UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 512 April 6, 2010

Explaining UX Design to High Schoolers

How do UX designers tell their story in a relevant, meaningful way, to audiences who have no exposure to UX? UX practitioners are keenly aware that everything we use in our lives was designed by someone. But outside of our industry (and related ones), most people aren't aware of the many decisions that were made (or not made) on their behalf when a product or service was designed.

I started exploring this issue about communicating the value of UX a little over a year ago in my podcast, Tea with Teresa. One of the highlights from my show was a conversation with Jesse James Garrett called "What the Heck Is User Experience Design??!! (And Why Should I Care?)" That podcast laid a great foundation for explaining UX to new audiences. But I decided I wanted to push the challenge of communication even further and see if I could explain UX design to a particularly difficult audience: high schoolers. I figured if I could make UX meaningful and relevant to these kids, I could probably explain it to anyone.

So I approached my friend Ben Chun about doing a presentation to his Introduction to Programming class at Galileo High School in San Francisco. He thought this would be a great start to a project they'd embark upon this year: designing an educational computer game for 5th graders. My goal was to prepare them for that project by communicating two key things:

 

 

    1. Make things for people.

 

  • Those people aren't you.

 

 

 

Before the class, Ben warned me about the attention span of his students, and boy was he right. The thing about high school kids is they won't pretend to be interested if you've lost them. Adults at a conference will gaze forward in your general direction, but high school kids will just put their head on the table and go to sleep. If you ever want to get a real gauge of how interesting a speaker you are (or how well you're really communicating), I highly recommend it, humbling as it is.

Not everything I tried worked (I got some heads on the table a few times), but a few tactics and explanations seemed to strike a chord with them, and I thought I'd share them here:

1. Funny examples of design failing out in the world (from FailBlog.org)

Pepsi machine FAIL

 

2. Interacting with a product or service should feel like a good conversation. Who wants to deal with a person or thing that ignores you?

Person ignoring you

Or that is self-absorbed when you interact with it?

Self-absorbed person

For an adult audience I would have used going out on a date as an example (an idea I got from Jesse James Garrett) but since high school kids don't really go on formal dates (or so their teacher told me!), I changed it to a conversation.

3. Before you make something, learn about the people who will use it. Otherwise, it'll feel and turn out like:

  • Trying to buy a present for someone you don't know, like your uncle's boss.
  • Making dinner for someone you don't know. What if they are a vegetarian but you made steak?

4. People like and need different things. So it's important to find out what those wants and needs are. For example, during Rachel Hinman's project "90 Mobiles in 90 Days," her niece designed a mobile phone with the features she really wanted, like:

Child's mobile app concept

  • A snail button that turns into Barbie when pushed
  • A screen with a swimming pool inside
  • Snow White always attached by golden string
  • A red button that, when pushed, makes the phone turn into anything
  • A Snow White store and a candy store attached

Key point: Not everyone wants a snail button that turns into Barbie!

5. The user is not you, so don't design for yourself. I ran an activity to show how different we are:

  1. Three people are asked to leave the room and are not told why.
  2. One at a time they are invited back in, asked to sit and close their eyes, then asked to describe the room in detail.
  3. The rest of the class takes note of how each person values/pays attention to very different things.

6. Find out what the user really wants or needs (user research). A sticky note affinity diagramming activity was helpful for this:

  1. Everyone gets a sticky note pad and has five minutes to write as many questions as they can for the potential users of a pretend product they are making.
  2. We post all questions on a wall together, cluster questions that are about the same topic, discuss, and agree upon a key set of ten questions.

Turns out the kids loved the race to write as many questions as they could in the time limit. Ben said you almost never have a room of focused, quiet teenagers like we had during that activity. He also wrote about this exercise on his blog, And It Moves: Adventures In Teaching and Technology.

Those are some of the highlights from my attempt to make the complex simple for an audience that had never heard of UX before. As I continue in this exploration of communicating the value of UX, I'd love to expand my tool kit by hearing about exercises, analogies, and other approaches any of you have had success with. Please share here!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

As Design Education Strategist for Cooper, Teresa Brazen pulls from her experience across many disciplines (film, design, journalism) to inspire curriculum, teach, and build community. Her passion is teaching others how to cultivate healthy, inspired cultures within projects, teams and organizations—no matter what their role. Through her current work as a trainer (Cooper) and previous experience in program management (Adaptive Path), she's had the unique privilege of collaborating with, nurturing, and empowering teams from a broad range of industries: global financial institutions, Silicon Valley startups, and everything in-between. She also created and programs the Cooper Parlor event series, a monthly gathering of designers and design advocates to exchange ideas and push the potential for design.

In her free time, she also continue her work as an artist. In her short films and artwork, she explores how people navigate experiences like love, secrecy, and judgment. In her podcast series, she interviews people at the edges of industry and culture. She's obsessed with uncovering what makes people tick and exposing our shared humanity…in service of fostering a bit more empathy in the world. More about Teresa at TeresaBrazen.com and @TeresaBrazen.

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Comments

28
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Hi, Thomas. Thanks for the note...

I had to laugh aloud when you mentioned that failblog link goes to the wrong site (talk about fail!) -- I'll get that fixed ASAP. Thanks for letting me know.

And, yes, high school kids are savvy and can teach us a few things...they'll also call adults out on B.S., which I appreciate. Like I said, if you are a boring speaker, you find out verrrrrrrry quickly. Lol.

Take care,

Teresa

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Great article. I really like your sticky note affinity diagramming activity.

Today's high school kids are so UX/UI savvy. They definitely know what they want. Even young kids will tell you scrolling horizontally on a website is a pain and small buttons are a difficult to click.

BTW, your link to failblog goes to failblog.com instead of failblog.org.

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Tristan,

When I first got involved in the UX industry I had the same "Wow...everything around me was made by someone" moment. That revelation was pretty amazing and obvious all at the same time. Once I got that, I saw the world differently. I also started to see how poorly designed much of the world is - at least in relationship to the human beings that interact with it. To your points, the more teachers (and the rest of us) can do to help others become attuned to the fact that "nearly every aspect of the modern environment has been touched by human intention", the better. I couldn't agree more.

It never occurred to me that in such a media-rich world, media studies should be mandatory in education. I was a journalism major in school, so that was a given for me. But, you're absolutely right -- while media studies can't reduce media manipulation completely, it could definitely curb it.

Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts. You got my mind moving.

Teresa

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..."I do think it's important that teachers share the general concept of making things for people. If more kids learned that earlier, I do believe in the future we'd end up with products and services that are far superior than what we currently experience."'

Well put. I couldn't agree more. If the function of eduction is to teach young humans how to survive in the world of adult humans (which nowadays is almost entirely artificial/manmade), I'd think that the subjects of design and engineering would be at least as important as history, social studies, and science. (I also feel that media studies should be required high school curricula...people are too easily manipulated by the media if they don't understand how it works.)

I distinctly remember the moment, early in my career when I first started working with designers, when I was walking on a street in San Francisco and noticed that EVERYTHING was designed. Even though I'd studied film in college, it had never really occurred to me that nearly every aspect of the modern environment as been touched by human intention. I gained a newfound appreciation of the mundane items that surround and guide us: street signs, the layout of sidewalks and curbs, the patterns of electrical service conduits on the side of buildings.

(Obviously, I'm using the term "design" in its broadest sense.)

Fantastic post Teresa! Looking forward to more stories about how to explain UX to a broader audience. Even most of the software engineers I work with still don't really get it.

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Hi, Jacob. Thanks for the note.

While the analogies I used were aimed at a high school audience (they were my test subjects!), I do agree that they are appropriate for any age bracket that is learning about UX.  I walked away from that experience thinking that I wouldn't really need to adjust my deck for a presentation at a conference, actually.

It's hard to say what long term impact there might be. I kept my message simple (1. Make things for people 2. Those people are not you) and returned to it throughout my presentation in an attempt to embed those ideas in their brain. I know short-term my talk directly impacted the way that the high school kids approached a subsequent project (designing a game for 5th graders). But, their teacher, Ben, told me that you never know what will really impact a student -- sometimes, years later, he'll hear from someone with a story about how a class shaped a later career choice, etc. And, often, he'll never hear or know. 

That said, I do think it's important that teachers share the general concept of making things for people. If more kids learned that earlier, I do believe in the future we'd end up with products and services that are far superior than what we currently experience. Also, consumers should demand better experiences -- and if we teach kids that early on, it's more likely to happen...especially when they make it into the work force.

Teresa

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Interesting article. Sounds like quite a fulfilling activity for you. I think all of your ideas are great for anyone to get a better understanding of UX.

What do you think will be the long term impact of your lessons on these kids? Are their teachers trying to get them to incorporate a good UX into their designs? Hopefully it won't be too much longer until schools realise importance of teaching this kind of information and start doing something about it.