Design As A Second Language

There are a lot of similarities between teaching english and designing websites. I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) full time in Japan for over 4 years before becoming a designer, and I’d like to think that experience better prepared me for a career on the web.

User Research in Teaching (and Design)

Some element of user research should go into every design project. Some studios hire researchers, and use that as a core selling point. Others are comfortable using the findings of outsiders. If research is built into how your team operates, you might reuse what data you’ve already gathered. In any situation, it plays a big part in the development and deployment of sites and web apps.

The same was true in the English lessons I taught in Japan. Teachers wrote down all kinds of interesting tidbits in student files. They were where I learned if they had siblings, pets, even a passport full of visa stamps. Looking at a student file before class gave me just enough background to plan a targeted lesson. In much the same way, I now use analytics, user research, and interviews to get data about our audience and plan designs that work for them. It makes it a much more personal experience for them, if done right.

The Interface as a Challenge

I sometimes think that classrooms are like user interfaces. It takes a lot to get them working correctly. I used to get clammy hands when a lesson started floundering. The flop sweat and frustration when someone didn’t get a grammar point or a vocabulary word- agh! That process of deciding what worked in class, and then doing more of it, feels to me the same process I take when designing for the web. Find the parts of the interface that are failing, and rework them.

Repetition As A Path to Smoother Communication

One of the most hated parts of the students lessons was the “listen and repeat”. It was used for grammar exercises, pronunciation, and pretty much every dead spot in the lesson. It worked for my students when used judiciously. Giving students practice with language patterns helped to solidify the ebb and flow of the English language.

I find the same principle holds true with the design work I do now. I find myself unconsciously looking for repeated interaction patterns. Those become learned behavior on the web- just think about those now-ubiquitous hamburger menu buttons. A few years ago, as responsive web design was just starting out, those hardly existed! Now it’s a known pattern, one built on a few years of user repetition.

I can even trace certain mark-making from my years in art school, patterns that I still use again and again. In that way, I’ve built up a design language all my own, one built on years of practice.

Encountering Conceptual Dead-ends in my Design Process

There were always a few students no one could stand. I don’t miss a single one. They were the people with the most obvious and grating personalities. They would find creative ways to derail lessons, interrupt the shyest students right when they were about to open up, or vehemently disagree with some established scientific fact. One highlight was having a middle-aged man laugh in my face when I told him the population of Nigeria was larger than Japan’s. You had to learn to think on your feet, though, and avoid situations that would let the the crazy ones take over the class.

But here’s the thing. They forced me to change the way I taught. They made me spend an extra minute or two explaining a complicated idiom, or a grammar point, or even just wait patiently while shy students got up the nerve to speak. The waiting patiently was the hardest, to be honest.

But in the same way that those bad students forced me to innovate and change the way I conducted classes, the complex humanity of people online forces me to simplify and rethink my interfaces, to eliminate those kinds of situations.

A Concluding Thought

Web designers are not always teachers, but we can learn a lot from what happens in a classroom. I view Design as a language, one that I speak with varying degrees of proficiency, depending on the problem I’m solving. How information is passed from one person to another matters greatly, whether it be the spoken word, or web content. Teaching one has made me much better at the other.