Michael Berg, a senior program manager at Microsoft, completed the Certificate in User-Centered Design in 2005 and the Master of Science in Human Centered Design & Engineering in 2009. In this interview, Michael shares how his UW education helped him build a career in the user experience field.
Can you tell us a little about your current job?
I work in the operations team that supports user research at Microsoft. Essentially, we provide the resources for the folks who are actually conducting user research in the labs or the field.
We design, build and upgrade the actual lab suites. We source participants for profiles, screen them and schedule them to come in for studies. We handle the legal stuff and archiving, and we create process around new research projects so the researchers can focus on the research.
Did the Certificate in User-Centered Design influence your career path?
I got my full-time job at Microsoft as a user researcher after I finished my second quarter in the UCD certificate program. I got the job 100 percent because of the UCD certificate and what I learned there.
How did the certificate program help you stand out in the job interview?
I think it was the passion that came out of the classwork and being able to talk about the discipline, methodologies and reasons for methodologies. People at Microsoft kept saying the thing that made me stand out from the other candidates was it felt like I had my finger on the pulse of what's new, what's current, what's upcoming in the field of usability. I got that knowledge from the certificate program.
The HCDE department really pushed us to get involved. You'd constantly hear people say, “Join societies. Get out and do conferences. Go to talks. Go to meetups.” So I was actually involved deeply, quickly. I had been to a couple of conferences already, just after two quarters. I think I got my job because of that, too.
Why did you decide to earn a master’s degree in this field?
I knew almost from the start that I wanted to continue on to get my master’s. I just loved the UCD content so much and wanted to experience more of what the department had to offer. I was less concerned with career trajectory than I was with seeking a wider range of skills.
What would you say is the main difference between the certificate and master’s programs?
The brilliance of the UCD certificate is the tightly integrated and highly applicable nature of the courses. After one academic year you emerge genuinely able to employ a user-centered approach in a very practical way. It gives you an effective toolset that is still in very high demand in industry.
The master’s degree takes that robust core and fleshes it out. The master’s program exposed me to the theoretical underpinnings of the applied knowledge I got from the certificate program. So you come away not only as a practitioner, but as one with a deep enough understanding to justify your approach as a professional. My skills evolved, too, and I emerged from the program as a more well-rounded and effective practitioner.
Do the students in the certificate and master’s programs interact?
The environment is highly collaborative and without boundaries between the programs. This means you’re exposed to a wider range of backgrounds and experiences in the courses.
In other programs you just don’t get the diversity of opinion and experiences that you do in an HCDE classroom. Part of this is the very broad audience the HCDE programs attract, but part of it is the mingling of programs across classes and directed research groups.
Do you think having a master’s degree is valuable for a career in this field?
I’ve seen a number of alums from the program turn their master’s degrees into an effective launching pad for careers in design, research and content publishing. The local market for UX professionals tends to fluctuate a bit, but, all in all, it’s been very robust in the past decade, and an advanced degree certainly makes it easier to get a job interview and can help you be more effective in the interview.
I think having the HCDE master’s will make a difference for me in the long run as well. I’m in a unique role, but I hope to spend more time in the lab in a future role. Having the master’s degree will certainly make it easier to move to such a role. If nothing else, it’s already allowed me to teach in the program, which is an experience more rewarding than anything I else I’ve had.
What was your directed research group like in the master’s program?
The group included certificate students, graduates and undergraduates – so we had people from all across the program, which was very cool. There was a team at Microsoft that didn't have any user experience specialists or usability specialists, and they were looking for advice on how to move the Help system for Windows Phone 6.5 and 7.0 to a more usable experience.
We performed a lab evaluation and heuristic evaluations and presented findings for how they could move the Help system forward. It was a big project. We were taking what we’d learned in a classroom and applying it for a real client who had real challenges.
How was the directed research group experience helpful in your career?
We saw the politics behind what the developers had created and what was tested in a lab, and then we presented in front of people who were invested in the findings in different ways. That was very powerful.
It was a pretty cool experience to work with this audience who really cared about what you had done as a school project and was approaching the topic in different ways. It absolutely prepped you for professional life.
What were the instructors like?
One thing the instructors brought was passion, absolute passion. They had passion for the industry and learning and for seeing others excited about that learning as well.
I also think a big advantage is the diversity of [instructor] backgrounds. I took classes from instructors whose core interest was cognition, others who were specialists in linguistics or the semantics of language or interface design. They dovetail very well, but they are conceptually very different things. We kept learning from such different perspectives. I think that gave us a much more fleshed out sense of the material.
What did you find most valuable about the experience?
One of the best things about the program is that it doesn't sit still. The department is heavily engaged with the community and the advisory board in looking at where the discipline is going. This is a cutting-edge, fast-paced discipline and it tends to morph and shift, and the department's done an amazing job at staying on the forefront of that.
What advice would you give someone who is trying to decide between the certificate and the master’s program?
Both can help you get a job in the field. No question about that. What I see these days, though, is that while the UCD certificate can get you a job in a smaller or less established company or UX program, you really need the master’s to get a job with a company or team that has been around longer.
So, the certificate is a great option if you are looking to take on a UX role at a startup or a smaller company, and there are a ton of great local startups in the Northwest right now. But to work as a UX professional at a company like Boeing, Google or Amazon, you really need to consider the master’s degree – especially if you are making a career shift and don’t have other UX experience.
For me, the certificate got my foot in the door, let me gain additional experience and then let me return for the master’s at a time that made more sense and with my employer supporting my education through tuition reimbursement.
From your experience in the field, how do you see the job outlook for people thinking of entering it?
I keep hearing it's red hot. There are so many announcements about really cool job positions around town that are open. I think more and more people are seeing the competitive advantage of the type of work we do. The HCDE department's reputation is just growing and growing.