My students at Center Centre recently conducted a usability study for their client project. During the study, they had a long day of usability testing—four participants in one day.
Students planned the day well. Despite planning, multiple things went wrong, as they often do during usability testing.
Early in the day, a participant arrived 30 minutes late. This disrupted the schedule for the rest of the day. Then, audio technology failed during a remote session. Students had trouble hearing the participant. Later that day, another participant told students he couldn’t attend his session, and he canceled with just a few minutes of notice.
By the end of the day, students were exhausted. They learned a lot about what can go wrong during usability studies, and they learned how to adapt to the things that can go wrong.
Three Levels of Learning UX Design
Learning by doing is a critical piece of learning, and it’s not the only way to learn. As you learn something, it’s often useful to gain foundational knowledge of that thing first, practice it in a safe environment, and then apply it in a real-world setting.
Through my work as a faculty member at Center Centre, I’ve come to recognize three levels of learning UX design:
- Fundamental knowledge.
- Practice projects.
- Actual projects.
All three have a place in your learning journey. Understanding the value of each level will help you approach learning UX design.
Fundamental knowledge is what you gain when you start learning a new skill. At Center Centre, we often refer to this as “book knowledge.”
Fundamental UX knowledge is something you can gain on your own, without taking a class or a formal training program. You can acquire this knowledge through free or affordable sources like these:
You can also get book knowledge through formal training options if that’s your preference.
It is usually a good idea to learn the basics of a skill before applying that skill in a project. Book knowledge provides you the basics. It gives you a foundation for deeper learning.
Book knowledge only gets you so far. It won’t give you real-world experience. It’s also easy to forget book knowledge. To remember it, you’ll need to apply it to a project shortly after you learn it. That’s where practice projects come in.
Practice projects let you apply your foundational knowledge in a safe environment. What I like about these hypothetical projects is that you can use them to focus on specific skills. For example, after you read a book about prototyping, you can create a prototype for an imaginary organization to practice the basics.
During these theoretical projects, you can develop skills without the disruption of the real world getting in your way. There are no external pressures on you like a change in deadline, the sudden departure of a colleague, or a manager requesting changes in the middle of a design cycle.
Hypothetical projects may vary, depending upon how you do them. At Center Centre, our practice projects usually focus on one skill or one set of skills at a time. Some UX programs have practice projects that focus on many skills at once, such as information architecture, user research, and interaction design.
After hypothetical projects, the next step in learning a UX skill is through real-world projects.
The real world is messy. Budgets, timelines, and office politics are just a few things that present challenges at your UX job.
You’ll need to learn to navigate that mess. Real-world projects let you do that.
If you’re building a prototype for an actual client, you’ll probably face constraints you wouldn’t encounter during practice. For example, in a real project, you may have to use a prototyping tool that’s not a great fit for the project because you don’t have the budget to purchase new software.
You may have to create the prototype without real content because your team forgot to develop actual content earlier in the project. You may also have to deliver the prototype a few days earlier than planned because of unanticipated schedule changes.
The real world is full of unexpected events. Real-world projects will give you some unexpected events to navigate. Working through these problems is how you gain skills that make you hirable.
The challenge of real work experience is that it’s the hardest experience to get. As a career shifter, it’s much easier to acquire fundamental knowledge and do practice projects. You’ll need to work with real users, real budgets, real deadlines, and real stakeholders to gain actual experience.
Learning with the Three Levels in the Real World
Speaking of the real world, you won’t always have the opportunity to move through all three levels of learning. Ideally, you’ll start with fundamental knowledge, move to practice projects, and then do actual projects. But this ideal may not be your reality.
For example, at your UX job, you may need to create a high-fidelity prototype in very little time. You may not have the opportunity to practice using a new prototyping tool before the work begins.
When you have the time to progress through the three levels of learning, it will benefit you. I’ve seen the value of moving through all three levels with my students at Center Centre. We base our curriculum on these three levels of learning.
Before my students did their usability study, they acquired fundamental knowledge about user research. They learned about usability testing through workshops and early curriculum work. Then, students practiced observing usability tests and moderating tests during their independent, made-up projects.
After practicing, my students applied what they learned to client projects. They gained desirable, real-world experience when they adapted to the unexpected events during each client project.
Know What Learning Level You Need
When you know what learning level you need to reach, you can design your path for learning UX. Perhaps you’re a senior UX designer, and you’re curious about a new, emerging skill. You want to understand the basics of that skill. Fundamental knowledge will probably satisfy your need.
Perhaps you’re a UX career shifter, and you want to learn new UX skills to apply on the job. Starting with basic knowledge, then moving to practice projects and real projects may be what you need.
If you’re seeking formal training in UX, you can determine what training programs will help you get to your desired level. Will the programs get you to book knowledge and no further? Will they provide practice projects or real projects?
Go Forth and Learn
I believe the most meaningful learning takes place when you do the thing you are trying to learn. Before you do the thing you want to learn, it’s usually best to gain foundational knowledge and practice that thing, so you’re ready to learn it in a realistic setting.
Whether you’re looking for formal UX training or teaching yourself UX design, there’s probably a UX design skill you want to learn right now. How will you approach it after reading this article? What learning level do you need to reach, and how will you get there? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks to Thomas Michaud and Laura K. Johnson for their help with this article.