Those Who Can't: How thinking like a teacher will make you a better designer.

Originally published on

Think about the last thing* you designed for someone else.
(*interface, product, service, environment, etc…)

Now, think about the experience they had when they interacted with it: Was it the exact same experience you had in mind when you designed it?

If you design with any degree of reflective practice, you’ve likely observed the very real difference between the experiences you design and the ones your users actually experience. As a maturing field, experience designers are becoming more accepting of the fact that we can’t actually create a particular experience for anyone— we can only place the building blocks of an experience in a deliberate configuration and hope the person we’re designing for constructs a great experience out of them.

Will the experience they build be the same as the one we’ve blueprinted? Ideally, if we’ve done our jobs well, the user-constructed experience will be very close to the one we’ve imagined for them. But, unless we only design systems that completely remove users’ autonomy (and even then its up for philosophical debate), we must accept and design around the inherent uncertainty we invite by allowing our users to retain their agency.

We’re not the only ones who face this challenge:

So do teachers.

The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge. — Seymour Papert

Teachers design against this very same challenge; education has long considered the student mind a black box. Though cognitive science has shed much light on the neuroscience of learning, many teachers embrace the black box approach to curriculum design — focusing on inputs and outcomes rather than striving for the impossibility of identical internal learning experiences for each student.

However, teachers draw on centuries of trial and error and a rich legacy of praxis when designing those learning experiences — for people and circumstances that are at least as diverse, (if not more so), as those facing experience designers.

We’d be smart to leverage this knowledge as our own field evolves.

All experiences are learning experiences.

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Illustration: Ian Webster

Even if we can’t get 100% of the way there, designers try to achieve congruence between our designed experiences and users’ mental models. To accomplish that, we first have to understand those mental models, and then work backward to design interactions that match. Sometimes, however, achieving that perfect match isn’t feasible — we’re often constrained by time, budget, physical reality, or competing business goals.

Historically, designers often bridged the remaining cognitive gap between user’s mental models and the system, (if they bothered to do so at all), with learning aids that included user manuals, progressive reveals, tutorials, technical documentation, and so on.

More recently, given that our modern systems are becoming smarter and smarter, designers have in some cases begun to eliminate that bridge all together, under the assumption that it’s no longer necessary to even bridge that gap. Rather than requiring any cognitive leaps (i.e. learning) from the user, we assume that system intelligence can theoretically remove the need for users to control, act, or possess conscious awareness or a mental model of the system at all.

Of course, we’re finding that connected-personalized-intelligent-anticipatory systems raise new questions and challenges of their own. What’s more, they eliminate one key component of a delightful experience that I’ll discuss below: awareness.

Sure, we want to meet the users where they are, but given that it’s not always feasible, is the only alternative to leave them where they are by completely anticipating their needs, preempting their requests, and thereby reducing their agency?

I submit to the reader a third option: we can instead help users meet us where we are (or better yet, somewhere in the middle).

For example, parents don’t expect their toddlers to be adults, but they do expect them to learn to walk, just as adults walk, by standing a few feet away and helping direct them. Designers can help users adapt to new challenges — not by requiring they become defacto designers, but by enabling them to try things just outside their comfort zone or to explore unfamiliar experiences that enable growth.

Of course, this requires an environment with plenty of cognitive support — something educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky called scaffolding.

The scaffold, as it is known in building construction, has five characteristics: it provides a support; it functions as a tool; it extends the range of the worker; it allows a worker to accomplish a task not otherwise possible; and it is used to selectively aid the worker where needed. — P. M. Greenfield

those who can't image 2
Zone of Proximal Development

Learning a new capability within a software program or applying existing product features in new ways is not so far removed from the toddler example — and it’s not limited to first time use. All user experiences have the potential to be learning experiences if we build the scaffolding to support it.

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By: Jen Briselli

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Jen Briselli Managing Director, Experience Strategy & Design   Contact Jen

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