Why Every Teacher is also a UX/UI Designer

Most of us can agree that teaching is an undervalued profession. What’s often overlooked however, is that teachers have developed and mastered many skills that position them to be effective across a variety of what many might consider to be, unlikely and unsuitable fields.

While teaching experience can transfer into the fields of psychology, academics, coaching, etc. I’m going to focus on how teaching directly relates to UX/UI. Those unfamiliar with what it takes to be a great teacher might have their doubts, but I’ll explain how the a teacher’s process involves many of the same steps that UX/UI designers follow.

Here’s a short list of what a teacher is responsible for (in terms that designers are likely familiar with):

  • User research
  • Prototyping
  • Visual comminucation
  • Empathy
  • Interaction design
  • Analytics
  • Communication skills
  • And much more…

Curriculum Design

Let’s start with curriculum design.

The key word here is design. Not every teacher designs curriculum. But if you want to be an effective teacher, you do.

There is no one-size-fits all solution to teaching. Every student, every neighborhood, and every school has unique needs. Therefore curriculum starts with research. Specifically user research. Who are the users in this case? Students and their parents.

User Research

When I was enrolled in my credential program I taught in a small city called Watsonville, about 20 miles south of the California beach town, Santa Cruz. This community has a long and rich history revolving around different immigrant groups that have settled and left over the years.

Most recently, however, the city has been home to many Mexican-Americans, Mexicans and Central Americans. The reason for this, is that Watsonville is surrounded by agricultural fields and many Latino migrant farmers work in those fields throughout the year.

Before stepping foot into the classroom, and before designing any curriculum, I first researched the city, the school, and the student body population.

Some strengths that I found there, were that the majority of the school was bilingual. They spoke both Spanish and English. At the same time many students were English Language Learners (ELL) who were still developing fluency in English. This meant that I’d need to incorporate strategies into my lessons that would allow my ELL students to access the content.

In this case I used ethnographic research in order to inform the design of my educational experiences.

Another part of effective teaching incorporates the idea of culturally relevant pedagogy.

Students growing up in Watsonville may have little interest and engagement with a curriculum designed around the English Civil War fought in the 15th century.

However, those same students may find the life and work of Cesar Chavez to be incredibly engaging. After all, his story directly relates to many of the students’ and families’ stories.

Using the research that I had done on the school and community, I found resources that were highly engaging and relevant to my students. From a repository of local oral histories, to a history book of the different immigrant groups that migrated to and settled in Watsonville. In a nutshell, I researched my students’ needs and developed a curriculum that would address those needs in a culturally relevant way.

Participatory Design

If you’re a good teacher, you listen to your students and you involve them in the process of designing curriculum.

Teaching is about developing the skills students will need in order to thrive in adulthood. Learning content is good, but learning the content isn’t the goal. The goal is building students’ skills so they can learn to thrive in any given environment.

Participatory design is empowering when it comes to building those skills. If you ask students what they want to learn, they are more likely to engage in the class.

But that’s not all.

When you ask students how they want to learn, you are then beginning to teach them how to learn.

It was my third year teaching in Oakland.

Oakland isn’t the easiest place to teach, but when you gain the trust of your students, it becomes one of the most rewarding places to be a teacher. And after you gain their trust, you can include participatory design when building curriculum.

One day I asked my students to write down on a post-it note, what they wanted to learn about. I got all kinds of responses. Some appropriate, and others not. With the help of the students, I decided to card sort them into categories on the whiteboard.

As a class we came up with 8 categories.

  1. Soccer
  2. Music
  3. Problems in the Community
  4. School Life
  5. Police Brutality
  6. Video Games
  7. Pop Culture
  8. Food

I then gave my instructions.

“In groups you’re going to come up with a question that you want to study and answer.”

The students started talking amongst themselves.

“Hold up, I’m not done, yet,” I demanded.

I was a little annoyed that they weren’t keeping silent, but I also knew that when students start talking about the curriculum, you know it’s good.

I then gave them the details as to what I was expecting in terms of a deliverable.

The process would involve coming up with a research question, research, synthesis, insights, writing a paper, and eventually presenting their findings to the class.

This unit was one of my favorites. It was also a powerful lesson for me in the effectiveness of participatory design.

Usability Testing

Teachers use usability tests every day.

We use both qualitative and quantitative data from those usability tests to inform and iterate our lesson planning.

In the tech world there are two main types of design processes. Waterfall and agile. Agile has come to dominate. Agile is fast and its iterative process works in two week periods. A teacher’s iterative process however, works daily and sometimes hourly.

Period 1

My students walk into their first period class half asleep from staying up too late on their smart phones.

It’s easy to give instructions to period 1, because well, they’re so quiet.

I’ve printed out what teachers call a “Do Now.”

A “Do Now” is a simple assignment every student needs to complete when they walk in the door. It’s basically a way to manage the classroom when students first come in. It also warms up their brains.

But today I realized that the instructions were unclear. As I was taking attendance I realized several students were asking their neighbors what to do.

I had made a mistake. On the board I had an image of Buddha. I thought I had printed out a worksheet that asked them to write down what they see, think and wonder about that image. But instead the worksheet asked them to look at the map on the board and answer some questions about it.


Today was going to be one of those days I guess.

Period 2: Iteration One

During the 5 minute passing period, I quickly ran to the copy machine to print new “Do Nows” with the right instructions on them.

Period 2 was going to start smoother.

And it did. But half way through the lesson I realized that during a small group reading exercise, several of the groups weren’t reading at all.

I wanted them to read out loud with each other and then answer some discussion questions after each paragraph they read. But I realized that I hadn’t given the students any incentive to read as a group.

Period 3: Iteration Two

The “Do Nows” were now fixed and I had an idea to incentivize the group reading. At the end of the class each group would grade itself with my guidance. This grade would count for their overall class grade.

The result?

Nearly every group was participating in this activity.

But the next problem I saw was that the students were struggling to participate meaningfully in the discussion questions.

Period 5: Iteration Three

I had a prep period to work on designing a way to get the students to become more active in the participation of the discussion questions.

I decided that I’d model to them the two types of questions that they can ask if they don’t want to use the questions that I had posed for them on their worksheets

The first kind of question I modeled was one that is answered by the text they just read. The second type was an open ended question that might lead to a discussion relevant to the text but not necessarily answered by it.

The modeling worked. Students were practicing asking both kinds of questions after reading the text in their groups.

I realized however, I’d have no quantitative data to learn about what the students actually learned after this small group reading lesson.

So I iterated the lesson one more time.

Period 6: Iteration Four

In the last period of the day, I decided to have each small group develop a quiz for another small group.

The quiz would ask questions that could be answered by the text they read. I could then use these quizzes to see what the students actually learned and then use that data to iterate the lesson and review it the next day.


Teachers often complain about state mandated tests. Students are over tested, are given no incentive to test well, and have no meaningful connection to the tests they are given.

But that doesn’t mean testing is a waste of time.

Given the right context, testing provides high quality quantitative and qualitative data with which a teacher can use to develop insights to improve upon her or his instruction.

Creating effective tests is like creating an effective product.

Tests need to be developed using the principles of universal design. A test needs to be accessible to students with disabilities, English Language Learners, gifted students, and the students in the middle.

When you design a test you are not just designing questions, you are designing an experience that a student is going to have. You have to think about a lot of different questions. Questions like:

  1. Is the student going to understand the instructions?
  2. Is it clear where the student needs to respond to a question?
  3. Are the questions suitable for each students needs?
  4. Do the questions align with the curriculum covered?
  5. Can a student with disabilities access the test?
  6. Will students feel overwhelmed and unmotivated to take this test?
  7. Is the test laid out in a visually friendly and inviting way?

The list goes on.

So how do you know if the data you’re getting is accurate?

Perhaps the reason a test had a 70% average wasn’t because the students didn’t know the answers to the questions, but because the typographical hierarchy of the test caused confusion.

Creating survey questions at the end of your tests will help with the data you get.

Questions like:

  1. What did you like about this test? Why?
  2. What did you find frustrating about this test? Why?
  3. If you could change one thing about the design of this test what would you change and why?

Feedback from your students at every level will help you improve your lessons when you iterate. Using testing data helps, but so does using data about the thoughts and feelings your students have.

After all, as a teacher it’s important to design curriculum that is usable, useful, desirable, and delightful.

Why Every UX Team Should Have a Teacher on It

I’ve always said that before anyone becomes a cop, they should be a teacher for a few years in an inner city. It will give prospective cops an understanding of young people and their motivations, hopes, dreams, and struggles that you can’t get without working with them first.

But the more I think about it, the more I feel that anyone who works with people should be a teacher first. This idea is even more crucial for those who are designing for people.

Teaching gives you an edge and perspective that no other career can. As a teacher you are a researcher, a problem solver, an academic, a parent, a therapist, a coach, a designer, a collaborator, a philosopher, a scientist, a content creator, an entrepreneur, and much more.

But most importantly being a teacher gives you a perspective, a sensitivity, and empathy that most other fields don’t. And with that perspective you begin to understand the world in a holistic way.

UX is all about solving problems and developing solutions in order to improve the experience of a user. The question I’m left with is, who has more practice doing this than a teacher?

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