Parallels of UX Research & Teaching ESL

Once a week, I am a volunteer computer teacher at an English as a Second Language (ESL) school in Minneapolis. I lead roughly 6–8 adult non-native English speakers with using a computer, creating an email account or simply watching cat videos on YouTube.

I teach only one hour a week — but during that hour, I am struck how similar this teaching is to my work as a UX researcher.


The audience dictates the medium.

When I am presenting to stakeholders a piece of research, I think about how best to convey it. If it’s a particularly telling quote, should I use text or an audio clip? If a unique behavior is witnessed, do I explain the behavior or use screenshots from the tested product?

The same applies to teaching English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL). For example, I was having a hard time explaining the concept of the Internet (honestly, it’s a highly specialized concept that even the most tech-savvy of people have a heard time thoroughly explaining). The students were not understanding how information moves from a source to their screens and that they too can upload information into the nebulous Internet.

While the curriculum focused more on teaching students to access websites & send job applications — both extremely critical to a student’s future success — it lacked in context. Questions such as “What is the Internet?”, “Who owns the Internet?”, and “What are the good and bad things of the Internet?” were omitted and I argue all are important in being a educated technology user.

So I drew pictures. I drew the students at their computers, and screens and arrows showing how information moves from a server, and how data flows across the world via satellites and data centers, how the World (more-or-less) owns the Internet, how the Internet is a similar to a knife, in that it’s a tool that can do both good and bad.

The students got the message and we all happily moved on with the lesson. UX research is all about using the correct medium to best convey a message — but no matter the message, the audience will always dictate what medium is most effective.


Tell a story.

A key part of research is explaining the story of the results. Not fabricating plot-lines to keep stakeholders engaged but to explain the impact of a noted issue or behavior. As humans, we all are innate story-tellers (some better than others — my mother can attest my terrible stories) and we all crave a good tale, to either pass through tough times or to connect us during happy ones.

My students are the same. A topic is only as interesting or important as it relates to their lives. While they want to pass state proficiency exams, they are more interested in sending a Facebook message to their loved ones back home.

I try my best to showcase the value of a particular lesson in their personal lives. I try to show them the value of strong passwords to help protect the online identities of them and their close ones. I try to build a relationship with my students around concepts they care about and teach them how to search for websites around those passions.

I have seen success in my classroom because I try to be impactful with my lessons that focus on topics that are impactful to my students. When conducting research, building a narrative is pivotal in driving results.


Relate concepts.

One week, I started to teach about how different right-clicks on the screen can prompt different options. The students looked at me in a daze. My failure was evident because the concept of right-clicks was not associated with anything else they had learned. For them, it was just something new to do to pass the hour.

Research is similar in that no matter how pressing an issue, it is connected to something else. It is the connections between the data and the real-world that bring meaning and urgency to research.

I have spent more time teaching my students how the various topics learned are all closely related. A right-click here does this, and a left-click here does that. The relationships between concepts not only makes future lessons that much easier, it helps give my students a sense of understanding and confidence. The same can be brought to the researcher-stakeholder relationship.


Moments of failure aren’t always bad.

Throughout this post, I’ve noted several times where I’ve flat-out “failed” in a lesson or was unable to connect with my students. While discouraged at the time, I’ve never let my feelings deal a fatal blow.

When I don’t get a concept across succinctly or a piece of research is just not making its mark, I ask myself one question: “What does the other person value in this moment?” More often-than-not, I’ve found a misalignment in values. A stakeholder might see the need for a usability test, but their values might push more towards business KPIs instead of user-centered systems. No one person delivers bad results with good intentions — bad results stem from people with varying good intentions.

My students don’t want to be confused and bored for an hour; they want to learn and be stimulated and chuckle and see cat videos. But my intention of blazing through a lesson collides with their intention of education, so I must step back and re-align myself. I am only as powerful and as effective as the people I am trying to help. And failure is a beautiful chance to approach an issue from another, more personal perspective.


Collaboration drives conversations.

Teams succeed when they have real conversations about important issues. I’ve seen it in 7th grade during my school’s History Day, and I saw it last week at an all-team meeting.

If I were to talk through my computer lessons by myself, I’d be a hapless individual. But when I teach my students, we get pauses for good questions, laughs for funny images and connections around real ideas. When I open my mind to my student’s thoughts, we all benefit because we all learn. I learn more about the Somalian culture and they learn that Bing is no substitute for Google (and it never will be).

When stakeholders and researchers are able to engage in meaningful conversation, discussing the wins and the losses, then true collaboration can happen and all business roadmaps can be propelled forward. Without real conversation about important issues, business teams and UX teams both run the risk of sitting stagnant.


Empathy is king.

I’ve been living in America since I was 4-and-half years old. I’ve graduated from both high school and college in America. My first girlfriend dumped me after a month and my first car was my dad’s old 1998 Toyota Camry. I know the ins-and-outs of Netflix, Thanksgiving, America’s Funniest Home Video and the NFL. I have become as close to an American as I can.

On the other side, my students are in their late 50s, living with their younger English-speaking kids, from another part of the world that has been systemically affected by either violence, corruption, resource depletion or all 3.

My students are not me and I am not my students. My students have been through enough, therefore placing the burden on my shoulders to tread softly around tough topics and to open my warm personality to make their lives just a little bit easier. If I can make my students laugh a little and learn how to create an email username, then I’ve done my job.

Always, always, always empathize with your users, stakeholders and team members. People need no more than a few sincere questions and genuine interest in their wellbeing to become open & eager. When I ask a question, it is of my utmost interest. If I inquire about the wedding you went to last week, you can be damn sure that I want to know who danced like Elaine from Seinfeld and who can cut a rug.

The more I’ve cared about those around me, the more I’ve seen their interest in my life. And the more reciprocity of good wishes, dedicated team members and bigger victories I’ve seen.


I love what I do — be it at work or in the classroom. I look forward to my teaching nights because I take just as much from the classes as the students do. And hey, maybe one day, my students will become the teachers.

Go to www.helloimvarun.com (desktop-only)to learn more about me, see my work and dive around my mind.