Why is there such a disconnect between graduates of UX educational programs and the senior leaders and hiring managers who assess if a candidate's work is good enough? Educational programs most often act as cheerleaders, praising the student's work, telling them their portfolio looks good and that they’re likely to get a job after graduation. Those with years of industry experience then review these grads' portfolios and, too often and too clearly, see a lack of proficiency.

How can one group say the work is great while another group finds the work poor? The answer is in the Delta CX model, “Phases of Proficiency.”

delta cx phases of proficiency

Phase 1: Building Blocks

Building Blocks are tools and tasks. Axure, Figma and Validately are tools. CX/UX tasks include card sorts, personas, user flows, interaction design and prototypes. Building Blocks are our “what.” They are easy to learn and do in the building blocks phase. You used Adobe XD. You dropped information into a customer journey map template. You interviewed customers and asked them questions. You put sticky notes on a wall and made an affinity diagram.

These seem easy when we’re not assessing them for depth, quality, science or technique. We can check these tasks off the list and say they were done. The building blocks phase of CX/UX is what leads many people to incorrectly believe that these tasks can be done by anybody. But in fact, approaches like lean UX, design sprints and design thinking are misleading people to believe anybody can do CX/UX work proficiently. 

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Phase 2: Science and Technique

Science and technique are the “how” or “how well” of what we’re doing. They move past the mechanical act of performing a task, and look at the quality, depth, style and approach to the work done. Science and critical thinking turn a task or tool use into a technique.

Interviewing customers is a task — a building block — but did you ask good or bad questions? Now we’re getting into technique. You did interaction design (a task), but did you create a completely accessible experience? You ran a card sort (a task), but did you interpret it correctly? You learned Gestalt Principles (a concept/tool) but how are you applying them?

Synonyms for “skill” include strength, accomplishment, expertise, mastery and experience. I’m not a carpenter, I can use a hammer and a saw, but not like a senior carpenter does. I’m not even at the junior carpenter level, I’m in the building blocks phase.

Most hiring managers will be assessing candidates based on this phase of proficiency. How you did something matters.

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Phase 3: Strategy

Strategy is “why” or “when” you would use certain building blocks, as well as how long these are likely to take, given the science and technique that will be applied. Strategy is also about evaluating and prioritizing tasks. When would I do a card sort? When would I do interviews versus observational studies versus a survey? These are part of the strategic approach to your project.

The Reason for the UX Grad–Hiring Manager Conflict

Recent UX program grads might be good at building blocks. They can make an empathy map, plug ideas and guesses into a persona template, and talk to customers. But most bootcamps, university programs, and self-study leave out the important science and technique phase. When veteran CX/UX practitioners complain that these programs only scratch the surface, they’re saying it’s not enough that students learned building blocks without science and technique.

Learning Opportunities

Some programs are completely missing important building blocks. Did you learn what Agile software development is and how teams work together? UX programs that spend a lot of time on coding or visual design are probably not giving you enough CX and UX building blocks (and certainly not the strategy and technique for these). That hurts the student in the short- and long-term.

Related Article: Is Google Still Defining the Best User Experience?

Answering the Inevitable Questions

The thoughts above won't make some recent grads happy, so below are responses to some of FAQs. 

“Can’t we learn by doing real work?” Will you be doing this work with a mentor or coach who can make sure you are understanding and applying science and technique? Or will you just throw around the building blocks you know? People hiring you to freelance or do free work for a charity expect their mission-critical work to get done correctly if not expertly. A cancer charity can't afford CX research done badly or web pages guessed at, even if the work is free.

“Can we say that bootcamps and programs are OK because some people do get jobs after graduating, but you really need to lower your expectations and do more self-study?” Why should anybody pay thousands for low expectations or a program that doesn’t make you ready for a job? If you really need self-study, then why not start with a coach, and avoid the bootcamp time and money?

“Why did my school tell me my work looked great but recruiters/hiring managers/UX veterans tell me I’m not ready for an entry-level job?” Your school’s sales pitch was it would make you job-ready. It has a horse in the race, and is unlikely to tell you (assuming it noticed) that your level of proficiency is still quite low. Experienced practitioners who don’t want to just give everybody gold stars will look at your work objectively. Even if you haven’t leveled up to the strategy phase, they will be looking for your science and technique. An interviewer asking about your project is hoping to hear about your science and technique, not for you to list the building blocks you used.

Refocus on leveling up your abilities with an expert coach in your corner. Ultimately, jobs are looking for proficiency, someone who can hit the ground running on mission-critical work. A portfolio showing science and technique — telling the story that you can do a junior job with depth, quality, and great critical thinking — will stand out. Hopefully you get that interview.

No matter how you are learning, work on leveling up the science and technique of what you do.