Top 5 UX Classes at UC Davis, from a Graduating Senior

We are sitting down with Andrew Sider Chen, Founder of Design Interactive and a graduating senior, to talk about which classes were most useful for his growth as a UX designer here at UC Davis.

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Kiara: Do you have any thoughts before we get started?

Andrew: Well, even though we are talking about classes, I think it’s good to remember that you don’t become a great designer by taking a certain sequence of classes. A lot of it comes down to going out, learning about the world, learning about business, and honing your craft.

That said, I remember a few UC Davis classes that were unexpectedly useful for my development as a UX designer. I won’t be talking about DES 112 or DES 166 because you probably know about those.

The classes I will recommend, for those who don’t want to read, are: CDM 198, MGT 120, DES 149, DES 40B, UWP 104

Learn how to focus on emotion and fun through game design

Taught by Lishan Az

We didn’t design fancy pieces for our games, since our games were meant to be played remotely while quarantined

Kiara: Tell us about this class

I took this class in Spring 2020, during shelter-in-place. It was a special session called Designing for Quarantine, but I believe the basics are rooted in the normal class Analog Game Design.

What I learned is that designing a game is a lot harder than designing a product, but the practice teaches you to focus on the right things. Unlike a product, a game has to maintain such a high level of immersion and emotional engagement in the experience that people will stay tuned in to an activity that has zero practical use.

In game design we call it player experience goals. For example, do you want people to feel more competitive or collaborative? Do you want them to feel more vulnerable or paranoid? These are all emotions that you influence through the design of your game’s mechanics, narrative, and instructions.

Kiara: What did you work on in the class?

I worked in different small teams to design 3 games with different focuses. For our quarantine quarter, we focused not on analog games, but on games that can be played via video chat.

Take a class on breaking down complexity

Taught by Cyrus Aram

Take this class to solve complex, pressing challenges like wildfires in California

Kiara: Tell us about Managing Information Technology

Well, the title of this class is misleading because it is not at all about information technology. It is really about complex systems.

This class shows you a bunch of frameworks for how to think about and break down complex systems.

Some examples of problems that you are tasked with in this class:

  • How can PG&E reduce its accidental ignition of wildfires that have devastated California?
  • How can Universal Pictures continue to generate revenue through box office hits when movie theatres are completely closed?

Each of these involves an enormous set of stakeholders, processes, policies, etc. There are probably a thousand ways you can solve each of these, and each solution involves a lot of tradeoffs.

Working as a UX designer, a lot of times you are also solving a complex process issue and making recommendations that have tradeoffs you need to be aware of.

Kiara: What did you work on in MGT 120?

You are put in a quarter-long team in which you will first come up with a problem to solve, and then you spend the rest of the quarter learning models and frameworks to solve it.

Hone your ability to present data

Taught by Susan Verba

After this class you will see all the problems in ineffective information display

Kiara: Tell us a bit about this class

The whole class is based on the work of Edward Tufte. You could probably read the book, but I can guarantee you won’t learn nearly as much as you would if you take this class. There are just a ton of best practices in information design, and this class gives you a chance to practice all of them little by little.

Obviously all of that is useful when you are designing information-heavy UIs, but there were also some interesting ideas that broadly apply to UX.

For example, one Tufte idea is micro/macro design. What this means is that the design stands as a whole when viewed in a macro sense, but the user has the ability to dive in and find interesting details that give them additional insight at a more up-close level.

Kiara: What did you do in the class?

Well, the lectures are pretty soothing, and overall the class is not a ton of work. It’s not a studio class. There was a design journal, some standard projects, and a few exams.

Think about what you are put on Earth to do

Taught by Simon Sadler

A Sony Walkman tape cassette player, an example of post-Fordist consumerism

Kiara: How was this class?

This class looks at several periods in history, how we thought about design in those times, and how social, economic, and political forces changed how we understand design.

For example:

  • Do we care about craft and authenticity like William Morris did?
  • Can good, “moral” design challenge thoughtless, mass produced design?
  • What is the line between design and authoritarianism? What drove us to experiment with designing utopian towns like Fordlandia?
  • What happens when user serviceability makes your product too long-lasting and instead you switch to planned obsolescence?
  • What makes something timeless?
  • Is modernism good? Is it beautiful? What about post-modernism? Do you embrace it or turn your nose up against it?
  • Can good design really solve the world’s problems? Make us happier? Prevent war?
  • How did designers earn their place in business?

As designers designing for technology products, we are in a new age of fresh possibilities, opportunities, and risks, and these questions help you comprehend what you are doing.

If you are curious about these questions, this would be a great class for you.

Kiara: What was the class format like?

It’s a standard lecture class. There were two papers and they were not easy, but Simon Sadler’s great lectures more than makes up for it.

Learn how to ask good questions

Taught by Sasha Abramsky

You’ll learn the power and responsibility of journalists and how to make a good story

Kiara: Tell us about this class!

This class was probably the best class I had in how to interview.

A lot of the best practices of interviewing as a journalist can easily be adapted to UX research, and this class has made me much more aware and sensitive to discovering insights through interviews.

Incidentally, it also made me really appreciate the role of journalists in society, a role which is being eroded away by many technology companies today.

Kiara: What did you work on in this class?

This class is a bunch of writing, as you might expect — both feature stories and editorials. It was not easy, but Abramsky is understanding and passionate about what he does.

Do you have other tips for learning UX? DM us on Instagram at @davisdesigninteractive.

Kiara Cowderoy is Design Interactive’s Spring 2020 VP of Marketing.

We’re a student-run design consultancy @ UC Davis!

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