The Worth of UX Certification

The Worth of UX Certification

Episode 60 | Metric - The User Experience Design Podcast

The Worth of UX Certification

Happy Monday, everyone. On my first podcast in a year, I interview friend-of-the-show Tim Broadwater, a UX Master Certificate recipient, about the value of User Experience Certification. This covers everything across the diversification of UX roles, leadership and management, and -- of course -- Scream Queens.

I edited the transcript for readability, but you can listen to the much more entertaining audio or bookmark the transcript for later at or look for "Metric: The User Experience Design Podcast" in your podcatcher of choice.

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Michael: Welcome to a new season of Metric — the User Experience Podcast Michael Schofield here with podcast-favorite Tim Broadwater, who was cool enough to make himself available for my return from hiatus. This is the first podcast I’ve recorded, Tim, since — gosh — May. How’ve you been?

Tim: Thanks for having me. I’ve been great. I haven’t done anything with you since the Spring so, this is — yeah — it’s rusty.

Michael: Caveat to anyone who’s tuning in — we’re super rusty. I’m lucky that I even got setup. It’s been rough! Like, I started a new job, and then summer — and I always take the summers off even though I never announce it. I’ve got some podcasts that I’ve recorded way back in May that I just need to edit. I’m kind of like psyching myself up to dive into that, but I think maybe this season will be the season that I hire an editor.

Tim: Get some assistance with your technical debt.

Michael: I’m telling you the ums and the y’knows and the uhs and false starts …, a 30 minute podcast is like a three hour editing job just to sound presentable.

Tim: Yeah there’s a saying: “technical debt creeps up on you.” That is a fact of life.

User Experience Certifications

Michael: So at some point since the last time we talked, there is a thread [I was following] about the role of certification and degrees in user experience and service design positions. It got me thinking about you, because you are, I think, the first person I have met to have a Nielsen Norman Group User Experience Certification — but you may also be the only person I know who has that.

Tim: This Spring, I actually completed a 3 to 4 year goal of mine, which was to get my UX Master Certification. So, I have three specializations as well as the UX Masters Certification, which is 150 hours of grueling UX courses, and I say grueling because they all have exams and you get two strikes you’re out to get a certain percentile on the exams, and it’s from the Nielsen Norman Group, which is one of the oldest UX consultancies out there. I mean Adaptive Path is fantastic, and Fuzzy Math, and you know there’s the Baymard Institute , and a lot of others, but NN\g’s kind of internationally known, and has the most years behind them.

It was kind of a goal of mine to go through and get one certification — my second — and then get my third master’s certification.

I was born in 1977, and so when I went to college (laughing) we learned printing press, and you know we actually had toaster Macs, which were like the little screen and that thing underneath, and you would just have like a floppy drive, and UX wasn’t even a word.

Human computer interactions happened over the course of my life, and like a lot of people I think around my age I went from graphic design to multimedia to web to front-end dev to user experience — or somehow through that route — and got to UX over the long run and are grandfathered in.

So, now, there are college degrees and there’s probably more emerging certifications and courses and bootcamps and resorts and trainings. It’s something that I wanted to do, and it also kind of worked out with, you know, what was available at the time.

Michael: I have to admit there’s a part of me that’s been interested. I’ve made user experience design something I identify with not just something I do for the last few years.

Lack of standard vocabulary and curricula

A lot of the talks I do involving putting forth a practical vocabulary for just how to talk about user experience. You use the term that people are kind of “grandfathered” into the user experience role, and it’s kind of funny that in the Practical Service Design community, it’s continuing to happen: you have product managers who became user experience managers who are now service design managers.

“Grandfathered” almost sounds like a very forgiving way to describe survival of the fittest. They’re adapting their titles for relevancy, right?

There is this quote by Jess Leitch and she’s talking about service design but it’s something that I like and she says — here I’m going to misquote — that the practical discipline of service design is negatively impacted by our lack of a consistent vocabulary.

I will argue that the status of Service Design and its impact as a professional field is impacted by the absence of a single consistent definition of the area, the wide spread of professional practices and the varied backgrounds and training of its practitioners. — Jess Leitch, What is Service Design?

This is true for whatever design we’re talking about — user experience especially.

When it comes to something like certification or actual degree programs, when you contrast it against degree programs that have existed for more traditional Academia where you know what you’re going to get when you emerge with an English degree or there’s a certain standard of practical achievement in any of the sciences, my question for the certification in user experience or a degree program is: what does that say about the person who completed that program?

For those of us who are on the other end, who might be hiring these user experience researchers or designers, what should we be able to expect that they can do? What should be our expectations of somebody who has a bachelor’s or master’s in UX — or a certification in UX. I’m not sure that there’s a standard curricula.

Tim: There definitely is not. But there is the standard which is user data.

In the last two positions I have worked, I’ve actually worked alongside of people who have graduated from an undergraduate or graduate degree in UX or humans computer interactions. It’s kind of interesting, because I’m picking their brain to figure out what is it that you actually learn.

They get much earlier access to like existing tools. So an example is, you know, I’ve worked the last two positions like I said with someone who’s actually graduated from that and they were using remote user testing in school. They were actually in school using UserTesting or User Zoom. They have looked at analytics, like Google Analytics or Adobe Target.

They looked at accessibility concerns as well as heat maps and kind of all the things that kind of came out over the course of 20 years that we learned and picked up for different jobs that had to perform those roles.

I think both are valid. It’s kind of that age old argument of like well is having a college degree important versus skills.

Speaking to that, I went through a degree in art and commercial design, ended up doing a lot of web development, and front-end development and came to it through my career. A lot of the students are going through the programs now and they get some code. They get design, they get user data, research, kind of all put together, which is kind of the weird kind of salad. And what I mean by “salad” is like you know you have tomatoes and croutons and lettuce and that’s all the kind of skills that are involved in UX.

Diversification of UX roles

There seems to be this thing, like, “why aren’t we coming to this great convergence of what UX is or what terminology to use?” What I notice the most is that it’s doing the exact opposite. It’s becoming diversified and it’s being more spread out.

I’ve gone to some conferences before and people are just like, “I’m just a UX researcher. I don’t do design at all. I just crunch statistics and numbers and look at the analytics and I provide the data” — and that’s valid. UX researchers are positions. Google is hiring them.

UX designers are probably the largest, [making up] I would say 70 percent of what jobs there are in the UX field. They’re like “we need someone who does UX but someone who does UI design as well, because we need both,” and hence why you have a lot of UX designer positions — but then UX Dev is now growing. I have friends that work at Adobe who are UX developers, my current job is somewhat of a UX developer, and it’s common as well.

So, instead of having this nomenclature, the field is adapting itself to how it needs to be. And so you have librarians that do it. You have business analysts who do it, project managers and product managers who have knowledge about UX, and I just see that happening more and more.

I think what’s going to be rare are jobs that are just like, “I only do UX research or I only do UX design.” People recognize the value of UX, and it’s the new hotness right now. Companies throw money at UX consultancies because they understand the value of it.

Michael: It’s a slow drift to user experience being a core competency. The point is that everybody is capable of seeing especially now that there’s better data about how good user experience in name your field is good for that field. So what that means for whether or not you’re into the user experience of healthcare or retail or …

Tim: — health care is probably the industry that needs UX the most right now. I swear. I mean healthcare is probably in the 20th century right now.

Michael: Here’s a tangent, but you know there’s some benefit to those healthcare stalwarts for you know kind of encouraging and continuing with their poor UX because where there’s poor UX there is an an anti pattern that like feeds back into those systems.

Tim: So someone is using Google Calendar for example and then they’re trying to set up appointments with their doctor through a patient portal. It’s got to be aggravating for a user.

I may have not answered your question, sorry, in regards to the certification!

Ask yourself: what is it that you need for your career?

Like the only certification I can speak to …: it is not this kind of thing like I got my paper I’m bonafide now that kind of thing. But there are tracks and I think it’s kind of encouraged [to ask yourself] what is it that you need for your career, not just your specific job?

The “UX Leadership” path

One of the most exciting things that I see right now is the UX leadership path. Only in the last handful of jobs have I actually a handful of positions and places I worked where I’ve been a part of a UX team and I know a lot of people are the UX team of one — which is a good book by the way if you’ve never checked out the User Experience Team of One [by Leah Buley through Rosenfeld Media].

So, it’s a little different dynamic when you have like a team of six or a team of four UXers that you work with, because there’s different strengths as well as different understanding of what UX is to them.

You may have a UX team where all one person wants to do all day is just design UI, where another person is just your researcher: all they want to do is create test scripts and analyze and visualize data to user studies, whereas other people are more about, “I want to work with project managers and clients and stakeholders.”

One of the courses I think that was at the last UX week at Nielsen Norman Group was becoming a UX strategist, and it was really looking at the profiles of your UX team and whether you are stepping on each other’s toes as UXers.

How do you help and empower each other and grow UX’s value in your company or organization? For someone who’s like, “well I’ve never a) wrapped my head around being a manager, [let alone] b) wrapped my head around being a UX manager even though I was doing UX for years.” That’s a whole new dynamic that I think needs to be considered.

And then there’s when you start thinking about omnichannel UX and service mapping and service design and how do you get from user to development like going from user interviews to empathy mapping to as-is mapping to needs statements to Jira epic tickets.

There’s no degree out there that that is going to be that specific or have that track of perspective. And, so, I think that’s where the certification kind of comes in, it’s like well what is it that you need to learn in your career and how can this best help you, because you know we’ve been doing it for years and by we I mean NN/g.

So, that’s kind of the value that I see with this certification. It’s kind of supplementing the education and experience.

Michael: Well, I don’t have any counter argument (laughing) — like, oh (!), well sold! Podcast over.

Tim: I mean one of the things that I was interested in taking is this omnichannel UX because the last place I worked was in e-commerce on a UX team. And it’s like, well, if we’re sending marketing emails and there’s an in-store experience that we need to service map, and people can buy online and pick up at the store, but then they can use the app, or they can just use the website, and then we have social media.

We have all of these ways that the customer can interact with our business. Do we have a chief experience officer, who is over this? You know who’s actually concerned with the experience on the omnichannel experience.

Well I think you’re seeing a lot of CXOs now, too, chief experience officers.

Michael: Oh, sure. I see that kind of business awareness creating a lot of the new service design roles — “service design” maybe moreso than “user experiences design” might just be a good vocabulary fit for these businesses that are trying to describe this oomnichannel touchpoint.

Tim: Vocabulary is different from company to company, higher-ed, non-profit, to corporate America, Fortune 500 to small business. What people refer to CX or UX in one place is totally different from another. I’ve worked at a place where CX is generally like every way that we’re touching the user with our products and how they can communicate with us. Whereas in another company it was like CX is actually just our surveying team that does intercepts and gets verbal feedback. All they do is voice of the customer — that CX.

Michael: I’ve been in situations where you distinguish CX — the customer experience — from the user experience. In retail, especially, the customer is always right — but the user isn’t. Your choice of word here sets the tone for the following process. Again, it’s just descriptive of the complexity. You know, it’s not getting easier, it’s not getting more standardized.

Tim: It’s creating more complex and it’s more compounded.

There’s just as many drawings that say UX is a part of CX. I’ve seen the inverse where CX is just a part of UX. I don’t tend to think of it that way in regards to graphs or drawings. I don’t think anything is easy to summarize in a graph.

If anyone has ever worked in data visualization they’ll know what I’m talking about, because I think of it more sort of like user data channels. We are seeing what the user is doing through analytics or test and target clicking, if we have a way for them to talk to us either through voice of the customer surveys, e-mails, contact us, help. We also have compliance there in regards to accessibility.

We can put remote users through data scenarios and testing scenarios, but we can also do moderated in-person users, so we can get a little bit more in-depth, and then any type of marketing research or statistics that we have I consider that all user data and user research, which is what I do and what I’ve done in every kind of job.

And so if it’s Google Analytics or Adobe, test and target, or it’s compliance share, or if it’s going to be using Qualtrics for surveys or using an intercept tool like for intercept surveys, or you know they’re all kind of the same thing.

Who are we going to make responsible for accessibility and who are we going to make responsible for user data and who’s responsible for design and who’s responsible for CX. It would be fantastic if you had a team that could do all of that, but generally I see that pushed in the direction of, like, “well send it to the UXers.” And I think that’s what we all kind of have in common and what some of I guess some of these trainings or certifications are for.

You know I don’t know that much about accessibility, so I want to take some certification or some courses on accessibility. Someone else is like, “I don’t know anything about design, I can comb through them and visualize data like user data but I don’t really know how the best practices to build for an app.”

And so all of these diversified courses from the certification fill — as you say — the business need gap that you may have.

I would say to someone like you — because when you asked me as like, “ Hey, what are your thoughts about doing a podcast and talk about certification,” because you were interested in it — I would actually look at NN/g’s UX weeks because they do them all over the country and all over the world. So find one that’s near you. But then look at some of their tracks and their courses to see.

I mean they’re not paying me at all.

I wish they were! I would totally totally get tons of money because I totally think NN/g’s UX weeks and certifications are a great product and worth investment. But I think really think about it from the context of, like, what are you missing or what do you need to learn about more in-depth. And so that’s the perspective I would look at it and what I would tell you.

Michael: I came into this not interested in throwing shade but a little skeptical. You know I still feel the burn of my English degree weighing on my student loan debt.

Tim: Yeah. Why throw another 1K for a course?

Michael: And of course I guess if you could get like an employer to pay for that then sure. I think there’s something attractive about the rigorousness required of an NN/g as opposed to maybe something else that implies its quality. I think there’s something attractive just about the name of Nielsen Norman group. If I’m not mistaken Don Norman coined user experience or certainly made in-roads …

Tim: The fields of human computer interaction, yeah you’re quite right.

Michael: Word. Yeah.

Tim: So like I’ve done both. I’ve actually had an employer help pay for it and then also I’ve paid for it because I saw the value in it and then I will claim that as a tax deduction. Totally. Because for workforce development improving my job and I can definitely do that.

I actually checked that of course before I did it.

But I mean it’s like I saw the value enough where it’s like well I can drop this if I know I’m going to make it if I can claim it on my taxes for my job. You know so that’s why I did it.

Where Tim plugs another podcast

Michael: Very cool, well thank you so much for taking the time to swing by old Metric Headquarters. Is there anything you want to plug before we go, anything you’re working on, anything you want to draw attention to … — even just a Twitter handle.

Tim: I will plug this, because it’s another — you know your podcast is great — if people have not checked out the User Defenders Podcast. If you’ve never heard of it you should totally check that out, because it’s something that I’ve been listening to for the last year now.

What it is, it’s a podcast where it’s very much like this. It’s one person, but the guy interviews people from the UX industry that have all these different slants: so here’s a guy who does UX for e-mails in the UK, or here’s a woman who does UX engineering for another company, where here’s a guy who does UX design work.

It’s just kind of two people sitting down and talking about UX and it comes from a superhero kind of perspective because he always asks the people, “if you had to tell people what your superpower is, what is it?” And it’s interesting that to hear these people’s responses.

Twitter handle is Tim-underscore-Broadwater [psst: it’s @uxbear] not really doing anything right now just living the dream.

Michael: Tim, what is your user experience superpower?

Tim: Yeah I kind of thought a couple times how I would answer that. I would have to say I like data visualization.

You know I love data visualization. I think it’s one of the ways that you’re putting a deck together for people where you can do this user study or you’re actually building data visualization as part of the product like it’s something that I really really kind of enjoy it.

I think I can create understanding with stakeholders and clients through data visualization.

Of course, we talk about Scream Queens and American Horror Story

Michael: Last question: what problem do you have with Game of Thrones? Because as soon as the episode last night — we’re recording on a Monday — was over, I saw you say something kind of hateful.

Tim: Yeah. So there’s this ongoing conversation I have at work with our U.X. team and developers about how much Deus Ex Machina is in Game of Thrones for me so happy. So basically like characters that you love are about to die. You’re like great. They’ve they’ve been killed three times they should die and they just bring them back and you’re like come on this is totally for ratings at this point.

So yeah if you do follow me on twitter you’re going to get a lot of American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, Scream Queens kind of stuff.

Michael: I love Scream Queens! I just finished American Horror Story Hotel I’m a little bit behind but — .

Tim: There’s a whole thing about that that compares the Windows operating system. That every other one is great but then every odd one sucks. It’s just like everyone loves XP but they hate Vista but then they love 7 and they hate 8 and it’s like everyone loves murder house and they hated this asylum but they left coven but then they hated Freak Show. So I don’t know. It’s probably like a psychological bias or that it’s probably like every other thing you like or dislike.

Michael: Alright man will have a good night. Thank you again for swinging by!

That has been hopefully not the last episode this month of Metric the User Experience podcast. If this is something you dig like, star, heart, favorite, leave a positive rating. You can subscribe just about everywhere ❤.

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