Google, University of Michigan, California Institute of the Arts. These are the three "big names" when it comes to UX self-study. My LinkedIn is constantly filled with debates on which one is worth your time, money, and effort, but it's clear that most people just advocate for whichever one they've taken.
Why take any at all?
I completed these certifications on Coursera. It took me about 9 months, dozens of hours, and a good chunk of energy. But what's the point?
In case this is your first time meeting me, I'm not a typical designer: my role is UX Writer/Content Strategist. I took these courses, not because I wanted to become a designer, but because I wanted to:
have a deeper understanding of basic UX principles; and
understand where my designer & PM colleagues are coming from.
You can find more about why design is important to UX writing in other posts in my blog; it's a topic I'm passionate about and always advocating for. But for the sake of this comparison, let's focus on the ways these certifications can help you grow as any sort of UX professional.
What are the options?
Probably the most well-known program, Google's track is called "UX Design Certificate." It consists of 7 courses, starting with basic UX principles before moving into wireframes, low- and high-fidelity prototypes, and portfolio creation. You'll leave with three ready-to-go case studies, and a high-visibility certificate. There's also a LinkedIn group for anyone who's completed the program.
I recommend this program if you're fairly new to the word of UX; the assignments and quizzes are time consuming but clearly explained, and there are plenty of opportunities to network. My LinkedIn profile started getting a lot more hits when I completed the program, and opened other veins of conversation with coworkers who were curious about my experience. You'll also get some bonus content about accessibility, biases, and cultural differences in the workplace. And if you need some guidance in Figma or Adobe XD, this is a great place to start.
A downside is that, due to its increasing popularity, some people in the course aren't actually trying to learn anything; they're uploading shoddy or incomplete work in order to plaster the certificate on their resume.
But, overall, the courses themselves are very professionally made, and are easy to follow. And, as a writer, I walked away with a clearer understanding of the principles designers on my team work with.
University of Michigan
The track is called "UX Research & Design Specialization." Heavy on the research. This is by far the most work-intensive tracks of the three, all 6 courses demanding quizzes, multiple assignments, and participation in discussion forums.
But it was also the most rewarding. The instructors place a lot of stock into user interviews, surveys, testing, etc., and show you how to conduct them properly. They go over faulty data analytics, wrong assumptions, and the different benefits of quantitative and qualitative research.
You won't even touch Figma until a couple courses in, but your sketchbook will fill up pretty quickly. One of the first assignments is to come up with twenty design ideas for an elevator that services 10,000 floors. These sorts of brainstorming exercises were the most helpful part of the whole experience.
California Institute of the Arts
Yeah, it's artsy. CalArt's "UI/UX Design Specalization" consists of 4 courses, most of which focus on the visual aspects of design. There are some light touches on information hierarchy and research, but in general, this is where you can learn about color theory, perspective ratios, and other important-sounding concepts.
Unsurprisingly, this specialization really is geared more directly towards "actual" designers. Its focus is on making it work, and making it look good, both of which are vital to good design. Still, I found it useful as a writer; if an idea is dismissed because "it goes against design principles," I can now ask, "Which one?" Our conversation has just expanded tenfold, and we can go deeper into the dilemma.
Courses here are less professional than the previous two (not having the fancy backgrounds and sound quality), but the information is of the same caliber. A lot of the videos also focus on case studies; you'll actually see the instructor sit with students and talk through their latest iteration of a design.
All that being said, this course is good for beginners if you're unsure about the traditional sense of design, i.e. how to make things look good. But if you need more insight into the meat of design (how to make things work well), give one of the others a go first.
So what should I do?
Hopefully it's clear that there's no one-size-fits-all. Where are the gaps in your knowledge? Where do you want to grow? Figure that out first, then decide which resources meet that need.
And a final caveat: specializations can't replace experience, practice, mentorship, etc. But they're a great way to supplement your weak spots (we've all got 'em) and make you an even better UX professional.