What Does a Designer Know About Education?

When I started college I used to idolize all the poets sitting round the coffee shops sipping their espresso, so much so that I worked my way through college at a local coffeehouse and learned how to design web pages in order to publish my poetry on the Internet. Soon after I began idolizing web designers sitting round the coffee shops sipping their espresso, which eventually lead to a career in designing experiences and drinking more tea in place of all the espresso.

Now that I’m back in the job market, I’m finding it difficult to explain what an ex-poet turned designer knows about something as complicated as X. The X represents the majority of interviews I’ve had on a variety of subjects, from shopping experiences to mobile applications. For the sake of relevance lets define X as education, and ask what an experience designer could possibly know about something as complicated as teaching in the Springboro School District?

First of all, it’s important to note the difference between a web designer and an experience designer. The clearest distinction is that experience designers think in terms of systems; who the actors are, what are their goals and motivations, and what is the context in which they access the system. Experience designers think visually along with their web design counterparts, but their visuals illustrate the connections in the system in order to design something that works.

Secondly, I would stress that experience designers don’t bring a magic bullet to the table which solves the problem. They start by identifying the stakeholders and learning about their objectives. Stakeholders and other experts know the field much better than designers, but without the visualizations and systems thinking of an experience designer, stakeholders can oftentimes be playing a game of chess with a blindfold. A challenge that no amount of expertise can accommodate.

So the question becomes not what an experience designer knows about education, but are the solutions doing what they’re intended to do? In response to the new Common Core standards, one educator remarked that he has seen nearly three dozen new standards enacted over the last 18 years of his career, a fact which apparently has done little to improve our schools. And in response to these failures, we see critics respond with their own set of standards, which will no doubt be enacted once the people vote them into office.

Experience designers answer the question about the efficacy of any particular solution by focusing on the objectives of the stakeholders and connecting them to the goals of the end user. It matters little if the new standards have the best intentions at heart, if the solutions are disruptive to someone’s workflow, they will undoubtedly find another way to get the job done. That means all those cost saving measures and high performing solutions will never be utilized and ultimately need to be replaced in another round of costly changes to the organization.

In order to avoid this problem of solutions having little to no effect, consider the value that everyone brings to the table and visualize it so that people aren’t playing chess blindfolded. Then move things around in order to find better ways to solve the problem. Once you’ve identified a potential solution, make a small change and measure its impact. Once you’ve found something that works, help it spread through the system without forcing any changes that might negatively impact the organization.

And if you happen to need the assistance of an experience designer, you now know where to find one.

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