Mastering user experience

ASU now offers master's degree in latest digital field that touches everything we do with technology

User experience faculty Poly


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In the digital age, we’ve all been down the maddening rabbit hole of a bad user experience. When the user experience, or UX, isn't intuitive and well-designed, people leave, never to come back, like cats avoiding a house where small children live. 

And in a world where retail e-commerce is predicted to become a $4 trillion market by 2020, bad user experience is death for businesses.

Arizona State University now offers a master’s degree in the field, as well as several undergraduate options.

“User experience is everything,” said Christina Carrasquilla, a program faculty member and lecturer in graphic information technology. “If it’s not functioning right or if you’re pushing it and you’re not getting any response or things aren’t where you think they should be, you’re having an experience that’s outside of what it was meant to help you with. … Industry is just starting to realize that it’s the overall experience that has the bigger effect on our product or service than the thing itself.”

The master’s degree is a combination of three fields that overlap and were already offered at ASU. User experience is a cross-disciplinary field, composed of graphic information technology, technical writing and communication, and human systems engineering.

“It’s an opportunity for us to bring them together and give a more well-rounded education to these students,” lecturer Susan Squire said. “The students are out there getting jobs. There’s a high demand for these jobs.”

Some companies call them researchers or architects or developers. Google calls user-experience engineers project managers. “All of us call it something different, but we’re all talking about the same thing,” Carrasquilla said.

Companies are hungry to improve their user experiences. They know they’re not meeting customer needs, and they don’t know how to improve the experience. Many aren’t even sure who does that type of work.

“Everyone sort of plays this game of Not It,” said faculty member Andrew Mara, an associate professor who teaches technical writing and communication.

Coming in as the face of a new field can have its own pitfalls. Grad students in the program will be prepared for what Mara calls the “'Because I said so’ moment.”

“When you’re in these board meetings, everyone thinks they know what the user really wants and it’s a (competition) over who’s higher up on the org chart,” he said. “Actually demonstrating with data, and how you present that data — that’s convincing. Not just a chart of numbers, but what’s the story? How do we make it real to everyone in that room so it’s not about egos anymore?”

There are a lot of angles to come from: color theory, design theory, stories people tell about the product, psychological insights.

“That’s one of the things we want to arm our people with is how you best present your work,” Carrasquilla said. “‘Users really like this.’ But employers don’t typically care about what users like or how they feel, but they understand ‘This is costing you money’ or ‘People aren’t coming to buy our product.’”

They cited Amazon as a business with an excellent user experience. It has a ton of information, but it’s easy to find things. User experience is more than a well-thought-out website, though. Even if you’re on the web, you are still in a place — at your office or on a bus or a restaurant. Ever go to a website at the office and some horribly inappropriate ad or video begins blasting?

“If it had been decided with a user-experience person in mind, they would have said: This is a website that’s most likely to be visited by a person at work,” Carrasquilla said.

Eventually it won’t be called the user experience, Mara said. It will just be the way business is done.

“You have to,” he said. “If you don’t address real needs and real wants from people using your product, you won’t survive.”

Only a handful of colleges teach user experience. There’s a marked need for senior positions requiring five years’ experience, but few people have that much under their belts.

Some of the graduate students who have enrolled for the fall are already working in the field, said Carrasquilla. Some of them have quit full-time jobs to enroll in the program. “They are like, ‘No, I need this. I’ve been looking for this. I’ve been looking for something, but nothing fits the bill,’” she said.

“We just want to put them back in the cockpit for a couple of years so they can take what they already know, expand on it, get a vocabulary for it, learn how to talk to people and lead a team, then get back out and develop the industry,” Mara said.

Eventually the master’s degree — which is offered jointly through the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering — also will be available online.

Top photo: Associate Professors Andrew Mara and Claire Lauer and Assistant Professor Stephen Carradini (right) demonstrate on Aug. 7 how the Tobii Pro eye-tracking software works that is being used in a UX research experiment at the Polytechnic campus. The new user-experience degree will allow students to become prepared to work in user-experience areas of research, user-centered design, information design, usability analysis and more. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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