Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and User Experience (UX) are interdisciplinary fields that draw on human-centered disciplines like psychology and sociology to design and develop technological products that meet human needs. As our economy becomes increasingly technologically based, HCI and UX professionals are in high demand — but what exactly does an HCI/UX professional do, and why is human computer interaction important for companies in all sectors?
We chatted with Drexel alumnus Michael Dickard, PhD, to find out. Dickard is a senior user experience researcher at Vanguard, and in 2018 he earned his doctoral degree in Information Science from the College of Computing & Informatics (CCI). He explained the importance of HCI/UX and shared his advice for students interested in pursuing a career path similar to his.
How would you describe the field of Human Computer Interaction/User Experience Design, and why does it matter?
HCI and UX are closely related. It is important to keep humans at the center of the systems and technologies we build. In the past, and even now, many companies start with solutions – they focus on building tools and systems for themselves rather than focusing on the people who will use them. But you are not the same as the people who use the technologies you build. HCI and UX help you understand people’s behaviors, motivations, and goals so that you can build tools that help them in some way. At Drexel, you not only get to learn about human-centered design and research, which underpins good HCI and UX, but you also learn to be critical and how to push back on dominant narratives and ways of thinking that might harm people. This is increasingly important as the algorithms and technologies we build can both directly and indirectly harm the people.
How did you decide Drexel was the right school for you?
I came to Drexel as a PhD student. When applying to PhD programs, it was important for me to go somewhere that I could work with an advisor who had similar research interests as well as a diverse, interdisciplinary faculty with whom I could collaborate. Drexel had both of these. The CCI faculty was not only diverse in their expertise, but they also regularly collaborate with faculty in other colleges and departments. This is particularly important for anyone trying to work in tech or UX, because once you graduate, you will work with a wide range of people with different types of expertise. Finally, I love city life, and living in Philadelphia was something that excited me too.
Tell us how your education at Drexel, including your research experiences, prepared you for success in your current role.
Something that prepared me for success in my current role was to develop soft skills, expertise in my domain, and basic knowledge about a wide range of topics. Collaborating with people across departments and research domains including social sciences, computer science, informatics, and engineering made a huge difference in my career post-Drexel. CCI in particular provided me with a foundation upon which I can translate and communicate with people from diverse academic and professional backgrounds.
Working in UX, I’m constantly collaborating with developers, engineers, designers, business managers, product managers, HR, and many other roles. I’m a UX Researcher now, so having the opportunity to work on a variety of research projects and grants, to see talks across different academic fields, and to develop friendships with people studying different topics, all helped me develop skill sets that I use regularly now. These skill sets include both technical capabilities (such as doing qualitative and quantitative research; applying HCI and social theories or frameworks that guide my work) as well as soft skills (such as collaborating with others, being curious and open, and also being critical).
Are there any resources or avenues that students should be taking advantage of during their time at Drexel?
I would recommend STAR programs and working with professors on research projects if you are an undergrad. As a grad student, you should definitely be working on research projects and grants, but you should also reach out to other departments and try collaborating on projects with other students too. These will be your peers after you graduate as well, and the relationships you build now could have a huge impact on your career after Drexel. Not only that, but working as a member of a team and towards a common goal is rewarding. Hiring managers look for this kind of experience when interviewing candidates, so take advantage of any opportunities you can to collaborate.
What advice would you give students who are considering a similar career path to the one you’ve taken?
Ambition and curiosity are important and they can take you far. Seek out opportunities to learn, network, and collaborate beyond the classroom, whether as a research assistant to a professor or by taking part in Philadelphia’s thriving UX and HCI groups. It’s important to work well with others from diverse backgrounds and with diverse skill sets. Managers and professionals in the UX space love students who are ambitious and curious. Take some classes outside of CCI too – for example, take a course in STS (Drexel's Center for Science, Technology & Society) or sociology, as these can provide helpful frameworks for thinking critically about the technologies we build.
Is there anything you wish you had known or would tell your younger self before entering this field?
I never had the opportunity to do a co-op, because I came to Drexel as a PhD student. However, I have worked with many undergrads who were doing co-ops. If you are interested in a career in UX, a co-op can be one of the best ways for you to learn and get experience, and the people you work with could help you on your career path throughout the years. Make the most of your time in co-op if you’re an undergrad.