Teaching UX Design to Teens

How do you explain User Experience Design to a class of 13 and 14 year olds in 30 minutes? That’s the challenge I was faced with when I volunteered at a Girls School Tech Taster Day.

The Tech Taster Day was a great event organised by the school, with a number of companies running sessions introducing students to the types of careers that exist within design and technology. I was keen to be involved and show young woman that there are roles within this industry that they might be interested in.

It wasn’t surprising to discover that very few of the 90, digitally native young woman had heard of User Experience Design before. So I’ve pulled together a summary of my session which I hope will inspire more of us to go out and start spreading the word.

Despite doing this job every day, I think we all struggle to explain what UX Designers do. For me it wasn’t just about explaining UX — it’s shouting about what an awesome career choice this is, inspiring the students to ask questions, solve problems and most importantly be creative.

To help plan the 30 minutes, I stripped our role right back and thought about three basic things we do:

  1. We design things which are easy and fun to use
  2. We are problem solvers
  3. We understand and represent who we are designing for

Start the session by introducing yourself and the design career

Has anyone heard of a User Experience Designer before?

It’s always good to understand your audience so I like to start by asking the students if any of them have heard of a ‘User Experience Designer’ and if they have any guesses what we might do. The likely answer is no!

This is a career you should know about

Highlight that this is a growing career by showing a number of Companies who employ UX Designers (or something similar eg. Product Designers, Interaction Designers). I used relatable examples like Instagram, Snapchat, Tesco, Barclays, NHS, Apple. Essentially explaining that most companies with digital products will have a team of designers working on them.

But what do we actually do?

Show the breadth of things we can work on from apps and websites to games, VR and voice experiences. Tell them what an average day can look like (coming up with new ideas, designing the look of things, speaking to / testing with our users, working with developers), I think the variety of our role is a real selling point. Students often assume that coding is an essential skill for the career so it’s good to mention that this isn’t the case.

Activity 1: We design things which are easy and fun to use

Show a couple of design fails

There are so many examples of ‘bad’ design to pick from, but I decided to choose doors — borrowed from Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things”. I asked the students if they had ever pushed a pull door (pretty much the whole class!) and they told me they felt embarrassed or silly when this happened. I used this example to highlight most of the time it isn’t our fault if we push a pull door, really the door has been badly designed and it wasn’t clear enough what to do when using it.

And something which is well designed

For this I picked water taps and asked the students how they know which tap is the hot one (“because it’s red” “has a ‘h’ on it” “associate red with hot things like fire”). Summarise this by explaining that every time we use a tap we know what to expect, which is successful design.

Finally show a digital design they are familiar with

The obvious one for this age group is Snapchat. I asked the students a few questions:

  • How do you choose filters?
  • How do you know there are more filters to choose from?
  • How did you know to swipe to the next one?

Then explained that as designers we have to consider all of these things. We have think about how people use other apps or real world objects to make sure our designs are easy to use.

This was the part in the session where the students really began to engage and show interest.

So in summary: As UX Designers, it’s our job to make sure things are fun and easy to use.

Activity 2: We are problem solvers

Now it’s time to get truly interactive! For this each student needs a couple of post it notes and a pen.

You have 30 seconds to design a doorbell

Give them 30 seconds to design a doorbell on a post it and hold their doorbells up in the air when they’re finished. It’s likely that the majority will be some sort of shape (rectangle, square or if they’re feeling adventurous a flower) with a button in the middle. Repeat the activity but this time…

You have 30 seconds to design a way to know someone is at the door

After the 30 seconds you’ll notice that the students have been much more creative and come up with loads of different ideas — cameras, windows, door mats with sensors in them, dogs, alarms…

Highlight the reason we got so many more ideas was because we understood the problem we were designing for. The door bell was simply a solution for a way to know someone is at the door, so by only exploring that we were limiting ourselves.

So in summary: As UX Designers, it’s our job to understand the real problem and come up with creative ideas

Activity 3: We understand and represent who we are designing for

If I asked you to get my mum a birthday present what would you buy her?

I used my mum as an example but this would work with any persona that is a different age to the class. The students answered with flowers, perfume, jewellery, chocolate — they were guessing all of the present ideas.

If you wanted to get my mum the best birthday present ever what would you do?

The students told me they would ask her about her hobbies, speak to her family or friends, or speak to other people her age to understand what she really likes.

Explain that this is exactly what we do as designers. It’s nice to give an example here, so if we were designing something for a four year old we don’t just guess what they like. We go out and speak to children, parents and teachers then take things to the four year olds to try out.

So in summary: As UX Designers, it’s our job to represent and design for the people who will use the product

Activity 4: Super Quick Design Challenge

The Challenge: Design something to help improve your teachers morning routine

I used the last 10 minutes of the session to introduce a mini design challenge and encourage the students to be creative. The students left in high spirits after ending on something interactive.

1. Understand who we are designing for

Explain to the students that one of the first thing designers do is understand who we are designing for. I invited the teacher up to the front and asked them questions about their morning routine, probing more on any areas which highlighted opportunities for the students to come up with ideas (if running a longer session it would be great to get a couple of students up to ask the questions themselves). The students wrote down any problems their teachers had in the morning on post its. Some questions for the teacher included:

  • Can you tell us about your morning routine today?
  • What did you have for breakfast?
  • How do you get to work?
  • What was your journey like this morning?
  • How do you prepare your lunch?

2. Focus on the problem

The students should now have a number of problems written down in front of them. Some of the things they came up with included:

  • Snoozing alarms for a long time
  • No time to eat breakfast
  • Have to keep children entertained while they get ready
  • Always a morning queue at the printer
  • Potholes in the road which makes cycling slower

3. Come up with some ideas

Once the students have each chosen a problem to solve the final step is to come up with an idea which could help their teacher. Each student had to come up with at least one idea and draw / write it on a post it note. Here, it’s helpful to give the students an example of the kinds of ideas they might come up with and how roughly they can draw them out to explain the idea.

I was amazed at the variety of great ideas the students came up with.

  • Alarm clocks which walk around and only stop ringing when you catch them
  • Beds which have arms to tickle your face until you get up
  • Robots to help children play while parents get ready
  • Alarm slippers that stop ringing when you put them on
  • Alarm on your phone which scans your face to check you are awake before turning it off
  • Portable printer for each teacher
  • ‘MAKEABIX’ a machine which makes your breakfast for you

A few tips for running your own session

Make it relatable and easy to understand

When thinking of real world examples try to keep them relatable to the students lives and stay away from using any business jargon. Examples like Snapchat and push/pull doors worked really well, where as none of the students recognised a picture of a tram ticket machine.

Keep sessions interactive and fast paced

Try to keep the energy up in the room and not waffle. Simply speaking at the students will result in some quickly losing interest. Breaking up the session with participation and discussion helps to keep the students engaged.

Reassure students it’s normal to not know what they want to do when they ‘grow up’

It’s nice to highlight to the students that it’s ok if they don’t know what they want to do after school, just find things they enjoy and work hard at them. A recent report by Dell and the IFTF said “85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet.” So there’s a high chance the job the students will end up doing could be something completely new anyway! This is a great way to end the session.

How much money do you earn?

In pretty much every session I have run one student will ask how much money I earn. Let’s be honest about this and not avoid answering, so I normally tell them the rough amount you can expect to earn in your first job after college / university.

I’d love to hear if you have other ways of explaining UX Design, use my session as inspiration or would like me to come and run a session with your students.

UX Designer making fun stuff for kids and inspiring the next generation of UXers and design thinkers.