Gen UX: Raising the Next Generation of User Experience Designers

Little Designer Handprints— By MARK DISCIULLO 

After recently re-reading Daniel Pink’s book – A Whole New Mind – I found myself inspired much differently then the first time I read it. Yes, the notion of how the conceptual age is now upon us and that right brain thinking will rule the future, once again made me feel very secure in my choice of profession as a designer, but a lot has changed since the first time I read it. I now have three small children, which I didn’t have when I first read it, so reading the book this time around had an entirely different meaning to me. This time it was speaking to me as a father. I felt It was providing clues about how to navigate the future for my children.  It was helping me define the type of direction I should be providing to my young family in order for them to have the best chances of thriving in the future and finding happiness, meaning, and fulfillment in the conceptual age.

Young girl user experience designer hand painting wall

No experience required…

I’m a designer. More specifically, I’m a user experience (UX) designer. I ensure products and digital interfaces are easy to use by their intended audience…humans! But you don’t have to be a UX professional to introduce your children to human centered design. It simply requires an appreciation of, or even simply an awareness, of, products or websites that work well, stories that move you, a curiosity of what makes something meanful, empathy for those around you, and the desire to have fun.

Mentoring the next generations to understand user centered design, whether these folks are our own children or not, has far reaching benefits. Design thinking helps solve important problems and improves the quality of life for all types of people. Why would we NOT want more of these people around?

I’m not saying you must demand your children pursue careers as designers, I’m suggesting that you should help foster a deep appreciation for design with your children, so what ever career path they pursue, design becomes a foundation for all they do and achieve. THIS will help them differentiate themselves and thrive in the future economy.

Why does this matter? In the “conceptual age”, as mentioned in the book “A Whole New Mind,” experience, service, and good design will be the key differentiator for any product, service…or career. The design and creation of that experience, cannot be off-shored, commoditize, automated or reduced to several lines of code. It has such a uniquely human aspect to it. We’re already seeing this happening today. Designing for everyday human needs and helping an audience to achieve specific goals is not something that your order from half-way around the world or automatically cranked out of a computer. So most likely during your child’s career they find themselves “designing experiences” or “branding a product” or “conceptualizing solutions” or “visualizing data”…well you get the idea. This is a far cry from what today’s education prepares them for.

Below are a few principles I follow to fill the gaps and help my children experience and appreciate “all things design.”

1) Point stuff out…create awareness of good and bad experiences and product designs

As you may know, there is design in the everyday things around us. it doesn’t only reside in museums or the big city…It’s very accessible. From the layout of a playground to the sleek lines of a cool looking car, even many of the items on the shelf at Target, there’s amazing design within reach. Look for it and share!

Other examples of how you can build awareness for design with your child, would be to point out signs that helped lead the way to your destination. Point out the signs that didn’t…and point out why. Watch your children using a website, ask them what was easy about it, what was hard, and why. Ask your children to offer up their thoughts on how to improve things that appear to be problematical….you’ll be surprised what you’ll hear!

A great book to prime YOU on this topic is the perennial favorite book for all designers “The Design Of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. This will provide you the perspective that you don’t necessarily have to be a designer or artist to know how to differentiate between good and bad design. It will also provide you with insights on how to evaluate and even improve upon the supposedly bad designs. You will also understand the phycology behind why certain designs work and why some don’t.

Whether you’ve read the book or not, just simply be aware of what is happening around you. Make a point to call it out to your “mini-me” when something just felt like a great “experience” verses a not so great “experience” or when something caught your eye as a great design verses a poorly thought out product design. Then, take the time to explain this to your children. It will be a great exercise for both of you.

2) Drop the computer and pick up the pencil!

Children naturally draw from the right side of the brain. They draw to express not to perfect. Don’t let them loose this ability. Encourage children to remain comfortable visualizing and sketching – don’t discourage drawing outside of the lines. Help them make the connection from their ideas to the tip of their pencil as natural of a flow as possible.

Encouraging them to draw will provide them an incredibly valuable tool for expressing ideas to others. I’ve seen designers and (more importantly) non-designers persuade many tough audiences to agree with a concept simply because they had “0” fear of grabbing  a marker and sketching out a rough idea on a whiteboard in front of a group of people. It’s powerful stuff.

To see some of this in practice check out the book Visual Meetings by David Sibbet.  You can also explore examples of visual note taking here. There is also the classic book on the topic of “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Dr. Betty Edwards. These resources will help you rethink about the power of drawing and how it can help tap into a more intuitive side of your conscious for expressing ideas.  

O.K. back to the kids….Always keep pencils and paper handy around the house. Make it extremely easy to steal a few moments and grab some paper to draw mindlessly with your children. Even use it to express YOUR thoughts and ideas to your children. Watch how they respond. They may even pay more attention to what you have to say!

If your children are still very young, pull out the crayons and share some quiet time with them coloring in their favorite coloring book. I personally have found this to be very therapeutic for me as well as providing some of the best quality time you can get with your children.

3) Introduce children to the arts and music as early as possible

I’m amazed at the quality of art and performance programs that are available to this generation these day…locally. It’s becoming very accessible. If you look hard enough, you may find that just miles from your home are quality art, theater, and music programs that were either non-existant or only available in the “big city.” If your town doesn’t provide anything, go to the next town over. Seek it out and get your children involved.

Help your child find and get involved in programs that would maximize their talents. But as always, be ever attentive to your child’s interest level. The very second you sense they’re not interested, find out why. If what you’ve signed your child up for is just not for them, then move on. This is very important. A child can be unintentionally turned off…forever…simply by a bad experience at a young age. (i.e. think of all the missed opportunities from those overly strict piano lessons, or art lessons delivered by an uninspiring teacher)

Make it fun, if it’s not, then stop.

4) Support the arts and music in your child’s school

I’m not suggesting that you make huge donations to your school district, what I’m stressing is to be there for any recital, performance or art show you can possibly make for your child. I’ve taken extreamely important conference calls from the parking lot of my children’s school just so I could arrange to attend and share in the experience of my child’s performance. Cheer them on. Make them always see a familiar face in the audience. Share your thoughts of the performance. Make it a fun experience for them. This will help them to overcome any nervousness they may have, but more importantly it will allow you and your child to have a good conversation about the performance or show. Always be supportive. But try to ask them their thoughts on what could have been improved upon (if any) You might find they have some interesting ideas tossing around in their heads.

5) Balance Art, Music and Dance with sporting activities

Balance Music, Art and Sports

Creative activities will prepare your child for future careers equally as much as athletic activities. Balance the sports with the arts. Both you and your child’s lives will be even more enriched for doing so. For every sporting event you coordinate for your child, balance it with equal amounts of cultural events. (concerts, recitals, museums, going to that artsy funky hip store in town and pointing out the cool stuff) Make it fun and BE ENGAGED with them. Schools and communities place so much emphasis on sports and cheer on the athletes, yet so much future potential is just sitting at home drawing pictures, playing an instrument, making things, etc…all with very little support or fanfare.

Again, I’m stressing a balance. Sports teach you a lot about socializing, teamwork, networking and just being healthy. Very important concepts for designers too!

6) Talk to your children about “Brands”

I was surprised how well children can grasp the concept of “brands” and what differentiates one from another. Think Disney verus Nick Jr. I find this idea has dual purposes. They learn to understand “brand” from an experience perspective, but they also learn to understand brand from a persuasion perspective. We all want our children to be smart and aware of the power of persuasion and not to get sucked into it.

But still, we have fun with our children just simply pointing out logos with the kids and discussing their meaning, the colors shapes, and letters. This then leads to conversations around what makes one logo different from another, and in ture, what makes one “brand” different from another.

7) Play video games with your children.

A key principle in Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind, was “Play.” Believe it or not, this concept will be very important in the workplace of the future. I’m not talking ping-pong tables in the break room, but in the design of products that require “engagement.” Having a good grasp on what “play” is comes in quite handy as a designer. It’s surprising that today, there are still so many designers who just don’t get it. It’s as though they were never allowed to truly be a “kid” in their lifetime. This is what often leads to those overly complex, unintuitive, boring products or experiences that are forced upon you to use.

Play is of ultimate importance when raising ANY child regardless of who or what you want them to be when they grow up. Although, to many well intentioned parents chagrin, video and computer games have become the main source of that fun… for both boys and girls.

As parents we need to relax our concerns about video and computer games and begin to embrace many aspects of it. We fear they’re just sitting there doing nothing, when in fact there’s some deep analysis going on. Analysis of story, creative problem solving, and spacial and social relationships. These are all skills that are, and will be, incredibly important in any career field your child may want to pursue.  And forget about the anti-social aspect of video games. Seems like every time I attend a family function, there’s always a room full of nieces and nephews hovered around a game console where, regardless of age, physical size, and social abilities, they are all interacting, coaching, mentoring, and creatively solving problems together (oh yeah…and just out right laughing…does anyone remember laughter?)

There’s an interesting blog post regarding the Many Benefits, for Kids, For Playing Video Games from research professor of Phycology at Boston College, Peter Gray. He points to research that refutes the frightening myths about the harmful effects of video games and how they, in fact, have many far reaching benefits on increasing brain power. He also expands upon the huge social benefits of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), such as World of Warcraft.

8) Make stuff with your children

So you if you’re someone who consider yourself a creative person and If you’re even a half way decent job at parenting, it’s probably safe to say you fall into the category of “frustrated artist.” Seems parenting puts all those “self-indulgent” creative tendencies on the back burner in favor of soccer practices, dance classes, feeding, clothing, and providing for your child’s well being.

What do you do with all that pent up marketing savvy, Photoshop skills, business acumen and love of modern art? For the meantime, channel it. Just take time to make stuff with your kids. Don’t just give them a project to do and then check back a week later, but think of things that would involve your children in the process. Let them see how a graphic is designed or a short animation is produced, or a song is written. Create projects that leverage, and exercise, your skills but bring your children into the process. The only rule is it HAS to be fun….otherwise stop, drop and roll on!

9) Teach empathy – Show your children what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. This is the core to being a great user experience professional. Show them that there are other perspectives, feelings and levels of capabilities to consider. Children seem to “get it” easiest when explaining situations from another person’s point of view. “What if your sister took this toy from you how would YOU feel?”

10) Be creative about college – OK, so you now succeeded in keeping their interest up all the way through high school and now your children are thinking about collage. How do they find education that will prepare them for this new conceptual age? Just sent them to art school? That can be risky, since in my opinion it won’t fully prepare the student for the full reality of the future design workforce. So sometimes parents and students have to get “creative” about their college education.

I highly recommend considering balancing a Fine Arts major (specialized in Art, Music, Design, etc) with either a Phycology or Business minor…or vice versa. This holistic approach to education is your best bet preparing your child to put design into practice. The phycology will help the young designer understand what drives human behaviors, what motivates people and why. It will also prepare the designer to incorporate research into their design methodology. The business aspect will provide the foundation to make their passion a reality and successfully earn a living doing what they love to do!

The Final Sketch…

So you’ll see, it’s nothing beyond the realm of typical parenting, it’s all just in how you do it, and what you call attention to…or should I say, it’s the experience that’s the differentiator! But before you get all gung ho about career choices for you children, please make sure to love your children with all your heart. What they need more then anything is attention, closeness and praise. Provide them hope and faith in themselves and the future.
Being a parent and designer I’m always learning and I’m always looking for ideas for fun ways to be creative with my kids. What have you found to be helpful in inspiring your future designers? 
Little Designer Flowers

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