Design Leader Insights - Christopher Nguyen on the Shortcomings of UX Education

March 19, 2024


Alex Smith: Design Leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX. Fuego UX is a leading UX research strategy and design consultancy. Hey Chris, thanks so much for joining the show. 

Christopher Nguyen: Hey man. How's it going?

Alex Smith: To get started can you give us a little bit of context about your journey in design? 

Christopher Nguyen: Of course. Yeah. So I am a business graduate, so no design background and I started in 2013, but before that it was like bumbling around, just trying to figure out what I was doing. And actually I got started in my design journey in Vietnam when I moved here in 2013. So it was not only a new place, a new career as well. So that was very like, oh, crazy. But I got into it from digital marketing, really designed my first website for a friend in Wix. And then designed my first like corporate website using Keynote, which is that presentation tool on the Mac. And it kind of snowballed from there. So my, even my first product design job in 2015, I didn't actually know what UX was. I was like, oh, there's a word design on it. I'll apply for it. And someone gave me an opportunity. And that's actually how I got into the industry. So it was super random, no formal education. And it's just me trying to figure it out. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, that's awesome. And tell me a little bit about what you're, what you're doing now in the space?

Christopher Nguyen: Yeah. So I'm working on UX Playbook, so it's my take on UX education. And I think this kind of brings us nicely to the topic.

Alex Smith: Yeah.  

Christopher Nguyen: So yeah, let me just talk a little bit more about UX Playbook. So UX Playbook is my attempt to make UX education more accessible with playbooks, courses, and coaching. Cause I think those three things is what makes most education more accessible. And hopefully affordable to the folks out there. 

Alex Smith: What's up with UX education? I know it all like blew up during COVID. Lots of, lots of courses online, lots of big camps. And then obviously still like the venerated CMU programs, University of Washington, like the four year degrees. And then a lot of just self taught people, right? Like what, it seems like it gets all over the place. What's, what's good and what's bad about that?

Christopher Nguyen: Yeah. So, for me in my perspective coming up as a self taught designer I think UX education is broken. It's super confusing to get started. I mean not just back in 2015 or whatever it was, but even now, like nine ten years later is still like what the hell do I do, right? I think for folks It's really hard to get started because they don't know what they don't know, right? That's the Typical way when you're trying to learn something you just kind of figure out a little way, but also because that design is such a visual thing people see the output of our work, but they don't necessarily see the what's behind the scenes, right? There's also no, like, clear sort of path or progression. Companies have tried to do that, but it's not something like architecture, for example, right? You go to university and then you get your license and then you're there. There's nothing like that in UX, right? And as you were saying earlier, there's a bunch of ways to learn. So, free courses, paid courses, universities, and then your boot camp that could cost you tens of thousands of dollars. So like, if you're a student trying to get into the field, it's all muddled. What do you do, right? Like, all of this stuff that we just spoke about. The second point I have, around why UX education is broken, is that there's no real world preparation or there's lack of it. There's not enough for us folks in the industry to be like oh, yeah people coming out of whatever program they're ready to get to work. It's just not that right and here's what I'll give you three points under this. The first one is a lot of the theory talk isn't practical. So you're talking about the design thinking process, right? The happy path. Do this, then this, then this. Well, we know that design in companies and with clients, it never works like that. If it does, then hook me up with that job. It just does not.

Alex Smith: Yeah. 

Christopher Nguyen: And sometimes you have to like backfill the data, right? You have to navigate that messy middle. You drop into something and then you work backwards or forwards and it's just like that squiggly line illustration that you always see, right? And a simulated environment similar to like some types of user tests, it's just not that good. Right? You're just getting the answer framed in that situation. And it's just and similar to that education; it's education in a bubble. Not really real life. And then the second point here is kind of just focuses on the skills they think you're meant to have versus how to get into this career and be successful in this career, right? They might teach you how to build a portfolio. But they still struggle to get you jobs, which is surprising because a lot of these bootcamps, they even have career counselors and they even guarantee that you'll get a job after doing it. But a lot, yeah, exactly. And that's complete BS. Absolutely. Right? And we know that because the landscape has changed so much from before COVID to after COVID, like, how can you actually teach these things unless you're actually on the ground versus just running your education company? We're trying to fight back the crappy education, the broken education, the one that you paid for, that guaranteed you this role, like, you're not getting this unless you put in the actual work, right? And then I think the last point is not real world preparation is that they don't teach you the soft skills needed to be successful, right? This whole like storytelling, how to empathize with people you're designing for, how to effectively pitch, how to critique delivering and receiving feedback then persuading and engaging with folks. And then my favorite one is like facilitating. How do you lead a group of people to a common goal, which is what you know, I think is so important as a designer. It's also one of our superpowers. So like just lack of that In this world of bootcamps and paid courses, they don't teach you that stuff.

Alex Smith: Yeah,I want to respond to that before we go into how, how do we fix it? I think I totally agree. I think there's like the hustle part that's left out. Like you, you actually got to go like in UX as well. You're going to have to go like, you're going to have to fight for, for UX for product teams. You're going to have to fight for access to users. You're going to have to go interview those users. They're not always going to be happy people. That part's also left out. And I think there's that grind part of like, how, how can I get creative about getting that job? How do I get in front of the people that I can spark an interest and say, hey, like I could actually like improve the designs for this company. Like, like there's so many tools out there, like LinkedIn hustling and getting those interviews that I encourage a lot of those designers to think about, right. But yeah, how do we, how do we fix this Chris, or, or how will it be fixed? 

Christopher Nguyen: Here's how I would fix it. So it will be very small classes. It would actually be a reverse internship or an internship of sorts. So it will be me as the product manager, but also the designer or the coach. And it'll be two other designers that join me. They'll have to have some knowledge of ux like design their own products, reading a bunch of things and trying stuff, right? So some experience is required for this model, but then we basically work within my company and I have, let's just say one or two engineers and we get together every week and we try to ship a product in less than four weeks or at least a feature. So what that does is it gives you real like product sense of like what we're trying to do, but also the urgency of like, hey, we have to get this out. Yeah, exactly. Because that's real, right? That is not just some, you know, simulated environment. And then also like, why are we doing what we're doing? Well, we're trying to bring in revenue, right? We're trying to grow engagement. Like there's real metrics behind it because we can't be doing this forever and just burning our resources. And then me as a coach, because there'll be like, oh, okay, well at least they can follow someone who has been there before, so this kind of mentoring coaching approach I think really works. And then obviously the development and the engineer is because they have to also navigate those real world technical constraints of what can be done. If we're trying to ship something, you have two weeks to design it and two weeks to ship it. You better not spend like three weeks on user research that just doesn't work. That kind of model. And then the other piece of this is if you ship real product, that's amazing cause there's that impact there, but then you can, you know actually measure the success of it because a lot of times these portfolios and, and people coming out of these things, they're like, I can't show impact. It's a fake project, right? It's like, well, because you didn't do the real work. So then you get to iterate on something that's real, but also say, hey, I've actually launched something and I've got like real feedback, not the one that we did in the empathize phase, but something that's actually on the market. So I think that kind of real world environment of, of interning but more purposeful in terms of like, what are the lessons we want to teach? Because I think a lot of internships out there, they just drop them in and they're like, okay, you just sit there in a corner and shut up. Right? And, that's not an effective way of learning, right?

Alex Smith: Chris, what advice do you have for these new designers entering the field today? 

Christopher Nguyen: Dude, I am glad you asked, and it's not going to be surprising because you have to do the work, right? So the only tip for people starting is you have to design a lot. You have to go through the process as many times as you can until you're like super comfortable to set up impromptu user testing sessions, analyzing that data, producing prototypes, iterating quickly, and then most importantly, get something out there, launch something, use Framer, use whatever no code tools you have and just get something out there. I think that's the sort of best thing you can do for your career because you can actually show tangible proof. That you did it without having to go through a course, right? If you just do that, repeat the steps of doing the thing, I think you'll get there. 

Alex Smith: Chris, where can people go to find more about, about your courses and follow you? 

Christopher Nguyen: Sure. You can check me out on LinkedIn or actually all the socials. U X Chris N G U Y E N, so you can just search that on Google and you'll find me, or, you can hit me up there. 

Alex Smith: Alright, sweet, well thank you for staying up, I actually have no idea what time it is in Vietnam, what time is it there? 

Christopher Nguyen: It's like 11. 30. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, well yeah, thank you, thank you for staying up for this, I really appreciate it, and yeah thanks for coming on the show.