Lessons Learned

I only lasted one year as a teacher. I had entertained the possibility of teaching ever since 8yr old me had mistakenly assumed my mother’s classroom was a monarchy. For a few weeks I had mentally planned how I would take over when she retired, and the knowledge that I was not predestined to become a middle school special education teacher both relieved and disappointed me. But when I entered the classroom myself, I quickly discovered a world of discipline-happy teachers, irrational rules, and bored, angry students. I didn’t last long.

I still struggle with having made that decision. I love UX design in part because we find ways of teaching without the rules of the traditional classroom. And I love volunteering with Atlas Workshops, because I get to meet and travel with students, and teach them outside those traditional confines. I’ve had some particularly inspiring and some particularly challenging experiences over the years, to the point that I now feel comfortable sharing recommendations for teaching the design process. Continue Reading


The Pathway to User Experience

Group shotEarlier this month, I taught a two-week course based on user experience principles.

That’s not a sentence that existed ten years ago. Even now, a course in UX might mean ten different things to ten different people. Unlike an American History teacher, who has a fairly consistent curriculum to follow, a UX teacher has only his or her own reading and experiences to draw on to invent a way to teach something that he or she has “picked up” along the way. At one point, as we created our curriculum, I thought “I’m trying to cram eight years of work experience into a two-week course.”

That’s not to say UX can’t be taught. On the contrary, UXMastery has even curated a list of UX degrees offered worldwide. But what does the formalization of teaching UX mean for the field? Continue Reading


Activities on the Spot

In 2007 I was an English teacher in a public school in France, teaching a rotation of 8 classes and seeing each class once a week. It was tough to keep them straight, but I enjoyed the classes, ranging from first to third year English, with ages between 11 and 13.

One week, I planned an activity based around World War 1. I knew they were studying the United States and their role in the war, so I dug out one of my favorite poems (Flanders Field), translated it into French, and prepared a list of questions to get discussion going on the impact of war on the country’s youth.

One problem: when I arrived in class, I realized they were studying the American Civil War, not World War 1. Continue Reading


What is Livability?

A few years ago I was spending some time in Barcelona with my cousin Josh. One night I offered to make dinner – a peanut chicken dish I had more or less invented. We sat down to dinner, and after a few bites Josh said “this is very edible.” His wife Jan immediately defended me. “What a terrible thing to say! This is great.” But Josh had meant it as a complement. “I mean I don’t want to stop eating it,” he explained. Since then I’ve loved the idea of edible meaning more than something you can eat, but something you don’t want to stop eating.

Yesterday, during our frustrating yet valuable card sort (part of the ongoing design process trip for high school students I am currently co-leading through Atlas Workshops), the students got into a conversation on the word livability. It’s a popular word in city design these days, but the definition is vague at best. To be “livable” means more than just a place you can live. It means a place that is delightful, a place that ranks at the top of Design’s Hierarchy of Needs. Livable describes a way of living in the way that Josh wanted edible to describe eating. Yet edible does connotate merely able to be eaten, to most of the world, and livability equally might mean merely able to be lived in. No wonder livability is such a difficult concept to explain! Continue Reading


Card Sorting, People Sorting

Yesterday’s lesson: if it frustrates me, it likely frustrates students as well.

GamestormingTo be clear, I was not frustrated yesterday. In fact, I absolutely loved our exercises – it was the beginning of our Information Architecture work, as we (Atlas Workshops) continue to lead the students through the design process to create a website about smart cities. We’ve helped them to do some basic user research, understand their audience, collect data on smart cities, and yesterday the time had come to identify how the information they had collected all connected, and (ultimately) how we would display it on their final website.

We began with a card sort. Each student had a topic in mind, and announced it to the team. My plan had been for them to write their topics on index cards, and then collectively sort them into various categories until they had a clear idea of how their myriad ideas connected. That said, we had forgotten the index cards. We had also forgotten the sticky notes. It was a user experience designer’s nightmare… until we realized, the cards could be people. Continue Reading


What is Design Thinking?

Interesting challenge today: my team of eight high school UX designers began their official web project, as we travel through Scandinavia with Atlas Workshops. Over the course of three hours, we had three objectives.

  1. Identify various methods of storytelling, in order to select one that might best work to convey information to our target audience of other high school students.
  2. Select a single method of storytelling, based on user interviews they conducted on one another.
  3. Learn what that phrase they keep hearing, “design thinking” means.

Continue Reading