What I Learned from Teaching UX, Part 1
Posted March 11th, 2013
This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of teaching Intro to UX for Girl Develop It (GDI) Philadelphia. The class was held in a beautiful multi-purpose space at First Round Capital in the University City neighborhood. About 30 women of various backgrounds attended. Many had little to no experience with UX. Most of the women worked in our field, but a few of them worked outside, such as one woman who's a PR specialist for a healthcare non-profit. I enjoyed teaching the class, and the student reviews were overwhelmingly positive. I even learned a few things along the way as well as what I can improve for the next class.
When I was asked to teach an intro to UX class, I was thrilled and excited. But then I realized that I only had 4 hours to teach my material, and I immediately thought where do I start? What should I teach? I knew from the beginning that I wanted to cover these core areas:
- User Research
- Information Architecture (IA)
- Interaction Design (IxD)
- Content Strategy (The Newly Discovered Half Sister of UX)
Phew, that's a lot to cover in 4 hours! After a few weeks of prep, more ideas stemmed. As any seasoned UX-er will tell you, the daily ins and outs of UX involves more than just the core areas above. So after infinite tweaks and several dry runs through my slides, here's what I ultimately covered.
I was inspired by Christina Wodtke's post on teaching UX for General Assembly. She decided early on that she would not teach tools; she would teach thinking and communicating design. Awesomesauce. I couldn't agree more.
My Curriculum in a Nutshell
- Overview of the Core Areas of UX (User Research, IA, IxD, and Content Strategy)
- UX Problem Solving
- Remembering that We're Always Designing for People, Not Requirements
- Being a Good Listener and Communicator
- Facilitating Collaboration Across a Team
Designing the Hospital Visitor Experience
I started the class by recalling a very personal (yet surprisingly positive) experience. A family member recently had major surgery at Cooper Hospital in Camden, New Jersey. Thankfully, that family member is doing really well and recovering quickly as I write this.
I talked about the waiting room experience the day of the surgery. I took off work that day to be at the hospital with the rest of my family, and needless to say, we were worried. However, as she went into surgery, I was astonished by the stellar design of the visitor experience.
The Waiting Area
We had a large, newly renovated, squeaky clean waiting room to spend the day in. Free coffee and tea was available, and a restaurant and cafe were just a short elevator ride away.
I especially liked the fact that the waiting room was loosely partitioned into sections. There were some open areas, but there were also a few "cubbies" with a few couches facing each other. This created a nice environment for families that wanted to congregate together and feel a sense of privacy.
Our family member was assigned a number just before surgery. Above the reception desk was a screen showing her number (along with other patient numbers) and the status of her surgery. So we knew exactly what stage of surgery she was in at all times. It made waiting a whole lot easier.
We Had a Pager
We had a pager, similar to what you'd get while waiting for a table at The Olive Garden, which buzzed when the surgeon was finished and ready to debrief with us. This also allowed hospital staff to reach us right away in the event of an emergency.
A Private Meeting Room
An adjacent, private meeting room was available for us to meet with the surgeon (who was, by the way, not only a highly respected physician, but a refreshingly warm and caring man). We could discuss her surgery in private, without having to worry about other closeby visitors hearing her dirty laundry. Wonderful!
My family was impressed with the entire experience. My sister said "this is really well planned out." My response was "I agree. This is good design."
My point to the class: Good designs like this don't happen by accident. A lot of thought went into this visitor experience. Whoever designed this experience knew exactly what the visitors needed and wanted while waiting for their loved ones.
The Core Areas of UX
I emphasized user research (interviews and usability testing) over the other areas, admittedly because I'm immersed in a user research study right now at AWeber, and it's fresh on my mind. I shared a few video and audio samples of user interviews, and I asked the class what we could derive from the needs articulated by these users. They surprised me by recognizing the same needs as my colleagues, and they offered a few additional interpretations as well.
IA and Content Strategy
I provided a very general overview of both disciplines, explaining that they're two sides of the same coin. I referenced the Polar Bear Book, Kristina Halvorson's Content Strategy for the Web, and Erin Kissane's The Elements of Content Strategy.
Interaction Design (IxD)
I really, really enjoy IxD as a part of the UX process. Finding the right design pattern to solve the problem at hand is explosively awesome. I chose one pattern, a lightbox, and we discussed the pros and cons of its use. We reviewed examples of appropriate use and misuse. I then recommended Bill Scott's Designing Web Interfaces for further reading.
UX is About More than Just Users
When people ask me what I do, the Twitter-length explanation is "I make websites easy to use, and I make sure they're useful for the intended audience." It's a great introduction to explaining my profession, especially for lay people, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.
I created a Venn diagram displaying the three essential elements of a UX-er's job.
- User Needs
- Business Goals
- Technical Constraints
As you may have guessed, all three overlap, and UX lies in that middle area.
Other seasoned UX-ers may disagree with me on this, but this is UX as I've come to experience it over the past 9 or so years of working in the field.
How to Communicate with Stakeholders
I emphasized the soft skills that UX-ers need. Any job is about working with others, but UX-ers often play the role of liaison, not only between users and stakeholders, but between stakeholders themselves. I've learned this the hard way throughout my career, and I now understand how clear and respectful communication is critical to any project's success.
Tell People How to Give Feedback On Your Work
I recommended Mike Monteiro's book Design is a Job and the advice he gives for soliciting client feedback: Tell us what's not working and why it's not working. Then we'll gladly fix it.
As he states in the book, if you don't tell clients to do this, they'll just react to your designs with changes such as "make the background color light blue instead of green." As I can tell you from experience, this type of feedback makes designers cringe. But understanding the problem your clients want to solve is key. Responding with a question like "Can you let us know why the green color isn't working for you?" opens the flood gates of useful feedback. We as the designers can then run with that feedback and make the appropriate changes. This example in particular applies to visual design, but it's just as relevant to UX work, such as feedback on a prototype.
Work Collaboratively With Your Team
I encouraged students to invite colleagues into their UX process. Are your coworkers dubious of usability testing? Ask them to sit in on a test, particularly if you're testing a section of the site they've worked on. Send them a great article about the value of UX. One of my favorites is the $300 Million Button. Another good one is the Google Analytics Parody of Real Life Online Checkout. It's funny and elicits empathy for the user.
Include "Difficult" People in Your Process Instead of Avoiding Them
Are there difficult people on the team that seemingly get in the way of creating a good experience? Are they the people you tend to avoid? Avoiding "problem people" often makes the situation worse by delaying their involvement. By inviting them into the process early, you'll avoid the classic "swoop and poop," when someone drops into the process at the last minute, with no context about the project, and shits over all of your work. Most politics are the result of people feeling like they haven't been heard. Listening, demonstrating that you've heard their needs, and taking their needs into account to the best of your ability often assuages the situation.
What I Learned, And What I'll Change Next Time
It's really gratifying to see heads nod and eyebrows perk upward during my lectures. It means that my message is resonating. The anecdote about the surgery waiting room experience was a great opener. Folks also seemed very engaged with the material that addressed working with other people; they responded very positively to the material about working with stakeholders and soliciting the right feedback. Shortly after the lecture started, one of the students asked "How do you deal with clients who constantly tell you how to design?" Thankfully I had a full section on this very topic ready to go!
Next time, I'll make sure the class is longer than 4 hours. I didn't have enough time for material like IA and Content Strategy, and I barely had time for one 10 minute break. One person stated after class that she wished we spent more time on IA. In addition, one student emailed me later and asked what UX books she should start with. I recommended a TON of UX books during the class, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I then realized I wasn't clear about which ones to start with.
A few students asked what aspect of UX they should focus on within the context of their current role. One woman, a project manager, wanted to learn more about UX but didn't know the best place to start, or what would best fit into her process. At this point my brain was fried from an intense 4 hour class, and I must've been staring at her like a deer in headlights. I plan on following up with her. It's a valid question, and I think it warrants a conversation with each of them about the ins and outs of what they currently do, and what element of UX they can best incorporate into their work.
That's Not All, Folks
Pretty soon I'll be posting Part 2 of this article, which covers the brainstorming exercise we did in class, as well as what else I learned from teaching the class. Cheers!
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