User Experience

The state of UX education in Montreal

Class Dismissed

In an interview published this week at, Jeffrey Zeldman noted the clear lack of coherent education for would-be web designers.

[There's a] phenomenal amount to do in education, because most of the schools that are teaching web design aren’t doing it right at all. They’re not teaching interaction design, they’re not teaching usability, they’re not teaching content strategy, and they’re certainly not teaching web standards. They’re looking at it as some kind of brain-damaged subspecies of graphic design. They’re telling them, “Well, you know how to use Illustrator, learn how to use Flash.”

This is something I’ve felt for a long time – particularly during those times when I felt like going back to school to “officially” get a degree in what I do for a living, which is UX design for the web. There’s very few places that teach it as such – a program in Sweden, a couple of master’s programs at pricey US schools. But with web user experience nearly ubiquitous nowadays — carried in the pockets of millions of iPhone users alone — isn’t it time for that to change?

Most of my peers in the UX community started out as graphic designers and transitioned into web and interactive work in the 2000s. Unless we were lucky to work with mentors who’d come from the rarified worlds of behavioural psychology or industrial design, almost all of us learned what we know about doing good UX work on the job or on our own time, for in the 1990s there simply were no ‘web design courses’ per se. We learned by making our first thousand mistakes in public, to borrow a phrase from legendary theatre professor Keith Johnstone.

Over the last 10 years, the level of knowledge in the UX field generally has grown by leaps and bounds. Anyone with a little cash and time can pick up a packet of O’Reilly or New Riders books that cover the practical foundations; there’s tonnes of free resources online to learn almost any software package or coding language you care to name; and there’s meetups like UXMTL and the UX 5-a-7s.

The reason I say generally is because, with very few exceptions, it’s nearly impossible to find a structured equivalent to most UXers’ educations within the walls of Montreal’s universities. The necessary knowledge for a growing, recognized field is scattered between multiple departments and multiple schools (across two languages, at that). A designer starting off today essentially has to still make the same 1,000 mistakes we did, because unless they’re motivated to learn and improve, no-one is teaching them what they need to know.

This is problematic. My UXMTL colleague David Rollert said in our first panel discussion that the state of UX knowledge in Montreal was five years behind the rest of North America — where’s our equivalents of Adaptive Path, Teehan & Lax, or Method? — an over-reliance on Flash, very little adoption of web standards, little knowledge of, or appreciation for, the value of user experience design in relation to products, services or brands.

Where to start in 2010? The subways are plastered with posters from technical and design colleges advertising ‘Web Design’ classes — usually as a bullet point somewhere between Theatre Makeup and Fashion Marketing — most of which do, indeed, concentrate on Flash. I suppose those are starting points and there’s always a market for that, but i doubt they really give you a deep foundation in the field.

Surveying university courses in Montreal, only one school offers anything close to a true undergraduate interaction design program; most talk about “multimedia” — which to me means a combination of watercolour, pastel and punched felt with graphite, but i digress.

This is my own not-at-all comprehensive tally, and if I’ve missed something, let me know in the comments.

  • At McGill, courses dealing with the Internet at all exist only in non-credit Continuing Education classes, and anything relating to Information Architecture is buried in the School of Information Studies. The School of Computer Science doesn’t offer anything regarding web programming or web standards, and nothing regarding human-computer interaction (HCI) or usability, to my knowledge.
  • Concordia’s Design program offers a very fuzzily-described “multimedia” class which seems to focus on 3D animation, a single 3-credit class called “The Language of The Web,” something called ‘Web Interventions’ — which sadly is not about rescuing bad sites What Not To Wear style — and one 400-level course on Interaction Design (but really more about how to break out of regular metaphors to do arty non-linear-narrative…stuff.) Then there’s the whole Computation Arts program which mixes all that into a nebulous fog of computer science, for a purpose I cannot readily discern. Their CS department does teach some modern web stuff but mostly back-end programming; there’s a diploma in Web Design available through the Continuing Education department, which gives you – and I quote – “indispensable skills needed to advance in today’s high-tech internet world,” teaching you to make Flash sites on Windows.
  • Université de Montréal’s courses in Web programming are only in its Continuing Education department (no online course descriptions or listings at all). It does offer a new Diploma in Game Design offered through its School of Industrial Design; they say they want to turn it into a full-fledged Interaction Design program at some undetermined future date.
  • Ecole Polytechnique has a diploma in “software ergonomics” which focuses more on traditional usability and HCI.
  • Only UQAM, out of all these schools, offers an actual Bachelor’s in Communications (Interactive Media) that appears to include a dose of IA and a good grounding in interaction design theory. It’s not particularly geared towards web production (and ominously mentions ‘Flash’ as something pros need to learn), but the basic skills are eminently transferable.

It seems like all the pieces are there, but no-one’s putting them together; without leadership in UX education, the next generation of Montreal web and interactive designers will start their careers at a disadvantage.

Should we in the UX community do something about this? If so, what, and how?

Thoughts? Corrections? Additions? Rebukes? Please leave them below, but play nice or you’ll have to sit on the naughty pixel.

Photo CC 2008 by Flickr user Axle.


4 thoughts on “The state of UX education in Montreal

  1. Part of the reason for this is because of the political bureaucracy of the educational system and the need to hire only Masters/PhD graduates in a field that’s about 10 years old. What this has only done is gotten Arts or Comp Sci professors teaching web design when they don’t know enough about the web. Also, this is a field that’s also continually and rapidly evolving as we speak. The type of ideal education for this field really is one that is willing to evolve and grow with the times, and professors that are willing to follow through.

    Once people get into their heads the multidisciplinary aspect of the web field and get these disciplines to talk to one another (in co-operation, not competition), the need to hire real professionals in the trenches to teach as opposed to highly-educated but under qualified profs, and the ability to be organic and flexible over the curriculum would there be any future.

    However, everything I just typed above might be antithetical to academia.

  2. I was going to this research myself, because I started wondering what the program advertised really taught. All creations from those students are filled with the aim to accomplish something beautiful. Mind you that they’re not all successful at it.

    However, there’s nothing about users in the creations.

    I don’t believe in one course. You can’t show all in one course. This matter needs a full fledge program like law school or medecine. Call it web school or whatever. I know I’m not exaggerating by comparing the web to such high profile institutions, because web education is actually late.

    As you said, everything is there, everything is scattered. Put it together and there’s an easy 3-year program or even four.

    I can foresee that one of the challenges is being to keep up with advances every year or even every month, but as people in the field, we’re already used to this and we know about it.

  3. ajkandy says:

    You both bring up the point of having information be out-of-date, which is true, the web is constantly changing.

    I would imagine that a 3-year UX course would start with foundations: typography, graphic design / info design, information architecture, design patterns, interaction design, documenting/wireframing, usability / ergonomics, probably a specialized behavioural psychology class, and an introduction to both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

    Later, students can learn specific implementation technologies and techniques (html/css/javascript, Flash, designing desktop software UIs, or designing interactions and experiences for real-world situations, etc.)

    Of course this also opens that “should designers be licensed” question….and then as Lea notes, who gets to control things, the design school, the CS/engineering dept, communication studies, etc.

    I would argue that it needs an all-new school, grant diplomas vs. degrees, and focus on lifelong learning, but that’s a topic for another post.

  4. mialohechung says:

    I just completed my degree in Concordia’s Design program and I’m now looking for a master’s in UX but wait a second … there is none!!! I’m really disappointed – isn’t Montreal supposed to be somewhat of a leader in multimedia?

    I don’t really want to go out of province and I definitely don’t want to go out of the country, so now I’m a little stuck and don’t know what the next step is. I want to specialize in UX, but I’m finding it really difficult to. Are books and online resources the only way to go about it?

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