Over the last couple of months I have become increasingly obsessed with the field of User Experience. The main reason is that I see a growing disconnect between technology and people. There is a lot of discussion about either/or but very little about how the two interplay, interact and intersect.
One of my earliest uni assignments – over a decade ago now – was on the topic of the User Experience on the web. It’s something that has fascinated and intrigued me ever since. It has always been at the core of my design work and I have always employed a user-centred approach to my work. I’m no longer a graphic designer day to day and over the last 5 years I have moved further and further away from my traditional repertoire to transition into a completely different role.
I’m now an Innovation Technology Officer and how I would describe my area of work is at that intersection between people and technology. I come from a technical background in digital technology having had a go building and creating almost everything in a digital environment going back to 1996. This compliments well with my education and work in design which was really about people – understanding and empathising. If you wanted to get paid you had to deliver what it was clients and their customers wanted. You had to make something worth buying so you had to appeal, relate and communicate to the client AND the customer. It’s not an easy thing to do.
For the last year or so it seems the community has been focussed on technology. Mobile has been a huge disruption that every sector across the globe has had to deal with. But while there’s been a focus on the technology very little thought (and money) has been invested into the people side. That’s now starting to change, quickly and rapidly (at least on the fringes). There’s less talk about technology and more on people and what they do at most of the conferences I tap into via twitter. It’s via these conferences I stumbled upon Whitney Hess.
I will confess to having something of a professional and intellectual crush on Whitney. Her work has resonated with me and she has an ability to articulate so well some of my frustrations and embryonic thought processes that reading her work it is like consuming an epiphany.
User Experience (or to use its more awesome abbr. UX) represents a way of applying common sense to technology. It works to define the problem and pinpoint where technology and people should intersect. In an educational context it’s along the lines of what Doug Belshaw has written recently
In my experience, there’s broadly three ways to relate to any kind of educational technology: 1) Technological — decide on the technology (for whatever reason) and that determines what you do pedagogically; 2) Pedagogical — settle upon the pedagogy and then look for a technology that fits; 3) Ecological — combine pedagogies and technologies to promote certain kinds of behaviours.
It’s often difficult to bring together two different fields and their taxonomies together – education and design in this case. I suppose for people like me that straddle two separate fields it is inevitable that you need to merge and combine language, thoughts and ideas. The difficulty is in trying to articulate that merged vocabulary and thought process – and it’s where I find myself now. How do I communicate in a language clear enough? How to I communicate that UX is the same as the Ecological approach? Perhaps more importantly – how do I communicate this importance to my university that this technology AND pedagogy/technology AND people approach is the key to doing things better? …also please can I have some money to do it?
To me UX is the way of driving the third way and giving it a voice and some practical tools that educators and technologists can use to start working together rather than against or in divergent ways. So why is this UX/3rd Way approach important? It boils down to doing things better. Better as in more efficiently, more effectively, more engagingly, more timely and with more impact. When we are talking about education it equates to developing better teachers and better students.
So how do we do it? Kindly Whitney has written a fantastic post on her blog that sums up some of the keys.
Go and read the post itself – don’t worry I’ll wait ….
…. OK so now you’re back, take a deep breath and lets contextualise it.
The problem we face in education is the lack of design. We tend to talk a lot about strategy, vision and planning but very little about design. Maybe because its a foreign concept to most educators and management, but the reality is – it is what we do – Education = Design. If you want to understand why schools and universities are important and vital it’s because they design the learning experience. Simply broadcasting information is not education, nor is it innovative or sustainable. In essence design is problem solving, but it isn’t something that most people don’t come to naturally as it of needs developed. Design requires you to take on a broad range of thinking, understanding and emotion. However the beauty of design is that it can be broken up into different areas and roles where expertise can be shared, honed – design becomes an ecology to itself which requires cohesion and focus. I really love the Wikipedia definition of design:
a specification manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints
If you want a simple manifesto to take away to use technology better, use Whitney’s key points:
- Define the problem before trying to solve it
- Ask questions to root out the truth.
- Be obsessed with the problem, not the solution
I feel that far too often the whole education sector jumps ahead of itself in deploying or applying a technological solution to a non-existent or ill defined problem. Problem Setting is far more important than Problem Solving.
When we look at some of the technological trends – mobile, MOOCs, LMS – have we actually discussed what the actual problem is? Have we asked why (x5)? Have we asked is it better? Have we defined the problem as who needs what because why? If we haven’t its because of two reasons – we’ve been driven by the Technological or the Pedagogical rather than the Ecological or UX approach.