UX Design & K-12 Classroom Teaching: 4 Similarities

Andrea McKinley
Aug 13, 2021 · 7 min read

Looking at the parallels after transitioning from a 10+ year career in science education to UX design

A teacher standing at the front of a classroom of students
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Having recently made the transition from a 10+ year career in science education to UX design, I can see several parallels between effective teaching and UX. These parallels are what piqued my interest in UX in the first place, and I am now seeing firsthand how my experience in education lends itself well to the world of UX.

At the surface it may not seem that UX and K-12 education have much in common at all. Delivering a lesson to a room full of students couldn’t be more different from designing digital products, right? But hear me out — effective classroom teaching and UX design have lot more in common that what one might think.

1. Like UX design, effective classroom teaching is deeply human-centered.

Students seated in a bright and colorful classroom.
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

UX design is a multifaceted discipline that is human-centered at its core. Design consultancy IDEO defines human-centered design as “a creative approach to problem solving… a process that starts with the people you’re designing with and ends with new solutions that are purpose-built to suit their needs.”

Effective classroom teachers are master problem solvers. The main problem to be solved is this:

How might we facilitate students’ mastery of the learning objectives in a way that is delightful, engaging, aligned to content standards, culturally-relevant, and equitably accessible to all students?

After clearly defining the specific problem (which will vary by subject area, grade level, student demographics, etc.), effective teachers begin to do the work of crafting a beautiful learning experience that is centered around the academic, social, and emotional needs of the students.

A pyramid diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. From bottom to top: physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
A pyramid diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. From bottom to top: physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — Source: i4 Business

Effective teachers understand the developmental psychology of the specific age group of the students they serve, and they design learning experiences that support students’ meeting the learning objective, while ensuring that other essential human needs are being met such as physical & emotional safety, human connection, sense of achievement, etc.

As a science teacher, I could design the most rigorous, hands-on science lesson, but if my students’ need for safety is not being met, or if my lesson does not accommodate my students with disabilities or English learners, my lesson is a failure. Leading with empathy, effective teachers always view their work through a human-centered lens.

2. Like UX design, effective classroom teaching is data-driven and highly iterative.

By utilizing various research methods such as user interviews, contextual inquiry, moderated usability testing, and surveys, UX designers gain critical insights from their users, and the data gathered from research directly informs product design decisions.

By putting the user front and center and evaluating every design decision from their perspective, designers are able to create a more user-focused experience that can lead to a higher likelihood of the user returning to a site, service, or product. -AdobeXD

Effective classroom teachers utilize all kinds of data to make their lesson design decisions. While this includes student performance data from state assessments, and student demographic data, the bulk of the data teachers use is the data teachers collect every day in their classrooms.

Effective teachers treat every lesson like a prototype, and the delivery of the lesson like a usability test.

A diagram of arrows connected in a circle. Each arrow represents a different part of the Lean methodology: Learn, Build, Measure.
A diagram of arrows connected in a circle. Each arrow represents a different part of the Lean methodology: Learn, Build, Measure.
The effective teacher takes an approach reminiscent of the Learn-Build-Measure cycle in Lean methodology. Source: marmelab

When students are engaging in an activity, the effective teacher takes on the role of a researcher in an observational lab. The effective teacher sees every student action as a piece of critical data that will inform the lesson design. Facial expressions, posture, the questions students ask the teacher, the questions students ask each other, students’ responses to questions — these data points are windows into students’ mental models. Effective teachers iterate on their lesson designs based on these data points, in order to address any gaps in students’ existing mental models.

For example, a may teacher conduct a quick in-class poll to assess students’ progress on a particular math concept they have just spent 20 minutes practicing in class. The poll data reveals that only 20% of students grasped the concept. The effective teacher will change their approach in some way — perhaps allowing additional practice time, or giving students a different resource to use as they practice, or perhaps the teacher will give a more explicit explanation of the concept. This iterative, nimble approach ensures that the learning experience is dynamic and responsive to students’ needs.

3. For effective teachers, the classroom environment is like a user interface.

A table in a classroom. The table has a set of paintbrushes in the center.
A table in a classroom. The table has a set of paintbrushes in the center.
Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

User Interface (UI) Design focuses on anticipating what users might need to do and ensuring that the interface has elements that are easy to access, understand, and use to facilitate those actions. — Usability.gov

Designers make informed decisions about every single element on a user interface. Each aspect of the interface — from the color and typography, to the visual hierarchy and use of white space — is used with purpose to enable a user to meet a particular goal. These decisions are informed by user research data as well as common patterns based on psychology. Everything is done with intention and purpose.

Similarly, effective teachers design their classroom environments with a high degree of intention and purpose. Everything from the arrangement of classroom furniture to the signage, the student grouping, and the elements that are on the walls, effective classroom teachers are very intentional about every element of the classroom environment. Effective classroom teachers use various components of the classroom to either encourage or discourage specific actions. The goal is to reduce the cognitive load of desired actions, and decrease the number of decisions students have to make in order to complete a particular task that is aligned with the overall learning objective.

A floor plan of a classroom showing 4 different seating arrangements.
A floor plan of a classroom showing 4 different seating arrangements.
Effective teachers arrange student desks to support particular components of the student learning experience. Source: Study.com

For example, when the teacher wants to incorporate partner or group discussion into the learning experience, effective classroom teachers may opt to rearrange their classroom environment in such a way that encourages discussion — seating students in partners/groups, and providing visual cues like sentence starters to support those discussions. When the intent is for students to have focused, independent work time, effective classroom teachers may adjust various elements of the room to encourage that — rearranging classroom furniture to encourage independent work, and providing additional visual cues to indicate the parameters

And even when designing the student-facing materials (e.g slide decks, virtual or physical worksheets), formatting is everything. The effective teacher is very intentional with grouping related elements together in chunks, using bold and enlarged text for headings to increase legibility, and utilizing color to make certain things stand out and draw students’ attention. Copywriting is also incredibly important. Effective teachers understand that students are not going to read long, wordy paragraphs of instructions, so it’s imperative to make them short and sweet to increase the likelihood that students will read this critical information.

4. Like designers, effective classroom teachers must design within constraints.

A laptop and a mug of coffee on a table. The laptop shows images of 20 people who are on a video conference call.
A laptop and a mug of coffee on a table. The laptop shows images of 20 people who are on a video conference call.
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Some of the most common constraints that designers face include budget, brand & style guidelines, timelines, user feedback, device specifics, client or internal feedback, and project-specific design constraints.

Often it’s constraints — limitations that force designers to rethink the whole problem and come up with something completely new to address it. — Harvard Business Review

Effective classroom teachers keep students’ needs at the center of every learning experience they design, while simultaneously operating within a given set of constraints. These constraints are established by a range of stakeholders — from the federal department of education down to each individual school’s administrative team. These constraints include budget, statewide learning standards, curriculum guidelines, district and state-level assessment schedules, access to technology, class size, etc. And on top of these, teachers faced an entirely new set of constraints during and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, highly effective teachers are incredibly creative, and find ways to meet students’ academic, social, and emotional needs even while under great constraints.

Conclusion

These 4 commonalities only begin to scratch the surface of how effective teaching is similar to the world of UX. I imagine that as I continue to gain experience in design, more examples of the crossover with my experience in education may come to light.

What are some other similarities between teaching and UX? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Title of article
Check Insta or LinkedIn for a summary.

👉 Job Openings: UX Roles in EdTech

👉 Podcast conversations on UX in the EdTech industry

UX of EdTech

An exploration of user experience in the EdTech space.