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How to get into User Experience Design (UX) — applying for a HCI master’s degree (with no background)

My personal story of breaking into UX Design by studying Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at University of St Andrews

This article is divided in the following parts:

  1. What is HCI
  2. How to “build” an HCI background
  3. Applications
  4. Cover letter
  5. Academic References
  6. Go the extra mile

INTRODUCTION

One year before finishing my Bachelor’s in International Business I decided to “dip my toes” into UX/Product Design. Coming from a Business background, the idea of making such a change was scary at times. I even wondered if it was possible at all. Fortunately, one year later, I was accepted at the University of St Andrews and other top tier Universities in the UK.

My University of St Andrews postgraduate offer

In this article, you will find the advice I wish I was given when preparing my Masters applications. If you’re applying for an HCI Masters (in the UK or anywhere else in the world) and you have an HCI background or not, this article is for you!

HCI BACKGROUND

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is typically taught in Computer Science faculties (but not necessarily) and it is considered a hybrid technical degree. Hybrid because it combines 3 very different sciences: computer engineering, psychology and design. This combination of disciplines is one of the main reasons why I found it so attractive. As the former VP of People at Google Lazlo Bock once said: “The cool things are happening at the intersections of fields, not deep, deep, deep in a field”. Ether your background is one of these disciplines or none (which was my case), having a basic background in all of them is crucial to breaking into HCI.

“The cool things are happening at the intersections of fields, not deep, deep, deep in a field”

HCI is an intersection of disciplines

HOW TO GET AN HCI BACKGROUND

Many universities will say on their websites that candidates should come from a Psychology, Design or Programming background. In case you have none of these academic backgrounds or experience, the first thing to do is to email or call them and see if they consider candidates from your background. I found that many universities tend to say something like: “we do as long as you can show proof of your background in those fields of study”. Worry not. You’ll find a list of Universities that do accept different backgrounds in another article I wrote: “Best HCI Masters in the UK”.

So how can you develop a sufficient HCI background? The good news is there are many ways to do it. Here I’ll just mention a few that worked for me.

  1. Programming: Why not learning how to code? It’s not like you will need to know all the ins and outs of a programming language. A basic understanding of the language might be enough as long as you are able to create a few small projects that showcase your skills. This will allow you to prove your programming ability and show that you have the required background. A quick disclaimer: you’ll very likely learn how to programme during your HCI so the more you learn now the better for you. There are countless online resources to learn code, here are just a few: Codecademy, Udacity, Code wars, Free Code Camp, MIT OpenCourseWare, etc. Codecademy was my favourite as you learn by doing but have a go on a few of them and see which one works best for you.
  2. Design: Learning Design can be quite entertaining. You’ll have the creative freedom to build anything you want while you get the hang of it. For example, I often found myself designing room posters just for the sake of it. Regarding the tools you should learn, it really depends on what you are trying to create. Here are a few you may want to consider: Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects, Sketch. What also worked for me was to work for the Business Society of my university as the person responsible for the graphic design. This way I could apply the knowledge I gained and create content to showcase my design skills. Freelance work is also another good way to go.
  3. Psychology: There are many good books and online courses related to cognitive psychology that you may want to explore. Online courses have the advantage of providing you certificates, which you can always attach to your application documents. Coursera and Udemy are good places to start.
  4. HCI: You can always learn HCI. Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego have a really good course available on Coursera named: “Human-Centered Design Specialisation”. But there’s many more. Taking online courses are a good way to get a sense of what is like to study HCI.

APPLICATIONS

The unspoken truth about Master’s applications is that many of them are assessed on a first-come-first-served basis. Typically applications periods are long (some even 1 year long) so the way Universities found to keep up with applications’ flows was to assess them as they arrive. This is a fantastic opportunity since early applications have more chances to be accepted than later ones. I have seen many students being rejected from master’s programmes because they applied late and many other students with apparent weaker applications that got in. Because they applied earlier! Peak times tend to be closer to the application deadline and applications get more competitive. It’s all about supply and demand!

“Early applications have more chances to be accepted than later ones”

I saw in this an opportunity so I started my Masters’ applications way before they were opened. I prepared everything over the summer in order to have time to think through my value proposition and gain the skills required. One of the big advantages was that I never felt like rushing things up because I had no university endeavours at that time.

COVER LETTER

Almost all applications require a cover letter. Many universities don’t even ask for a CV so this is really the only way to stand out and help them see beyond your GPA. Some universities like Warwick or St Andrews are even known for the importance cover letters have in accepting candidates. So here are a few rules of thumb I used when writing mine:

  1. Be relevant. Every phrase must contain relevant information that sells you as a great candidate. Don’t write vague sentences. No exceptions.
  2. Why me? Explain in detail what were the reasons that made you apply. This is the opportunity to showcase that your cover letter was written specifically to that University. Think about the modules they offer, is there a specific one that you wish to take? Are there any research opportunities? Is there a renowned academic that you wish to get in contact with during the time you’ll be studying there? Detail is key.
  3. Skillset. Since HCI is a technical degree, you’ll have to demonstrate you have the necessary skills to learn Human-Computer Interaction at a postgraduate level. More details on this can be found on the “HCI background” part (above).
  4. Feedback, feedback, feedback. I showed my cover letter to more than 15 people. Different people see things you don’t, add suggestions you haven’t thought about and help you correct your mistakes. So think about friends, family, the careers services of your university, professors, colleagues. All of them can add something and by the end of the process your cover letter will look much better and you’ll naturally feel more confident about it.
  5. Be different. Many of the cover letters will have the same structure and possibly sound the same. So how will you stand out? This is a question you’ll have to ask yourself. Will you differentiate yourself by designing your cover letter? By writing an unconventional introduction? Be creative but make sure it is in a suitable format.
  6. Fall in love with it. Ask yourself, “is this the best piece of work I could have done? Is there any way of improving it?” A good rule of thumb is: If you haven’t fallen in love with your cover letter, it’s because it’s not good enough yet. — by this, I don’t mean to be over-perfectionism but instead to have a high standard of work.

PROFESSORS’ REFERENCES

When it comes to references, keep in mind that every year professors get several requests for writing them. As so, many professors have “standard reference letters” that they use when recommending students. These letters are typically too general and whoever reads them can tell straight away they were not customised for you. As so, try to avoid this reference letters as much as you can. Think about professors you have a good relationship with or the ones that seem more likely to actually take the time and effort to describe you in a detailed manner to your prospective university. In addition, keep in mind that your professor may not write it straight away. So when asking him/her for a reference do it ASAP! I personally asked for my references 1 month before the applications even started.

GO THE EXTRA MILE

This is my favourite part! I am a big advocate of always doing more than expected because you have to stand out from the crowd. This is especially true if you don’t have an HCI background. For me, that was creating a video on After Effects explaining why I was a great candidate while at the same time, I was showcasing my design skills. But you can do it in many different ways. A great example is William Brazel. He was a student looking for a graduate job and, in order to stand out, he printed an enormous CV and stand at the entrance of his dream company HQs and only left until he spoke to a recruiter. The point is, be creative and bold! Going the extra mile will get you where you want to be.

👋 Let’s be friends! Connect with me on LinkedIn and follow me on Medium for more Design-related articles!

✌️ Product Designer. I share my current thoughts and learnings about Design, Product and Tech, follow me to stay in the loop

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