User Research & Design Principles

Participant Observation – Teaching Interaction Design to High School Students

I developed a deep sense of empathy for educators by becoming one myself. Through my work teaching Project: Interaction I learned a great deal about teachers, students and the interactions between them and the school system. My understanding of a teacher’s job drastically changed as I realized how difficult it is to prepare and teach a class on a regular basis.

The experience of teaching taught me far more than I had planned for in my research proposal. Carmen and I outlined a few of our favorite moments in a blog post written at the conclusion of teaching our first class.

There are more stories about what we learned from Project: Interaction on our blog.

Our top ten moments from the semester:

10. As newbie teachers, we were extremely grateful for the support we received from the UAI administration and Girl’s Inc. Offering great advice about teaching high school students, we entered each class with confidence in our leadership abilities and design expertise.

9. Using Moleskine sketchbooks and post-its to record their thoughts, we saw how creativity empowers students to share their ideas as well as support their fellow classmates.

8. In week 6 we learned about the effects post-Halloween candy binging has on high school girls. After an hour and a half of saying “Shh!” and “Please, no talking!” we were finally broken. Luckily we had a whole week off before coming back and starting anew, with a seriously heightened respect for teachers who do this every day.

7. We were amazed in our first week of teaching when all of our students could name off the components of feedback from the MTA turnstiles.

6. When we asked our students to share a problem they know about in the world we got this response: “Dude. I just found out that people are like, getting sued, for sharing information. Like Google buzz and stuff. What’s up with that?!”

5. On our Observation field trip in week 3 one of our students got an unexpected lecture from a Jane Jacobs-ian architect who told her about the horrors of restrictive urban planning.

4. Never content to do all the work themselves, our girls often ask that we participate in activities with them, including our class about bodystorming – they made us act out our own scene, with Carmen pretending to be a little old lady.

3. In response to design strategist Rachel Abrams’ story about her career path, a couple of our students took some amazing sketch-notes! Magic does happen when you give free reign to teenage girls armed with a marker and sticky notes.

2. After leaving R/GA one of our students turned to me and said, “Oh my gosh! I could make a sketch of how I want my video to be before I actually start making it. That would really save me a lot of wasted time.” Light bulb. On!

1. During our class with Transportation Alternatives, in response to a few of our skeptical students who questioned the effectiveness of redesigning city streets to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians, one student remarked: “It’s about the bigger picture.”

School Visits

The meat of my research took place in high schools. I felt it was essential to understand the daily lives of the teachers I was researching, and the best way to do that was by visiting classrooms to better inform my ideas about school systems, teaching methods and complex teacher-student interactions. Becoming immersed in the high school environment helped me to intrinsically know my user group, and that knowledge became the foundation for many of my design decisions.

The following paragraphs are excerpts from my research. The full accounts are captured in Appendix A.


October 14, 2010

The iSchool gives their students responsibility and choice, and believes that learning should be developmentally appropriate and real-world relevant. They strive to get their students working on meaningful projects with outside companies from the start. On top of that, the school sends students out for internships 3 hours per week beginning during their freshman year.

Another thing that stood out was the way the school handles advisory. Each student meets twice weekly with a group of 10-15 students and their advisor. Every student gets personal attention, and no one gets left behind.

It’s no surprise to me that this is a school offering a design class in its curriculum. Their values of creative and critical thinking, big
ideas, and interdisciplinary studies are all themes that are echoed in the study of design. I’m excited to go back and see Christina’s class in action!

Parkway South High School

October 24, 2010

The school I visited was not using design- or project-based learning in their math classes, except on a few small-scale projects. For example, Mr. Wade’s geometry class makes an architectural drawing to demonstrate their understanding of the way math shapes the design of buildings. I definitely see potential here for design and interdisciplinary studies to be incorporated into lessons. It may even get some of the apathetic kids interested in subject matter they’d otherwise ignore.

Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School

November 4, 2010

I started the day at 8:30am in Elise’s classroom where she was planning a lesson while an English class met in the background.

For second period I observed a Media Arts class taught by Christy Herbes. There were about 18 10th grade students.

Third period I observed Elise’s 9th grade (required) art class. There are about 30-35 students in each of her four blocks.

Fourth period is lunch and planning. I grabbed lunch with Elise’s student teacher Anna and ate with the two of them.

After lunch Elise has an advisory period where students are assigned a teacher to spend the time with. There were about 10-12 students for only a half hour period.

Fifth period I observed Mr. Howell’s Geometry class, a classroom full of 10th graders (about 26).

New Design High School

November 16, 2010

I visited Corey Willis’s senior design class at New Design High in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At their high school they treat design like every other core class, with students required to take a design class during each of 4 years at the school.

When I asked if I could visit another class to see how design is being used in core subjects, he responded, “Well, you could, but you won’t find any design there.” I was a bit disappointed, but would like to do more research to find out why that is.

Survey of Teachers’ Planning Behavior

As a designer I am constantly wondering about how things are made, and how seemingly simple acts of creation come into being.

The more time I spent in classrooms, the more I became curious about the teaching process. How do teachers decide what needs to be taught? How do they know the best way to teach a subject?

I sent a survey to about ten teachers and received responses from five of them. I wanted to know their planning habits and the context around them. With the exception of a few schools, I found that most teachers are planning alone, outside of school and without the collaboration of their peers. The survey responses helped me to better understand their behavior, but at face value it did not provide a lot of clues as to why it was happening.

How do you spend time planning for classes each week during the school year?

  • “At home, alone”
  • “I do a lot of work on the weekend”
  • during plan times

What skills and methods from your formal training do you use most often in preparing for classes?

  • “Not much”
  • specific teaching methods for a subject

What skills and methods have you learned on the job that help you prepare for classes?

  • “does the work the kids are doing make sense, does it exist in the real world in some way?”
  • be organized
  • communicate clearly
  • adapt to a range of learning styles

What advantages do you see to working with your colleagues to plan classes?

  • learn different skills, best practices, different viewpoints from other teachers
  • cohesiveness between team members

What are the disadvantages?

  • hard to introduce big ideas or projects in a standards/testing focused environment
  • different teaching styles make it difficult
  • groups take longer to agree

How do you know when it’s time to refresh your lessons?

  • when kids are bored
  • when kids are no longer engaged
  • industry changes
  • the teacher is no longer engaged

Where do you find inspiration for your classes?

  • “From my kids!”
  • look at what other teachers/institutions are doing

When you’re excited about a new idea, how do you share it with your colleagues?

  • talk to them
  • talk to them!
  • email chains
  • planning times

When preparing curriculum and lessons, do you use any online resources?

  • Google / wikipedia
  • not much
  • not consistently

A lot of idea sharing happens peer-to-peer, by talking to colleagues and sharing during formal and informal meetings. Teachers learn a lot by doing, and getting a read on students’ interests and engagement is essential to planning the next steps in their classes. At small schools, team collaboration is an active component in planning, but teachers still spend a lot of time on their own planning classes.

User Ecology

I spent a lot of time in classrooms absorbing the nature of teaching and student relationships. Although I could inherently understand the situation, I found it helpful to classify the diversity of interactions I saw and experienced. I created a user ecology map to visually depict the network of people and resources a teacher interacts with each day.

Mental Model

The nature of the teaching profession is interpersonal; many teachers do not spend their day of work sitting behind a desk and computer. I created a mental model to better understand the variety and volume of action in a teacher’s day. After I mapped out the states and tasks I realized how complex a teacher’s day can be. I knew that my design solution would have a lot to compete with to get a teacher’s attention.

Research Insights

After completing the bulk of my research I started to distill my findings into a set of statements or guidelines for design. My first task was to read through all of my notes from interviews and observations, pulling out concise themes and making connections across my research.

I used Post-It notes and a whiteboard to collect and categorize my research.

Once I could visually see my findings I distilled them into a set of statements about teachers that would serve as the summary of my user research moving forward.

  • Teachers are very busy. Public school teachers have a wealth of paperwork in addition to their regular class planning activities.
  • Teachers (especially special and elective teachers) are siloed.
  • Many teachers plan classes and projects at home, alone.
  • There are a lot of teachers who ARE motivated, and want to be inspired and connected to others.
  • There is no manual for teaching design.
  • Success in a design course can be measured. (Demonstration of knowledge of vocabulary, articulating process, producing deliverables that meet the criteria of a problem, articulation of work and process during a critique)
  • The power of design in education is that it motivates students to think carefully and critically about their work. Knowing they will have to talk about their work in a critique forces them to make careful decisions and be engaged in their work.

Years of Teaching Experience

A key insight from my research was the effect of experience on the way a teacher performs in the classroom. The first few years of teaching are spent learning how to manage a classroom environment. After about two or three years of experience most teachers feel confident to create their own lessons and experiment with new methods for teaching. I was most interested in the group of teachers with a few years of experience, who were comfortable enough in the classroom to start taking risks and trying new things.

Design Principles

At the end of my research-intensive phase I established a set of design principles that would guide my decisions moving forward. I distilled my initial set of guidelines from a theoretical list into actionable principles that would influence my design decisions.

Enable Discovery
The best ideas may not come from the most obvious place.

To a variety of skill levels & teaching styles.

Focus on Co-Creation
If we pool our ideas, experiences, successes and mistakes we can come up with bigger and better ideas together.

Many teachers are already blogging and collecting resources. Content created through my service should be easily transferable to other outlets.

Engage offline behavior
The online space should extend real life learning and sharing. Ideas that cross the online barrier will have a better chance for success.