Connecting Students with Their Audiences

One topic within design education that has increasingly troubled me over the years is that of the designer / audience divide. When students are confronted with the concerns of a living, breathing human being, the safe space of the academy can become debilitating. As design research methods have evolved to emphasize the value of empathy and audience understanding, so must design pedagogy.

It is possible, in ways large and small, to push audience understanding one step further in our student projects without sacrificing core concepts. Involving outside participants in our processes can bring a new level of specificity and understanding to our students’ work while reminding them our projects are almost never for us — they are for others, and those others do not see the world through our eyes. What follows are a few useful ideas and processes for user testing, audience interviews, and service learning that I’ve incorporated into select projects in recent years.

user testing
User testing needn’t be complicated or large-scale for student work. The key is keeping in mind the core principle — understanding how the audience processes and responds to the work. Of course the trick is asking the right questions in the right order, so some planning needs to happen to maximize the use. Students need to focus on what information they’re seeking and remember that there’s no shame in asking those questions directly. A few helpful examples to get your juices flowing:

For a sophomore-level website project, I collected parents’ emails from students, traded them amongst each other, then asked them to email the parent their website url and a survey link. The parents viewed the sites, then filled out a simple online survey that I set up.

For multiple recent projects, I built time into the project that allowed for a user-testing plan requiring semi-final prototypes, student-generated questions, and documentation. Students were required to conduct the test, document it, and report their findings as a component in the larger project. Letting students determine their users will often yield roommate or friend input, but the core principle was still learned. Specifying a particular audience makes the process much harder if you cannot supply contacts yourself.

A student recently brought to my attention “Peek” by User Testing. It is an online user-testing tool where you can submit a url and get a free five-minute screen-capture video with audio commentary of someone using your site. Because it’s free, the person assigned to your site is random but those random first impressions proved to be quite valuable when I submitted my own portfolio site for review. It revealed huge assumptions I’d made about my clarity with respect to what my site is and what I do as a designer.

audience interviews
As useful as personas are, gathering information from actual audience members bridges the designer / audience divide even more. Their information, opinions, and realities are undeniable for at least two reasons — they reinforce the central tenet of our work (that we are designing for other people) and, if done well, they can give us specific problems and criteria against which we can judge our work. The important distinction is that the problems and criteria are real — not assumed or made up by the students or professor. These can be done in a host of ways — by students or the instructor, in person or by email, in short form or great detail, documented through written notes or audio or video.

I recently conducted a set of four email mini-interviews to set the stage for an interactive project. Three simple questions were asked of mothers I knew, about hopes and concerns for their young children. I also asked five simple questions to the children about their play, media, and school preferences. Students selected a mother/child pair and a mother’s concern to address as their project. Scenarios were developed around the problem and interactive projects were designed to help alleviate the mother’s concern. We referred back to the interviews throughout the project, including re-capping the mother’s concern during the final presentation to reinforce audience understanding. The interviews were fairly simple to arrange through friends and acquaintances and provided a great dose of realism to the project, particularly when one mother and daughter’s responses unexpectedly came in the form of a phone video.

service learning
Service learning — primarily community-oriented design work for non-profits — can encompass a wide range of approaches, so it’s best to start small to test the waters. A single project for another department on campus or a friend at a local non-profit are usually fairly easy to come by. There are so many valuable aspects to service learning but suffice it to say, it doesn’t get much more real than designing for a community partner. The up-sides (and down-sides) to this approach are the constraints that come with client work — deadlines, budget, realities of production, and, well, working with a client. My experience has been that students feel an increased sense of responsibility and exhibit greater maturity and professionalism as a result. They also work harder because they know their work may end up out in public. Again, it comes back to making that designer / audience connection more tangible.

After experimenting with a range of these simple audience engagement methods, I’ve reached a few conclusions about their value within design education. First, working with real people focuses communication goals more sharply than having an undefined or generically-defined audience. This forces the issue of “appropriate form” in specific ways that go beyond classroom assumptions. How big or small should instructional type really be for young people? If they are literate, will they prefer visual examples to text? Even if the sample is small or the results inconclusive, the value of the process is learned. In my own teaching I have found when an audience is undefined or poorly defined, that audience inevitably slip-slides its way back to being my students themselves. Actual user information of any sort quickly eliminates this problem. A six-year-old who is afraid of storms is a tough audience member to morph.

Next, when provided with audience feedback, students learn new facts and details about their work that are not decontextualized guesses from design peers. To appropriate a maxim from IDEO, what students say in critique is not necessarily what the audience would do in “the real world” — particularly when that audience may be less visually literate and assuredly has zero concern for whether the typeface is Mrs. Eaves or Archer. Further, students learn to spot patterns with problems and successes in their work and have to wrestle with conflicting user input. This is no different from classroom critique but an audience’s priorities are often wholly different from those of design students, usually revealing simple functionality or clarity issues that designers assume are obvious or overlook. An example: through testing a simple app click-through, one audience member pointed out to a student that there was no back button to be found. A basic oversight that, when corrected, provided a much-improved user experience.

Finally, students are importantly reminded of who they are designing for – other people, not themselves. This is particularly true with user-testing processes, even if those users are non-designer college friends of the students. The simple act of putting one’s work in front of someone and observing their responses is an effective reminder of our core pursuit as designers – to communicate visually.

The bottom line is that anything we do to increase audience awareness and sensitivity in our students is a good thing. It can be big, it can be small, but bridging that designer / audience divide plays a vital role in awakening our students to the power of design to inform and persuade audiences. It will result in more empathetic — and effective — designers who value audience input. And the world can certainly use more of those.

tyler galloway is an Associate Professor of Design at the University of Kansas. His research focuses on design for social innovation and participatory processes.

By tyler galloway
Published March 7, 2016
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