3 Lessons From Teaching A Course On UX Design

Andrew Maier
6 min readMar 2, 2021

For a little over a year now I’ve taught an eight-week course called “Utility and Usability” as part of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA’s) Masters of Professional Studies (MPS) in UX Design.

When I was just starting out, I felt just like designer Jon Kolko describes feeling when he made his own shift into higher education: “like I was doing it wrong, and everyone would find out.” Thankfully, MICA has given me the opportunity to teach and iterate on the design of my course several times now. In this article I’ll share three lessons I’ve learned that I hope to apply outside of the classroom.

Lesson #1: The realities of knowledge work are harder than traditional classroom roles lead us to believe

I consider myself a knowledge worker: a person whose work involves, as Wikipedia puts it, “‘non-routine’ problem solving.” One of the things that I love about knowledge work is the degree to which it engenders lifelong learning.

But there’s a catch. Being a professional knowledge worker doesn’t necessarily prepare you to lead 20 students through several learning objectives over an eight-week period. The reason why, in my opinion, has to do with how the roles of knowledge worker and teacher are commonly thought of in relation to knowledge itself:

  • Knowledge workers are expected to navigate both “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” In doing so, knowledge workers learn how to learn, and how to tell when we’re not learning as quickly as we might. The day-to-day realities of iterative product development, for example, force designers to constantly challenge our working assumptions. As a result, our learning objectives change over time.
  • Teachers are expected to use their expertise and know-how to create a more-or-less linear course. Properly done, teachers help their students come in contact with “known unknowns” — their course’s learning objectives — over time. The tough part is charting a path that doesn’t overwhelm students, who possess the majority of “unknown unknowns” relative to the course material.

This role disparity creates a conundrum in the classroom for knowledge-workers-as-teachers: while professional knowledge workers expect iteration, students don’t. Students don’t pay for teachers to redesign the material while they’re teaching it (or as startup founders say, “build the plane while they’re flying it”); they want a coherent learning experience. This led me to lesson #2.

Lesson #2: Teachers can increase their throughput by introducing dedicated channels

One of the challenges I’ve faced while iterating on the design of my course (between semesters!) has been how I might maximize my educational throughput while maintaining a coherent learning experience.

My first idea was to redesign my weekly, two-and-a-half-hour-long lectures (the frequency and duration of which is a result of MICA’s program’s design, not my choosing) to switch formats every so often — for example, to switch between 20-minute lectures and 20-minute break-out activities. This helped somewhat, but eventually I noticed that I was asking too much from students: for example, sometimes I’d pose a question or a break-out activity that my students would get really excited about… only to have to move us along once we’d reached the amount of time I’d allotted.

On second thought, I decided to distribute my courses’s content across dedicated channels (see below). This gives students a chance to focus on one thing at a time, and it affords me an opportunity to make better use of everyone’s time when we meet for lecture.

An illustration of how channels work within and between my course modules (ignore the Overview module; this graphic is stolen from my first lecture)
An illustration of how channels work within and between my course modules (ignore the Overview module; this graphic is stolen from my overview lecture)

In my course’s current design, students complete both reading (listening, viewing, etc.) and homework assignments before lecture; they post a written response to one of several discussion questions. This gives them a chance to learn about, discuss, and try their hand at the topics we’ll cover. For my part, it gives me a chance to review, for example, their responses to our discussion questions before we meet. This way, I can begin each lecture by clarifying any points of confusion and celebrating my students’ more insightful responses.

The only downside with introducing new channels is the possibility of creating too much noise relative to signal. To help, I’ve adapted a technique that I use in my consulting work: I send students a weekly email the morning after lecture. This email summarizes everything we covered last night, outlines what we’ll cover next week, and provides a shortlist of what’s expected of them in the interim.

Lesson #3: Human factors is critical to building human-centered design know-how

One of the first things I noticed when researching for my course is the importance of human factors in the history of human-computer interaction. Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Agency’s website provides a functional definition of human factors, saying: “Human factors uses knowledge of human abilities and limitations to design systems, organizations, jobs, tools, and consumer products for safe, efficient, and comfortable human use.” This definition was eye-opening for me. It helped me see how focusing on human factors would allow me to equip students with knowledge they could use to navigate any human-centered design process.

Moreover, it helped me understand why human factors is critical to building human-centered design know-how. In his introduction to the second edition of Designing With the Mind in Mind researcher Stuart Card describes this as the expressive and explanatory power of human factors. For example, knowledge of human perception helps designers express our ideas visually using principles of visual hierarchy. On the flip side, if our team were to present users with two different designs during an A/B test — where one design employs good visual hierarchy and the other doesn’t — we’re better positioned to explain any differences we observe if we know something about how human perception works.

This framing also helped me make additional sense of the following illustration that I share with students when I introduce usability testing:

A handy visualization of the outcomes of qualitative and quantitative research (deductive vs. inductive logic). I learned about this illustration from Mithula Naik on Twitter.

Many designers, myself included, take a qualitative approach to usability testing. Rather than validating a small number of things, we try and uncover things our team has yet to account for. I’d argue that we’re in a better position to describe the 100 “things” we uncover if we know a thing or two about human factors.

Those who can do, teach

I’ve found myself teaching design at an interesting time. Over the past few years, I’ve seen increased interest in design from places I’d only dreamed of when I was just starting out as a designer over a decade ago — places like government and healthcare. At the same time, I’ve seen the broader design community increasingly concern itself with practices like coaching, co-design, and facilitation.

Taken together, these trends suggest that while there’s value in design expertise, there’s greater value when we build people up to design together. I’ve experienced this first-hand: teaching human factors and usability testing has better positioned me to collaborate with my non-designer colleagues. For example, about halfway through my course, I give a lecture that helps students determine what makes a research question appropriate for a usability test. Then I break us into small groups to try our hand at crafting appropriate research questions. While this is straightforward educational work, it’s also served as a useful starting point whenever I’ve needed to help my non-designer colleagues craft appropriate research questions (for usability tests, at least).

Design isn’t easy; it requires a willingness to be wrong, and a commitment to learning through doing. But then again, so does teaching. Having now spent three semesters bringing my practice into the classroom, I’m finally starting to feel like I know what I’m doing. Teaching has also increasingly shown me that there are ways to leverage the byproducts of teaching within my design practice. I hope these lessons are useful to you in your collaborations with designers and non-designers alike.

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PS: In an effort to reduce barriers for other design educators, I’d like to share as many of my course materials as possible. You can get a sense of what new students see, and what my class covers, by reading the welcome letter and syllabus I send to students 10 days before class. Reach out if you’d like access to anything else.

Note: Thanks to Meghan Burke, Kelly Tsao, Victor Udoewa, Jeff Maher, Beth Martin, David Travis, Alba Villamil, and Scott Berkun for providing feedback on an earlier version of this article.



Andrew Maier

UX designer. Adjunct @mica , board @teamreops. Keen on operationalizing design research and respecting privacy. Past: @18F @civicquarterly @codeforamerica