User-centered design is a design concept that is simply focused on designing products and services with the user’s needs in mind throughout the process. At first, it sounds simple, but this approach requires a keen eye, an ability to listen, and being truly opening to learning from the patient, customer, or end user of whatever it is that you might be designing. It calls for the mindset of an ethnographic researcher, being deeply curious, and pushing through conventional wisdom and untested assumptions. Yet, the end result is something that really works, something that truly addresses a key need or problem for the user, something that resonates with people.
While I appreciate the caution of trying to treat a school like a business / customer transaction, there is still something useful about a user-centered design when it comes to our schools. Consider, for example, how curricula are often designed today. Interview dominant textbook publishers. Ask the designers and developers of leading educational software and educational product companies. Ask teachers and curriculum committees to describe the processes that they use to design curriculum. How many of them actually use a user-centered design approach? I can tell you from my study over the years, the answer is very few.
There are some who turn to research about education. Textbook and curriculum developers, for example, do tap into content experts, educational psychologists, instructional designers, and many other people with valuable expertise. It is quite rare, however, for the development process to involve careful observations of learners, interviews with learners, observations of future life and work contexts, and the like. We have resources informed by research sometimes, but it is not necessarily designed in a way that takes into account important factors and nuances with various learners.
For those who think that I’m arguing that we should just cater to the random whims of any student, I’m not. This is about getting serious when it comes to results and impact. User-centered design is producing wonderful outcomes in healthcare and other areas, so why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of it to improve our education system?
While this is great for new and existing schools and programs, I think a great place to start is more user-centered design with our policies. Instead of lobbying for one policy or another and turning the whole thing into troubling political positioning, what would happen if we worked toward a system where policies were shaped, informed by and evaluated by some sort of user-centered design approach? Shouldn’t policies be created and supported that keep the learner in mind? What good and ethical reason can we have for promoting policies that do not truly have the user/learner in mind throughout the process? Isn’t school first and foremost about equipping students for life and work?
Of course, I’m keen to engage the students directly in the project too. There is little keeping us from teaching user-centered design to students and having them help to improve the school system. After all, they are already the stakeholders for whom this is most important. Why not give them a chance to help make it better and, as a result, improve their own learning? I talk to many groups interested in creating new schools or programs, and I love providing initial consulting for such groups. Yet, it is fascinating to me how often people don’t take time to learn directly from students or to engage them directly in the design and development process? Why not? What is there to lose? I sure see much to gain.
Yet, maybe all of this is a bit too abstract. If you haven’t seen user-centered design in action or even read about it, you might still be wondering what all of this is about. What exactly is user-centered design? As I noted before, it is a broad term to describe any design that is keeping the user’s needs in mind throughout the process. It works from a number of simple guiding principles. I’ve tweaked them a bit to apply this to an educational context.
- Base the school, class, lesson, learning experience design upon a deep understanding of the learners, their goals and needs, and the unique context or environment.
- Involve learners in helping to shape, reshape, and revise the school, lessons, learning experience design in an ongoing way; and at all stages of design and development.
- Elicit learner feedback and input (through observation, surveys or other creative ways) throughout the process, not simply starting with the leadership’s potentially narrow set of goals and priorities. Respect the goals and needs of the learners.
- The design never ends. It is constantly tweaked and adjusted based upon feedback loops from the learners and other key stakeholders (parents, community, etc.).
- Design in a way that considers the full breadth of the leaner’s experience, not just narrow academic metrics. Design in a way that fits with the goals, values and priorities that are near and dear to the learners and other key stakeholders.
Imagine how our schools might change if we were to consistently and persistently apply these principles to our design of the learning experiences. Notice that this doesn’t diminish the role of the teacher in the least, but it also doesn’t build a system around the preferences of the teachers, the administrators, or any other whose primary responsibility is to serve the students in their learning. If schools exist for learners (and for the communities in which those learners will live and work), it only makes sense that a deep understanding of the learners would play a central role in the design and redesign of the experience.
There are a variety of processes that people use for user-centered design, but almost all of them are based on five key elements. The first involves identifying the problem, but it isn’t done in isolation. Already at the problem phase, we are listening to, observing and learning from the user. The second step, given that this is typically a product development process, is to determine the context in which a user will make use of the product. Or in a learning context, we can think about the context in which we hope for learners to learn and to apply what they learn…not only that, but the context in which the learners themselves hope to learn and apply what they learn. Then, based on this early research, we need to create a list of critical characteristics. What elements need to be present in this product if it is going to meet the needs of the learners? These elements will serve as guides throughout the rest of the design process. Next we need to start designing some prototypes and creating plans to get learner feedback and input on these prototypes. How well do they embody the key traits and meet the identified needs? We then identify a prototype to further develop, build it out, and start to gather ongoing user data that we then use to persistently adapt and improve what we are doing.
Imagine the possibilites if we were to embarce such an approach to the design of our schools and learning expeirences.