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Mastering user experience

August 26, 2018

ASU now offers master's degree in latest digital field that touches everything we do with technology


Wait. Type it in again. Pretty sure that was right —


And so the cursing begins, swiftly followed by a search to find somewhere on the page that’s not a nightmare.

In the digital age, we’ve all been down the maddening rabbit hole of a bad user experience. When the user experience, or UX, isn't intuitive and well-designed, people leave, never to come back, like cats avoiding a house where small children live. 

And in a world where retail e-commerce is predicted to become a $4 trillion market by 2020, bad user experience is death for businesses.

Arizona State University now offers a master’s degree in the field, as well as several undergraduate options.

“User experience is everything,” said Christina Carrasquilla, a program faculty member and lecturer in graphic information technology. “If it’s not functioning right or if you’re pushing it and you’re not getting any response or things aren’t where you think they should be, you’re having an experience that’s outside of what it was meant to help you with. … Industry is just starting to realize that it’s the overall experience that has the bigger effect on our product or service than the thing itself.”

The master’s degree is a combination of three fields that overlap and were already offered at ASU. User experience is a cross-disciplinary field, composed of graphic information technology, technical writing and communication, and human systems engineering.

“It’s an opportunity for us to bring them together and give a more well-rounded education to these students,” lecturer Susan Squire said. “The students are out there getting jobs. There’s a high demand for these jobs.”

Some companies call them researchers or architects or developers. Google calls user-experience engineers project managers. “All of us call it something different, but we’re all talking about the same thing,” Carrasquilla said.

Companies are hungry to improve their user experiences. They know they’re not meeting customer needs, and they don’t know how to improve the experience. Many aren’t even sure who does that type of work.

“Everyone sort of plays this game of Not It,” said faculty member Andrew Mara, an associate professor who teaches technical writing and communication.

Coming in as the face of a new field can have its own pitfalls. Grad students in the program will be prepared for what Mara calls the “'Because I said so’ moment.”

“When you’re in these board meetings, everyone thinks they know what the user really wants and it’s a (competition) over who’s higher up on the org chart,” he said. “Actually demonstrating with data, and how you present that data — that’s convincing. Not just a chart of numbers, but what’s the story? How do we make it real to everyone in that room so it’s not about egos anymore?”

There are a lot of angles to come from: color theory, design theory, stories people tell about the product, psychological insights.

“That’s one of the things we want to arm our people with is how you best present your work,” Carrasquilla said. “‘Users really like this.’ But employers don’t typically care about what users like or how they feel, but they understand ‘This is costing you money’ or ‘People aren’t coming to buy our product.’”

They cited Amazon as a business with an excellent user experience. It has a ton of information, but it’s easy to find things. User experience is more than a well-thought-out website, though. Even if you’re on the web, you are still in a place — at your office or on a bus or a restaurant. Ever go to a website at the office and some horribly inappropriate ad or video begins blasting?

“If it had been decided with a user-experience person in mind, they would have said: This is a website that’s most likely to be visited by a person at work,” Carrasquilla said.

Eventually it won’t be called the user experience, Mara said. It will just be the way business is done.

“You have to,” he said. “If you don’t address real needs and real wants from people using your product, you won’t survive.”

Only a handful of colleges teach user experience. There’s a marked need for senior positions requiring five years’ experience, but few people have that much under their belts.

Some of the graduate students who have enrolled for the fall are already working in the field, said Carrasquilla. Some of them have quit full-time jobs to enroll in the program. “They are like, ‘No, I need this. I’ve been looking for this. I’ve been looking for something, but nothing fits the bill,’” she said.

“We just want to put them back in the cockpit for a couple of years so they can take what they already know, expand on it, get a vocabulary for it, learn how to talk to people and lead a team, then get back out and develop the industry,” Mara said.

Eventually the master’s degree — which is offered jointly through the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering — also will be available online.

Top photo: Associate Professors Andrew Mara and Claire Lauer and Assistant Professor Stephen Carradini (right) demonstrate on Aug. 7 how the Tobii Pro eye-tracking software works that is being used in a UX research experiment at the Polytechnic campus. The new user-experience degree will allow students to become prepared to work in user-experience areas of research, user-centered design, information design, usability analysis and more. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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McCain’s legacy at ASU one of philanthropy and service

Crow: McCain never wavered in belief of inherent strength, goodness of America.
August 26, 2018

From namesake McCain Institute to cybersecurity and sustainability projects, senator was connected throughout university

Editor's note: For additional in-depth coverage and commentary on the life of Sen. John McCain, please visit Also, President Michael Crow speaks on CNN about the senator. 

John McCain represented Arizona for 35 years, and his legacy has touched Arizona State University through philanthropy, public service and community projects.

McCain died Saturday after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. The war hero, who was a Republican, was 81 years old.

“The entire Arizona State University community joins the nation in mourning the loss of Sen. John McCain,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “Sen. McCain had an extraordinary impact on this university, the state of Arizona, our nation and the world. He represented the best of America, and his passing leaves a void that will not easily be filled.

“It’s been said many times before, but bears repeating now: Sen. McCain is a true America hero. He dedicated his life to serving this great nation, never wavering in his belief in the inherent strength and goodness of America and its promise. He believed that our greatest assets could be found in the most unlikely places, and that the values that unite us as Americans are far greater than that which divides us.”

The U.S. senator met with students last summer as part of the Rio Salado 2.0 project, an initiative to transform the riverbed that runs through the Valley. He told the students he supported the project because he was starting to think about his legacy.

“We want to make this an example to the rest of the state, as well as the nation,” he said at the August 2017 event. “I’ll tell you whose plan it is, and who is going to make it work, and that’s ASU.”

McCain’s most visible connection to ASU is the namesake McCain Institute for International Leadership, a nonprofit and nonpartisan education and research center based in Washington, D.C. The center was launched in 2012 with a $9 million gift from the McCain Institute Foundation, a charitable trust founded by McCain, and provides internship opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. In 2017 it hosted 20 events on human trafficking, international security, and leadership, and partnered with 31 organizations in the U.S. and around the world.

“My heart is so deeply heavy given the passing of Sen. John McCain, who I am ever proud to have had as a dedicated mentor,” said Ambassador Kurt Volker, executive director of the McCain Institute. “He was a giant, the likes of which few our country have seen. His character, values and example impacted the world over, with much of his immense positive influence on leaders, emerged and emerging, still to come. Our prayers and condolences are with his incredible family, which sustained him, and endures.” 

LEARN: Senator, his wife envisioned McCain Institute as unique think tank

McCain visited ASU’s campuses several times in recent years to share his expertise on international and domestic politics, sometimes in blunt terms. In August 2017, he was at the Polytechnic campus to speak at the first ASU Congressional Conference on Cybersecurity, where he warned that the White House needs a plan to combat hacking: “I can assure you our enemies are not junior varsity. … If they’re able to change the results of a presidential election, then they’re able to change democracy.”

In February 2016, McCain sat for a public interview with Jeffrey Cunningham, host of the “Iconic Voices” video series, at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the downtown Phoenix campus.

In the conversation, he lamented the high rate of student debt among millennials and worried about terrorist attacks on American soil. Yet he remained optimistic: “My friends, America is the greatest and strongest nation on Earth. Have no doubt about it.”

In October 2016, McCain visited the Arizona PBS studio in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the downtown Phoenix campus to debate his Democratic opponent, Ann Kirkpatrick. The following month, he defeated Kirkpatrick to secure his sixth term in the U.S. Senate.

ASU is also home to the McCain Collection. In 2012, the senator donated his papers to the university. In the next few months, 800 boxes of materials including records, photographs and correspondence dating back to 1983 will be shipped from his offices in Washington, D.C., to ASU Library, where they will be accessible to scholars, historians and the public.

“Throughout his life Sen. McCain demonstrated an irrepressible spirit that would lead him to take on some of the greatest challenges of our time,” Crow said. “He inspired the nation with his character-driven leadership and steadfast commitment to promoting freedom, democracy, national security and human rights.

“We will remember Sen. McCain as a fighter. Never one to back down from a challenge, he saw opportunity where others saw obstacles. Whether working with colleagues across the political spectrum, taking difficult positions on important issues, or showing up when it counted most, Sen. McCain understood that real leadership takes courage. And more, even in defeat, which he faced after the 2008 presidential election, he showed the nation graciousness and provided us all a compelling, unifying example.”

McCain is survived by his wife, Cindy McCain, who sits on the McCain Institute’s Human Trafficking Advisory Council. The council worked with ASU students in 2014 to launch a chapter of All Walks Project, a student-led nonprofit organization focused on raising awareness of domestic sex trafficking.

ASU Foundation CEO Gretchen Buhlig said the institute will carry on McCain’s legacy.

“John McCain was an exemplary leader — through his heroism in Vietnam, his tireless work on behalf of the people of Arizona in the U.S. Congress, and with his commitment to be a steadfast voice on behalf of human rights, the next generation of international leaders, and victims of human trafficking around the world,” she said.

“He was a leader for the ASU community as well, inviting us to partner with him in the creation of the McCain Institute for International Leadership. We will continue to empower the institute to be as influential and positive a force as its namesake.”

Top photo: Sen. John McCain discusses Rio Salado 2.0 on ASU's Tempe campus Aug. 25, 2017. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now