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XXI.5 September + October 2014
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Professional UX credentials: Are they worth the paper they’re printed on


Authors:
Anna Wichansky

The value of credentialing in various occupations is well-known. We would never consider going to a physician who was not licensed. Similarly, we wouldn’t want our tax returns filed by an accountant who wasn’t certified. In addition, some everyday activities, such as voting, owning a car, or collecting money for charity, require proof of credentials by larger organizations before they can be legally performed. Yet there are fields, including user experience, that do not regulate the credentials of practitioners, even though bad practice could jeopardize human health and safety as well as individual, corporate, or organizational well-being. Bad practice also damages the reputation of the entire profession. Do we not regulate credentials because our profession is not perceived as that important, or because we lack professional definition and integrity sufficient to differentiate a competent UX professional from one who is not? And what is the value to hiring managers of the human factors, ergonomics, and UX certification programs that exist today?

I was asked to weigh in on these questions for The Business of UX as a certified professional ergonomist (CPE), director emerita on the Board of Certification of Professional Ergonomics, and contributor of test questions for BCPE tests, as well as a long-time practitioner of human factors, ergonomics, and user experience. I take this opportunity to share what I’ve learned over the years about professional credentialing, as well as opinions of my colleagues in the management of UX from a wide variety of career paths. Here are some frequently asked questions about professional credentialing:

Insights

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Licensing, registration, certification ... what’s the difference? And what’s the difference between certification and a certificate program?

Licensing [1] is done by government agencies, and it is mandatory for certain professions. Testing is required, as well as proof of academic credentials, experience, and/or physical requirements.

Registration is simply a knowledge-based listing of individuals or organizations done by a governmental agency; others must verify the credentials of registrants independently.

Certification is voluntary, done by non-governmental associations, usually a board of professionals in the field, themselves and their methods accredited by yet another organization. Passing a psychometrically reliable and valid professional test is required, as well as proof of other requirements. Certification is for a limited time period, requiring renewals, and certifying bodies do not provide proscribed training courses leading to certification. Certified professionals can add a professional designation to their names, such as CPE or CUXP.

A certificate program, on the other hand, provides training that leads to the granting of a certificate, which may be good for an indefinite time period of time. Certificants cannot add a professional designation after their names (unless they are also certified professionals).

Accreditation is an important related concept. Only organizations, not individuals, are accredited, and can obtain this for a limited time following a voluntary review of their credentials by an even higher non-government entity [2].

What are the requirements of professional UX certification versus certificate programs? The “gold standard” of UX professional certification is available through the Board of Certified Professional Ergonomists (BCPE), which is recognized by the International Ergonomics Association (IEA), American Board of Industrial Hygiene (ABIH), and American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). BCPE is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).

BCPE is the largest human factors certification group of eight globally [3] and has been used as the model for groups in Canada, Japan, and Brazil. Current requirements are: a bachelor’s degree; courses from an accredited college [4] covering the core competencies; a three-hour, 125-item online test [5]; review of experience (work samples) by a professional board; continuance of certification; and compliance with the code of ethics. The exam is based on the BCPE Core Competencies, which comprehensively define the profession in terms of six major areas: basic principles, core background, core methodology, methods and content specific to applications, applications, and professional ethics [6]. Applicants need not enroll in any particular training to pass the test. Recertification is required every five years based on proof of continuing education and professional activity in the field. Certificants may choose among the nominal designations CPE (Certified Professional Ergonomist), CHFP (Certified Human Factors Professional), or CUXP (Certified User Experience Professional). The cost of the application and the test is a few hundred dollars; maintaining the certificate costs about $100 a year.

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A variety of ergonomics and UX certificate programs can be found online and are described by Arnie Lund [7]. These programs typically offer multiple courses in areas focused on ergonomic assessment, usability data-collection skills, and technical writing; not much is offered in graphics design, interface architecture, or interaction design. Following completion of these courses, there can be an online exam, and a certificate may be granted. In some programs it is not necessary to take the courses before taking the exam. Typically there is no continuing education or practice required to renew, nor is there a code of ethics. Courses may run into the thousands of dollars. Other features include certification of an entire UX practice for an annual fee.

What are the pros and cons of getting a professional certification such as CUXP? I discussed this question with several longtime professionals in the UX field [8].


Certification provides a defined credential in an ill-defined and generally unknown professional field.


Among the pros:

  • It provides a defined credential in an ill-defined and generally unknown professional field.
  • It indicates the individual meets at least the minimum standard of knowledge and practice for UX work.
  • It’s a sign that a professional is willing to put her background to a test developed by a peer group to see if she measures up and how she can improve.
  • It lends an extra measure of confidence for new grads, consultants, and practice owners just starting out (although its significance must be explained to most employers).
  • It boosts credibility with government organizations for contracts.
  • It’s a valuable qualification in forensic work (i.e., expert witness).
  • It can provide an advantage when competing for work against other firms.
  • The core competencies can be used to create and/or customize a company’s UX job categories and requirements for hiring and promotion.
  • It provides an excellent network of professionals to know and be known by.
  • It enhances the profession by increasing visibility in the industry, setting a professional standard, and encouraging professional development.

A few of the cons:

  • UX professionals are all unique; we can’t be defined by a test or program. Experience counts more than a certification.
  • The association with human factors, engineering, or ergonomics may not reflect an individual’s core competencies such as architecture or graphic design, which are crucial to UX practice.
  • It does not ensure raises or promotions for UX professionals in large corporations, where management is more motivated by profit, productivity, and business knowledge than meeting standards or enhancing professional UX competencies.
  • It’s nice to have but not a job requirement for most large employers. (This may be changing, as we will discuss.)
  • It costs money annually to maintain, and some employers won’t pay for this.
  • It requires proof of professional activities and continuing education for recertification.

Do any of these programs lead to career enhancement in UX? Will I need a certification to work in my field in the future? Certified professionals do enjoy aspects of career enhancement. BCPE reports that certified professionals have increased salary, job promotion, enhanced job opportunities, and enriched personal lives. Employers purportedly cite the top three benefits of hiring certified individuals as independent verification of competency, greater productivity and efficiency, and higher quality of work [9]. There is an increase in employers showing preference for a BCPE certification and requiring certification for employment, including Amazon Fulfillment Services, AON Risk Services, Coca-Cola Refreshments, Exxon Biomedical Sciences, Ford Motor Company, Kohler, Library of Congress, Raytheon, the U.S. Navy, and the World Bank. Also, now that user-centered design is mandated for medical devices by the U.S. government [10], there may be stronger market forces propelling UX professionals toward certification as a means of differentiating themselves to their clients and employers.

What has been your personal experience in terms of the value of professional certification? It has been a career enhancer. I got my CPE Number 175 in the first wave of certificants. The application required a complete review of my academic, industrial, and consulting practice to pick the strongest evidence of the scope, breadth, and depth of my work. You rarely get the excuse to do this in your professional career; it’s important to see where you’ve been in order to decide where you need to go.

Generally, I have found it helps to have a credential in our field, which in many high-tech jobs is now called UX. This term is fairly recent. It has previously and outside the U.S. been called by a variety of other names: engineering psychology, human factors, human factors engineering, user interface design, usability engineering, ergonomics, and software ergonomics, to name a few. Being certified in any of these names seems to be a good thing, even if you do have to explain it to prospective employers and clients from time to time.

I regard my professional vocation as broadly as possible, doing whatever it takes to make products, systems, and organizations as safe, efficient, and satisfying as possible to users and their stakeholders. Proving your competency in a wide variety of domains or skill sets demonstrates the importance of this work and strengthens you as a professional.

Certification has also helped me as a manager. For hiring, performance appraisals, promotions, training, lab development, and administration, I have used the BCPE core competencies and test questions as a baseline to select, motivate, facilitate, and advise employees on their career progress and development strategies.

In the UX field, we should be taking leadership to the next level, and I think certification is the next level. Service as a BCPE director exposed me to the most knowledgeable and professionally motivated people who identify with our field in the broadest sense. The challenges they were working on (e.g., repetitive strain injuries, workplace design, anthropometry of hand-held devices) became important to me in my own software UX applications work.

References

1. Knapp, J., Fabrey, L., Rops, M., and McCurry, N. Basic guide to credentialing terminology. Institute for Credentialing Excellence. Oct. 2006; http://www.credentialingexcellence.org/

2. Andrews, A. NOCA Standard 1100: Certificate vs. certification; http://www.acac.org/forms/otherpdfs/NOCA%20Article%203-09.pdf (NOCA is now ICE—Institute for Credentialing Excellence).

3. Smith, T. Certification of professional ergonomists: A global perspective. Ergonomics in Design 20 (Oct. 2012), 22–28.

4. There are 15 IEA-accredited U.S. university programs that are recognized. See asterisked programs at http://www.hfes.org/web/Students/grad_programs.html

5. BCPE accreditation expired in March, 2014. They are conducting a new job analysis and field test before reapplying to NCCA for reaccreditation.

6. The BCPE Core Competencies have been independently validated in a series of surveys with students of IEA-accredited programs, new hires, and hiring managers by Rantanen and Moroney [11,12] and Moroney and Rantanen [13].

7. Lund, A. User Experience Management: Essential Skills for Leading Effective UX Teams. Morgan Kaufman, 2011.

8. Thanks to Charles Mauro, Arnie Lund, Susan Dray, Carol Stuart-Buttle, David Brodie, and Scott Isensee for their insights and contributions to this discussion.

9. Knapp & Associates International, sponsored by ANSI, surveyed 125 certifying organizations in 23 industries; this is what certifying bodies who survey their certificants report employers as saying; http://www.knappinternational.com/assets/uploads/pages/Knapp%202007%20Industry%20Scan%20Report.pdf;

10. Department of Health and Human Services. Health Information Technology: Standards, Implementation Specifications, and Certification Criteria for Electronic Health Record Technology, 2014 Edition; Revisions to the Permanent Certification Program for Health Information Technology. Federal Register 77, 171 (Sept. 14, 2012), 54186–54189.

11. Rantanen, E.M. and Moroney, W.F. Educational and skill needs of new human factors/ergonomics professionals. Proc. of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 55th Annual Meeting. 2011, 531–534.

12. Rantanen, E.M. and Moroney, W.F. Employers’ expectations for education and skills of new human factors/ergonomics professionals. Proc. of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 56th Annual Meeting. 2012, 581–585.

13. Moroney, W.F. and Rantanen, E.M. Student perceptions of their educational and skill needs in the workplace. Proc. of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 56th Annual Meeting. 2012, 576–580.

Author

Anna Wichansky, CPE, studies how users interact with new technology. She is Senior Director at Oracle, where she founded the Corporate Usability Labs, Advanced User Interface Program, and Usability Advisory Board. She is a Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Fellow and Board of Certification of Professional Ergonomists director emerita. anna.wichansky@oracle.com

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