UX Design Bootcamp vs. Degree vs. Self-taught: How to choose?
August 10, 2021
While you can be successful whether you’re self-taught, do a UX design bootcamp, or get a University degree, as a UX beginner, you’re probably feeling stuck trying to decide what path is right for you.
Years ago, this wasn’t a problem.
When we first learned UX design, there weren’t too many options available to us (I'm self-taught, and Colton taught himself and went to General Assembly).
But today? Oh boy…
Once you grasp how to become a UX designer, the next step is to figure out the best way to learn that’s both actionable and will help you land a job.
Are you a problem solver who wants to go the self-taught route? Do you connect more with the idea of going to a larger, accredited university or college? Or, have you seen all the success stories from people taking intensive UX bootcamps?
Over the past decade, we’ve been living, breathing, teaching, and working in UX design. In that time, we’ve been down each of these paths and are here to share everything we know so you can make the best possible decision for you.
Already know you want to take a UX design bootcamp? We’ve put together a list of the best options based on your background and specific needs below.
Choosing your path: UX bootcamp vs. university degree vs. self-taught
While many careers have a pretty clear path (i.e., doctors go to medical school, lawyers go to law school), UX design isn’t one of them.
Instead, UX designers follow one (or a combination) of three paths:
In the early days of UX design, there were no bootcamps or university programs.
Instead, designers learned on the job or found online resources to help guide them through the UX process. Today, there are tons of blog posts, videos, and free UX courses to help you understand UX basics.
However, as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.
Free resources can be unclear, give conflicting views, and end up being more work with fewer results (for example, it’s hard to learn what a good UX case study and portfolio looks like on your own).
2. University programs
While you won’t find a ‘UX design’ program at most universities, more and more programs will teach you the essential elements and help you build a portfolio of UX projects.
However, university courses tend to be more theory-heavy than you’d find in a bootcamp and are competitive to get in. Plus, it’s the most expensive and time-consuming path available.
But if you have the time, money, and motivation, they’re still a good option.
3. UX design bootcamps
Short, intensive bootcamps are now the most common route for new UX designers to learn their craft.
They’re cheaper, faster, and more practical than a university program while giving you the guidance, mentorship, and networking opportunities that you miss being self-taught.
However, with the rising popularity of UX design, everyone and their mother are launching a bootcamp, making it hard to find the best option for you. (We put a list of the best options based on your background below!)
If you want a high-level view of the different options for learning UX, it will look something like this:
So how do you pick the path that’s right for you?
Here’s where things get tricky.
Each path has its pros and cons, depending on your specific situation, experience, and needs. But at least to start, you’ll want to go self-taught.
Because you wouldn’t drop $100k on law school if you had no idea what a lawyer does, would you?
The same goes for UX design. Before going any further, take the time to learn about the role. If you know anyone in UX, talk to them. Ask them what they like about their job. And what they dislike (because that’s probably what you’ll be doing to start).
Once you’re ready to make a choice, ask these seven questions to narrow down your options:
Question 1: Are you sure UX design is the right career for you?
Maybe you like the idea of being creative daily. Or perhaps you’re excited by the thought of working for an app or company you admire. (Or maybe you’re after the salary!)
Whatever reason brought you to UX design in the first place, make sure it’s enough to keep you motivated throughout the process.
Question 2: What’s your current understanding of UX and/or visual design principles?
For example, if you’re a complete beginner with no experience in the tech industry, you’ll want to look for a course or bootcamp that leans heavily on the fundamentals.
But if you’ve already worked as a graphic or visual designer, some UX design bootcamps and educational options will feel redundant.
(If you’re curious, UX/UI Expert is the only UX design bootcamp made explicitly for graphic designers looking to transition their careers.)
Question 3: Are you starting from scratch? Or are you ‘upskilling’ for your current job?
Many people–especially graphic designers–come to UX design because a manager (or job description) told them they needed to ‘learn UX’.
This is a confusing and misleading statement as UX design is its own discipline. However, if you’re just looking to add an understanding of the basic UX process to your toolbox, you’ll be better suited to using online resources or taking a free UX course (like this one).
Question 4: What’s your budget?
Hands up if you like answering this question… no one? That’s what we thought.
Talking about money can feel awkward. But there’s no denying that budget plays a huge role in deciding which path to take. University programs are expensive. But bootcamps can also be pricey.
Question 5: How good are you at networking?
Like any job, UX design is as much about your network as your skills. It’s annoying (we know), especially when you’re just starting.
However, one of the best and easiest ways to build your initial network is through the people you learn UX design with, whether this means your online bootcamp mentor and cohort or the people in your University program.
Remote learning can be a great way to meet people if it’s your thing and you get involved. But don’t discount the value of in-person connections.
Question 6: Do you prefer guided or self-paced programs?
You know your learning style better than anyone else. Do you need the accountability of a cohort-based bootcamp or university program? Or do you prefer to pick your pace and learn on your own?
Question 7: How important is a UX design certificate to you?
Plenty of schools and bootcamps offer a certificate at the end of their programs. Do you need one to get a job? In our experience, no. But the choice is still yours. Again, be honest with yourself.
Answering those questions will help you get a feel for which path you’re most drawn to.
Now, let’s dig into each and help you make a final decision!
UX Design Bootcamp: Who they’re for, pros and cons, and best options
A UX design bootcamp is a short-term (2–7 months), intensive program that will teach you the essential elements of the UX process, help you build a UX portfolio of projects, and guide you towards landing your first job.
When done right, UX design bootcamps are the happy medium between the frustrations of trying to learn yourself and spending years in a theory-heavy university program.
Who should take a UX design bootcamp?
UX design bootcamps come in different formats, meaning there’s a bootcamp out there for you, no matter your situation.
That being said, bootcamps are intense. You need to be prepared to spend a good deal of time working, learning, and connecting with your mentor and the people in your program.
Do take a UX design bootcamp if you:
Already have a basic understanding of UX design (from resources like a free course)
Can commit to at least 6–20 hours a week of coursework (plus time for mentorship and feedback sessions)
Are self-motivated and thrive in a remote learning environment
Place a high value on in-depth and guided education
Don’t take a UX design bootcamp if you:
Have struggled with online learning in the past or have issues with time management and procrastination
Won’t take advantage of extra mentorship, networking opportunities, or feedback sessions
Can’t afford it (unless you take a part-time course and continue working)
The pros and cons of taking a UX design bootcamp
After spending the last two and a half years designing what we feel is one of the best UX design bootcamps out there, we have a pretty keen understanding of the pros and cons:
Pros of taking a UX design bootcamp:
Speed. Bootcamps are 8X faster than getting a bachelor’s degree yet go into the same depth of content.
Cost. While still thousands of dollars, most bootcamps are about ⅙ the cost of a university degree.
Personalized mentorship. You get access to a practicing UX designer who will help guide your learning and your career.
Unique UX portfolio. You’ll leave a good bootcamp with a strong UX portfolio of projects you care about (and that will help get you hired!)
Community and networking. Your bootcamp cohort will become your initial network in the industry. If you’re an introvert or don’t like networking, this is the easiest way to start
Cons of taking a UX design bootcamp:
Intensity. Bootcamps pack a lot into a short timeframe. Be prepared for intense weeks and lots of work. If you get behind, it can be hard to catch up. (To recharge batteries, in UX/UI Expert, our students get a week-long break every 4-5 weeks!)
Lots of options to choose from. There are tons of bootcamps to consider, from week-long courses to 6 or 7-months programs. It’s easy to fall into analysis paralysis.
Pre-scripted projects look alike. The bigger bootcamps often use the same projects to teach you skills. While this helps you learn, it makes it impossible to stand out when you’re looking for a job after the bootcamp ends.
The 5 best UX design bootcamps for every person
The biggest con of taking a UX design bootcamp is navigating the seamless endless options out there.
So let’s step back for a second and talk about what makes a bootcamp effective and worth your time and money:
Small class sizes. You don’t want to be competing for attention.
Personal mentorship. You want to build a connection with your mentor. Not just watch videos and do coursework.
In-depth education by doing, not just theory. UX is best learned by actively taking on projects.
Lifetime access to materials. Some bootcamps restrict your access to only during the course or for a few months after. Or you might just have access to the presentation slides which aren’t that useful.
Meaningful case study work. You want to leave with a UX portfolio you’re proud of. Not one filled with cookie-cutter projects that everyone does.
Fits within your budget and timeline. You get what you pay for. But you also need to be realistic about the resources you can afford to use.
Ongoing career help. Breaking into UX design is a marathon, not a sprint.
With those factors in mind, let’s take a look at the best bootcamp options for each unique situation:
The best UX design bootcamp for absolute beginners is DesignLab’s UX Academy
DesignLab’s UX Academy is broken up into two sections: A 4-week ‘foundation’ course on design principles, visual design, and UI and then a 15–28-week ‘academy’ in which you’ll complete four portfolio projects.
This setup is excellent for absolute beginners as it ensures you understand the basics of visual design before moving into more complex topics. (But it can feel like a waste of time for graphic designers).
You’ll also be paired up with a mentor for one-on-one calls and participate in group critiques.
Price: Starts at $6,749 USD (including their 'foundations" course)
Duration: 6–9 months (2 for ‘UX Foundations’ + 4–7 for ‘UX Academy’)
“This program did a great job mixing lessons with hands-on practice in all the aspects of design. I feel confident that taking the next step to the academy will be a successful one. The only con I can say is a few too many duplicating assignments but otherwise, great course, and I learned a lot.”
The best UX design bootcamp for graphic designers is UX/UI Expert by Kickass UX (yes, that’s us!)
While many people say you don’t need a background in design to become a UX designer, we disagree when it comes to transitioning to UX through a bootcamp.
Graphic and visual designers already understand how to make visually compelling products and are usually well-versed in design thinking (which is very similar to the UX process).
By leaning into the skills designers already have, UX/UI Expert skips the redundant education so you can spend more time building practical skills and creating a custom UX portfolio.
You’ll learn alongside a small group of peers, get weekly access to mentors, and continuous feedback on your work.
So why take UX/UI Expert if you’re a graphic designer? We built the course for designers who are:
Tired of running into subjectivity (i.e., ‘I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel designed enough?’)
Want more ownership over products beyond just making things look ‘pretty’
Feeling stuck in their career and want to open up more job opportunities
Price: $3,999 | $4,999 | 5,999 USD
Duration: 24 weeks
Class size: Small (max 16)
Mentorship: Direct access to industry professionals. At least two feedback sessions per week.
“Three months into this UX course I know I made the right choice. Their focus on teaching experienced graphic designers UX caught my attention first. The program itself has kept it, and I'm already feeling confident in my growing UX skillset. I highly recommend this course to any designer. UX is really exciting and this is the place to get rolling.”
We could talk about our program for hours (that's how passionate we are about it)! But don't just take our word for it. Our students' stories are what REALLY matter.
The best UX design bootcamp for people new to tech is Springboard
If you’re entirely new to UX and working in tech, Springboard’s UI/UX bootcamp is a great option. Not only does it start with the very basics of design thinking (which is the basis of the UX process), but you’ll also work on practical projects to build up your portfolio.
While it’s on the higher end of the spectrum for cost, Springboard offers many additional resources (as long as you take advantage of them), such as unlimited mentor calls and career coaching.
(The only major complaint we’ve heard from a number of past students is that much of the content Springboard uses in its course is already freely available on Medium, YouTube, and other sources.)
Price: Starts at $11,691 ($10,000 if you pay upfront)
“Springboard was a wonderful experience, and it gave me a solid foundation in UX Design. My mentor and the Industry Design Project at the end definitely were the best parts of the course. I do think that there is still a lot to learn in the field after completing the course, but it gave me a solid foundation to build upon.”
The best UX design bootcamp for people on a budget is the Interaction Design Foundation
The Interaction Design Foundation UX Fundamentals bootcamp is a great alternative for learning the basics of UX design. Over three months, you’ll get an introduction to most of the core UX disciplines, like User Interviews, Information Architecture, and Wireframing.
However, don’t expect to come out of it with a working knowledge of UX design. While this course covers the fundamentals, it’s only part of a larger series of bootcamps that cover what you need to know to actually get a job in UX.
Alternatively, the Interaction Design Foundation also offers many other short courses for UX beginners you can take at your own pace.
The best UX design bootcamp for people who want to learn in person is General Assembly
These days, it’s harder than ever to find in-person education. But some of us simply learn better when we’re in a room full of other students.
General Assembly offers hands-on UX design courses online and on campuses throughout North America, Europe, and even Australia. (I even took their intro to UX design course in Seattle way back in the day!)
Bootcampers beware: Why there’s (almost) no such thing as a ‘job guarantee’
You’ve probably seen some of the bootcamps above listing a job guarantee. WHAT??? You’re guaranteed a UX design job if you take this bootcamp? Sign me up!
Let’s hold on a second…
While these bootcamps do advertise job guarantees, the stipulations and requirements are so loaded with legal language that 99% of people are ineligible for them.
Here’s just one example where you need to start applying to at least 5 jobs per week by your third week in the program (which is basically impossible as you don’t have a portfolio yet!) and go to two networking events a month to be eligible for the guarantee:
You can take a look at these requirements and decide for yourself:
While a job guarantee can sound exciting, these larger organizations mostly use them to reduce the mental barrier of making a big purchase.
With UX/UI Expert, we offer something different.
If you do the work, engage with your cohort and us, and you don’t think you’ve improved as a UX designer in a year, we’ll refund the total cost + $200 out of our own pockets. You can read about our guarantee here.
Do UX design bootcamps work?
The short answer? Yes. With two caveats.
First, that you put in the work and engage with the program.
UX design bootcamps are hard work. There’s a lot to learn in a short period of time. And if you’re not committed to keeping up with your coursework and taking advantage of mentorship, you won’t get the results you want.
Second, you need to set proper expectations.
At the end of a UX design bootcamp, you should have a solid grasp of the six UX core disciplines and how they fit into the UX process. You’ll also have a portfolio of projects you worked on. However, at this point, you’re still a UX design toddler.
Bootcamps give you a start. But you have to take yourself over the finish line.
Learning UX at university: Who it’s for, pros and cons, and best options
Now, let’s take a quick look at the other big choice for learning UX: University programs.
Both of us at Kickass UX have university degrees. Just not in UX design.
That’s because, like many people, we went to university with an idea of what we wanted to do. But then quickly changed our minds once we realized the realities of those choices. For a long time, this was probably the most common background for a UX designer.
However, today, more and more universities offer programs that, while not called UX design, can help you become a UX designer.
Who should learn UX at a university?
Let’s get something big out of the way first. Most recruiters don’t expect a college degree in UX design to get a job as a UX designer. (The only exception being if you’re trying to become a UX researcher. But we’ll save that discussion for a different post.)
Instead, a university degree can help your career in some unexpected ways.
Do take a UX-focused university course if you:
Work best in a structured learning environment
Aren’t 100% sure about UX design and want to take advantage of other complementary courses
Have the time and money to go through a 2- or 4-year program
Care deeply about having a degree from an accredited institution
Don’t take a UX-focused university course if you:
Can’t afford to not work full-time while learning
Want more practical education on UX design and a meaningful portfolio
Are looking to get a UX design job quickly
Aren’t as interested in theory-based learning
The pros and cons of learning UX at university or college
We’ll keep this short as the pros and cons of a UX university course should already be pretty clear.
The biggest pros are that you’re getting an in-depth and structured education (although not directly in UX design). The most meaningful cons are that university programs are expensive, take a long time to complete, are theory-heavy, and don’t necessarily prepare you for a job in UX design.
This last point is significant. While UX bootcamps are designed to get you quickly working, university programs aren’t as practically focused. According to a study from the University of Washington, 53% of college grads are either unemployed or working in a job that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree.
3 University programs that can help you become a UX designer
This is by no means an exhaustive list of university courses. Instead, it’s just meant to give you an idea of what programs are available for UX designers looking to go to university.
University of Washington
Program: Masters of Human-Computer interactions and Design (MHCID)
Duration: 11 months
Class size: ~33
Estimated tuition: $52,704
Program: Master of Human-Computer Interaction (MHCI)
Duration: 1 year
Class size: ~60
Estimated tuition: $72,000
Program: Master of Science, Engineering Design Innovation (EDI)
Duration: 15 months
Class size: ~20
Estimated tuition: $80,042
In most cases, UX or Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) programs are Masters degrees. This means you’ll start with a 2- or 4-year degree in something else like computer science, information technology, or even psychology.
Self-taught UX designers: Can you really learn UX on your own?
Not too long ago, the only way to learn UX was to do it yourself. And for many people, the DIY approach still works.
However, it’s an uphill battle.
There are so many conflicting and confusing resources for beginner UX designers that even learning the basics can be frustrating. Plus, without the help of a mentor, structured learning, and practical projects, you can spend a ton of time thinking about UX design and not a lot actually doing it.
Instead, we think self-education is best suited for the exploration phase. Read blogs, listen to podcasts, and use other resources (like our free 7-day UX design course!) Then, make your choice of which path you’d like to take.
Whichever path you choose, your future looks great to us!
Picking a path to learn UX design can feel daunting. But once you do, the fun starts!
UX is one of the best careers you can choose, and any education will help get you closer to that first job.