41 Cooper Square, the home of Cooper Union’s Engineering program.

What Engineering School Taught Me About Creating User Experiences

During my time in engineering school at The Cooper Union, I learned a lot about design, problem solving, and how to understand something new. However, what has proven most useful to me now that I am out of school and working as a UX designer is the frustrations I experienced during some of my more rigorous courses.

Just like learning how to use a new app or program, learning a new topic in engineering can be frustrating when the UI or lesson is not forgiving, understanding, and clear. Too many options or too much information being presented at once causes what is important to be lost. That is why a great teacher makes even the most complex topics seem simple to grasp. A great example of this is the following video of Richard Feynman, a famous physicist who I often studied.

Richard Feynman being asked to explain magnetism.

Although brilliant and great at explaining things, Feynman is too rigid in his approach here. In engineering education, a deep understanding of the inner workings of topics is necessary. But in most interactions, people want to know what they need to know, and not much more. Here, Feynman’s lack of empathy with the question being asked is almost frustrating to watch, something which I experienced frequently in my mechanical engineering education. To witness this infuriation for yourself and likely get a chuckle, go read the comments on the video on youtube.

As a great teacher, Feynman wants his students to have a very full understanding of the subject matter. However, in today’s world of micro-interactions and apps, UX designers have only seconds to make an impression. People often just want a simple answer. No more, no less.

At the core of what Feynman describes, is the idea of shared knowledge. As product designers, we must attempt to know the minds of our users; what they understand to be true, what they want, and how they want to do it. The trouble is, once you understand everything about your product, maintaining a perspective on the challenges you underwent to get to where you are now is tough. That is where the challenges of being a teacher or product designer come in.

The best way to keep perspective is to be a student yourself. Watch people interact with your product. Make them going wrong into them going right. If they tap somewhere expecting something to happen and it doesn’t, maybe it should! These insights can quickly be gained from user testing with friends or co-workers who are unfamiliar with what you are working on. Watching these interactions is the basis for having empathy for your students or users and can have a massive impact on their happiness.

As UX designers, we get to choose what to teach as well as how to teach it, a luxury most professors don’t have.

We don’t need them to understand every underlying business reason for things, or how it is all working. We just need to let them do what they want to and guide them when they need help. The empathy I have gained from engineering school makes me ensure no one should feel like they have to learn quantum mechanics while using an app. Even if your business or app is rocket science, you don’t have to make it feel like it!