What Children Have Taught Me About Design

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
October 8, 2018

Recently, I conducted a design-thinking workshop. That, in and of itself, is no big deal; I do them all the time. I also teach others how to conduct and facilitate design thinking and quickly move to “design doing.” However, this workshop was different. I faced my toughest audience of all time—a group of individuals with such strong opinions. These folks were smart and insightful in ways I had never experienced before. They had strong personalities and were seemingly able to build and destroy at will. In short, this was my daughter’s kindergarten class.

Her teachers invited me to come in and read a story to the class—and perhaps share something about what I did for a living. The reading part was easy. I could choose from hundreds of my daughter’s books or even buy a new one to read. The sharing part was much more difficult. I struggle telling adults about what I do for a living. How could I explain this to five and six year olds in the right way? Should I focus on the design part? The technology part? If design, I might come off as someone who draws cartoons—and I am terrible at drawing. If technology, I might be inundated with calls from parents asking me to fix their Wi-Fi or take a look at a malfunctioning computer.

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So I decided to combine a little bit of both. I read a story, extrapolated on some challenges I had identified in the story, and showed how we can use design to solve them. This seemed like a good idea, but it was also fraught with potential pitfalls. In my 30-minute time allotment, would I be able to herd these cats and keep them focused? Would they understand what I was trying to do? Or would the teachers never again allow my disgraced self to cast a shadow upon their classroom?

In the end, I swallowed my fears and decided to go through with my plan. I chose to read What a Naughty Bird, by Sean Taylor. The basic premise of the book is that the Naughty Bird flies all over the place, wreaking havoc on society, going to the bathroom everywhere and on everyone before finally getting his comeuppance when a larger animal goes to the bathroom on him. It was a wholly appropriate book for the audience and wonderfully illustrated.

Here is what I learned from this experience.

The Value of Storytelling and Humor

Weave in storytelling and humor as much as possible when interacting with others. This is so important in the enterprise space, as well as in consulting. We are all human. Our main job as UX design professionals is not to launch a successful product; nor is it to design the slickest thing the world has ever seen. Rather, our main job is to build empathy and make life better for both ourselves and our fellow human beings. Focus more on these goals, and the successful product and slick designs spring forth with less effort.

To appreciate this, we need only observe children to see how they communicate through storytelling and tons of humor. We can learn from that. Humor and stories build empathy and trust. They create bonds between colleagues and other folks, ensuring that when you need help from teammates you will get it. They also reveal opportunities that often get hidden as we get older.

When I give a presentation or conduct any type of design workshop, I always make sure storytelling is a part of it. As humanity has moved from an oral storytelling tradition to a written tradition, then from a written tradition to our barely written way of life these days, we have lost the understanding that, through oral storytelling, we gain the power of focus and attention. Children have not lost that. They still find strength in it. This became strikingly clear as I read this story to my daughter’s class. Every single child was focused on the story—the words and the visuals. They laughed quite a bit at the Naughty Bird’s shenanigans, but quickly refocused on the story, even stronger than before. They looked at their friends, sharing their delight. This created an unspoken bond among them.

Imagine if we could do that with the adult audiences with whom we interact at work? What if we could bring Business, IT, and Customer Experience factions together and make them laugh with one another, ensuring that everyone relates to the story we’re telling them. What would that accomplish? I posit that doing so would result in much better designs and outcomes. We could focus on business outcomes instead of functionality. On experiences that ultimately build loyalty and customer success instead of trying to figure out what went wrong.

Fostering Wonder and Optimism

If, as adults, we could retain half the wonder and optimism children have, the human race would be unstoppable. First of all, kids are so much better at innovation than adults generally are. When I told this to my daughter’s class, they were so happy to learn that they were smarter than their parents. As humorous as it might seem, there is more than a grain of truth to this. We used to have really good imaginations, never seeing boundaries, only opportunities. We had the ability to address every issue with an open mind and truly desired and believed in our ability to succeed.

But, somewhere along the line, we lost this as adults. We always seem to put up barriers and are unable to see past our own myopic views. And in the world of enterprise software? Forget it. Everything is about velocity and user stories and points and scope. What is imaginative about that? Enterprise software gets built, but is almost never actually designed. We focus on the wrong metrics because we don't approach software design with the innovative, transformative mindset that we should.

Being Undaunted by Failure

Children are natural designers and tinkerers, and failure never sways them. After reading the story to the class, I asked them to think about how the people in the story could have prevented the Naughty Bird from going to the bathroom on them. This was the design phase, and we wrote down everything they said. The kindergartners yelled out classic solutions such as building some sort of shield or protective device. But one child, who suggested one of the most innovative, heartfelt solutions, said with all sincerity, “Talk to the bird and find out why he is doing this.” To me, this was one of the most proactive solutions—one that should resonate with anyone creating a product or service for someone else. This child, without even knowing about user research, talked about empathy and figured out that knowing the real reason behind behavior was the key to changing it.

Too often, we just yell out solutions, thinking we understand the problems for which we’re designing solutions. But, even for seasoned UX designers, taking a step back and opening our minds is key to helping us see the real solution.

Making Things

It is hard for all of us, whether children or adults, to make do with what we have on hand. The next part of the workshop was having the children actually build their ideas. I gave each child equal amounts of the same materials with which to build their prototype, including paper, Velcro, tape, paper clips, and other materials. They each had ten minutes to make a prototype. At one point, a child came up to me frustrated, saying he needed “more stuff” to build his prototype. We’ve all faced this quintessential problem. While I felt bad telling the child that part of design—and real life—is sometimes having to make do with what we have. I also knew this was a lesson we should all be better aware of.

Wrapping Up

Having experienced this design-thinking workshop, the children felt accomplished and so did I. As a designer, I found this experience refreshing and invigorating. I learned more about design and human behavior during this workshop than I have from most books and classes. Since having this experience, I have been able to apply so many of the lessons I learned to my adult colleagues, during sessions with leaders in the enterprise-software space. All because of a book about a Naughty Bird and some time I spent with some future designers. I encourage anyone in the design space to experiment with doing something similar. Such experiences can only make us better—in both design and life.  

Vice President, Client Innovation, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsAt Pegasystems, Baruch helps global clients develop new ways of streamlining their operations, improving their customer experience, and creating real transformations—digital or otherwise. Previously, during his 12 years at Pegasystems, Baruch led their global User Experience team and served as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in their delivery of user-interface design and user experience to customers and partners. He has led and participated in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries. Baruch earned his Bachelor of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing and Philosophy at the University of Hartford and his Master’s of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Business.  Read More

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