graduating from the College of Innovation and Design (CI+D) and joining the College of Arts and Sciences (COAS). The graduation of the program from CI+D embodies the successful collaboration between CI+D and COAS. Dean Shawn Benner reflected on the collaboration, “UXR was one of the founding programs for the College of Innovation and Design, and it has been exciting to watch its growth into the program it is today. We are excited about its future in the College of Arts and Sciences.” Dean Leslie Durham, looking forward, stated: “I am delighted that UXR is graduating from CID to become a COAS program. The learning outcomes and ethos of the program align beautifully with our college strategic plan and the culture of the college.”
The UXR program graduation provides an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned and future directions.
The UX Research Certificate soft launched in spring 2017 as part of an effort to help our majors develop skills with professional relevance. Several pragmatic lessons were learned very early. We discovered that UX research is very fluid and dynamic. Mindsets and methods are constantly evolving. In consultation with our affiliate faculty and working professionals, we have renamed the Certificate, retitled courses, altered sequences, and repeatedly updated content.
We also quickly discovered that UX research happens in a transdisciplinary space, and has no modal major. Besides being interdisciplinary, the fully online program brings together traditional degree-seeking undergraduates who are searching for a place to start exploring post-graduate possibilities with non-traditional postgraduate students who hold advanced graduate degrees and have clear professional objectives. The latter students are admitted to Boise State with the UX research certificate as their sole objective (this admission track is called UX PRO). Merging students from these tracks exposes traditional undergraduates to the generally more intense work ethic and professionalism of working practitioners.
How is this diversity managed?
From the beginning, our courses were aligned with experiential and authentic pedagogies. But besides being “hands on” and oriented to doing applied research in the “real world” – the coursework has been highly individualized. This is particularly evident in the culminating capstone projects. In retrospect, the need for individualized capstones is obvious. UX research students have interdisciplinary preparations and divergent interests, they bring varied levels of work experience and educational attainment, their schedules are disjunctive because of family and work obligations, and they are geographically dispersed. Approximately 15-20 students annually choose to complete capstone projects. All have succeeded. This raises the question of scale, as the capstones demand highly individualized mentoring. We are working on that. However, we have learned to scale our nine seven week preparatory courses – which we have offered every seven weeks session (six times per year) since 2017. Part of the answer to scaling capstones builds on a large cohort of professional practitioners who have been supportive of the program.
One of the core goals of the UX research program has been to develop vocationally relevant skills across a wide variety of disciplines, particularly in the liberal arts and sciences. The liberal arts and sciences develop important soft skills that have general applicability, as well as in-depth disciplinary knowledge. In the long run, it is soft skills that win out in terms of making a living, and finding value in a well-lived life. Although specific occupationally-ready, entry level skills will often get you in the door, they won’t take you far beyond the entry. Soft skills support transformative work.
There is an affinity between UX research and the liberal arts and sciences. Joined together they can help students get started in the world of work, as well as power a larger vision of the greater good that questions the taken for granted and expands the limits of the thinkable.
UX research is a rapidly growing, 21st century vocation, and the UX research program develops specific, concrete skills that do find direct expression on employer wish lists – usability testing, empathy diagrams, contextual interviews, and many more. We seek to combine these named skills with the soft skills that power critique, creativity, and effective communication to create graduates who are prepared to do more than align themselves with current needs. It prepares graduates to bring change.
Anthropologists have a long and expanding role in higher level, transformative UX research, but the arrival of UX research in academia has been delayed. In 2005 – the same year the Stanford d.school launched – anthropologists working at INTEL, Microsoft, and other Tech giants founded the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Community (EPIC). Today EPIC is the leading international organization supporting higher level design research, and practitioners relate user experience to large social issues including equity, inclusion, sustainability, and strategic planning for a more liveable future. More students trained in the liberal arts and sciences than ever before are working in user experience research, and our program is directed at training them. But until the last decade, UX research had a very small academic footprint. The first doctoral programs in design anthropology and design ethnography emerged around 2012, and the first undergraduate program in design ethnography was developed at Philadelphia University in 2014. Boise State too was one of the earliest American universities to step into this space. The design of the UX research program at Boise State University was initiated in 2015, and soft launched in spring 2017. For comparison, the University of California at Davis first offered an undergraduate course in design ethnography in 2019.
From the beginning, we drew heavily upon anthropologists working in industry to design the curriculum, and we have continued to consult with them on future needs. Today, the UX research program at Boise State – while small – is a leader in the academic, non-MOOC sector. Most online academic programs accessible across the nation are Coursera MOOCs (e.g., University of Michigan) or brief “boot camps” that capture only a fragment of what our certificate covers (e.g., Cornell University; UC Berkeley). Despite their brevity, these programs are tough competitors because students can start and finish them in as little as two days.
We do not plan to match those speeds. Our vision is to balance convenience and compactness with substance and depth. This moment in world history is not the time to prepare students to do superficial, highly circumscribed UXR. We need to think about user experience in the broadest sense, rethink how UXR is conducted, and prepare our students to develop their potential as agents of change. To be effective, their research needs to be informed by traditional disciplinary knowledge representing a wide range of fields, prominently including the serious study in liberal arts and sciences. No other contemporary program in UXR that we are aware of has that vision.
John Ziker, UX Certificate Director
Kendall House, UX Certificate Faculty Lead