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BlogInterviewing & Research Skills

Looking for UX Research Advice? Ask a Teacher

User research overlaps with pedagogy in a few surprising ways.

JP Allen

Hi! I’m JP, the new Growth Marketer at User Interviews. I’ll be working to find new ways to connect with our customers, bring new people into the UIverse, and give current customers more reasons to do more research with us. I’m excited to be part of a company that helps creative people test ideas and build better products.

The path that led me here was a winding one: I worked on the NYC Mayor’s speechwriting team; did driver and passenger marketing for a ridesharing app; and, most recently, got an MFA and a few poetry fellowships.

My role at User Interviews draws on all these experiences in different ways (don’t worry—you won’t start seeing lifecycle emails in limerick form). As I dive into the field of UX research, I’m surprised by how closely UXR aligns with another one of my previous jobs: teaching.

I’ve taught writing and literature students from 5th grade through undergrad. While I’m far from the most experienced teacher, my time in front of classrooms has gotten me noticing connections between good UX and good teaching: both require listening to and acting on user (student) feedback, communicating clearly through writing and visuals, iterating rapidly, and working to constantly improve within an uncertain environment.

Plenty of teachers, pedagogy experts and ed-thinkers have seen these links too; learning experience (LX) design is even becoming its own subfield of UX.

While that’s exciting to see—I’m all about more UX in any field!—much of what’s been written about LX focuses on what educators can learn from UX, not the other way around. I’d like to make the case that UX researchers can learn a lot from teachers.

Jules Dylan Bennett, a UX/UI designer at Fjord, has argued that “every UX team should have a teacher on it.” Education and related fields popped up regularly in the undergrad and graduate majors of designers who participated in User Interviews’ 2018 State of User Research report. Clearly, folks are bringing skills and experiences from teaching over to UX.

I might be biased. Both of my parents are teachers, and I’ve had some great teachers in my life. But, since UXR is all about questioning and biases, I figured I’d lay out my reasoning here. So, for UX researchers looking to get perspective from other experts in designing engaging experiences, here are five key UXR principles that teachers practice every day.

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1. Weave together written, visual, and interactive content

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.

This quotation, attributed to Ben Franklin, recently came up in User Interviews’ discussion with UX expert Nicola Rushton. This applies to UX design itself (a block of text will never be as effective an interactive tour), and to research, which is all about getting into direct contact with users.

It also applies to teaching. My parents, both Spanish teachers, have incorporated formats as diverse as acting, drawing, listening, speaking, games, and smartphone apps into their pedagogy. This kaleidoscope of techniques helps keep students engaged and, even more importantly, helps them retain more information by appealing to multiple senses and learning styles.

As a small anecdcote, in a Portuguese class I took in college, the professor had us mill around the room and bump into each other over and over, repeating a phrase for “excuse me” that happened to include key aspects of pronunciation. No matter how rusty my Portuguese gets, I’ll always remember what I learned in those 5 minutes of awkward, highly-involved interaction.

2. Don’t just ask questions—ask the right ones

It’s not enough to simply seek feedback. To provide actionable insight, research questions need to be mindfully structured.

If there’s one thing teachers universally despise, it’s end-of-term student evaluations. That doesn’t mean teachers are data- or change-averse. Far from it: when teachers complain about evaluations, they’re really critiquing bad research design. A common eval question such as “rate the quality of the instructor from 1 to 5” might be useful for principals (though even that’s debatable), but it provides little “specific, actionable, and practical” data for lesson design.

There’s plenty of quantitative data teachers would love to have. I once taught an undergrad course in “The Art of Oratory.” Assuming most of my students would have relatively low confidence speaking in public, I designed a good chunk of the course around building comfort in front of audiences. However, just to make sure I wasn’t wrong, I handed out a survey on day 1 with 2 questions:

  • Rate your confidence with public speaking
  • What would you like to work on in this course? (I provided a few options and a write-in)

To my surprise, relatively few students felt they needed to get bolder, but almost everyone—even the real hams in the group—wanted to get better. The most popular answer in question 2 was “practical techniques for public speaking,” across all levels of confidence. Further, I learned that students specifically wanted to learn techniques for combining rhetoric with visual elements like slides. I tweaked my plans accordingly, and avoided designing experiences my users didn't actually want.

3. Turn insight into action

In research, it can be tempting to get feedback, tease out insights, build a snazzy report and… leave things at that. Actually integrating research into design can feel challenging (for tips on making it easier, check out our podcast). In teaching, however, feedback is immediate, and translating feedback into lesson design isn’t a choice but a necessity.

Just before starting at UI, I taught a 5-lesson mini-course on poetry in a high school. Each session was loosely organized around looking at a poem or poems, talking about how the texts were constructed, and then trying out a related technique in a writing prompt.

The first class, I bombed. Students were disengaged, confused, and frustrated, and no one wrote anything. I found myself “lecturing” too much—always a bad sign. I had to iterate or fail. Here’s some of what went through my mind:

These changes didn’t suddenly transform me into a perfect teacher, or awaken everyone’s love of words, Dead Poets Society-style. However, each change helped me meet students where they were, so we could better engage with writing together.

(decades of teaching experience and iteration not shown)

To be honest, writing out the table above felt oddly stiff, compared to the actual classroom feedback (body language, writing quality, and all the rest.). In a way, UX research seeks to replicate the natural feedback cycles of person-to-person interactions.

4. Don’t overlook qualitative data.

Even the most detailed, focused, actionable numbers won’t provide a complete picture of a user’s experience with a product. Quantitative data isn’t enough.

That’s as true for teachers as it is for designers. For two summers, I worked as a teacher/counselor at a week-long free creative-writing-focused summer camp for middle and high schoolers from Baltimore public schools. Like most nonprofits, WBS collects plenty of stats—to secure funding, comply with regulations, and refine curricula.

But in actually designing my portion of the lessons, I nearly made a huge mistake, which only got fixed because of qualitative feedback. I’d chosen to focus on activities that would generate a lot of new material. While that was helpful in the first day or two of camp (and for younger students), some older students felt frustrated by all the prompts—it felt too much like schoolwork, and this was supposed to be fun. Plus, many older kids who were writing on their own saw camp as a rare chance to work through ideas with mentors and peers. None of that would have occurred to me if a student hadn’t explained it in person.

A single piece of qualitative feedback—made possible by WBS’s general respect for student agency—had a bigger, more immediate impact on lesson design than any numbers could have.

5. Embrace uncertainty.

Two words: middle schoolers. For a year, I co-taught an afterschool writing program at a combined elementary/middle school. Kids being kids, our numbers varied wildly based on factors including the weather, inter-student drama, the status of the school’s AC system, and who could best persuade their clique to tag along. On any given afternoon, we could end up with 1 student or 12. A few times, one kid even brought his 6-year-old little brother (neither could be picked up until later in the afternoon, so the younger brother was put in the older brother’s care). Being able to adjust to whatever the day threw at us (and collaborating with each other to find solutions) was essential.

Accepting uncertainty and variability—and being humble and vulnerable about the teacher/researcher’s level of control—opens up potential for new ideas. Some of the simpler, more active lessons we planned for the 3rd-grader, like cutting up magazines and inventing verbal/visual collage-stories about the people in the pictures, turned out to be highly adaptable to older audiences. In other words, "get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

One last thought

While startups are often seen as the authorities on all things innovative, it’s important to remember that plenty of organizations and people have been building what we now call “user experiences” since long before the invention of the computer. In highlighting a few overlaps between UX research and teaching, I hope to offer UXers some food for thought, and to honor the complex work of teaching.

JP Allen

Growth Marketer

JP Allen is a Growth Marketer at User Interviews. Obsessed with languages, writing, learning, spreadsheets, and bad puns.

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