So you’re ready to break into a new and exciting career in UX design. It’s time to take a deeper dive and gain knowledge and experience in the whole of the design process. But what’s the best way to gain that knowledge and experience? Through a UX design bootcamp or a design degree?
Traditionally, a university degree was the best way to go in just about any field—proven, respected, and even prestigious. But the tech industry’s ever-evolving and practical nature gave rise to a non-traditional route that’s also proven effective: the bootcamp. You don’t need a tech- or design-related degree to break into UX. There are countless UX designers who have come into the field from seemingly unrelated backgrounds—with or without university degrees.
In the contest between a design degree and a UX bootcamp, the playing field is a level one—the route you choose really does depend on your needs, goals, and budget.
That said, there are pros and cons to both, and a number of factors to take into consideration. Let’s dive into these details. This guide will give you a clearer picture of the benefits and potential pitfalls of design degrees and UX bootcamps—as well as what to look for in the the learning experience you decide on.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What do you actually need to land a job in UX?
- What is a design degree, really?
- What is a UX bootcamp?
- The pros and cons of a design degree
- The pros and cons of a UX bootcamp
- Degree or bootcamp: Which is right for you?
- A final word
1. What do you actually need to land a job in UX?
Like many other parts of the tech industry, UX design is an intensely practical field. While theory certainly has its place, and an understanding of design principles will keep your work grounded in proven methods, you won’t break into the industry by merely theorizing or philosophizing about what users need. You’ll land a job in UX by demonstrating that:
- You know how to connect with users—talk to them and observe them to understand what they need, what they want, what they feel, and where their pain points are
- You’re adept at a variety of user research methods
- You’re a pro at synthezing your research into actionable takeaways and distilling it into deliverables that help others on the team and in the company to understand and empathize with your users
- You’re fully capable of turning research into ideation and ideation into practical design solutions that address users’ problems
- You can build your solutions into working prototypes and detailed wireframes
- You can manage multiple tasks while keeping organizing, on track, and in good communication with others involved in your projects
- You’re fluent in a variety of UX tools and that you continuously learn and stay on top of the trends
Learn more about the core UX design skills, the non-design related skills that make for a great UX designer, and the best UX tools. Then find a learning experience that will help you cultivate a well-rounded skillset.
Don’t get us wrong: design theory and principles are important to becoming a well-rounded UX designer! There just needs to be a heavily practical application of those theories and principles to really attract potential employers and clients.
And employers are more interested in what (and how well) you can do than how you learned to do it. So in deciding how you’ll learn, the most important factor is what you’ll take away from the learning experience—which means that you have the freedom to pick a route that fits well with your learning style, budget, and other obligations (family, job, etc.).
2. What is a design degree, really?
A design degree is typically offered by an accredited institution (a college or university). As with other academic degrees, it’s a solid way to very quickly assure potential employers that you really know design—especially in theory and, depending on the degree program, also in practice.
Design degrees end with an official academic diploma that’s awarded after the successful completion of a set of courses, each taught by a knowledgeable and credentialed professor or instructor, who assigns readings, exercises, and grades. Most degree programs will offer you some selection in the courses you take, too, giving you some variety and the ability to customize your learning to a certain extent. What you learn will likely encompass a broad range of design areas with a focus on human interaction design, user experience, or the like.
A traditional design degree might take anywhere from two to four years to complete. Though many are in-person, through “brick and mortar” institutions, there are many universities that offer online design degrees that you can complete from anywhere—though where you live often impacts the tuition you pay (if you are in the same country or state as the institution or if you live elsewhere).
We’ll get into the pros and cons of a design degree in a moment. But first, a quick look at UX bootcamps.
3. What is a UX bootcamp?
A UX bootcamp is a shorter, usually more intensive program of study that’s focused primarily on a set list of topics and assignments designed to equip you with the practical skills you need to land a job. They are typically offered by companies or organizations outside of traditional academia that specialize in tech-related training.
Bootcamps can take anywhere from a week to a year to complete, depending on how in-depth the curriculum is, how much mentoring and feedback you receive, and how much the program can fit around the rest of your life (versus putting everything on hold for a period of time to complete intensive training). What you’ll learn will be more specifically focused than a university degree—with learning materials and assignments targeted to teach you how to conduct user research, ideate, and create key deliverables. A good bootcamp will also include expert mentorship, portfolio critique, and job preparation.
After you complete a bootcamp, you’ll have a lot of practical experience, (preferably) a polished UX portfolio, and a certificate of completion that you can include in your LinkedIn profile or application packet as evidence that you’ve proven your UX design mettle.
4. The pros and cons of a design degree
As you consider these pros and cons, it’s important to remember that the quality, scope, and outcomes of any degree program will depend on how each institution designs their curriculum, what kinds of educators they hire, and what teaching principles they follow (especially for distance learning). That said, here are some pros and cons that are true of most design degree programs.
Design degree pros:
- Expert instruction
- Longer, in-depth learning experience, often with built-in collaboration with other students
- Structured learning and formal feedback (grades)
- An accredited credential, possibly from a prestigious institution (depending on where you go), that looks impressive on your resume
- A deeper dive into design theory and principles
- A broader taste of the world of design (not just related to UX)
- Some ability to customize your learning
Design degree cons:
- More expensive than other routes—highly dependent on the institution and what kind of credential you’ll graduation with (certificate or a full Bachelor’s or Master’s degree)
- Less transparent pricing (administrative fees, books, tools, materials, etc.)
- Admission isn’t guaranteed—you have to be accepted by most institutions
- Location is a factor in tuition prices and not all degree program are available online
- Takes longer to complete
- Time commitment is usually higher per course
- Teaching and feedback styles vary by professor/instructor, so how engaging the learning is and how comprehensive the feedback will depend on the institution and the professor
- Sometimes a risk of learning materials that are not current to the needs of the industry
5. The pros and cons of a UX bootcamp
As with degree programs, there is a wide range of variation from one bootcamp to another in how they handle mentorship, how they design and update their curriculum, and more. In general, though, you’ll find these pros and cons applicable.
UX bootcamp pros:
- More affordable than most traditional degrees
- Faster to complete
- Clearer and more comprehensive pricing (fewer hidden costs)
- Usually intensive over a short period of time or flexible over a longer period of time, so you can complete it without quitting your job or juggling too much between work and family
- Often available for online/remote participation
- Focused on practical skills and competencies that are currently in-demand
- Learning from experts expert who are actively working in the field
- Strong focus on what you can take away from the experience to show employers
UX bootcamp cons:
- Can be very intense and time-consuming over that short period of time
- Online bootcamps can feel isolating with a lack of collaboration or conversation—takes more effort and intention to connect with fellow students
- Lack of deep learning in design theory and principles
- Quality and value from one bootcamp to another can vary, so it takes more research to find the best UX bootcamp for you
- A certificate of completion might hold less weight with more traditional employers
- If a bootcamp is not specifically designed for active learning and mentorship, it can take extra work to make the most of the experience (reaching out to an experienced designer or fellow student to nurture professional relationships)
- Less ability to customize your learning (though there are exceptions in programs that offer additional courses or specializations)
Now that you’ve got the pros and cons of each, which option is right for you? Keep reading for insights on how to make that decision.
6. Degree or bootcamp: Which is right for you?
When you look for UX schools or certification programs and bootcamps, the number of options can be overwhelming! Thankfully there are some ways to immediately narrow your options, and some criteria you can take into consideration that will help you make a decision.
Which route you go with should depend very much on what kind of time you have, what your budget looks like, and what your goals are. Let’s break it down into several different factors.
One clear determining factor is location. If you need to keep your job, and that job doesn’t allow you to relocate—or if you have other location-specific obligations—that will immediately help you narrow the number of options to the ones that are geographically close to you or available online.
If you have the freedom to relocate, you might want to take other factors into consideration—in-person training isn’t guaranteed to be a better experience than an online one.
A second factor that could help narrow the field is what kind of focus you want your learning to take. If you want a broader and deeper dive into design (including, but not limited to UX), a traditional degree could be an excellent fit.
If you have a knack for the big picture, and for thinking strategically, there are programs (accredited degrees or otherwise) with a focus on strategy and design thinking in business—such as the one-year immersive program at the Austin Center for Design or the program through the MIT Media Lab, which is completely free to applicants who make it through the rigorous selection process.
If you want the hands-on, daily design experience and learning that’s entirely focused on what will get you hired in the field, we recommend looking at either a bootcamp or certification program.
Duration and time investment
Training duration and time investment is another factor to consider.
Some programs stretch out over months at a sustainable pace, allowing you to keep your day job and take care of the rest of your life. Others take a few years and require more time on a weekly or monthly basis. Still others are a week or month long and allow for very little else in your day-to-day. There are really so many variations.
It will be a matter of researching to find out which programs involve a time commitment that works for your life. If you don’t mind investing years, a degree program could be a good way to go; if you’re on a tighter timeline, a bootcamp is your best bet.
Now let’s talk budget. A degree program is the more expensive choice (varying widely between five and six figures, depending on the institution), with a lot typically going into your tuition, books, materials, and administrative fees. This makes the exact cost of most degree programs a little unpredictable. Most degree programs will also offer you some choice of courses to take so that you can customize your learning and follow your curiosity—but this also results in some variation in the total cost of your education.
Bootcamps are typically much more affordable (from a few hundred dollars to $10k for a high-end certification program).
If you’re on a tighter timeline and your budget won’t allow for a degree program, remember that you can complete a bootcamp and then continue your learning by reading design thinking books, listening to cutting-edge UX/UI podcasts, and attending conferences and meetups.
Curriculum design and mentorship
Curriculum and mentorship are two other factors to consider that can make a huge difference in the quality of the learning that takes place.
In fact, if you take a design degree program that doesn’t take care to provide excellent instruction and feedback, and compare it to a bootcamp that offers continuously updated curriculum and pairs you with your own expert mentor who you can talk to about the industry and the specific projects that you’re working on—one clearly offers greater value in terms of the knowledge and experience you’ll take from it.
Because of the practical nature of UX design and the ever-evolving nature of the tech industry, it is essential to find a program with content that is current with the industry, learning materials that will work well for how you learn best (video lectures, hands-on exercises, reading materials, etc.), and individualized mentorship.
It’s one thing to have an expert leading a course; it’s another thing to learn from someone who 1) knows what they’re doing as a UX designer, 2) knows the industry as it is today, and 3) knows how to teach. These three traits don’t always go hand-in-hand, and they’re essential.
Regardless of whether you go with a design degree or a bootcamp—you need to learn skills and tools that are relevant to the industry. And without specific and conversational feedback from a seasoned expert, you might as well just work through some reading lists and video tutorials. Those are great resources to have, but they’re not enough to help you make the jump from tech newbie to UX design pro.
The good news is that there are design programs and bootcamps alike that check these boxes off perfectly.
7. A final word
There you have it: design degree versus UX bootcamp. By now you should have a better understanding of what they are, as well as the pros and cons of each. The direction you choose really does depend entirely on your needs and goals and what you want to get out of the experience.
Don’t let anyone tell you that either option is ineffective or not worthwhile! Both offer tremendous benefits and both have their downsides. Find out which will work best for you at this point in your life and career and then dig a little deeper to find that one school or bootcamp that will get you where you need to go.
If you’d like to learn more about how to choose your training path in UX design, here are some other articles you’ll find useful: