Is User Experience Training The MBA For The Information Age?

I dated my first boyfriend for 5 years.

I’m in a fulfilling relationship with another person now, but the above fact is relevant because my first boyfriend watched me during a key period of growing up. Therefore, the stories about how he observed me are a long-lasting piece of my story.

One of the jokes he used to make about me was the Career Barbie joke.

I now realize that this joke was actually quite condescending. He turned out to be a bit of a closet misogynist, so it adds up. I was 17 at the time and I didn’t know any better.

The joke was that I resembled Career Barbie: a different interest every day. I wanted to be a linguist, I wanted to be a banker, I wanted to be a Broadway star. I wanted to be a songwriter, I wanted to be in advertising, I wanted to be an economics researcher.

These weren’t just ideas. These were actual goals that I worked towards for some period of time. I prepared my audition, including 6 months of dance lessons, for the musical theater program. I worked at Bank of America for two years. I dropped out of a graduate economics program.

Designer Barbie

I reflected back on the Career Barbie joke for the first time in years this past weekend. This was because in one single weekend, I consumed the entire Become A User Experience Designer track on Lynda.com.

I’m working on a handful of new products for both Do Big Things and Caldera WP. I’ve known for a long time that design is my weakest link in my personal toolkit, and I sincerely believe that usable interfaces are going to become the differentiating factor in a technology world that will be automated much faster than any of us think.

I had a very expensive 12 hour problem, so I gave it 12 hours of my time.

What I saw might have changed me forever.

What I Saw

I fully expected to get a little crash course in interface design. Perhaps we would go over Sketch, or Adobe XD. I would learn new terms and acronyms for how to think about how people interact with technology.

The first section was about careers in user experience design. I considered skipping it, after all, I’m just here to get enough context achieve my goal of launching successful products well. I don’t need to be an experience designer. But, Lynda.com gives you a little badge for completing their Learning Paths as prescribed, so I watched it.

I think some user experience design worked on me.

I see a very professional-looking guy start telling his story. He has a social science degrees, and an MBA. Ha! What a coincidence, I thought. So do I. He proceeds to talk about user experience—little did you know, he says, user experience is more than interface design. It’s also visual design, service design, information architecture, content design, information design, and technical communication. It’s also user research, accessibility, human factors, business strategy, content strategy, and customer experience.

Wait, what?

I watched this video again and my eyes got really wide.

What You Learn In an MBA Program

An MBA program is all about two things: strategic management for long-term competitive advantage, and building your connections.

My courses were about the different chunks of a business entity and how they fit together. The idea is that if you can learn a little bit about how each part of a business works, you can make decisions about how it can achieve long-term competitive advantage.

For example, some of my class titles were:

  • Supply Chain Management
  • Operations Management
  • Information Systems Management
  • Global Marketing
  • Intercultural Communication
  • Research & Development
  • Markets & Economic Analysis
  • Business Law

Contrast that list to the list of UX careers. To me, they looked really similar. I was like, “this guy just described an MBA for a software product business,” I thought.

There’s a big “but,” however. In my business school classes, the recurring theme was “things are really changing, though. We don’t really know if our previous frameworks are going to work for the newest applications, and finding the newest frameworks will be your job.”

On the other hand, the big “but” of the professional-looking guy in the Lynda.com video was, “don’t try to be a generalist. Specialize.”

Should I Get An MBA?

I’ve gotten this question a lot because I’m a product person that has an MBA. I mostly get this question from business owners who wonder if a little more “business know-how” would increase revenue and help them compete better.

Jury’s still out, in my opinion, but I tend to say I don’t really think it’s worth it. I have to keep working on these videos, but I think I’m starting to migrate to “no, you should get user experience training instead.”

We all know the world is changing. That’s old news. Technology is evolving faster than we can develop educational programs for it, colleges are struggling to keep up and the financial cost involved with higher education makes it seem even less worth it.

Part of what I learned in business school is that consumer power has increased dramatically in recent years. Humans started documenting advertising techniques and management science about 60 years ago. We were trying to explain the Industrial Revolution.

As soon as we figured out how to explain it, everything changed again. We got sick of salespeople. We became immune to mass advertising. The definition of “cost of goods sold” fell apart, or at least became pretty murky, in a knowledge economy.

But we know one thing works: good products that solve real problems. In the last episode of WPMRR that we recorded, I said to Joe, “I’m one of those millennials that business researchers hate. I’m killing casual dining, I’m killing fabric softener, I’m killing the commute to work.” I don’t want to do anything—or buy anything—that isn’t perfectly suited to my needs. Why? I have more consumer choice than ever before.

So if our new world is all about long-term competitive advantage through product-market fit, maybe you should stop trying to learn about business, and you should start trying to learn about user-centric design. Not just to make great interfaces, but to make great user-centric business models.

Maybe you don’t need an MBA. Maybe you need a UX certification.

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