What’s the point of UX certification?

approvedRecently at work we’ve been discussing the merits of various UCD training courses, with particular focus on those offering certification.

Our UX team is in its infancy, and still relatively small, but we’ve managed to establish a solid base of enthusiastic advocates in various areas of the business, eager to learn more and develop new skills. Because of this, we’re in the process of defining a new training syllabus, to help support the wider team as much as possible. In order to gain more sponsorship, recognition and  legitimacy for our advocates, within their respective LOB, a certified course could be a useful standard to introduce.

Our counterparts in North America have already adopted a certified course as their standard, encouraging all UX practitioners to take part. But, with the right resources, we could be better off using the training budget to develop our own curriculum, tailored specifically for our industry/LOB, and structured around our established processes, rather than something more generic. This would involve considerable effort and investment. You could also argue that keeping everything in-house puts a ceiling on our abilities and knowledge, which overtime could potentially deteriorate if the courses weren’t maintained.

Is UX certification worth it?

The issue we keep returning to is – how relevant would a certified course actually be? Would it provide significant ROI? And, although it may provide our practitioners with a greater degree of legitimacy, unless the certification is aligned with our processes its practical value would, most likely, be limited. In short, is it really worth it?

A few months ago a similar question was posed on UX Stack Exchange.  Having had first-hand experience of such a course, gaining ‘certified’ status in 2008/9, I felt well placed to provide an answer to the question. With the pros and cons still fresh in my mind I wanted to explore the topic further.

Why did I need Certifying?

I graduated in 2000, with a degree in Graphic and Interactive Design, and began my career at Deepend, a Digital Communications Consultancy in London. While there I was exposed to a new breed of people, ‘Information Architects’, who were strong proponents of ‘user centered design’. The concept was new to me, but made perfect sense, I wanted to know more. Over the following years I taught myself as much as I could, and tried to guide my career toward UX wherever possible. By 2008 I was working in a great agency, that openly supported my desire to progress further. I’d gained knowledge, first-hand experience, and was growing in confidence.  But, the more the agency grew (putting more emphasis on UX and by association, me) I felt I needed to validate the things I’d learnt, and supplement my formal qualifications with an industry recognised accreditation, or at least the nearest thing to it I could find.

The User Experience of getting Certified

The course I picked was divided into four parts; User Centered Analysis, Practical Usability Testing, Effective Design, and Research in Practice, followed by a final exam.

The 4 courses were certainly of use at the time. For the most part, they reassured me that my level of  knowledge was adequate, and helped to highlight and improve certain areas of weakness. Having formally studied Design, and not coming from a particularly research orientated background, the module on ‘research into practice’ was of particular interest. Although, the Design module didn’t seem all that great, and in hindsight made me question the quality of the other courses. If, as an experienced Designer, I didn’t rate the Design modules that highly, who was to say the other topics were any better?

Being Certified

At the time, the certification helped me gain recognition as the UX specialist within my agency, as well as the confidence I needed to fulfil the role. It encouraged me to have faith in my abilities, and provided me with various levels of support; be it from the course handouts, my notes, or the attendees I met along the way. When pitching to new or existing clients, it helped to define me as an ‘expert’, and arguably gave a fledgling service offering slightly more structure and gravitas.

For me, the impact soon faded. Today I’m still glad I have it on my CV, but I no longer feel it  bears much significance, it’s not something I consciously reference anymore.

Weighing up the benefits of certification

Positives

  • Helped to position me as a specialist within a team
  • Gave me the confidence I needed to fulfil a specialist role
  • Indirectly contributed towards winning new business
  • Arguably strengthened my CV when looking to progress my career
  • The topics covered were varied and helped fill gaps in my knowledge
  • Would be good as a recognised benchmark across a team with mixed abilities and experience

Negatives

  • Expensive if undertaking the whole course + exam
  • Any difference it made, when applying for new jobs, was most likely superficial – although I’m sure it would be of greater help if practical experience was limited
  • Attitude, experience and knowledge counts for far more, in my view
  • Some certificated courses are recognised within UX, but opinions are mixed – I’d question how much weight they’d garner outside of the industry
  • I had mixed opinions on the course material, and didn’t feel like my level of knowledge improved significantly

Certification vs. Bespoke training

For our advocates and aspirant UX practitioners, certification could be of use. But, I believe the return on investment is short-lived. Although each person who completes the course would gain knowledge, some basic skills and grow in confidence, there would have to be a degree of ‘on-boarding’ on our part in order to take what they had learnt and help apply it to our ways of working. Our ‘customers’ are senior managers and internal product owners, our ‘users’, the people sat around us. The apps we work on are all internally facing and highly technical. We work in an agile way, often constrained heavily by Business processes and  system architecture. To find externally run, certified courses, that easily  transfer to these challenges would be tricky.

Because of the environment we work in, I believe taking the time to develop a set of internal training courses would be of far greater value to us in the long run. Although this comes with its own set of challenges the benefits would far out way the negatives. It’s down to use to ensure that standards remain high, that we keep a handle on what’s happening outside of our bubble and make sure that any courses we do develop can evolve easily.

We’re very much in the early stages of creating a training plan, so there’s still time to back out if it begins to feel like the wrong thing to do, and if it doesn’t work out at least it’ll be an interest experience.

I’m really interested to hear other people’s opinions on specialist UX courses (certified or otherwise). Are you UX certified? Have you developed or taken part in in-house training? Would you do it again or recommend it to others? Please feel free to add a comment.

7 comments Write a comment

  1. My own background was a degree in human factors and a PhD in Computer Science, so comfortable with usability, research and testing, and UCD, but less strong on the graphical side. Never been UX certified, and strongly in favour of in-house training, not least as a way of normalising and sharing skills across the team. Designing and delivering training gives the person who does the design and delivery huge benefits – having to put your thoughts in order for someone else forces reflection and re-evaluation, and delivering training continues this process. Finally (as this is a longer post than I planned!) delivering training in-house makes it an order of magnitude easier to make the training relevant to ongoing work, which is often overlooked.

    • I have been considering the same thing for our team too. Our problem is seems to be the reverse as we are on the whole creatives who have had a wealth of practical experience in UCD and UX, (enjoying the legacy you built Paul!) but no theory to back up our thinking at times. We are also concerned that as our User Experience ‘team’ includes our Creative Directors, externally our UX offering can appear smaller/weaker.

      You’ve gotten to the heart of the problem, one that the US seems to have gone some way to addressing. There is no de facto standard that we can benchmark ourselves against or be recognised by clients with and so we have struggled to find a suitable way to improve our theoretical knowledge whilst having something to show clients as well.

      It is interesting to read the opinion of someone who has been through extensive training as it isn’t the rose tinted view I had assumed!

  2. I’m with Peter on this. Formal academic qualifications in HCI, Psychology, CompSci all have big value towards UX. Most US job descriptions now feature the line ‘must have a postgrad qualifications in HCI’, and this is something that the UK is quite quickly catching up to.

    A certification is a quick way to throw money and gain some relevant commercial training, and from the syllabuses (syllabi?!) I’ve read they tend to be very tool and technique focussed and much less about the underlying theory, as Damian has alluded to in his post. The supporting academic knowledge is missing and is most often a cornerstone of practitioner life (at least it is in my case). In the case of a design-led UX practitioner, they have the experience and knowledge from arts-related academia. In the case of a research-led UX pratitioner, they have the experience and knowledge from science-related academia. IMHO practitioners need to have one or the other, but not neither. Certification often papers over those cracks and produces individuals with the superficial techniques but without the deeper understanding. Just look at almost any LinkedIn group for evidence of certified cluelessness stumbling around blindly looking for the herd.

    In some respects there are parallels between UX and HCI. HCI is multidisciplinary and as such doesn’t really exist in itself – it is contingent upon the contributing disciplines. UX isn’t quite as multidisciplinary but there is a strong element of it. You need to have a specialisation to bring to UX, whether it’s Psychology, CompSci, Product Design, Graphic Design etc. My big issue is that there are lots of people without a specialisation who are using certifications to get ‘in the game’ who actually bring nothing to the party. In these cases not only are certifications of low value, they’re actually polluting the marketplace with noise.

    • Thanks for your comments, it’s interesting to hear other peoples opinions on the matter.

      I agree with you Nick that certification alone can be a dangerous thing, although the issue possibly lies with the agencies and companies who employ them. Having said that, from my perspective, we are in a situation where we don’t have the luxury of recruiting in talented, qualified and highly experienced UX professionals. Instead we have to rely on team members, from connected (but not necessarily directly related) backgrounds, such as Business Analysis or Frontend Development. In these cases the person identified as a UX evangelist or aspirant practitioner will usually have a interest in the field, but will need extensive mentoring, support and training in order to function at a satisfactory level.

      In this instance I think the argument for certification is that it allows us to get someone up-to-speed on the foundations of user experience, to a level that is clearly recognised, in order to advocate principles and ensure that UX plays a fundamental part in any development process. We wouldn’t expect them to perform at the same level as an experienced UX professional, but by equipping each development pod with an advocate we ensure that UX remains a pivotal part of any project. The point being that it is better to have someone with a little knowledge acting as a conduit to a small centralized specialist team, than to only focus on the small subset of projects the specialist team can manage themselves.

      Like Peter I’m an advocate of developing training in-house, for all the reasons stated. Like you I question the validity of someone who’s only background is a certification, awarded after only attending a relatively short course. By bringing the training in-house we can manage peoples expectations and ensure that clear benchmarks are put in place, so that they clearly understand how the training benefits them, what is expected of them and each level, and how they can progress in time.

  3. Nice article and comments guys…

    So to anyone who has done any certification, can you recommend a site or organization to start with?

  4. Excellent discussion!

    What I see more than anything today in business is the lack of UX-centered design. Implementing principles of UX design in the project life-cycle can bring tremendous value, but it’s clear to me that many organizations do not understand this. They typically relegate the design to technical personnel which usually results in a lack of innovation, bad UI design, and a stale user experience. I think this is changing for the better, but it is slow. I, too, am at the point of considering certification in UX to help in this regard and I really appreciate Paul’s perspective and comments. As for internal training, I have the opportunity to impact a large organization in a significant way by helping establish UX and UI guidelines in their development process. Anyone have any thoughts regarding the integration of different personality types and internal communication to facilitate this process? There will definitely be push back from what I call the “propeller heads” on the perceived “artsy fartsy” types. People are already questioning the integration and value that UX will bring…

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