The Design Salon
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The Design Salon

Why would Dr. Maria Montessori hire UX designers?

Just as a designer sets out to create problem-solving products in human interaction, Dr. Montessori engaged in a life-long mission to understand and resolve the challenges in childhood learning.

Instead of forcing children into an adult environment, she rather sought to defend children’s miraculous abilities through the refinement of a myriad of designs.

It was during an observation tour of the Montessori school when I stepped into a toddler classroom while the children were quietly working away.

What stuck me out was the true beauty and visual appeal of the classroom, both in the individual materials placed neatly on the shelves and as a collective whole. It was so unlike any classroom I had seen before.

The beauty of the Montessori classroom lies both in its simplicity and its thoughtful set-up; each uncluttered space reflects a tranquil, peaceful invitation for learning — The perfect balance of User Interface, Visual Design, and Interaction Design.

Why traditional kindergartners would score comparatively less in the tests in a highly decorated room?

Studies conducted in traditional kindergarten classrooms have found that “when kindergartners were taught in a highly decorated classroom, they were more distracted, their gazes more likely to wander off task, and their test scores lower than when they were taught in a room that was comparatively spartan.”

And for good reason — In the Montessori classroom, there are not brightly colored alphabet charts, big cartoon animal borders, or bulletin boards filled with reminders and charts. Many walls are bare, except for the occasional piece of artwork or class photo.

Dr. Maria Montessori pioneered in making the design an iterative process.

Through her years of research, she eventually arrived at a comprehensive learning environment through a process of observation, design, testing, and rapid refinement…These included beginning-to-end learning tools in language, math, science, geography, and practical life. So who were the user testers for Dr. Montessori?

Child — Dr. Montessori’s user tester, navigating through her prepared Prototype.

Under observation, user testers navigate the prepared prototypes and reveal where our designs match or fail human intuition.

Similarly, Children would navigate a Montessori ‘prepared environment’ and reveal their individual selves.

A toddler concentrating on work material in a prepared environment

“When adult steps back and quietly observe what the child is saying and doing, they learn more about where that child is in their learning experience, where they need support, or what their focus is right now.”

Dr. Montessori’s Iterative Process of the Prepared Environment and Montessori materials —

Prepared Environment:

Adult in the class would observe (the user — child) and adjust to the classroom environment or learning material; or make something new, prototype and test it, and observe again.

The usability

Specially designed learning materials are displayed on open shelves, easily accessible to the children.

The materials

Dr. Montessori designed the work materials scientifically through observation and experimentation.

Anecdotally, the reason that it is the Pink Tower (a Signature Montessori material) because Dr. Maria Montessori tested — Towers of ten cubes incrementally growing in size from 1cm cubed to 10cm cubed in different colors, and Pink was the color children chose most frequently, used purposefully, mastered and experimented with.

A toddler practicing the Pink Tower

But this was not it.

Dr. Montessori also addressedHow can concepts like Math be made visible, tangible, accessible to a young child with an eager, absorbent mind?

She very mindfully adopted the Design Principle: Break it down in simple small chunks: Empathizing with user

A child practicing Trinomial Cube

The Math and Language materials were designed by bringing large, abstract concepts down to their most basic essence — The Decimal System, Verbs, Fractions.

Dr. Maria Montessori imbibed similar principles for designing tested materials for toddlers.

The designer believes usability is not really a one-dimensional property of a user interface. Usability has many aspects and is often associated with the following 5 attributes:

  • Easy to learn.

The user can quickly go from not knowing the system to getting some work done with it. The Montessori materials are simple. As the toddler is trying to make sense of this wild wonderful world they have so recently come upon. They learn best when you give them organized information. The materials have real consequences. They skip the boxes with knobs and buttons that produce unrelated and random noises. A ball dropped into a hole will roll down a ramp and emerge for your toddler to handle again. An actual and visible bell will ring when your baby bats at it.

  • Efficient to use

Once the user has learned the system, a high level of productivity is possible. Montessori materials are sensory-based learning tools that are designed to isolate one skill or concept i.e driving the child to a particular task to complete instead of making it cluttered with multiple objectives to completed design.

  • Easy to remember

The infrequent user is able to return to using the system after some period of not having used it, without having to learn everything all over.

  • Few errors.

A further design principle is that each piece of learning material has a ‘control of error’ which alerts the child to any mistakes, thereby allowing self-correction with minimal teacher support. Especially unique, is that each Montessori material is designed with visual control of error. So, if the child makes an error, they can easily fix it.

First, real-time feedback enables self-learning of the user and autonomous self-correcting mechanisms without supervision.

  • Pleasant to use: Users are subjectively satisfied by using the system; they like it.

Limited choice :

Give toddlers limited choices when setting out their work materials. Having too many choices is overwhelming and dissatisfying. It is harder for them to decide what they want to work with, and it is harder for them to stick with the material once they’ve chosen it.

Training is the opposite of usability. The more user-friendly the design is the less help and support is needed to the user.

  • The classrooms also support teachers by removing the onus of controlling children.
  • As in the best instances of design, the classroom setup and observational teaching style are conscious decisions, organized down to the tiniest of details, for conscious reasons supported by Dr. Montessori’s life of education research

Teachers gently guide

How Montessori’s prepared environment soaked in UX principles:

  • A Well Thought Information Architecture — Designated learning areas.

Each classroom is divided into multiple learning areas. Typically, these areas are dedicated to either sensory, practical, language, math, or cultural experiences.

Classrooms also include low sinks accessible to the children, child-sized furniture, cozy spaces for quiet reading, reachable shelves with work available for free choice, and child-sized kitchen utensils so the students can eat, prepare, and clean up their snack on their own.

  • Thoughtfully used Negative space — Limited wall décor.

In a Montessori classroom, decorations are kept to a minimum. Any decorations found on the walls are generally both practical and simply designed.

The shelves are decluttered with minimum work materials.

  • Color Palette — Natural furnishings and dominantly neutral color materials.

Whereas many traditional classrooms use brightly colored plastic desks and chairs, Montessori classrooms mostly stick to natural wood furnishings.

  • Visual Design — Soft lighting.

Montessori classrooms use lighting like what a child might experience in his or her home. Instead of fluorescent overhead lighting, the classroom may have fixtures designated to specific sections to create a cozier atmosphere.

  • Intuitive Navigation — Specific organization.

While Montessori spaces are designed to encourage self-driven learning, they are far from chaotic. The furnishing arrangement is also less strict and tends to include more circles than rows. These classrooms include neat and predictable organization of supplies, materials, and furnishing.

Had Dr. Maria Montessori (Italy, 1870–1952) been researching today, User Experience designers would have been her priority partners and recruits. In both sovereign spaces of Design and Montessori style, there is an enormous emphasis on inherent empathy, methodical observation, design problem-solving.



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