Early image of an experience designer with a few of her users.

How thinking like a teacher will make you a better designer.

Jen Briselli
Jan 19, 2016 · 18 min read

The only intuitive interface is the nipple. After that it’s all learned. — Bruce Ediger

Think about the last thing* you designed for someone else.

(*interface, product, service, environment, etc…)

Now, think about the experience they had when they interacted with it: Was it the exact same experience you had in mind when you designed it?

If you design with any degree of reflective practice, you’ve likely observed the very real difference between the experiences you design and the ones your users actually experience.

As a maturing field, experience designers are becoming more accepting of the fact that we can’t actually create a particular experience for anyone— we can only place the building blocks of an experience in a deliberate configuration and hope the person we’re designing for constructs a great experience out of them. (Drink.)

There is no such thing as experience design. Experiencing is in people and you can’t design it for someone else. You can, however, design for experiencing. — Liz Sanders

Will the experience they build be the same as the one we’ve blueprinted? Ideally, if we’ve done our jobs well, the user-constructed experience will be very close to the one we’ve imagined for them. But, unless we only design systems that completely remove users’ autonomy (and even then its up for philosophical debate), we must accept and design around the inherent uncertainty we invite by allowing our users to retain their agency.

We’re not the only ones who face this challenge:

So do teachers.

The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge. — Seymour Papert

Teachers design against this very same challenge; education has long considered the student mind a black box. Though cognitive science has shed much light on the neuroscience of learning, many teachers embrace the black box approach to curriculum design — focusing on inputs and outcomes rather than striving for the impossibility of identical internal learning experiences for each student.

However, teachers draw on centuries of trial and error and a rich legacy of praxis when designing those learning experiences — for people and circumstances that are at least as diverse, (if not more so), as those facing experience designers.

We’d be smart to leverage this knowledge as our own field evolves.

All experiences are learning experiences.

Illustration: Ian Webster

Even if we can’t get 100% of the way there, designers try to achieve congruence between our designed experiences and users’ mental models. To accomplish that, we first have to understand those mental models, and then work backward to design interactions that match. Sometimes, however, achieving that perfect match isn’t feasible — we’re often constrained by time, budget, physical reality, or competing business goals.

Historically, designers often bridged the remaining cognitive gap between user’s mental models and the system, (if they bothered to do so at all), with learning aids that included user manuals, progressive reveals, tutorials, technical documentation, and so on.

More recently, given that our modern systems are becoming smarter and smarter, designers have in some cases begun to eliminate that bridge all together, under the assumption that it’s no longer necessary to even bridge that gap. Rather than requiring any cognitive leaps (i.e. learning) from the user, we assume that system intelligence can theoretically remove the need for users to control, act, or possess conscious awareness or a mental model of the system at all.

Of course, we’re finding that connected-personalized-intelligent-anticipatory systems raise new questions and challenges of their own. What’s more, they eliminate one key component of a delightful experience that I’ll discuss below: awareness.

Sure, we want to meet the users where they are, but given that it’s not always feasible, is the only alternative to leave them where they are by completely anticipating their needs, preempting their requests, and thereby reducing their agency?

I submit to the reader a third option: we can instead help users meet us where we are (or better yet, somewhere in the middle).

For example, parents don’t expect their toddlers to be adults, but they do expect them to learn to walk, just as adults walk, by standing a few feet away and helping direct them. Designers can help users adapt to new challenges — not by requiring they become defacto designers, but by enabling them to try things just outside their comfort zone or to explore unfamiliar experiences that enable growth.

Of course, this requires an environment with plenty of cognitive support — something educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky called scaffolding.

The scaffold, as it is known in building construction, has five characteristics: it provides a support; it functions as a tool; it extends the range of the worker; it allows a worker to accomplish a task not otherwise possible; and it is used to selectively aid the worker where needed. — P. M. Greenfield

Zone of Proximal Development

Learning a new capability within a software program or applying existing product features in new ways is not so far removed from the toddler example — and it’s not limited to first time use. All user experiences have the potential to be learning experiences if we build the scaffolding to support it.

Enabling vs. Disabling

Of course, its quite possible to take that designed support too far — if we don’t let a child wobble on his bike, if we never remove the training wheels, he won’t develop a mastery of his new motor skills. Teachers know it’s counterproductive never to challenge students beyond their current ability.

Similarly, it’s one thing to anticipate and even preempt problems our users may face, via cognitive offloading and smarter anticipatory patterns, but its another to preempt potential learning experiences that would provide our users with even greater agency and awareness of their own efficacy.

While some level of cognitive offloading is desirable, researchers have found that “strong reliance on external information leads to a negative effect with regard to planning of behavior.” In other words, when we design too much support into a system, or remove the need for users to think too much, users become dependent on the system and lose the ability to think for themselves.

User-centered design

This type of design, where cognitive offloading is prioritized and user agency is deemphasized, can be desirable for systems that are used infrequently or associated with extreme error costs, (think: nuclear power plant control rooms and airplane cockpits). In everyday scenarios, however, it “seduces users into more shallow cognitive behavior and discourages undertaking cognitive activities aimed at strategy and knowledge construction.”

As an industry, we tend to put so much focus on the benefits of cognitive offloading and anticipatory design that we sometimes risk providing crutches when we should provide handrails instead. And while there is a lot of exciting dialogue about designing for agency on a systems-thinking level, the same risk applies even when we are designing at the more tactical level of tangible products and concrete experiences. These may not be wicked problems, but it’s worth asking how our design choices — even for shoes or iPhone screens — will affect our users’ independence if the “don’t make me think” mantra is taken to its fullest expression.


There’s another reason we may want to help our users retain some of that autonomy: it’s a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for delightful experiences. Let’s consider a few assumptions about our design goals: in most cases, it’s become a given that experiences should be intuitive. These days our higher aim is to differentiate experiences by making them meaningful.

So we attend conference talks about the differences between usability and desirability, we bandy about phrases like emotional design and design for delight, and we share diagrams like the UX hierarchy of needs (below), all the while mining our collective expertise for clues about the best route to the top of that pyramid.

Illustration: Ben Jordan.

But, what does it mean to delight someone? To create meaningful experiences? How do we actually do that?

Think about the last time you were delighted… the last time you had a meaningful experience. There were two things that are guaranteed to be true about that experience: it was a positive experience, and you were aware of it.

It’s simple: the core building blocks of a “delightful” experience are the first (obvious) requirement that it be a positive, intuitive experience, and the second (less obvious) requirement that the user become aware of the experience they had. People must actually reflect on their positive experience for it to register as meaningful.

And yet, this simple formula goes overlooked quite often, quite likely because it’s ostensibly a direct contradiction to the far more popular sentiments about invisible design:

Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent. — Joe Sparano

Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. — Jared Spool

Simple is hard. Easy is harder. Invisible is hardest. —Jean-Louis Gassee

And yet,

Designs that make technology completely seamless to the user often deserve admiration. But can we balance our desire for intuitiveness with a wider recognition that some tasks are complex, some interactions must be learned, and sometimes the goal isn’t invisible technology but appropriate visibility.

— Karen McGrane

There is a difference between the design/product/interface being invisible while users engage with it, and the experience itself being invisible, vanishing out of memory. We focus quite a bit of energy on the first, ensuring our designs disappear into the background as users complete their tasks, but what good is that success if our users never consciously acknowledge the great experience they’re having?

In practice, designing a meaningful, delightful experience requires:

  1. A positive, intuitive experience,
  2. That users are consciously aware of having.

The second condition is tougher to meet. How do you get someone to stop and think consciously about something, to reflect, especially in a manner that is less of an interruption and more a natural progression of the experience? (No one delights in the modal window that pleads, “rate us!” No one.)

It just so happens that teachers have wrestled with this very challenge for centuries!

Teachers don’t stop students mid-assignment and ask them to reflect on what they are doing, nor do they ask students to reflect immediately after submitting a paper. They build the conditions and triggers for reflection into learning experiences over time.

So, what can designers take from those educational strategies to accomplish the same in our designs? We might start with a primer on some of the best thinking we have on reflection from John Dewey, who wrote extensively about reflective thought, especially in the context of education and learning. One of his most famous quotes:

We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.

Dewey 101

Dewey defined reflective thought as “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends.”

He set out five phases of reflective thought:

1. Suggestions, in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution.

2. A conceptualization of the difficulty or perplexity that has been felt into a problem to be solved.

3. The use of one suggestion after another to initiate and guide actions.

4. The mental elaboration or articulation of the idea developed during action.

5. Testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action.

In the classroom, this translates into: “here’s something new to try, it’s similar but not quite the same as what you’ve seen — perhaps we’ve broken an otherwise predictable system or we’re encountering a new variation of a familiar pattern.”

In design, this might be a prompt for users to try a new action or get better use out of a familiar feature by applying it in different ways. Teachers often ask students to consider hypothetical situations to accomplish this end, but designers don’t have to rely on hypotheticals — we can build these prompts into the experience.

The goal of a teacher (or designer) is to allow users to move through these phases. How might we enable this progression in the experiences we design?

  • Provide users with opportunities to do things they haven’t done before by offering & strategically highlighting new capabilities within familiar patterns.
  • Help users leverage older, existing features in new ways or to accomplish new tasks, and to share these accomplishments with others.

These small moments link together to create reflective awareness of an experience. Dewey wrote:

Reflection involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but aconsequence — a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors. The stream or flow becomes a train, chain, or thread.

He also believed that most reflective thought is borne of doubt or conflict, as when something catches your attention for being out of place or acting unexpectedly… but perhaps most importantly, he wrote of that doubt or conflict ideally being facilitated by a teacher or within a learning environment, not at random.

The same applies to experience designers — certainly our users will encounter problems with our products out in the wild, but we should focus our efforts on the aspects of the experience we can control — to orchestrate the triggers that catch users’ conscious attention, and do it in a way that does not disappoint or frustrate.

Heidegger 101

While John Dewey wrote specifically about the conceptual breakdown that occurs during a learning experience as a teaching instrument for reflection, the concept of a breakdown has broader meaning, one that we can understand better from Martin Heidegger’s writing.

Heidegger wrote about the way humans interact with the objects around them in constructing their experiences. His main ideas boil down to two concepts of being — two possible states an object or any “thing” can be in as one engages with it during an experience:

  • Ready to hand — when you are using a hammer and it is invisible to you, it becomes an extension of yourself and you are not conscious of it. This allows you to focus on the task at hand (hitting a nail) and you do not think about the tool itself. In this case, the hammer is “ready-to-hand.” (Think Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow — working with a tool that is in a ready-to-hand state could be considered a necessary condition for this state of flow.)
  • Present at hand — when there is some sort of breakdown in the process, task, or flow, you become consciously aware of the tool. For example, if the hammer head comes loose or you notice a splinter on the handle, you may start to focus on the hammer itself and become consciously aware of it as a tool, separate from your own being. In this case, the hammer is “present-at-hand.”

While one state is not inherently better or worse than the other, when an object is present-at-hand you are more likely to become distracted from the task — being present-at-hand facilitates awareness of an object while being ready-to-hand facilitates use of the object.

Of course, for many types of experiences, designers want their designs to be ready-to-hand. We don’t want our users to be aware of and distracted by the keyboards they’re tapping or the interface button they click — only to complete their tasks with their tools as invisible extensions of themselves.

However, as we’ve discovered, there is value in occasionally breaking this engagement, in bringing the aspect of the experience that was invisible in the background momentarily into focus in the foreground. In Heidegger’s words, we sometimes want to trigger that “breakdown.”

How do we initiate that shift? Again, the breakdown is all too familiar in poorly designed experiences and whenever tools fail us in some way. It makes sense that designers have been trained away from allowing this shift toward conscious awareness of a tool to take place at all. But it can be done, and here again we might ask:

How do teachers achieve this for students?

They let students struggle— but always with support and safety nets. As with Dewey’s concept of reflection, teachers find ways to build the possibility of failure into their students’ learning experiences — not repeated, existential failures, but small and orchestrated moments where an expectation may not meet reality. In these moments, students are forced out of mental auto-pilot mode and become conscious of their own learning and the methods and tools that are now present-at-hand. For students, these moments can be frustrating (if poorly planned or not planned at all) or eye-opening (if the teacher has designed an opportunity for students to recover and succeed immediately afterward). The same is true for our users.

Let your users fail sometimes. Carefully.

And then help them succeed immediately.

To be clear, the low stakes failure should not be artificial or forced, it should simply be allowed. It should also be the user’s failure, not the system’s: a temporary mistake, or a naturally tangent outcome of exploration, that in turn provides an opportunity for the tool to help the user recover and succeed even more.

Nintendo vs. Heidegger

By the way, remember the Power Glove? It’s a great example of an object as both present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. In some ways it became an invisible extension of your body as you waved your arm to move characters in a game, and yet it required your (somewhat annoying) conscious awareness of its presence any time you needed to press buttons. Shifting from ready-to-hand to present-at-hand was triggered by the flow of the game, not by a breakdown or failure of the tool. The game designers who created games for the Power Glove failed to appreciate this tension and so it was doomed— but it’s a great metaphorical illustration that tools can be designed to exist in both states… its the context of use for those tools that often presents the bigger challenge for experience designers.

Mind the Gap

Dewey and Heidegger both wrote about the breakdown that occurs when something fails and suddenly we become aware of that which was invisible mere moments earlier. This is a key moment — an opportunity for learning, for reflection, for conscious acknowledgment (and appreciation) of the utility of something we have used in heretofore unappreciated ways or which makes us feel more powerful, which in turn gives rise to delight.

These moments are myriad in origin: when there is a failure, or surprise, or a prompt for new ways of thinking or engaging. When do you appreciate that hammer? Not while you’re using it. Perhaps it’s when you have lost it and are looking for it. Or when you learn how to use it better, after someone shows you the best way to hold it. When you admire the bookshelf you just hammered together. When you reflect on how long you’ve had it and how irreplaceable it is.

We can deliberately achieve these moments by designing our users’ experiences the same way teachers do, which is rarely achieved by plugging in piecemeal tactics. If all experiences are learning experiences, all experience designers should be learning experience designers.

Learning Experience Design vs. Learnability

Most UX designers recognize the term “learnability” and understand its implications for user experience design, but learnability is a subcomponent of usability. Our field has developed sound metrics for measuring learnability, but learnability is not learning experience any more than usability is user experience.

To design learning, we must understand what it’s made of.

Learning domains are the different situations and needs for which learning takes place.

Learning theories attempt to explain how knowledge and understanding are constructed within the mind.

Learning styles describe individual preferences and tendencies that influence how a person learns best.

Learning Domains

Educators sometimes think about specific learning domains. While everyone learns within each of these domains, that learning takes place in varying amounts and to varying degrees for each of us over our lifetimes. Formal education is but one of these domains, and even though we’re designers, not teachers, we have similar goals: for our users to be able to construct reflective understanding across many situations. So, it’s worth asking what the teacher’s (or designer’s) role would be in each domain.

Accretion: Continuous Learning

Accretion is on demand, in the moment, and often subconscious; learning comes from many sources and media but most often from other people. This type of learning is a culturally embedded process, such as where to stand on the subway train or how to tie a neck tie.

Benefits: Strong links to learners’ needs & high relevance, learning takes place ‘IRL.’

Drawbacks: Learners are less aware of their learning, less reflective.

Goals for teachers/designers:

  • Create a learning ecology where exploration and experimentation is an integral part of the experience
  • Facilitate communities of practice where people can support and challenge each other peer to peer
  • Develop & strengthen the connections between learners/users and that community

Transmission: Traditional Learning

Transmission includes courses, lectures, conventional training, help manuals & websites, ‘information transfer’. This type of learning is formal instruction, including traditional classroom lectures and even most MOOCs.

Benefits: Builds core knowledge & develops sound mental models with basic information

Drawbacks: Not user-centered, slow process, treats the learner as an empty vessel, sometimes at odds with natural learning

Goals for teachers/designers:

  • Design structured lessons, workshops, tutorials, or other curriculum that retain interest & engagement
  • Integrate information, cues, hints into the experience
  • Anticipate & meet needs for help documentation & instructions

Acquisition: Learner Chosen

Acquisition is exploratory, inquiry-driven, learner-directed. This type of learning is self-directed, such as self-taught guitar or programming skills.

Benefits: Learner is highly motivated, learning is relevant and user centered, interesting, personalized

Drawbacks: Learners often miss critical skills, little or no feedback, no prompts for reflection

Goals for teachers/designers:

  • Ensure availability of resources for all learners/users
  • Design information and experiences that make new learning possible & desirable
  • Set up guideposts or a conceptual map, but don’t draw the route

Emergence: Reasoning & Reflection

Emergence is meta-cognition and pattern recognition, reflection on life experiences, adjustment of mental models. This type of learning is synthesis, often illustrated by invention and creativity in new ideas or connections.

Benefits: Tacit, deep learning, fosters higher order critical thinking skills & creativity

Drawbacks: Time consuming, difficult to facilitate, requires expert mentorship

Goals for teachers/designers:

  • Provide “just in time” feedback
  • Facilitate non-linear thinking
  • Encourage pattern recognition, hypothesis testing, and reflection

Learning Theories

Educators also work with myriad theories of mind that describe how learning actually takes place and how knowledge is constructed in the brain. These vary from questionable descriptions of different learning styles, (remember when there were just three: audio, visual, and kinesthetic?) to the hundreds of conceptual models out there.

Try it: Google “Learning Theory”

There are a lot of competing theories floating around, each explaining learning from a different perspective that, depending on what you are trying to accomplish, may give new perspective on the experience you’re designing.

Most learning theories fall roughly into the following categories:

  • Behaviorism: people learn as a behavioral response to conditioning stimuli
  • Cognitivism: people learn by mentally processing new information and relating it to existing knowledge
  • Constructivism: people learn by constructing personalized meaning out of firsthand observations and experiences

In essence, these philosophies represent three different windows looking into the same room. They are ways of modeling what happens inside the aforementioned black box of a learner’s mind. Rather than focus on one theory over another, it’s most useful to apply them as different lenses to analyze the experiences you design.

Cognitive Apprenticeship

So, how can we realistically work with so many theories in multiple domains? Teachers have a strategy: a methodology called cognitive apprenticeship, which builds on the foundational premise that:


  • is a constructive process that takes place when learners have an active role as agents in their own learning.
  • is self-directed, situated, and embedded within specific contexts and environments.
  • takes place within something called the Zone of Proximal Development, a term Vygotsky coined to describe the gray area between dependence and mastery where learning happens through guided practice.
  • must be facilitated by a mentor (which can be a person or, more controversially, an app, website, or other non-human instrument).

As an instructional strategy, cognitive apprenticeship is characterized by six methods applied in varying combinations:


Demonstrating a task explicitly so the learner can experience and build a conceptual model.


Observing the learner’s task performance and offering feedback & hints along the way.


Supporting the learner’s progress by providing assistance (like completing difficult tasks for the learner) where needed, and gradually scaling back that guidance over time.


Prompting the learner to articulate his or her developing knowledge, reasoning, or internal problem solving process to expose and clarify thinking.


Encouraging the learner to reflect and analyze performances and skills with a desire to understand and improve performance.


Giving the learner room to solve problems independently and fail within low-risk circumstances and focusing the instruction around problem solving methodology itself.


Cognitive apprenticeship is an approach that teachers use to design learning experiences for reflective learners. Consider the value in replacing every instance of the word “learner” above with the word “user,” and challenge yourself to imagine whatever you’re designing as if it were a learning experience with a cognitive apprenticeship approach.

Questions to ask when applying this lens to design:

►What types of interactions will encourage reflection and conscious internalization of our users’ experience? How can we create the right environment for, (and build prompts that trigger), awareness and reflection without frustrating the user?

►How can we make it ok for users to sometimes struggle or fail and help them find immediate success following those moments?

►How do we enable users to succeed, and help them become aware of their success?

►What might accretion, transmission, acquisition, and emergence look like for our users? What’s the most appropriate or relevant domain for the experience I’m designing?

►How can aspects of this product/interface/experience stand in as a mentor, as if our users were part of a cognitive apprenticeship?

►How might this product/interface/experience support modeling, coaching, scaffolding, articulation, reflection, and exploration?

►What would Dewey & Heidegger do? (WWDHD?)

Try it out. Let me know how it goes.

Jen Briselli

Written by

I pay attention.

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