February 24, 2013
My ambitious goal this semester is to teach with as few slides as possible.
Not because I’m lazy, but because I received one specific comment from last semester that the class was dissolving into “one of those slides classes that’s kind of boring.” Ouch! I thought it was helpful to create slides that could be posted online and shared with students who unfortunately couldn’t attend class, or referenced later by the diligent students who would review them at the end of the semester. Perhaps I was wrong.
This is a design class after all, not a math or history course full of detailed facts and figures. This semester I am taking a more active approach to teaching design, leading with my belief that design is best practiced in the wild – not sitting in chairs.
I chose not to “teach” about research this semester, but instead lead the students on a micro research program during our two and a half hours of class time. I gave a research brief to each group of students. One example: “Justin Timberlake has hired your team to find out how MySpace can better reach 18-24 year olds. You need to find out about their music listening habits and what motivates them to become involved with bands.”
After a short, live chalkboard lesson on research guidelines, each team created a unified hunt statement to guide the intent of their research. They went out in the field to conduct observations on their target audience and used those first learnings to write a set of interview questions together. They interviewed each others’ team mates to find out about specific user behaviors. Finally, they collected all their learnings on Post-It Notes and started clustering similar ideas together.
By the end of class each group had a clear set of insights from their quick research. We discussed how they might translate those insights into opportunities for design. The process was fast and loose, and they were exposed to more research principles than I could have taught them on a slide. More importantly, they will probably remember the process better because they had to practice it themselves.
I wanted to teach a better storytelling lesson to my students. In the spirit of ditching slides, I asked the students to practice telling stories on the fly. We did a couple improv-style warmups, where small groups worked together to create an entertaining story in response to a prompt.
“Tell me the story of going to the movies” produced a faux-teenage boy riding in his mom’s minivan to a movie with his high school girlfriend. The story climaxed as they ran into his ex-girlfriend at the theater and it turned out they weren’t exactly broken up. Another group told the story of coercing a friend to go to the movies to see the One Direction 3D Experience. It was a hard sell and the heroine ended up seeing the flick alone.
After warming up, I asked each group to use storytelling to solve the problem of “texting while walking.” Each team started by defining the problem (Why is it a problem and what are the symptoms?) and then created a hacked together solution to address the problem. The groups acted out a short story that demonstrated the problem and the solution they envisioned.
In the end we learned an impromptu lesson on what makes a good story: plot, characters, a little drama… and good acting!
Always be Sketching
Sketching is a foundational skill of interaction design, and I’m determined to turn my students into proficient sketchers. We did an entire lesson on sketching, with timed challenges to sketch things like what you ate for lunch and with whom, or sketch an app you use often and explain it as you go. My goal was to get them over the hurdle of laborious sketching and teach them to be more comfortable with sketching as a journey instead of a destination.
I’m curious to see how these hands-on lessons change the way my students think about projects throughout the semester. Will they be more casual in their approach? Or more rigorous in actively solving problems?
January 7, 2013
A funny thing happened at Christmas.
We sent out holiday cards from our new home, and many of our friends responded! Instead of sending a card back, they posted photos of our cards to Instagram and Facebook, and sent us emails and text messages to respond to our warm wishes. Physical effort turned into a digital connection. Almost like a poke to stimulate interaction.
December 5, 2012
It’s nearing the end of the semester and I’m again saying to myself, “Wow, we did so many cool things and I haven’t captured any of it!”
Something happens to me between the first day of class and the last project where all my free time and capacity for personal growth gets thrown out the window in favor of answering students’ questions and meticulously planning each class to ensure a successful, meaningful course for the sixteen young people who trust me to teach them how to design. Alas, in my third semester teaching an interaction core studio at Parsons I have finally gotten the hang of teaching.
In my first semester I spent most of the nights before classes prepping slides, worrying about how to communicate complex ideas, wondering how on earth I could share all the knowledge I have, and trying to cram in four (!) projects for the poor kids in that first class. I was very concerned about following most of the rules and making sure to hit on all the points that a purist user experience designer would look for, should he or she ever meet one of my students and question them about their knowledge of interaction.
When I started my second term with the same curriculum I thought there was definitely room for improvement. Maybe four projects was a little too much for only 15 weeks. Could I lead the students through more hands-on activities rather than telling them everything I know? Did I actually have to spell out the concepts or would the students arrive at the same conclusions if left to their own structured wandering? Is it possible to teach systems thinking in context of interaction design? Class two was definitely an experiment. With some successes and a few flops, I was able to pull together an interesting course full of free-form exploration and reflection.
I’m still experimenting with my class after three semesters. I have a healthy stockpile of slide decks and activities to source from, yet I still feel the need to improve on every lesson and project as they come up. Each new meeting is an opportunity to prototype my own changing ideas about interaction design, and fortunately I get user feedback twice per week for three hours at a time.
I’m finally writing down the highlights from this semester. I’m excited to share the things we’ve been working on in hopes of also seeing what others are doing.
More to come soon about these ideas:
- Teach core skills through project themes
- Make it intense so they have no choice but to care
- Embrace the individual, within the group
- Teach about the real world, using the real world
- Systems thinking can be taught
- A good teacher is a good curator
July 26, 2012
I’m really bad at sitting still.
My mind wants to busy itself, to get started on something new, to read something, to go run and look at things, to check on some temporary knowledge I forgot. I’m in my third week of “summer vacation” and my mind has finally quiet itself.
This period of quiet was difficult to handle at first. After a few weeks at home I’ve had time to do a dozen things that would have never been done if I weren’t actively keeping myself bored.
Read four books
Made good progress on Project: Interaction documentation
Went for a few bike rides, including to the “Great Hill” in Central Park
Cleaned out my old client files
Organized my kitchen
Cooked a real meal at least once a day
Had lunch with other young designers
Watched a movie at 9am
Cried at the end of a movie at 11am
Sketched and architected a new project idea
Finally called back all the people on my obligatory list
Listed my apartment on Airbnb
Watched a LOT of Olympic gymnastics videos on YouTube
Went to the beach
Went to a cheese tasting celebration
Drank cocktails and ate oysters
Took a yoga class
Updated my website
I still have not renewed my drivers license. It seems this is the last thing on any list, no matter how much time one has.
I’m starting a new job next week, so thankfully my brain will have something to entertain it again.
January 24, 2012
I’m very excited to share some big news on the job front!
This week I joined as a member of the product design team at Coursekit, a start-up in NYC who is working to change the way we interact through learning online.
I’m the User Experience Lead working alongside new creative director Aaron Carambula and CEO Joe Cohen. We’re just getting started after the first launch of Coursekit last November. Look forward to many great things to come!
January 9, 2012
I’m headed to Dublin in February to speak at Interaction12, where I’ll be sharing my and Carmen’s observations about learning patterns.
Carmen and I are working on the presentation for Interaction 12, and I’m getting pretty excited about the content we’re developing. I’ll be speaking for forty-five minutes in Dublin about a learning pattern we’ve observed during our 2.5 years designing and teaching a high school interaction design class.
In designing Project: Interaction, we started with research then developed a plan based on what we knew. We continuously altered that plan in response to the people and environment around us. We generated a path of learning as creators of an educational experience. At its most basic definition, that path can be described as
Setup -> (Action <-> Measure) -> Share
Taking action and measuring the result is a loop.
We’ve seen the same pattern of behavior when our students learn in class. If we describe the trajectory of our semester as a journey, it would be
Entry -> Exposure -> (Make -> Demonstrate -> Reflect) -> Show Off
The journey is a more detailed interpretation of our own basic process. This pattern also exists at the micro level, within each class or project itself.
We’re still putting the presentation together, and I’m really looking forward to hearing the community’s feedback on our ideas when we show it off in February. The model we’re proposing has great potential to influence the way we design human-to-human experiences, as mediated in a classroom by a teacher, or through the websites, apps and software we design.
More later, of course…
December 30, 2011
In September I had the privilege of working with a terrific group of arts educators to co-create a design session with a group of fifth grade students in Forest Hills, Queens.
I was invited to join the group as a classroom co-designer and facilitator by Hsing Wei, experience designer and games and education expert. The idea was to conduct two co-design sessions – one with fifth graders in Queens and one with high school students in the Lower East Side – where the output would be material for a panel discussion at the Mobility Shifts conference hosted by Parsons. Our topic was “NYC Students Imagine the 2050 Classroom” and it was our goal to find out from students themselves what the future of the classroom might be.
We had both worked with high school students before and were sure we could plan a successful session for them. However, neither of us had worked with children under the age of 14. What the heck would we do with fifth graders to keep them entertained and engaged?
Our first instinct was to plan the high school session and then reduce its complexity for the fifth graders. We thought it might be helpful for the younger students to have a few more answers than what we would normally give to the more mature students. We planned the arc of the session to provide a mix of inquiry exercises, sketching sessions and reflection, all with the goal of getting the students to design an ideal learning experience for the year 2050.
We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived in Forest Hills. At first it was overwhelming to walk through the halls of a grade school; none of the students was taller than my waist! Finally we arrived in our classroom and met the teacher with whom we’d had a few preparatory phone calls. Soon the students would arrive.
At the last minute, Hsing and I decided to change a few of the activities we had planned. After talking with their teacher, we realized the fifth graders would be far more creative than we had imagined. We decided to throw out many of the examples we had planned to show, and focus instead on asking the right questions for facilitation.
When the students arrived we were delighted to find them alert and excited for our session. We got them warmed up by sharing about ourselves. We talked for a moment about our work as user experience designers, and then asked them to share their names and their favorite books.
What is the problem with learning?
We shared our day’s mission with the students: the idea that we could start to re-imagine the classroom using design. First we needed to discover the problem with the current learning environment. We conducted a problem-finding exercise, asking them to call out all the places where they learn. We heard a broad range of ideas, proving our hypothesis that learning happens in many places outside the classroom.
We then asked students to draw a storyboard to tell the story of something they’d learned recently. They had a hard time coming up with ideas for learning that happened outside of school, but with a little nudging their ideas came flowing out.
One student told about learning how to organize his Legos. Another told of an experiment she conducted to learn how long a hot liquid stays warm in a thermos.
Focus on Tools as a Tangible Representation of Learning
When designers talk about redesigning education there’s all kinds of interesting fodder: communication, curriculum, collaboration, environment, context, exploration, and opportunities for delight. We knew it would be difficult for any level student to understand these abstract concepts unless they’ve had a chance to view the education system as an outsider.
We decided to indirectly get to these abstract concepts using concrete, tangible objects that the students could visualize and relate to. We focused on the desk, the blackboard and the notebook in our fifth grade class, splitting them into three groups according to their interests. Again, we asked them to discover the problem first, listing all the qualities – good and bad – of their assigned tool.
Sketch, Re-Sketch, Sketch Again
After the students had discovered what they already knew about learning and tools we asked them to redesign their object.
- How can you make it better?
- What do you wish it could do differently?
- How can you use what you know about learning outside the classroom to make this in-class object more useful?
The students presented their first round of sketches and received critique from their co-designers. Each student processed the critique with a sharp mind for understanding change. Their wheels were turning the whole time, trying to understand how they might make their idea better.
We then asked them to redesign again. Many groups took what they had already developed and created a new concept that was even better than their first iteration. Some of the students had a hard time understanding why they had to re-sketch the whole idea. “Why can’t we just erase some parts and draw new ones?” With a little nudging they started to re-sketch their ideas and quickly realized that coming up with an entirely new drawing forced them to think of all kinds of new ideas.
Students’ Perspectives Don’t Align with Adults’ Ideas
We noticed the students stumbling over how to include technology into their ideas. When we suggested using new technology, many students countered, “Well, we can’t use a phone in school so we didn’t think there should be any technology in the new tool.” One group suggested including a printed dictionary in their desk that could be replaced every couple years when updates needed to be made. They theorized that this would be a cheaper option than including a tablet or smart phone, which would be far more expensive to replace if the screen broke.
Ultimately, all their ideas focused on human interaction as the new mode of learning. They were far less interested in including technology than they were at maximizing the time they spend with their peers and teachers each day. This outlook is vastly different from the top-down “use tech to save education” approach taken by many school authorities at the moment.
At the end of our session, we asked the students to create a storyboard to communicate their new product ideas in the form of a narrative. It was a great way for them to individually synthesize all the new ideas they had just dreamed up, and the linear format converted their abstract thinking into concrete terms.
Finishing on a High Note
At the end of the day we were thrilled to see all that the students had accomplished. We left the school with an armful of well-thought-out sketches and a hard drive full of video of the students enthusiastically explaining their ideas. The students left with a better understanding of the design process and ideas they were proud to share.
When we met them again for our panel session in October they were still buzzing with excitement about some of their ideas. For us, and for the panel creators, we were excited to show yet another piece of evidence that engaging kids in hands-on, self-directed learning enables them to take ownership of their ideas. They stay engaged, learn better, and get excited to share their work with anyone who’s interested in listening.
More Questions, Fewer Answers
Though we were intimidated at first, our experience working with fifth graders was a wonderful way to test our theories about completion. I’m glad we went against our instinct and gave the kids very few answers. Asking them open-ended questions proved to be the right way to teach this specific subject, and they came up with a hundred crazy ideas for new tools that may not have happened if we had given them more direction. With this approach, the challenge for teachers (or co-designers) is being flexible and finding the right questions to ask.
December 19, 2011
Now that I’ve spent fifteen weeks in a deep dive ethnographic research project, I’ve found there are plenty of opportunities for improvement in my Interaction Core class at Parsons.
Note: This is a working draft of my thoughts on the subject.
When I made plans for my first semester teaching interaction I designed a curriculum around what I thought the students would need and want to learn. My curriculum was successful for many reasons, and there are plenty of areas where I believe it can be improved. I’ve spent an entire semester essentially doing design research on my students. Now that I have a more complete understanding of my user and her needs, I’m able to redesign my curriculum to better complement a student’s interests and educational path.
A few successful outcomes from this semester –
- Students had a clear understanding of the project work and what to expect in class.
- Students were engaged in the subject matter.
- Students created a final project that is worthy of display in a portfolio.
A few areas where I think the class could be improved –
- Not enough time for projects. We were rushing through many of them without proper time for reflection and absorption.
- I tried to fit web design and interaction into one class. The two are not the same.
- Students were able to understand a process but did not learn a good working methodology.
- I ran out of time! I didn’t have enough time to assemble meaningful lectures and examples each week.
What Students Need to Learn
Next semester I’m interested in focusing on nurturing a deeper understanding of people and interactions rather than sharpening my students’ web design skills. Students don’t need to learn as much about hard skills as I’d assumed. Many students asked for instruction in software and code –practical skills that can be learned from the internet. It’s far more important for sophomores and juniors to begin developing a point of view about design and people. They also need to understand their own working methodology, their strengths and weaknesses, and how those can be employed effectively in a team setting. An interaction class should be a platform for all design students to learn about themselves and the people around them, and I believe those abilities will serve them better in their current and future lives.
Guiding Principles for a New Interaction Core
Emphasis on Doing the Work
A significant piece of the design process lies in iteration. It’s unlikely that your first solution will be the right one, and it’s important to evaluate and revise throughout the process. I noticed my students would create a single sketch and then move forward. They have little desire (or not enough time?) to fully explore concepts through sketching and making.
Evidence of Thinking
I’d like to see more evidence of students’ thinking about projects. It’s okay to turn in one shining, amazing bit of work at the end, but it’s the story of the project before the golden moment of inspiration that is most interesting.
Students need to understand the materials of our craft before they can create delightful experiences. This understanding only comes from experimentation and failing a whole lot of times until something wonderful emerges from the mess. More Post-Its, more digital and physical sketching. More messing up.
Investigate the Real World
After teaching in many different classrooms I’m convinced that the classroom environment itself is toxic to real learning. We will get out of the classroom as much as possible; it’s essential to understand the real world if we’re going to be designing interactions for real people.
Emphasis on Conceptual Thinking
Many of my students are able to master the tools of web and interaction design. The students who are also able to think conceptually about their projects excelled in my class. Their work is coherent, concise and portable. This is a difficult thing to teach to a classroom full of makers, who instinctively jump into the making before the concept is fully developed.
Feedback loops are an essential concept in interaction design. They are the reasons why people want to use the digital products we design. We will focus on systems as both a tool and a principle in interaction design.
The Narrative of Interaction Education
My plan for this semester was to create a narrative based on a real-world project. Our semester began with research, then we constructed a website and an app. The semester finished with an open-ended assignment that employed all of the students’ knowledge from previous projects.
The new arc should reflect the way that learning happens, not the way a project happens. In response to Tequila Chan’s outlined methodologies, I’ll be focusing on little loops of Research -> Making -> Reflection/Analysis within projects in the curriculum. His work is based off Kolb’s learning style inventory and McCarthy’s 4MAT learning system. (More to come about this.)
I also want to emphasize the importance of creating incentives (and maybe a little fear) in the classroom. I’ll be reshaping my curriculum with a significant project up front. This will give students a chance to make something right away, and will give me a chance to offer up their first grade early on. It’s a good way to set my expectations for their work. (An aside: I am really not concerned with grades, but the students seem to be. I’d give everyone an A if I could, but I fear they would not be well motivated to continue my class if that were the case.)
Why is this approach better?
Students will be invested in the class from the beginning because there will be an incentive outlined up front. They will not have to wait months to realize the outcome of their hard work. Their first bit of feedback will provide motivation to continue learning, and for the remainder of the semester they will conduct self-initiated investigations into the topics where they’ve personally struggled. These investigations will lead them to an intrinsic awareness of topics in interaction. Finally, they will employ these new skills to create a holistic, well thought out final project that demonstrates their understanding of interaction concepts.
What will this look like?
- Rapid prototyping of concepts
- Offline creation of online artifacts
- Formal presentations of work
- Frequent testing and interaction with users
I’d love to hear it. Get me at @pixelkated.