This afternoon, I’m speaking to the current students of the UCL Interaction Centre’s HCI course. I did this Masters in 2005/06 so I’m looking forward to returning as a greyer, wrinklier version of myself to share the lessons I’ve learned since I did the course.

The main meal in my talk is a reduced version of Critique, Don’t Complain, a talk that has stayed interesting much longer than I expected.

But to warm their palates, I give them my personal reflection on what they teach you on an HCI course, through the lens of my experience working in agencies and big companies.

What they won’t teach you on your HCI course (that might be useful if you work at a multinational electronics company) 

Everyone has to be a product person – Businesses succeed if they make good products that people use and want to use. You will be more valued if you focus on what the product needs, not what techniques you can apply

An experience only exists if it ships – Concepting and visioning is important. But nobody can use a vision.

Research has no inherent value. It can only help make better decisions – Build your research to answer business questions. Find the important decisions and make your research relevant to them.

Anyone can do UX.- In a company that makes things, everyone feels ownership of the UX.  Your job is to do UX better and prove it

Nobody reads research reports  – Really.

What they do teach you on your HCI course (that might be useful if you work at a multinational electronics company) 

Why you should use a technique – This is the most valuable thing that I got out of my HCI education: the critical reflection on the strengths and limitations of different research and design techniques. As anyone who’s ever read a UX blog will know, people can spend a lot of time talking about whether Personas (say) are good or bad. University is your chance to critically understand these techniques and form your own opinion.

Possibilities always exceed reality – For me at least, I was really struck by the endless parade of research papers, research approaches and design opportunities when I was at university. At the time, I felt frustrated because I imagined that at work someone would direct me and give me guidance. This is true, but only if you’re content to stay in very junior roles. Being surrounded by options and opportunities is part of creative work. So is the tension that it can cause. Embrace it.

Most design tools are no more complicated than they seem – Personas are personas, scenarios are scenarios. The real skill in design tools is not what they are, but when and how to apply them. University can give you a wide range of experience designing in different domains. Make the most of it. I don’t think I will ever again get a chance to design a robotic parrot companion for the elderly. And yes, I did learn from it.

Nobody really reads research reports – Well, I learnt this at least. For my final project, I spent three months doing ethnography in London Underground and wrote it up in a 100 page report. The entire feedback I got from my examiner? “Good, but a bit boring. Distinction”

What advice would you give to students on your old university course?