Trying to find the UX-type accredited degree programs is often like trying to find a needle in a haystack. UX courses can be found in Psychology, Engineering, Business, Education, Design, Computer Science or other university departments and most will offer classes with titles like user-centered design, research methods, ethnography, interaction design, statistics and analysis. Some universities may also provide classes such as graphic design, programming, and measurement design. Specialized programs are often designated as Human Factors, Human Factors Engineering, UX, User Experience, Interaction Design, Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), or similar. The problem is that there is often little consistency from school to school regarding naming conventions of programs or courses, making it challenging to find navigate a path forward in this discipline. What’s more is that due to such inconsistencies, there are significant variations in degree titles. While UX centered bachelor’s degree programs are available in some disciplines, most university offerings are direct at post-graduate studies and certificate programs. When we hear UX, we often think strictly of design however UX encompasses many professional disciplines. The type of program students choose should be greatly dependent on the type of work they wish to do when they graduate.
One of the most established disciplines is the discipline of Human Factors. “Human factors is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data, and other methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance,” (HFES.org).
While it may seem that this discipline is new, the University of Michigan’s Human Factors program has been around for more than 59 years and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society was founded in 1957. Human factors, as a recognized discipline, first emerged during World War II when untrained civilians were required to perform jobs that were usually performed by highly trained experts, and when technological advances increased the cognitive workload of operating aircraft. For quite some time, human factors researchers were only found in the military. However, as more consumer products that seek to push the boundaries of human cognition creep into our everyday lives, human factors programs and others related to them, have become more prevalent in colleges and universities. Currently, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society lists 74 Human Factors programs in North America.
Human factors may have started with military applications, but today, students who study human factors apply their knowledge to medical technology, product design, computer-interface and web design, robotics, situation awareness, and accessibility. Because there are so many applications for human factors, it is not usually possible for human factors practitioners to also be experts in the many domains in which they practice. Consequently, university programs are often either highly focused in specific domains such as traffic safety or cockpit design, or they are highly interdisciplinary allowing students to work with subject matter experts in a variety of fields.
Current popular topics in student research include distracted driving and general cell phone distraction, drones and unmanned aircraft, medication management in the aging population, caregiver robots, gamification in education, gestural interactions, surgical training, email phishing attacks, labels for child restraints, election and voting technology, facial recognition, augmented reality, educational apps, online education and more (see: hfes.org). As you can see, the applications of human factors are as broad and varied as the types of interactions people have with products and technology. As with other disciplines, advances in technology, such as facial recognition and gestural interaction, or the appearance of safety issues, including distracted driving, influence the topics in research.
For students, selecting a program that will benefit their career in the near or long-term can be as simple as talking with a career advisor or researching job postings. Researching job postings can be instructive as to the types of qualifications being sought for the position and the types of positions that are in-demand. Students should discuss their findings with a career advisor, peers, and individuals working in the industry you would like to join. Recruiters and companies can also benefit by the rise in Human Factors studies by building a relationship with Universities to hire top talent and build teams strong in design thinking.