How We Developed a UX Design Workshop for Middle Schoolers, and What We Learned

On April 1st, HVCC Tec Smart in Malta, NY hosted the 5th Annual Girls in STEM event, sponsored by AT&T, the Center for Economic Growth, and Saratoga Prosperity Partnership. More than 200 middle-school girls attended the Saturday morning workshops this year. This popularity is a testament to how excited young girls can be about science, technology, engineering, and math.

When the event organizers first contacted us, we jumped at the opportunity to host a set of product design workshops focused on user experience (UX) concepts. We understand the importance of empowering girls at an age when they often start to doubt themselves, and we know that UX is a topic that they may not otherwise be exposed to.

Our fellow Girls in STEM workshop hosts included GE, National Grid, and WMHT!

Our fellow Girls in STEM workshop hosts included GE, National Grid, and WMHT!

Planning the Workshop

While planning our workshop activities, we really scratched our heads and wondered how we could best use these short 45-minute sessions. How do you explain UX to kids, when many adults have a hard time grasping the concept? How could we get kids interested in product design, without throwing too much information at them at once?

In the weeks preceding the workshops, we carefully prepared our explanations, UX examples, and design activities. We wanted to explain the importance of UX design in a way that was engaging, fun, and relatable. We wanted the girls to go home with ideas about how to design human-centered products, and we wanted to plant the seeds for them to recognize that they could one day create a consulting business (like we did!) if it would make them happy.

Running the Workshop: Introducing UX

Jacky preparing our whiteboard activity before the workshop began.

Jacky preparing our whiteboard activity before the workshop began.

At the beginning of each workshop, we introduced ourselves and explained the general meaning of UX using pictures and examples. Everyone could relate to countlessly pulling on push doors, or pushing on pull doors. We explained that well-designed doors – and products – don’t cause mistakes or make you think too much.

We then asked the girls what products have caused them frustration, and we were impressed that they caught on immediately. The girls laughed and talked about their frustration with slow-charging devices, websites with too many ads, microwaves with incessant beeps, smoke alarms that are too sensitive to dinner cooking, and medicine bottles that are too difficult for them to open. We also discussed how each of their real-life product examples might be redesigned for an improved experience.

Running the Workshop: Leading a UX Brainstorm

Illustration by Alex Foster.

Illustration by Alex Foster.

The real focus of the workshop was a UX design activity that we created. We introduced the profile of a superhero who we invented for the purpose of this activity. Rather than outline a realistic problem, we thought the superhero angle was fun, didn’t rely on the girls’ prior knowledge, and had the added advantage of introducing a fantastical world so the kids could imaginatively design technology without real-world barriers.

Our superhero, Zoey the Zombie Crusher, uses her flying ability and science skills to stop zombies and keep humans safe. In this world, zombies’ weaknesses are vegetables. (Our first group of girls insisted that the zombies should not be destroyed, but should become human again when they eat vegetables, and we liked that idea.)

We broke down Zoey’s job into three tasks: 1.) find, collect, and carry vegetables, 2.) find zombies and hit them with vegetables, and 3.) alert humans when they are in danger. As a group, we brainstormed Zoey’s challenges and solutions for each of the three tasks and wrote them on a whiteboard. The girls then individually brainstormed product features on post-it notes, and used the post-it note ideas to draw individual sketches of an innovative product or tool.

This activity worked out pretty well. The brainstorming process of outlining tasks, challenges, and solutions was a good exercise, and the girls generated some really creative product sketches.

Things We Learned

It was a challenge to design a workshop for mixed-aged kids from 4th to 8th grade. As we expected, the older and younger girls responded differently.

The older girls sometimes seemed uninterested in our activity, and probably would have preferred a more realistic design task. The older girls were also ready to jump in and sketch while the younger girls were still shouting out imaginative product ideas for zombie hunting. In the future, we might consider a more constrained design task, like designing an imaginary app to fulfill silly but realistic purposes.

On the flip side, we lost the younger girls a little bit when we talked about modern car design as a final example of good UX. We mentioned how new safety features and entertainment features have been continually improving the driver's (and passenger's) experience. But this information seemed to be a little too much to offer at once. (And after all, the girls are not yet drivers themselves.) Next time, we will stick to simpler examples throughout, like discussing one product or feature at a time.

We also learned to be quick on our feet. Our intention with the brainstorming activity had been to think through Zoey’s challenges first, and then brainstorm solutions to those challenges. We found that the younger girls were not naturally making the distinction between challenges and solutions, but were rather presenting them as a single thought. We adapted and went with their natural inclination, listing both challenges and solutions on the whiteboard as they came up.

To give our workshop some agility, we also purposely planned a lot of padding. We knew that if activities ran late we might cut out some parts, or if the girls seemed particularly engaged we could add some parts. In the end, we did a lot of cutting, but that worked out perfectly.

Takeaway

Many of us might assume UX design is a topic that is too broad and fuzzy for kids to grasp, but we learned that kids are very capable of learning the basics of UX brainstorming and product design.

We also learned that working with kids means being very adaptive. We could not predict how the activities were going to turn out, and we tried to prepare for every scenario. Going forward, we will have a better idea of what to expect, and we hope that sharing our experiences will help others kickstart their thinking for design workshops aimed at middle schoolers.

(Connect with @KennasonUX on Twitter!)

2016 Speaking Engagements: Here, There, and Everywhere! (But Mostly Here)

Kennason reached the milestone of our first anniversary in 2016. Pretty cool, right? We're kinda stoked!

This year, we also built stronger connections with our creative and tech communities in Upstate New York. This region is full of kickass humans doing inspiring things. Although we’ve always been huge on showing our pretty faces at events and saying hello, this year I also volunteered on behalf of Kennason for a string of speaking opportunities.

(So maybe you even discovered who we are because of one of those talks. Hello again! We’re so happy to have you here!)

I had really wanted to share knowledge and experiences about entrepreneurship, UX, and Design Psychology, and I took that motivation and ran full speed with it this year. We always learn a lot from working in different industries with different clients, and I hoped that some of this information would be interesting and useful to others. 

Entrepreneurship Talks

In January, Adam and I gave a friendly Kennason pitch to the Albany chapter of 1 Million Cups, which is a national organization promoting early-stage entrepreneurship. (And also caffeine! The “Cups” refers to cups of coffee. So much coffee.) We explained the meaning and value of UX, shared our story of starting Kennason, and got helpful business insight from other entrepreneurs.

I also spoke at some student-focused events this year. In May, I was asked to be a guest speaker at an Entrepreneurship Seminar at Union College in Schenectady. This was a great opportunity to answer student questions and give honest advice about starting a business or launching a product. It’s always exciting to meet undergraduate students who are so talented and driven.

Similarly, I spoke on the topic of entrepreneurship for the AIGA EMERGE event in  November at Sage College in Albany.  I talked about how Kennason came to exist, and talked about the personal challenges associated with entrepreneurship. There were amazing fellow speakers discussing other career topics for designers, and I’m proud to have played a role in the evening! (And, honestly, especially proud of the multiple Lord of the Rings references we made.) 

UX and Design Psychology Talks

In June, I volunteered to speak at a popular AIGA Upstate New York event called Coffee With Creatives. For this talk, I thought a great topic would be Psychology of Color. (This was before I realized there would be no projector available for visuals – oops. But we stuck with it anyway!) My goal was to debunk some pop-psychology myths about color and talk about how to effectively use color in design. Even though it was too early in the morning for most people to willingly use their brains, I asked everyone to pull the name of a random color out of a bowl. They were then tasked with “drawing” their color with a black sharpie for others to guess. The point was that color is subjective, and its meanings are totally in our heads based on a combination evolution (blood is red and bad), past experiences (red "BUY NOW" buttons look awfully spammy sometimes), and preferences (but red is pretty). The results of this drawing activity were my favorite thing to happen ever.

At least one of these is dirty.

Just a few days after the Psychology of Color talk, I presented a workshop called Getting the Most from Your Users for a local meetup I co-organize called AlbanyUX. The workshop involved group brainstorming and sketching to generate ideas for a fictional dating app for cat owners. (What followed were many impressive puns and cat metaphors.) Overit kindly shared their space with us, and also kindly let me blast a Butch Walker playlist during pre-workshop networking. (He calms my nerves!) I have gotten a lot of positive feedback on this workshop in particular, and it was well attended, so I hope to repeat it someday! I emphasized the importance of doing user research on new products, even when time and money are tight.

Overit, being the great community members they are, also sometimes host discussion panels, and I recently participated in two. One discussion followed a screening of InVision's Design Disruptors documentary, and the other followed a Google Partners presentation about the future of mobile design. Panels are fun because as speakers we get to bounce off one another’s ideas, and sometimes we get to hear diverse and contrasting viewpoints on the same topic.

Photo via Dan Romlein, who was supposed to be panelist-ing and not taking photos.

Also, other stuff

I really loved attending my first Create Upstate conference in Syracuse, although that thankfully did not include any public speaking on my part. The conference speakers were very inspiring, and hanging out with fellow upstate creatives is always great for the soul.

Also, not on this list but equally awesome: two academic conferences outside my usual Human Factors conference. I repped Kennason at the User Experience Professionals Organization (UXPA) conference in Seattle, WA (that recap is here!) and the Applied Human Factors and Ergonomics (AHFE) conference in Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. At AHFE, I was part of a panel along with my Old Dominion University colleagues on the topic of the Future of Human Factors, and I spoke specifically about closing the gap between the fields of Human Factors and UX. That conference was incredibly fun -- I loved learning about the ergonomic design choices in Walt Disney World, and I loved hanging out with some of my favorite people in one of my favorite places.

Onward

I felt very fortunate in 2016 for these opportunities, and I always learn SO MUCH from fellow speakers and panelists and from event organizers. I hope everyone has a fun and prosperous 2017, and you know where to find me!

- Becca

Recap of UXPA 2016: Let's Go Where the Users Are

The 2016 edition of the User Experience Professionals Association conference was held last week in sunny Seattle! (And, I’m not being a jerk, it was sunny.) My longtime friend and colleague Alex Proaps and I were fortunate to have two research posters accepted to the conference this year. So, for the first time since UXPA 2013 in Washington DC, Alex and I joined this beautiful international community of UXers who understand (and preach!) the value of putting humans first.

Our posters were Visual Perception and Product Design, and User Experience Design of Virtual Training Environments. I called this the Psych Corner.

Our posters were Visual Perception and Product Design, and User Experience Design of Virtual Training Environments. I called this the Psych Corner.

Something that stood out to me during this year’s meeting was a lot of mentions of the importance of ethnography as a UX research method.

Susan Dray, the original “Dr. Dray” (and she spits rap verses pretty well, thank you very much) was awarded a UXPA Lifetime Achievement honor for, among other things, pioneering ethnographic UX research around the world. (She's even a Fulbright Scholar, for which she spent time in Panama.) Anyone who knows her agrees that she has a special way of supporting everyone. She's always giving gifts and saying genuine, kind things. A special interview with her at UXPA revealed many stories about how she integrated with other cultures, built real friendships, and learned about others' daily lives.

We should all strive to be more like Susan, personally and professionally. In the panel for UX: Past, Present, and Future, Whitney Quesenbery brought up two hopes for the future of UX. The first is that we should be a less homogenous group. Although UX sees a lot of gender diversity (yay!), we are still mostly white, mostly from a similar class, and mostly from the Western world. Second, Whitney hopes that we spend more time getting our hands dirty and gathering insight by spending time with people in their own environments. Again, striking an ethnography chord, we need to make that effort to go where people are, listen to what their lives are like, and synthesize this information into meaningful solutions. Why invite them to our offices or labs, an artificial, strange environment? In the same panel, Tom Tullis brought up a good point -- do we even need usability labs anymore? Between remote testing capabilities and an apparent push toward more social science research, studies in usability labs might soon be a thing of the past. 

Hello again, Space Needle!

Hello again, Space Needle!

Controlled, experimental studies have their place, but they can't necessarily stand on their own. Yin and yang. Social scientists are pretty good at covering all our bases.

A lot of my research has been experimental, but I conducted my first ethnography “study” for an Introductory Sociology assignment in high school. (I observed shoppers in Dick’s Sporting Goods. Riveting stuff!)

And now, especially considering I'll never be "that kind of doctor," I’ve spent a fair amount of time in operating rooms. (It's not a task for the squeamish, which I am, but still preferable to hanging out with cadavers, which I’ve done.) We researchers went for a fly-on-the-wall vibe, observing the interactions among surgeons and nurses to figure out why certain mistakes happen. We also conducted interviews. We also created checklists. We also compared timestamps for in-surgery events. This was all useful, but the most valuable insights came from chatting with surgical staff over lunch in the hospital cafeteria.

If we had stopped at surveys, we would have gotten nowhere. If we had conducted a focus group, we would have learned nothing. Why is there a tendency to treat UX research as any less important than other research? It takes more effort to dig deeper, but if you aren't getting the right answers anyway, you're wasting your time and money.

Image via Tom Tullis

Image via Tom Tullis

Leaving a place like the UXPA conference is a little sad, because it means leaving this bubble, but also a wonderful feeling. It's such a great source of inspiration to spend a few days among others who are fighting this fight, asking the hard questions, and making a real difference.

- Becca (@becca_kennedy)

Website Launch

Today we officially launch our website! While it is a work in progress, everyone should be able to find our different services and ways we plan to help with your products. Please let us know if you have any questions through the contact form or feel free to follow our twitter & blog for updated news.

-AR

Introducing Kennason, LLC

Kennason was officially established on July 1st, 2015! We are proud to be serving the New York Capital Region; providing businesses with HF/UX design consulting. Our website is almost fully functioning and we will keep it updated with our most recent services. Please tune in regularly or feel free to contact us.

-AR