Career course gathered a diverse range of views, alumni and students around user experience
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.
”Don’t stress and remember your fellow students”
The lively discussion between students and experts in the field was considered a highlight of the course. Practical tips provided by the visiting alumni were also valued.
“Planning the future should not be something to stress about. The more different experiences you dare to seek during your studies, the more you have to work with and put to practice in the future,” says visiting alumna on the course and service designer Tia Sistonen.
“When studying, it is good to try out different things and focus on what excites you. This also increases the likelihood of finding work among matters that you find inspiring. Working with your teeth grit is hardly the key to the best work results, either!” Saiku concurs.
The course visitors also point out that interests outside work and studies are also important and require attention. Student activities and networks established during studies were also deemed important by the visiting alumni.
“I started a company with a person I knew from studies because we wanted the freedom to develop our expertise in a direction we believe in and find exciting,” says Laura Snellman-Junna, an alumna of Helsinki University of Technology and entrepreneur in the field of software consulting.
Communication with companies should start during bachelor studies
Many of the course’s visiting experts were from a corporate environment, which students found particularly valuable. Business perspectives on the user experience are central, but students seldom get an opportunity to ask detailed questions directly from those working in the corporate world, as companies often have non-disclosure agreements and business secrets.
“It was great to see how relaxed the atmosphere of the course was, despite the restrictions,” Tsupari and Peltomäki state.
On the other hand, it is good to remember that working for public organisations is also common in the field, and customers operate in a variety of settings. Course discussions revealed significant growth in the field of user experience, along with its growing social impact.
“Design methods are already being applied to multiple contexts, but the public sector, along with social innovation and development projects need more professionals,” says designer and visiting alumnus on the course Nicolas von Flittner.
The course’s student participants found the encounters between students and those working in the corporate environment meaningful and as something that should actively be promoted in the future as well – through career courses such as this one.
Consultant Sistonen also looks back on her time as a student and highlights the importance of joint projects with companies during her studies. The course guests, for their part, saw the career course as a singlehandedly positive experience.
“It was a pleasure to provide guidance, see what today’s students are like and discover the tools and methods younger people currently work with,” Sistonen summarises.
“I would hope that Aalto provided more such courses, perhaps already for bachelor-level students. At that stage, many are still in the process of considering what they want to include in their studies,” Peltomäki and Tsupari point out.
Contact information for the research group
Research group: Human-centred health informatics
Prof. Johanna Kaipio, Tel. +358505936822, [email protected]
Tia Sistonen, service designer
I studied at Helsinki University of Technology’s Department of Architecture during 1997–2007 and the University of Art and Design Helsinki’s Department of Industrial Design during 2000–2009. Currently, I work as a service designer at Roger Studio while also managing the development of our employee experience. I ended up in my current workplace through old contacts, and I have happily worked there for five years now.
My interest in usability research was sparked by curiosity, and I felt that the field was a natural starting point education-wise and an important area of expertise for future work purposes. I find my current work as a consultant inspiring: I constantly find new horizons on different industries, companies, target groups, themes and technologies.
Development in our field is fast these days, and it seems that there is always something new to learn and explore. To current students I would say: boldly try out new things and apply for interesting, perhaps even surprising combinations of subjects. It is also useful to invest time and effort in doing things together with your peer students and getting involved in different student activities.
Nicolas von Flittner, designer
I am a designer and completed my bachelor studies at the University of Art and Design Helsinki during 2000–2003 and a Master’s Programme in International Design Business Management (IDBM). The IDBM study programme integrates design and technology with global business development.
I currently work for a company called Scope Impact, a consultancy that specialises in social impact. I began my work as a design lead as a freelancer in January 2016 after returning to Finland from Istanbul. In my work I manage a variety of development projects, and I have primarily carried out projects related to women and children’s health services in India and Nepal. In the last 1.5 years, I have worked, for example, on a project aiming to teach design methods in two Nigerian states (Niger and Lagos).
We have created different courses for healthcare instances that work under the local government as well as for the employees of their partner organisations.
In these projects, I am involved in the development of the design strategy and manage, for my part, the collaboration with different stakeholders, along with research and development. My current work provides me with challenges, as the projects we carry out are funded by foundations and targeted for the development of services for developing countries and communities, often in a country and culture foreign to us. On the other hand, I find the work very rewarding, because I believe in the power and efficiency of design methods and enjoy working with stakeholders a lot.
Inkeri Saiku, usability specialist
I studied usability and human-centred IT systems at Helsinki University of Technology’s Master’s Programme in Information Networks during 2009–2014 and electrical engineering in 2007–2009. Currently, I work as a healthcare IT system usability specialist at Oy Apotti Ab. Previously I worked as a project manager for HUS (Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa), but I wanted to return to more practical tasks in usability. I enjoy working in the field of healthcare, in particular. My tasks include usability testing and designing usability trainings.
When I began my studies in electrical engineering, I had not even heard of information networks or usability. Yet after a year, I understood that I was not as enthusiastic about, say, the internal workings of a speaker as my fellow students.
What was interesting about a speaker was its buttons, i.e. user interface and how easily it could be used. I attended several classes at Helsinki University of Technology and found the courses on information networks to be most interesting, which made me change my study plan. I wanted to do work that makes people happy and less frustrated with technology. During my studies, I discovered that the effects of usability in the healthcare sector can be much more significant than simply avoiding momentary irritation, and I decided to explore this aspect further. There are many angles and roles from which to approach increased usability in healthcare.