The current coronavirus situation and remote teaching did not slow down Professor of Practice Johanna Kaipio’s research group at Aalto University’s Department of Computer Science as the group proceeded to arrange a completely new type of career course in the spring of 2021. The course focused on software engineering, user experience (UX) and UX management of the user experience in organisations. “Research in the field seeks to find a deeper understanding of how people as users of software and digital services should be considered in engineering and development,” Kaipio summarises. The course included guest lectures from experts working in companies within their field. A total of 14 experts visited the course as either lecturers or guests. Many of the experts were Aalto’s alumni or alumni of the former Helsinki University of Technology or the University of Art and Design Helsinki.
The user experience is never far from practical issues, and it often revolves around strategic questions of organisations’ leadership and administration as well as the lives of people who use digital solutions.
“In software engineering and service development, it is important to consider the wishes and needs of different user groups,” says Paula Valkonen, Doctoral Candidate at Aalto and one of the course’s active instructors.
The user viewpoint is so important that entirely new research areas, such as human- and user-centred design, usability engineering and service design, have been dedicated to it.
“At Aalto, we also apply this perspective to the research of healthcare IT systems and eHealth,” Kaipio adds.
“Companies in the field are also seeing a clear transition in their cultures towards users being increasingly included in the design process,” states Inkeri Saiku, a usability specialist working in the healthcare sector and guest speaker on the course.
The remote course had participants from both master’s and doctoral programmes. Students were allowed to choose from two alternative ways of carrying out the course: focusing on writing a seminar paper or working on one’s CV and portfolio.
“We had the idea for the course after comparing our experiences on how companies lead and manage user experience by drawing on our different backgrounds, yet established careers. This perspective on management was not included in our own master-level studies, and we wanted students to learn about contemporary examples from the corporate world while considering their future career paths,” says Mari Tyllinen, one of the course’s instructors.
The course’s visitors were not present only as lecturers, but in some cases also tutored participants on their course works, giving them feedback and development ideas.
“It felt exceptionally good to get personal feedback during the course,” says Saara Peltomäki, a student of the Master’s Programme in Information Networks. She attended the portfolio section of the course. Kaisa Tsupari, who began her doctoral studies last February and chose to focus on writing a seminar paper during the course, is grateful for the good viewpoints the course provided for the article.
Combining different backgrounds
The field of user experience involves people from a diverse range of backgrounds, providing an almost palpably interdisciplinary setting.
“The diversity of people working in our field became abundantly clear during the course,” Tsupari and Peltomäki point out. Professionals in the field have often studied computer science, engineering, design, psychology, business and several other fields. A deep understanding of IT systems is, however, the clear cornerstone of the field. This means that logical and technical skills should not be overlooked.
“In my work as a usability specialist, it is crucial to understand information systems and complete technical certificates on IT systems,” Saiku notes.
The significance of working with stakeholders is becoming more prominent in the field, and the development of future technologies calls increasingly for a diverse range of professionals: in addition to technical skills, the perspective of human behaviour is needed.
“Current students in the field also often come from differing backgrounds, and there are students who have completed less technical studies. Perhaps these types of examples and career stories will encourage students to try out different things and choose alternative study paths,” Peltomäki and Tsupari reflect.
Career paths are seldom straightforward
Based on the polished CVs of professionals in the industry, one might think that the person in question has aimed for a particular job or career choice. Yet the career stories presented on the course quickly revealed the turns that the experts’ career paths had often taken. “As someone who opted for a change of field, it is encouraging to find that even a different and winding path can lead you to the same work as those who have continued with a single line of study,” says one of the course’s instructors Nina Karisalmi.
“The career stories also nicely highlighted the fact that finding your professional viewpoint may take time and that developing your professional identity is a process,” Tsupari points out.
Sometimes a student may find it difficult to perceive the possibilities of their future career, and different alternatives may seem vague or distant. “I believe that these stories provide support for particularly those students who have only discovered their skills in theory and may still be looking for their own thing. Perhaps a course like this also makes it easier to describe one’s know-how and set specific goals for studies,” says Peltomäki, who had a chance to hone her portfolio during the course.