This year over eight million students will return to virtual classrooms. This new way of learning, brought about by the realities of the pandemic, has made it abundantly clear that video conferencing software was, naturally, not made for children.
That’s not to say children aren’t tech-savvy — we’ve all watched toddlers seamlessly swipe open an iPhone and take hilarious selfies. However, there’s specifically a chasm between the way young minds learn and the standards UX designers harness when they create and test new software.
But this unprecedented challenge offers an opportunity for UX practitioners everywhere to reevaluate their assumptions, processes, and strategies.
Is Best Practice Really Best?
UX designers rely on a rich canon of design patterns. Whether it’s green for success messages or the (in)famous thumbs up for liking, designers trust that it’s best to align with conventions as a way to help users understand what to do.
Yet virtual learning turns that standard on its head. Young users simply lack the life experience to understand many of the conventions we take as a given.
Psychologist Jean Piaget called these situational references “schemas.” As children age, they are introduced to interactions and environments that help them build out schemas to aid in understanding the world. Adults don’t give it a second thought to turn a faucet handle and expect water to flow from the tap. At one point, however, this was a brand new schema they learned as a child. The same principle applies with user interfaces.
So, is best practice really best for all users? Does this mean designers should throw out every pattern we know and start new? Well, it’s not that simple. When designing a product, it’s often required to rely on your best practices in the first few drafts of an experience. That’s perfectly OK. But as soon as you receive significant feedback that an element of your design is confusing or doesn’t work — pause. Then rethink your assumptions.
If the majority of your users completely miss a crucial drag and drop indicator, for example, that’s your opportunity to hone this experience for your end users. Usability testing is a must for problem identification. Thankfully, you can identify the vast majority of issues with only five users. Mix up the experience level of your users for added efficacy. Inexperienced users, especially, can offer razor sharp insights on terms, flows, or iconography that undermine clarity.
Words (Usually) Mean Things
Iconography and language is another uniquely challenging area where we can learn from child-users. Icons offer the benefit of quick, easy communication. Additionally, it’s pretty standard to pair icons with short text labels to maximize understanding.
Children, however, are doubly disadvantaged to handle iconography on their own. At their core, icons are visual metaphors for real-life or electronic actions, processes, and expectations. The save icon calls back to a floppy disk. A formatting icon may resemble a real-life paint roller. Any child starting virtual learning this year has likely had zero real-life experience with visual references that live as iconography today. The icon, without a full understanding of the metaphor, is useless to them.
Adding text may not help, either, because most preoperational users, aged seven and younger, can’t read. If they do read, their vocabulary is limited at best.
Therefore, icons in interface designs should be regarded with a healthy amount of scrutiny. It’s important to consider more than your domain-expert users, who may be deeply familiar with the processes, and thus bring pre-existing knowledge to the experience. Think of your more child-like new users too.
Collaborate with your user experience research partners to ask pointed questions about what users assume different icons mean. When there is a disconnect, delve into why. For instance:
- Are there similar icons used with conflicting processes at other points in the workflow?
- Does this icon kickstart a larger action or sequence where a button and call-to-action may be more appropriate?
- Does your icon pair well with the language actual users are familiar with and using?
These are all crucial questions to ask your users (and yourself) as you validate your latest designs. You may be surprised at the jargon, contradictions, or confusion that emerge when icons come into play in your experience.
Less Isn’t Always More
Sleek design is a given in contemporary interfaces. Great design focuses on utility and strips away unnecessary elements. A study by the Nielsen Norman Group found that adults disliked the animations and sounds younger users gravitated toward. It’s not simply that children like “busy” design. Their brains are still developing, and they learn and grow through the cause and effect of interaction. Function alone isn’t enough for these users and it may not be enough for yours either.
For example, not every user prefers the gradual reveal of progressive disclosure. Especially in high-complexity tables or lists, progressive disclosure can hide a value that’s important for decision making or task completion.
Imagine an Excel sheet that “helped” you by hiding columns any time you had more than seven values, which has long been the rule of thumb for digestible information. In this case a best practice isn’t beneficial at all. It actually impedes one central benefit of Excel, which is the ability to quickly scan data sets.
Card sort or “build your own” style user experience research is a great way to promote mindful simplification. The exercise puts users in control, which helps identify content that’s of highest priority to most users. It also asks end users to visualize the ideal state within a structure the design and research team determines. It’s tempting to want to simplify with gusto, but your users’ success should always be a byproduct of visual design, not in conflict with it.
Cater The Mishaps Too
Errors offer yet another teachable moment for pupils and UX practitioners alike. Designers exercise caution in crafting system status interactions, user controls, and any restrictions to freedoms in an experience. Messaging and changes in the interface signal clearly to adults what’s wrong and what needs to be addressed.
Without these references built up, it can be difficult for children to understand when something is going wrong. A glitchy video to them may simply seem funny or entertaining, as opposed to signaling the need to troubleshoot. Even if they do recognize something is wrong, a child won’t know how to resolve the issue. From the educator’s perspective, they may be deeply engaged in performing the lesson, and may not realize technical aspects have gone awry. It’s important to rely on earlier learnings as a guide for messaging interruptions.
When things go awry in an experience, it’s not just the time to empathize with users. It’s time to understand their journey. As a UX designer, you’re responsible for way more than meeting the user’s needs as they complete tasks in the interface.
For truly stellar design, you must understand their end to end flow. When things go wrong, it’s not just about communicating clearly with users — it’s also about helping the user achieve success in a different avenue along their journey.
By understanding their mindset, motivations, ideal next steps, and available tools, interruptions can go from major disruptions to bumps in the road. As such, contextual inquiry research should be an indispensable part of discovery. It will empower designers, researchers, and content writers to transcend a well-crafted error message and move into continuing the experience toward meaningful resolution.
Unprecedented Circumstances Demand Proven Processes
Several of the core rules of UX design don’t mesh well with post-COVID education, and yet, UX professionals are perfectly equipped to handle the new challenges of unprecedented circumstances.
With heightened stress and entirely new ways of working, it’s more important than ever to elevate the voice of the user in design processes. Curiosity should steer the ship when it comes to rapid iteration and finding solutions. Just because a design pattern worked well in the past, don’t assume it will still serve your users today.
And with a little time and patience, we may find these new challenges bring us into a world that inspires more accessible technology for users of all ages.