Why education needs UX

I’m an education specialist, artist, mother of kids on the autism spectrum, entrepreneur and agile advocate and my current obsession is with User Experience Design. Why? I’m exploring how it can be used to promote inclusion, design better experiences and create more empathy. Mostly I’m looking at it in an education setting, but the more I look into it, the more I see its value everywhere for everyone. If you aren’t thinking about it yet, then you should be.

User Experience should inform everything we do. Lately I’ve been running workshops for learning support professionals and we have focused a lot on the end user’s experience with specific ‘lenses’ applied to how the learning activities are received. We have explored empathy mapping, positive partnership tools and self-advocacy voice gathering as a way to build a better picture of the end user (User personas). I’ve also been working with schools to apply a UDL (Universal Design for Learning) lens to all new curriculum planning. And it really is interesting that this is not yet the norm. Students with autism and other learning needs can struggle with sensory overload, overwhelm from too many tasks, transitions, executive functioning and more. Dyslexic students can have difficulty with fonts and contrast levels can be an issue for vison-impaired students. Recently when I was working with a primary school teacher on designing a new digital intervention for a literacy program, it was quite a major revelation that the LMS they were using may as well be in heiroglyphics. Why? Because it had word categories for navigation and the end user couldn’t read to navigate the sections and the instructions. In fact, one of the solutions we are now exploring is a ‘single click’ to a separate site that is ordered by colour and icons to make the activities accessible for the not-yet-literate students. Thinking of the end user with UX is so important.

Thinking ‘as’ the end user rather than ‘of’ the end user is not easy but is so useful to designing better products and removing barriers to learning. When I was working with another group of year 3 students on the floor with their chrome books, I (I feel stupid that I didn’t see this issue well in advance) realised that their screens were SO much smaller than the one that I had designed the activity for them on and that the interactive drag and drop activity was impossibly small to read. I also realised (as an added unusual consideration) that some of the chrome books were missing buttons. The challenges of the end user (albeit due to faulty hardware) completely changed the way that I tackled the learning design. My new and avid interest in User Experience Design is becoming interwoven through EVERYTHING. By applying UX principles to learning design as well as to product and service design, we can create experiences that are more intuitive, more accessible, and overall more inclusive for the end user.

One of the first principles of UXD is empathy. Empathy means that we need to be putting ourselves into someone else’s shoes to understand their needs, goals and pain points. We need to think of what they are thinking, feeling, doing and saying at each ‘touch point’. When we have more understanding of someone’s specific challenges and experiences, we can begin to design a better product or service to meet their needs. Yet we cannot make assumptions. For empathy mapping to be really useful we need to gather data, quantify and qualify experiences and really listen to what they need. We can think we are putting a lens of empathy on but oftentimes it is still guesswork. If you are not dyslexic, for example, can you really know how someone might be experiencing your written work? Or if you are not autistic, can you really know what it might be like to experience sensory overload when you show a video and talk at the same time? By understanding the unique challenges and experiences of specific individuals, we can design learning experiences that are actually suited to students’ needs.

I love a lot of colour personally – but if I were to design a website, app or slideshow for someone with colour blindness or dyslexia, I would need to reconsider my options. Bright colors, flashing lights, and red/green are ‘obvious’ to avoid, but what about overtly fancy fonts, indistinct contrast, greyscale images and text-heavy instructions? And what about for ‘standard’ users (without visionary requirements)?How can we reduce clicks? How can we make the experience easy to navigate? How can we go back easily? How is it rewindable? How do we know what success looks like? How might we make our product or experience a more accessible experience for all users? How do they even know what we want them to DO with it?

When I was teaching students about design principles for a Level Three Design course, the best outcomes came out of giving the students extremely specific user personas as imaginary stakeholders. I remember one workshop where we explored logo design processes for a beekeeping (made up) customer who hated yellow and didn’t believe in straight lines (odd for a beekeeper but a great design constraint). The resulting logo designs were truly exceptional – not yellow, not hexagonal, not ‘typical’ yet entirely suited to the customer’s needs. We need to think more like designers who really value the end user’s experience. It is not what I think will look good – it is actually about creating something that shows that I was listening and tuning in so that it is something that the end user will love. Specific limitations added to the design process can help to filter out all the noise of endless possibilities and can make designing more creatively charged. And it isn’t just logos or fashion that we should think about our end users for, it is not ‘things’ for users – it is user experiences.

UX design fits so nicely with agile methodology. It means that rapid prototyping and early sharing is part of the process. It means getting feedback during the mixing of the batter, before baking the cake and before icing it – well before serving it. Agile development is about process over product and about people over things. By involving users in the design process (collaboration!) and iterating based on their feedback, we can create products and services that are more effective and better suited to their needs. Teaching can be a form of agile development – we try something, we gather feedback, we tweak, we try again. UX is what informs the best tweaks.

UX design puts a lens on all things and begins to shine a light on biased design everywhere. As someone who is short (vertically challenged?) I know that I live in a tall people world. Most kitchen shelving is decorative for people like me. I am the one who taps strangers on the shoulder in the supermarket to ask them to reach something on the top shelf. I am also the one who hates tall chairs and tables in bars because it is never elegant when I jump off them. I am also the one that nearly needs a booster seat in a car because the driver’s seatbelt cuts into my neck and the seats are uncomfortable because I have to put the seat so far forward to reach the pedals. Being short can be a daily challenge (but this is not about me but thanks for the mini rant – it is about designing better) and I know that my mother boycotted a certain supermarket for the same reason. The conveyor belts were too high and it made it difficult for her to load her groceries. I can relate – if I am at the supermarket alone, I struggle to reach the last of the groceries at the back of the trolley. Does this make you think about trolley design differently? Or is it not your problem? What about supermarkets? What about cars? Who were they really designed for? Any chance you get to ‘see’ someone and see their experience with an empathy lens on can offer a unique perspective on the importance of user experience.

What about you? Is there something you find challenging but that you have never been given an opportunity to voice? Another personal experience that shapes my experience is being video-avoidant. I love movies and tv series (don’t misinterpret me here), but if I am seeking information I far prefer the written form over watching a video. I like to skim and re-read and read at my own pace. I don’t like video because it feels like it takes so long and makes me feel frustrated and impatient. If you were selling me something (or teaching me something) and you had a video message that was vital to get through to me – could you be guaranteed that I don’t skip to the end in disengaged frustration? In a world where video content is increasingly popular and communication is heavily focused on verbal language, this can be a challenge. It would be so great if all online courses also came as books (for me) and if universities and online learning providers could more actively consider the diverse needs and abilities of all users. By applying UX principles, we can create experiences that are more engaging, more likely to get our message through, more personalised, and more tailored to the specific needs and abilities of all end users.

UX design is human-centred empathy-wrapped real-world-real-thinking design. It’s data-driven, it’s driven by insights and it’s driven by empathy. By involving end users in the design process, by tuning in to their needs and welcoming their feedback, as a key refinement opportunity at every touchpoint, we can create products, experiences and services that are better suited to all needs and preferences. My research and exploration of UX and its potential to make education better comes from a personal connection to the need for inclusion. Human-centred design has the power to create positive change. UX is meant to stand for ‘user experience’ but I think it really should be ‘Universal X factor’ – the power it has to change how we do things is exponential.

User experience design needs to be applied to education
Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com – I chose this picture for its oblique inferred spectrum reference. I like the pink band of ‘makers and fixers’ and ‘service’ which could be where most educators sit.

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