Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

How To Find a Job or Graduate School in Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction, or Industrial Design

(Updated July 2012 from an earlier essay on finding a job.)

I'm frequently asked how to find a job or a place to study, either in industrial design or user-interface design (Human-Computer Interaction). Rather than answer it anew each time, let me summarize my answer here.

The basic question goes something like this:

"I am a student (or someone who is very excited by this field, but without experience) and I want to now how to get started. How do I find a job? Do I need a graduate degree? If so, where? ..."

The answer is simple: You either need real work experience or a graduate degree, or both. I cannot tell you what to do. Good advice has to come from someone who knows you, who knows your interests, training, and skills. I cannot acquire that in an email message or two. So, seek out knowledgeable mentors where you live. Seek professors that you trust. Go to meetings of societies (see below). Read magazines and journals to learn who is doing what, where: then write to those people about their work.

To get real work experience, you need a job, and most jobs will require you to have had either real work experience or a graduate degree. The technical term for this situation is "Catch 22.." Sure, try to get a relevant job. But think strongly about getting an masters level degree.

There is yet another catch: Most design schools require previous design experience and a design portfolio for admission to their graduate programs. But if your training has not been in design, how do you acquire a portfolio? And what can you do about your lack of training?

All is not lost. Start by spending time on relevant design websites: SIGCHI, HFES, IDEA, core77:

·       SIGCHI Special Interest Group in Computer-Human Interaction

·       HFES Human Factors and Ergonomic Society

·       IDSA Industrial Design Society of America

·       CORE77 An online magazine on industrial design.

There are many other sites, but these are the ones I use the most. Although they are all based in he United States, all have pointers to international organizations. And, mind you, there are many other relevant organizations -- this is simply my recommendation for three good places to start. All have many good suggestions. All have conferences, which are good places to learn, to meet people, and to search for jobs. Many allow students to volunteer and thereby attend the conference for free.

On each site, look for the list of local chapter meetings: Those are excellent places to meet people, to ask or advice, and possibly to find your first job.

All have valuable lists of other relevant sites: especially see the HCI site list at http://www.hcibib.org/hci-sites/

Schools

The best way to learn about schools is to ask others where they went to school, to visit school websites, and to visit the schools and talk with the faculty, staff, and students. Trust the students a lot more than the other sources.

Lists of relevant schools are available at:

·       http://www.hcibib.org/education/

·       http://www.hfes.org/web/Students/grad_programs.html

·       http://www.idsa.org/webmodules/articles/anmviewer.asp?a=118&z=49

Note: These lists are incomplete. Thus, a school I recommend highly, IIT's Institute of Design is not on any of these lists, because it isn't a traditional school for either HCI, Human Factors, or Industrial Design. But it is still one of the top-rated schools in the world for designers. See their website at www.id.iit.edu.(Disclaimer: I am a member of their Board of Overseers.)

There are many other great schools. For HCI, try Carnegie Mellon's' Human Computer Interaction Institute. For modern design, there are the Hong Kong Polytechnic, London's Royal College of Arts, The Technical Universities of Delft and of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. The University of California, San Diego's Cognitive Science department provides a theory-based approach to design (I was a co-founder and first chair of this department). Don't stop with this list: There are far too many schools for me to list. There are specialized schools in design, industrial design, experience, and interactive design, and graphics design. Usually these are in stand-alone schools or in Schools of Design in traditional universities. Human-computer interaction is usually found in departments of computer science or psychology in traditional universities.

Note however, that traditional schools of design concentrate upon drawing and model-building, with little instruction in or understanding  of human-centered design or interaction. I do not recommend them. If you want to design a chair, they are excellent. If you want to design a city, or a health-care system, or even a medical device that requires integrating technology, interfaces, and an understanding of how it is to be used and by whom, then I cannot recommend traditional art-based design schools. (See my essay on Design Education.)

Schools are expensive. Most take a minimum of two years - some take three if you start without the appropriate background. I cannot help you here. The cost is high, but graduates consider it worth it. Over time, you will regain the expense in enhanced salary and job opportunities.

It isn't easy to get started. This is especially true in design where the discipline is not yet well established and many companies do not yet understand why they should be hiring designers and then, who to hire.

But consider these hurdles to be positive signs: You are entering at  the beginning of a new era in design. You will have to struggle to get established, but you could end being a leader.

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