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!)