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I was in a lift last week, full of people. Not so full, however, that one more didn’t try and sneak in. As she sidled up to the double doors, they began to slide closed.
Everyone’s head swivelled towards the person nearest the buttons. The dramatic tension in the air increased palpably. Would this person be the hero that saved the day, or would they fail to open the doors in time and leave their fellow comrade stranded?
Here is a typical lift button display:
I have a question for you: is this well designed? (The wonky seven I find particularly frustrating).
What does it mean to be well designed?
What about in an educational context?
I have recently returned from a conference in Pittsburgh, USA on educational design run by ISDDE (The International Society for Development of Design in Education). Have you switched off yet? Have you had the thought: ‘that’s not for me, I’m not a designer – just a teacher’ or ‘just a researcher’ or ‘just a person working in education’?
The conference was brimming with energy and excitement, with people from various countries and various areas of education around the world represented – those who designed curricula, who made digital apps, who taught teachers, who ran university courses or who sat on educational boards. Luckily, I have been to this conference before – otherwise I might have had a serious case of imposter syndrome. ‘Educational design’? Isn’t that what other people do?
Back to the lift buttons. How do you feel about them?
Have you ever tried to open lift doors in a hurry? Did you press the right button?
In my story, the person pressing the buttons made the wrong call, closing the doors instead of opening them. It felt like the world transmuted into slow motion as we all turned to witness the disappointment of the narrowing slice of the person waiting outside the lift.
‘Oh no!’ they exclaimed. ‘I always do that!’
We were an international bunch in the lift, but little nods of agreement broke out.
I thought about the lift buttons that evening, fresh from a whole day considering design. I thought about how thin or fat the triangles were and whether they were filled in and how the first button looked more ‘squashed up’ than the second, which appeared more ‘spaced out’ – which, in a situation which Kahneman would describe as ‘thinking fast’i, may contribute to the confusion.
A bold statement: I don’t think these lift closing/opening buttons are well-designed. Even as I write this, I think ‘who am I to say that?’. Design feels like a domain I don’t feel qualified to comment on. But I have ideas – so many ideas – about what might improve the lift doors. Here are two of the simplest. Might they be more effective than the first set? I’d love to try and see. And it is this kind of thinking that is definitely edging towards ‘design’ thinking.
Of course, we all interact with design all day long. As people living in the world, we interact with digital and non-digital artefacts, use (and abuse) objects, engineer and reverse-engineer our own solutions, and think about, sketch, tinker with and fix things that have an impact on our lives. As teachers, we develop all kinds of heuristics to assess educational design. As subject specialists, we are well placed to consider design where it represents the interface between ideas we are familiar with and learners we are familiar with. We are usually experts in both.
What IS design? In the paragraph above I have talked about both meanings of the verb: to imagine, make decisions about (and maybe realise) the form and function of objects or products in some way; and also to plan (and maybe then do) something meaningfully, with intent. Teachers do the former all the time; good teachers combine it with the latter, too.
Good definitions of design the noun are actually quite rare. Here is one from as recently as 2013, from a research team who couldn’t find anything to fit the bill and so constructed their own:
DESIGN: (noun) a specification of an object, manifested by some agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to some constraints.ii
Does that feel like something you do as part of your professional role? When, where and how?
Another important part of design involves iteration: some kind of testing. Did the thing interact with the world, or with the people using it, in the way you expected? If not, why not? What might that mean about whether the structure of the thing needs to change? How might you make changes, small or large, for next time?
Again: does this feel like the sort of thing you do in your job?
Are you, in fact, a secret designer?
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