What 5th graders can teach you about design

Day one visiting the class of 5th graders that are participating in a Khan Academy pilot I’m looking around the classroom, and I see a student who’s exercise UI appears to be completely screwed up. The colors are all weird, and the background has turned black. My assumption: this is my fault.

Following standard operating procedure, I walk over and ask him how it happened. He looks at me like I’m a bit dim and says, “It’s easy. You just hit Control-Option-Apple + 8.” Boom! I’ve been in the classroom for 15 minutes, and a fifth grader teaches me something about my Mac that I didn’t know. This was a bit of a wake up call. There I was thinking of myself as an observer, but it’s clear that this is going to be a participatory learning experience. From that moment on, whatever remaining ego I might have had was shelved, and I was in full “I’m a student here” mode.

The kids proceeded to play, experiment, and learn using the interface, and most things went really well. Things got a little more complex as the students worked up to their grade level and needed to find help. We discovered a bunch of uncertainty about the right ways to get help. Some students couldn’t find videos; some didn’t want to watch a video because they weren’t sure if it would break their streak. A few students had mis-clicked the “Hint” button and lost their streaks. Not a disaster by any means, but a few fairly major issues that were impacting motivation and impeding good behaviors.

After leaving the classroom, Ben and I discussed a bunch of solutions and decided on a relatively small but obvious solution of reorganizing some of the UI to make students’ options when they got stuck a bit more obvious. Ben’s got some cool screenshots of the new exercise UI, so I won’t rehash that, but it was awesome to see some marked improvement when we went back in the next day. So awesome, that we are planning on spending as much time in the classroom as possible.

The whole experience got me thinking about just how harmful it can be, for both designers and users, when design is done in a vacuum.

What are we so afraid of?


It’s funny, but nothing makes adults feel like frauds quite so much as a simple, well-articulated, challenging question to which we don’t know the answer, especially from a child. But what’s the big deal? The right response is so obviously right because it is choice that enriches everyone. I have this sneaking suspicion that the fear of being found to be wrong is what makes professionals of all kinds, but especially designers, afraid of interacting with and being scrutinized by users (customers/students).

In the case of the Khan Academy, there’s no room for that kind of thinking. Our success is not only dependent on our users actions, but also measured by their actual academic success. The abstract concept, user success as a measure of success of a design, is applicable to every piece of software out there, but revenue and profit tend to over shadow it. If dollars are increasing, most people are thinking, “Success.” We can’t hide behind that abstraction, and that means I can’t afford to be afraid of engaging students and teachers directly and frequently.

No one is completely immune to this fear, including me, but I believe the fear is driven by a misconception that the credentials that we build up during a career, expertise and credibility, are things with inherent value that you’ve earned (past tense). Expertise is really just the cumulative effect of all of the times you’ve been wrong but had the good sense to change your mind when a better answer was presented. Credibility is only valuable if it increases your chance of succeeding, because, speaking from experience, your credibility as a designer is likely worthless to your users.

Filters, like expertise, and tools, like credibility, should be valued in terms of what they enable you to do. They have no inherent value. The real value is created by the product of the design process, which means that optimizing for anything else is almost always going to be a waste.

It’s for the kids, so, handle it

The stigma surrounding “getting it wrong” is like a giant glue trap for progress. If I had to guess, I would say that, on average, we (designers) are wrong way more often than we’re right. I know it’s hard, because it’s hard for me too, but we all need to get over it.

Every time we fall head-over-heels in love with a particular implementation and avoid really engaging users to make it better, a kitten dies. More seriously, in my case, a student achieves less or a teacher becomes less effective. So the next time you set out to build something new, remember “the kids.” Be ruthless about removing as much ego from the design process as possible, because no one is enriched by defending a design that isn’t working. If your ivory tower design isn’t making them measurably more successful, embrace the fact that you’re wrong and work with your users to make it right.