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

Those Who Can’t

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

All experiences are learning experiences.

Illustration: Ian Webster
Zone of Proximal Development

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.

User-centered design


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.

Illustration: Ben Jordan.
  1. That users are consciously aware of having.

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.”

  • Help users leverage older, existing features in new ways or to accomplish new tasks, and to share these accomplishments with others.

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.

  • 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.”

Nintendo vs. Heidegger

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.

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.

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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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”
  • 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

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 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).


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.

Jen Briselli

Written by

I pay attention.