Getting the User at the Center of User-Centered Design!

For years I’ve worked with students around designing solutions for real problems in the world around us. I’ve asked students to consider the problem from a variety of perspectives and as of late, I wonder if there’s more that can be done about solving these complex problems.

In my role at Future Design School, I’ve had the privilege of facilitating workshops for students. In working with students over the past few weeks, I’m learning more and more about the importance of having the opportunity to understand the problem from the user’s perspective as well. Now I know that this seems like something that I should have known or thought of more in depth before, but it’s something that I honestly hadn’t. When students are creating, it’s important for them to understand that what they create has an impact on those for whom they are creating. In order for students to really empathize with users, they have to first be able to understand the needs of their users. They have to really take the time to stop and hear their stories through the development of open questions. How might we help students to do this?

Being Conscious of Assumptions

In the past, I’ve asked students to be thinking about a variety of users as they solved problems. As such, they worked to create general and perhaps broad-sweeping solutions but what if they were empowered to create for a specific user? With a specific user’s needs and motivations in mind, might this impact the effectiveness of their potential solutions? When we think about user-centered design, that’s what it’s really about. The user. Without taking the time to consider a potential user, I’ve asked students to make big assumptions that we never had the opportunity to test. When we make these assumptions, especially without being explicit about the fact that we are making assumptions, we hinder the ability to create the most effective solution. This makes me think about students again creating for the teacher, rather than meeting the needs of the user, which is definitely the purpose of user-centered design. So how do we go about helping students to understand the needs of their users and move past assumption making and perhaps into assumption testing? I think it’s about interviews!


When students are able to interact with real users and ask big questions about the problem they are hoping to solve, the have a real opportunity to have an impact. That being said, there’s a fine art to the interview. When thinking about learning more from our users, it’s important to not lead them with the types of questions that we may ask. By having open questions that really get the user talking about their experiences, you’re better able to understand the problem from their perspective. Often times, through listening, you’re also able to better understand how they feel about a situation based on what they aren’t saying. A great way to get users talking about their experiences is using the TED framework for questioning: Tell me…Explain…Describe. By starting off questions in this way, we empower the user to actually talk about the problem without leading them.

Helping students to craft interview questions that are open is a great start. Once they’ve crafted the question, it’s great to have them interview potential users in teams. One person can ask the questions while someone else can write. If there is a third person in the group, they might also make notes to capture their understanding of what the user is saying. Don’t have access to potential users? Sometimes you can use videos to help.

Watching Videos

Last year, I was working with grade 5 students on solutions to natural disasters. Because it was related to a real problem that was happening in the world, students were able to read articles that contained interviews as well as watch videos to be able to better understand their users. I used this video to help students understand the problem but it wasn’t until after, that I noticed how rich it could have been in helping students understand the problem from the perspectives of different users. Perhaps curating different videos or guiding students in finding their own might be a way to help them build empathy for a specific user. Again, this might be another time to discuss assumptions that might be made as we don’t have the chance to ask clarifying questions of the users.

I’m always looking for ways in which to make student learning meaningful and relevant. I’ve also always believed that design is a great tool for doing just that. Now my focus is shifting to empowering students to build deep empathy and truly making sure that their designs are user-centered.

Updated: April 29, 2019 — 6:59 pm

The Author

Arianna Lambert

I'm a Grade 5 Teacher in the Toronto District School Board who loves integrating technology and mindfulness in the classroom. Through inquiry and design, I work with students who are engaged in meaningful learning opportunities; developing core competencies, while creating ways to make the world an even better place. I am the recipient of a TDSB Excellence Award for the co-creation of #tdsbEd, Twitter chats for educators. Through conversations on trends in Education from STEAM to Mindfulness, it has become an online community of educators dedicated to improving their practice to ensure greater student success, well-being and achievement.

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