• Explaining User Experience Design to High Schoolers (and other new audiences)

    How do user experience designers tell their story in a relevant, meaningful way, to audiences who have no exposure to user experience design (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 starting 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 user experience 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, CA. 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.

    2. 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 with you:

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

    2. Interacting with a product or service should feel like a good conversation.

    Who wants to deal with a person or thing that acts like this when you interact with it:

    (Ignores you)

    (Is self-absorbed)

    For an adult audience I would have used 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 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:

    1. Snail button that turns into Barbie when pushed

    2. Screen with swimming pool inside

    3. Snow White always attached by golden string

    4. A red button that when pushed, makes the phone turn into anything

    5. Snow White store and 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.

    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. Finding out what the user really wants or needs (user research)

    Sticky note activity:

    1. Everyone gets a sticky note pad and has 5 minutes to write as many questions as they can for the potential users of a pretend product they are making.

    2. Post all questions on a wall together, cluster questions that are about the same topic, discuss, and agree upon a key set of 10 questions.

    Turns out the kids loved the race to write as many questions as they could in a 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 user experience before. I learned a lot about which of my explanations really make sense to others. And as I continue in this exploration of communicating 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!

    There are 17 thoughts on this idea

    1. Håkan Reis

      This is just brilliant.

      Whenever I have to explain UX to people I should point them to this post from now on.

    2. Craig Tomlin

      LOL, “high schoolers don’t date?” I’m having a bit of a chuckle over that one – guess I should have told that to my 15 year old daughter and all her friends!

      Teresa, really nice post and great ideas – I love how you modified your presentation for the audience – a tough one this time.

      I think from now on if I’m at a conference and the speaker is boring I’m just going to lay my head down in my lap – and get my friends to do it too. Great visual way to tell the presenter to get their act together.

      Thanks for your post.

    3. Teresa Brazen

      Lol! Craig — I don’t think I was very clear in my post. What I meant was that supposedly high schoolers don’t really go on formal “dates”. They are more likely to “hang out”. You’ll have to check in with your 15 year old and let me know if that is right! Meanwhile, I just went back and altered my post to read:

      “but since high school kids don’t really go on formal dates (or so their teacher told me!),”


      And, if we all laid our heads down when speakers were boring, we’d probably get a lot more interesting conference content….there’s something to be said about the transparency of a teenager. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment.

    4. Omid Elliyoun

      Wonderful post Teresa, Thanks! Fun and inspiring,I really liked your “making dinner and buying a present” examples.

    5. Teresa Brazen

      Thanks…I hope it helps. The process certainly helped me…

    6. Teresa Brazen

      You’re welcome, Omid. Thanks for the feedback, and I hope the examples prove useful to you, as well…

    7. Teresa Brazen

      Lol. I couldn’t answer that since I don’t have any high school friends, myself. And maybe we were wrong. Either way, the point was really just that good experiences with products/services often mimic good interpersonal relations between human beings.

    8. Stephen James

      “high school kids don’t really date?”

      When did this change? (from a 27 year old)

    9. Sally Carson

      If you’ll permit me to post a link to my own site, I recently did a write-up with a similar goal in mind: writing to an audience of high school kids, trying to explain what skills and attributes could be an indicator that they might enjoy doing User Experience Design. For simplicity, I called it “web design” in the article. The article is called Wanna do Web Design?

      The article was also a great writing exercise for me — trying to write simply, concisely, in a friendly voice to an audience that is not necessarily all that engaged in what I have to say.

    10. Berthold

      So you used images that conveyed what you were talking about more vividly than boring data. You involved your audience, let them turn your monologue into a dialogue. You kept it simple so everbody would understand you. And you tried to keep it interesting by giving real life examples, so your audience wouldn’t get bored.

      What does this have to do with high school kids I wonder? Wouldn’t you use this strategy in every presentation?

    11. Teresa Brazen

      Hi, Berthold. Thanks for the note, and good questions. First, yes, absolutely, I hope you would try to use some of the strategies I used in every presentation.

      But, there were a few other specific reasons I gave this presentation to the high school class and wrote the subsequent post:

      1. To expose the students to user experience design. None of them had heard of it before. 

      2. To give the students a very basic foundation in user experience design that would then set them up for a bigger project (designing an educational computer game for 5th graders).  The teacher, Ben Chun, used my class as a jumping off point for the project. You can read more about what came later on his blog post, Green Tea and Sticky Notes.

      3. To see how simply and effectively I could explain user experience design (turning the abstract into the concrete). Many people in this industry grapple with how to communicate what we do to those outside the industry, and I thought they might find a few of the simple analogies I used helpful.

      I also figured some people in the UX industry would simply find the story of teaching UX to a high school class interesting — because it’s simply not something most of us get to do very often. 🙂

      Anyway, sorry to hear the post wasn’t enlightening for you, but thanks for keeping the spirit of feedback alive on the web!


    12. Berthold

      Hey Teresa.

      I should have worded my comment better, I didn’t mean to sound rude. I think it’s great that you had this experience, that you distilled a bunch of rules and guidelines out of it and shared them with us. I’m terribly sorry if that didn’t come across.

      What I was trying to say was that as I watch more and more presentations, I find those most engaging that follow your rules. This approach shouldn’t be limited to talking to kids.

      There are exceptions of course, because some people are afraid of participating in talks for fear of looking silly in front of their peers and bosses. Then again, the sillier and easier-going your presentation is in the first place, the safer they feel to let go of inhibitions and really become absorbed with what you have to say.

      I love Leah Buley’s superhero brainstorming concept for instance, it’s so silly that it facilitates brainstorming to a great degree. And that’s really what is required during a talk: Letting go of the fact that you’re sitting on an uncomfortable chair next to your boss listening to somebody drone on and waiting for lunch break to make the best of the event. Becoming involved and interested in the topic.

      Again, my sincerest apologies if I didn’t make myself clear the first time. I really enjoyed reading your article and I think the information presented should be the 101 of every talk everywhere, high-school and Fortune-500.

    13. Teresa Brazen

      Hi, Berthold.

      Thanks for the nice note back. I agree that this general presentation approach would work for more than just kids (adults like to be engaged, too!). One of my takeaways after the class was that I probably wouldn’t need to change the presentation much for adults; it would still be very relevant.

      Participation and silliness are great tools — and Leah is a pro at keeping audiences engaged and making them comfortable. That’s probably also partially due to the fact that she doesn’t take herself too seriously, which makes both herself and her content more approachable.

      The most fun part of developing my talk was trying to think of really simple analogies anyone could relate to and relevant exercises to make it more hands-on; it was harder than I expected but worth doing because those ended up becoming the high points of the class.

      Surprisingly, the feedback I’ve gotten thus far about this post is that the most simple, basic part of my talk has turned out to be most helpful or interesting to folk:

      1. Make things for people

      2. Those people are not you.

      Thanks again for the follow up, Berthold! And, for the record, you are totally welcome to disagree with me or crit my posts, even if that wasn’t your intent. 🙂

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