Consult the education professors

Dear Editors,

I write regarding a recent article about education reform politics.

There is an entire discipline of professionals who study what works and what doesn’t work in education.  They have done research for decades in every state and all over the world, and they largely agree about what improves student outcomes and what doesn’t. I am talking about education professors, people with PhDs studying schools, teaching, and learning.

In your lengthy article about education reform, and in the larger conversation about these issues, the people who actually know what they’re talking about — education professors — are not consulted or quoted.  Instead it’s just a bunch of donors and politicians with “opinions”.  Can you help us move towards a more fact-based conversation by interviewing the experts the next time you report on education reform (or really any issue)?


User Friendly

A recent thread on LinkedIn discusses how user experience professionals can answer the question “What do you do for a living?” One contributor wrote:

“I help companies make their products more user friendly.” That’s a term most people understand. If they ask follow up questions I will go into more detail.

The term “user friendly” makes me think of the nineties, as in “Mac is more user friendly than Windows.” I hesitate before using it, because as a software designer, I want to go beyond “friendly” and make interfaces that are also more powerful, more fun, more educational.

But I too have found that “user friendly” is the term that normal (non-UX) people understand. We naturally anthropomorphize computers, and want to know whether they are friendly, like a person we would choose to spend time with.

Designers create this “user experience” via methods such as “human-centered design”, “user research”, “advocating” and “interaction design”… but these are all technical terms that don’t mean much to people outside the field.

What people really want to know is whether the end product will feel like a friend.

Design is how it works

John Gruber has written an important critique of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. To me, the following is the most interesting core of the argument:

Prior to Jobs’s return to Apple, design was what happened at the end of the engineering process. Post-Jobs, engineering became a component of the design process. This shift made all the difference in the world.

Isaacson does not understand this.

My impression is that most technologists, journalists, analysts, and certainly the general public do not understand this either. But it is fundamental, and it is indeed the core of what I have always been most interested in doing: using engineering to solve design goals.

It’s strange that this is a point of confusion, because engineers have always been tasked with creating products that are useful for humans. Perhaps the problem is that as engineering became more complex over time, engineers increasingly focused on their subfields, analyzing the quantitative properties of materials and semiconductors, and were no longer trained in what used to be called “ergonomics.” User-centered design is really just a return to the original intention of engineering — to create technology for humans. It is a reminder that the human side of the equation is just as important as the scientific side, and that these two are intimately connected.

Gruber points out a 5-word Steve Jobs quote that Isaacson should have paid better attention to:

Design is how it works.

In Gruber’s words: “engineering should and can be part of the art of design.”