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June 19, 2019
User research overlaps with pedagogy in a few surprising ways.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 is a Growth Marketer at User Interviews. Obsessed with languages, writing, learning, spreadsheets, and bad puns.
Interviewing & Research Skills
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“Interviewing Users” has in-depth advice for in-person interviews. Learn how to translate those insights to remote interviews and better interview prep.