Teachers: Natural-born UX designers

Alice Barton
4 min readFeb 18, 2021

This is a repost from an article I wrote on April 1, 2016, when I first started doing UX design.

2013. Oakland High School. My AP biology class after they finished their year-end projects.

I read an article today in waitbutwhy.com called “How Tesla Will Change the World”. In the first section, it explains in layman’s terms what energy is, the history of how we acquire and use energy, what using energy is doing to our planet, and how we can slow down that process. All the while, it not only made perfect sense, and was easy to understand, but it was also pretty funny! I enjoyed reading it, and believe me, that is not an easy task to accomplish. This is what I call good user experience design, and I will explain why:

  1. It was funny, and therefore enjoyable to read
  2. It took a concept that was complicated and controversial and made it simple to understand

Not everyone can do this. In order to be able to simplify the complex you must have the following things:

  • A keen knowledge and understanding of the subject matter
  • A keen knowledge and understanding of your users and audience…who they are, what pertinent skills they have, and what drives them or inhibits them from doing what you want them to do
  • An ability to make relationships between the subject matter and the users. You must know what interests your users about a particular subject, why they would spend their time learning about that subject, and how easily will they be able to understand the subject.

This is user experience design at its core. It is understanding the subject matter (research, competitive analysis), knowing your users (user research, persona-making), and finally taking that knowledge and making connections (prototyping, user testing).

Teachers understand empathy and practice it daily.

Teachers have some serious skills in establishing relationships between a user and the subject matter. I taught varying levels of Biology to urban high school students across the United States. These students were not only of a different age than me, but also were of different economic status, race, culture, learning ability, life experience, and general maturity. In short, I had very little in common with the 130 or so students I was charged with teaching basic concepts of genetics and evolution each year. The cards were stacked against me, and if I didn’t try to learn my users, I would never have been able to teach them anything at all.

There’s only one way to build a product that users will like. You have to do your due diligence in researching your users. To do so, I talked to students during class and at lunch. I watched and listened as they played with their peers. I learned what their interests were, and what kinds of things made them pick up their heads and smile. I learned what kinds of things they were capable of. I watched as the same students I taught participated in other classes, writing essays, doing math problems, and playing sports.

After school, in what little free time I had, I spent learning more about my subject matter (there are always new advances in science). All the while, I kept in mind what interested my students most, and tried to find material that matched those same interests.

However, simply finding good material will not make a good classroom experience. I then had to make it funny, make it active, and make it easy. I designed activities. I wrote jokes. I found a interesting pictures and videos to play. More importantly, I took concepts like viral replication, and was able to model them, create familiar metaphors, and generally make them make sense for students who had never seen a virus before, and probably never would.

Transferring teaching skills to good UX

When it comes to design, companies must understand what they are hiring designers to do. Many companies want to hire a “UI/UX designer”, and ask that person to put a facelift on a website or app, then send the design specs to a team of engineers to build. This seems simple and easy enough, so why do designers need to get paid so much? The simply answer is that they are actually supposed to improve the product, and not just make it prettier.

In order to improve your product, you need someone experienced in routinely doing just that. Teachers have years of experience doing user research, prototyping, and user testing. Every day they get immediate, harsh feedback on poorly planned lessons, then come back the next day with an improved iteration. Especially in cases where the teacher is so far removed from their students, teachers must become experts in empathy, and practice it daily.

It would be extremely presumptuous to say that all teachers are better designers than those taught at some of the best institutions this nation has to offer. But I can say that in terms of real-life experience in building user empathy, doing research, and creating a simple and coherent product, teachers have those skills down in spades.