Ending the UX Designer Drought

Written by: Fred Beecher

The first article in this series, “A New Apprenticeship Architecture,” laid out a high-level framework for using the ancient model of apprenticeship to solve the modern problem of the UX talent drought. In this article, I get into details. Specifically, I discuss how to make the business case for apprenticeship and what to look for in potential apprentices. Let’s get started!

Defining the business value of apprenticeship

Apprenticeship is an investment. It requires an outlay of cash upfront for a return at a later date. Apprenticeship requires the support of budget-approving levels of your organization. For you to get that support, you need to clearly show its return by demonstrating how it addresses some of your organization’s pain points. What follows is a discussion of common pain points and how apprenticeship assuages them.

Hit growth targets

If your company is trying to grow but can’t find enough qualified people to do the work  that growth requires, that’s the sweet spot for apprenticeship. Apprenticeship allows you to make the designers you’re having trouble finding. This is going to be a temporal argument, so you need to come armed with measurements to make it. And you’ll need help from various leaders in your organization to get them.

  • UX team growth targets for the past 2-3 years (UX leadership)
  • Actual UX team growth for the past 2-3 years (UX leadership)
  • Average time required to identify and hire a UX designer (HR leadership)

Then you need to estimate how apprenticeship will improve these measurements. (Part 3 of this series, which will deal with the instructional design of apprenticeship, will offer details on how to make these estimates.)

  • How many designers per year can apprenticeship contribute?
  • How much time will be required from the design team to mentor apprentices?

Growth targets typically do not exist in a vacuum. You’ll likely need to combine this argument with one of the others.

Take advantage of more revenue opportunities

One of the financial implications of missing growth targets is not having enough staff to capitalize on all the revenue opportunities you have. For agencies, you might have to pass up good projects because your design team has a six-week lead time. For product companies, your release schedule might fall behind due to a UX bottleneck and push you behind your competition.

The data you need to make this argument differ depending on whether your company sells time (agency) or stuff (product company).

When doing the math about an apprenticeship program, agencies should consider:

  • What number of projects have been lost in the past year due to UX lead time? (Sales leadership should have this information.)
  • What is the estimated value of UX work on lost projects? (Sales leadership)
  • What is the estimated value of other (development, strategy, management, etc.) work on lost projects? (Sales leadership)

Then, contrast these numbers with some of the benefits of apprenticeship:

  • What is the estimated number of designers per year apprenticeship could contribute?
  • What is the estimated amount of work these “extra” designers would be able to contribute in both hours and cash?
  • What is the estimated profitability of junior designers (more) versus senior designers (less), assuming the same hourly rate?

Product companies should consider:

  • The ratio of innovative features versus “catch-up” features your competitors released last year. (Sales or marketing leadership should have this information.)
  • The ratio of innovative features versus “catch-up” features you released in the past year. (Sales or marketing leadership)
  • Any customer service and/or satisfaction metrics. (Customer service leadership)

Contrast this data with…

  • The estimated number of designers per year you could add through apprenticeship.
  • The estimated number of features they could’ve completed for release.
  • The estimated impact this would have on customer satisfaction.

Avoid high recruiting costs

Recruiting a mid- to senior-level UX designer typically means finding them and poaching them from somewhere else. This requires paying significant headhunting fees on top of the person-hours involved in reviewing resumes and portfolios and interviewing candidates. All the data you need to make this argument can come from UX leadership and HR.

  • Average cost per UX designer recruit
  • Average number of hours spent recruiting a UX designer

Contrast this data with:

  • Estimated cost per apprentice

To estimate this, factor in:

  • Overhead per employee
  • Salary (and benefits if the apprenticeship is long enough to qualify while still an apprentice)
  • Software and service licenses
  • Mentorship time from the current design team
  • Mentorship/management time from the designer leading the program

Increase designer engagement

This one is tricky because most places don’t measure engagement directly. Measuring engagement accurately requires professional quantitative research. However, there are some signs that can point to low engagement.

High turnover is the number one sign of low engagement. What kind of people are leaving—junior designers, seniors, or both? If possible, try to get exit interview data (as raw as possible) to develop hypotheses about how apprenticeship could help. Maybe junior designers don’t feel like their growth is supported… allowing them to leverage elements of an apprenticeship program for further professional development could fix that. Maybe senior designers are feeling burnt out. Consistent mentorship, like that required by apprenticeship, can be reinvigorating.

Other signs of low engagement include frequently missing deadlines, using more sick time, missing or being late to meetings, and more. Investigate any signs you see, validate any assumptions you might take on, and hypothesize about how apprenticeship can help address these issues.

Help others

If your organization is motivated by altruism, that is wonderful! At least one organization with an apprenticeship program actually tries very hard not to hire their apprentices. Boston’s Fresh Tilled Soil places their graduated apprentices with their clients, which creates a very strong relationship with those clients. Additionally, this helps them raise the caliber and capacity of the Boston metro area when it comes to UX design.

Hiring great UX apprentices

Hiring apprentices requires a different approach to evaluating candidates than hiring established UX designers. Most candidates will have little to no actual UX design skills, so you have to evaluate them for their potential to acquire and hone those skills. Additionally, not everyone learns effectively through apprenticeship. Identifying the traits of a good apprentice in candidates will help your program run smoothly.

Evaluating for skill potential

Portfolio. Even though you’re evaluating someone who may never have designed a user experience before, you still need them to bring some examples of something they’ve made. Without this, it’s impossible to get a sense of what kind of process they go through to make things. For example, one apprentice candidate brought in a print brochure she designed. Her description of how she designed it included identifying business goals, balancing competing stakeholder needs, working within constraints, and getting feedback along the way, all of which are relevant to the process of UX design.

Mindset. The number one thing you must identify in a candidate is whether they already possess the UX mindset, the point of view that things are designed better when they’re designed with people in mind. This is usually the light bulb that goes off in people’s heads when they discover UX design. If that light hasn’t gone off, UX might not be the right path for that person. Apprenticeship is too much of an investment to risk that. Evaluating for this is fairly simple. It usually comes out in the course of a conversation. If not, asking outright “What does user experience design mean to you” can be helpful. Pay careful attention to how people talk about how they’ve approached their work. Is it consistent with their stated philosophy? If not, that could be a red flag.

Intrinsic motivation. When people talk about having a “passion” for something, what that means is that they are intrinsically motivated to do that thing. This is pretty easy to evaluate for. What have they done to learn UX? Have they taken a class? That’s a positive sign. Have they identified and worked through a UX problem on their own? Even better! If a candidate hasn’t put in the effort to explore UX on their own, they are likely not motivated enough to do well in the field.

Self-education. While self-education is a sign of intrinsic motivation, it’s also important in its own right. Apprenticeship relies heavily on mentorship, but the responsibility for the direction and nature of that mentorship lies with the apprentice themselves. If someone is a self-educator, that’s a good predictor that they’ll be able to get the most out of mentorship. This is another fairly easy one to evaluate. Ask them to tell you about the most recent UX-related blog post or article they read. It doesn’t matter what it actually is, only whether they can quickly bring something to mind.

Professional skills. UX design is not a back-office field. UX designers talk with clients, customers, stakeholders, developers, and more. To be an effective UX designer a candidate must possess basic professional skills such as dressing appropriately and communicating well. Simple things like sending a “thank you” email are a great indication of good professional skills. (Physically mailed  thank you notes get extra bonus points. One-off letterpressed mailed thank you notes get even more!)

Collaboration. UX design is a collaborative discipline. If a candidate struggles with collaboration, they’ll struggle in the field. When discussing their work (especially class project work), be sure to ask what role they played on the project and how they interacted with other people. Complaining about others and taking on too much work themselves are some warning signs that could indicate that a candidate has trouble with collaboration.

Evaluating for apprenticeship fit

Learning pattern. Some people learn best by gradually being exposed to a topic. I call these people toe-dippers, as they prefer to dip their toes into something before diving in. Others prefer to barrel off the dock straight into the deep end and then struggle to the surface. I call these people deep-enders. While apprenticeship can be modified to work better for deep-enders, its gradual exposure can often frustrate them. It is much better suited for toe-dippers. Evaluating for this is tricky, though. Asking people whether they prefer to dive in or learn gradually, they’ll say “dive in” because they think that’s what you want to hear. Asking them how they’ve approached learning other skills can give some insight, but this is not 100% reliable.

Learning by doing. Apprenticeship helps people acquire skills through experiential learning. If this is not how a person learns, apprenticeship may not be for them. Evaluating for this is very much like evaluating for intrinsic motivation. Has someone gone to the trouble of identifying and solving a design problem themselves? Have they practiced UX methods they have learned about? If so, it’s likely that learning by doing is effective for them.

Receptiveness to critique. Apprenticeship is a period of sustained critique. Someone whose response to criticism is defensiveness or despondency will not be successful as an apprentice. This is easy to identify in an interview within the context of discussing the work examples the candidate has brought. My favorite technique for doing this is to find something insignificant to critique and then hammer on it. This is not how I normally critique, of course; it’s a pressure test. If a candidate responds with openness and a desire to learn from this encounter, that’s a very positive sign. If they launch into a monologue defending their decisions, the interview is pretty much over.

If you’re fired up about UX apprenticeship (and how could you not be?), start making it happen in your organization! Do the research, find the data, and share your vision with your company’s leadership so they can see it too! When you get the go-ahead, you’ll be all ready to start looking for apprentices. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll get great apprentices who will grow into great designers. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series where I’ll get detailed about the instructional design of apprenticeship, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking!

Teaching/Learning UX: Considerations for Academic-Industry Partnerships

Written by: Guiseppe Getto

Higher education is poised to help produce the next generation of user experience designers, but we can’t do it alone. In the wake of Fred Beecher’s recent “Ending the UX Designer Drought” and studies by Onward Search, UserTesting, and the Nielsen Norman Group, it is clear that the UX market is booming and that UX designers enjoy a high level of job satisfaction. It is also clear that too few UX professionals exist to meet current demand.

And while apprenticeship programs like Fred’s can help meet much of this demand, those of us in higher ed who have hitched our research, teaching, and service agendas–our entire professional identities–to UX are uniquely positioned to help students navigate to those apprenticeship programs, or even to help take the brunt of some of this training.

If we are to do so, however, we need members of industry to partner with us.

Obstacles to establishing UX workflows in higher ed

Before discussing ways that higher ed can help produce UX designers, let me discuss obstacles that we academics face, obstacles that make it difficult to nimbly respond to industry realities. I’m sure it won’t be news to anyone, for example, that the academy is very siloed.

At the same time that knowledge in the academy is often chopped up into discrete units called disciplines, however, there are other obstacles to establishing UX as a real concern that are specific to state- and federal-funded institutions of higher learning. The first of these that must not be underestimated is a status quo mentality that is endemic to academia but that doesn’t come from academics.

That may sound confusing, but remember that our schools are tied to state and federal budgets that are ultimately decided by politicians, not educators. Every program, major, minor, course, or even revision to an existing course, has to be vetted by administrators under increasing pressure by legislators to make every dollar count. This is often called a “strategic plan” in higher ed, and is our version of a business process model.

In this context, administrative response historically has been to veto any new programs that don’t clearly extend from an existing and well-established discipline. This may sound like a death knell for UX, an interdisciplinary practice that by its nature draws on knowledge from a wide variety of contexts, some academic and some not. And though it is a significant challenge, it is not an insurmountable one. It simply means that being a UX professional in higher ed means working within, and sometimes against, disciplinary boundaries.

What I mean by “disciplinary boundaries” is that every academic must do work that is understandable as a form of research, teaching, and/or service to a particular academic discipline and to a particular academic institution. Let me give a personal example to demonstrate what this workflow looks like. From my own discipline of technical communication and my own program seated at East Carolina University, I’m responsible for doing research, teaching, and service work that is recognizable as a contribution to the field of technical communication as well as to mid-size, doctoral-granting, state university.

This means that whatever I research has to be intelligible to other members of my field or I won’t get published and I won’t get tenure. This also means that I’m responsible for teaching a dizzying array of skill sets from technical writing to web design to UX design. Service is notoriously ill-defined in higher ed but typically requires serving on committees, serving on boards of professional organizations, and some form of community service (e.g. service-learning or volunteering).

I also should mention that there are exceptions to this workflow. Academic programs capable of reliably training students in the discipline of UX all on their own have  relatively recently sprung up at places like Kent State, Michigan State, and University of Washington. Largely interdisciplinary, these programs require a kind of perfect storm to form, such as a massive restructuring of a university system, a cluster of faculty hires in a particular specialization, or some very adventurous college administrators.

For the most part, what I’ve described is the uber-structure many academic professionals must work within. But there are ways to inject UX practices into this structure. Say I’m asked to teach a technical writing class, for instance, which is a central course in our program. A big focus of this class is the creation of documentation, because that’s part of the course description that was approved. But how is “documentation” increasingly being produced? In agile environments, where UXers or tech writers often build it directly into the information architecture of the product they’re designing. Following this trend, my recent technical writing course featured a series of learning modules that focused as much on traditional modes of documentation as it did on content strategy and IA.

For UX partnerships to work in higher ed, they must be enacted as a form of research, teaching, and/or service.

Why is this important? Because if many academic professionals must engage in work that fits this basic workflow, it means that we must always produce scholarship, teach courses, and engage in service that furthers the missions of our institutions as well as the knowledge-making practices of our disciplines. For UX partnerships to work in higher ed, they must be enacted as a form of research, teaching, and/or service.

Why academic-industry partnerships MUST exist

At the same time, it is also arguable that industry organizations cannot meet the need for new UX professionals alone, and more importantly, they shouldn’t have to. Currently, there are over 20 million students enrolled in institutions of higher education. And though of course only a fraction of those students might have the inclination to become a UX designer, that is simply too big a pool of potential new designers to pass up.

Academics can’t train UX professionals by ourselves, either. The discipline moves too fast and we are tied to a workflow that is very different from that of industry. This is thus a partnership that must happen to sustainably produce sufficient UX professionals to meet current demand. Millions of people from all walks of life pass through our classrooms, and if we can reach even a tiny percentage of those people and can set them on a path towards a career in UX, then UX professionals in both the academy and industry have an obligation to do so.

So, how can academic-industry partnerships be built that allow academics to keep their jobs? That’s what I turn to next.

Research partnerships

Academic research can be produced in many forms: empirical, theoretical, practice-based, quantitative, qualitative, and the like. All we really need from industry is access. We need to be able to see inside your organizations, to pick your brains through research interviews, and to survey you about new trends. We need to do focus groups about theories we have held for years to see if they pass muster with industry realities.

The best thing you can do for us in this context, in other words, is collaborate with us on our research projects.

Teaching partnerships

The largest venue within which UX could take off in higher ed is through teaching. In my own tenure as a college-level instructor for over ten years now I have taught 4-8 courses per year of 20-30 students per course. That means that conservatively I have personally taught over 1,500 students ranging from college freshman all the way up to graduate students, and in topics ranging from basic writing to UX design.

The only reason I know what UX is, and how to give students some practice in it, however, is because I have reached out to folks in industry and they have responded. I have gone to conferences like the IA Summit. I have completed dozens of webinars and workshops. I am an active member of my local chapter of the UXPA. And I have collaborated with industry partners on projects ranging from individual articles on how to teach UX to entire courses in UX.

If it weren’t for these partnerships, when I was recently asked to teach a graduate level course in UX for our program, I wouldn’t have been able to do so.

We know how to teach, but we will never be as cutting-edge at UX as those of you who work as UX designers every single day.

The best thing you can do for those of us who have opportunities to teach UX, then, is to help us with the subject matter we teach in our courses. We’re educators. We know how to teach, but we will never be as cutting-edge at UX as those of you who work as UX designers every single day. We need help with what to teach.

Service partnerships

There are also endless opportunities to get involved in academic service that fuels the UX discipline. This can range from the creation of book clubs and informal meet-ups to service-learning partnerships and other forms of contextualized learning. In any given community, there are thousands of local non-profits and schools in need of UX help, from content strategy to CMS development to usability testing existing websites. Hardly any of these organizations can afford to hire a UX professional, but students could work in partnership with a UX professional to serve them, and could develop expertise as a result.

On any given college campus, there are also dozens of student organizations on everything from business management to community service to web design, many of whom look for guest speakers to talk to them about career opportunities, how to land a job, how to gain traction in a new field, etc. It simply cannot be overstated that there is simply no shortage of mentoring opportunities for industry professionals to entertain.

Mentoring is thus the simplest and yet most valuable form of service. And it is incredibly simple: think about the first opportunity you got in UX and try to steer someone else toward that kind of opportunity, or even create one for them in your own organization.

This is what these partnerships could look like

We academics are the people who write those textbooks you were forced to buy in every introductory class in college. Imagine if they were relevant. Imagine if you helped us write them. Or imagine if you helped us write how-to articles for our academic journals so that other academic professionals could learn about UX in a venue that is intelligible to them. Or imagine if you helped perform research projects that were actually sound instances of UX design so that we could begin to solve our own UX problems and maybe even contribute some new solutions for you as well.

Imagine if you volunteered to come speak at our conferences about any of these topics, or even at informal meet-ups and colloquia at our institutions. We can rarely afford to pay you what you’re worth, or what you get for industry-sponsored conferences, but we will always appreciate the knowledge you bring.

Those of us in higher ed are in a position to introduce UX on a scale upon which it has never before been introduced.

Think of it this way: how many eighteen-year-olds graduate from high school and when asked by their guidance counselor what they want to be, say: “I want to be a UX designer!” Few, if any. Many of those bright young people enroll in college courses, however, part-time or full-time. Perhaps they decide to major in computer science, where they first learn about usability and its role in application development. Or perhaps they take a class in technical communication where they first encounter the central concepts of information architecture. Those of us in higher ed are in a position to introduce UX on a scale upon which it has never before been introduced.

But we need your help. If you don’t think we’re preparing students for opportunities as UX designers fresh out of our programs, then tell us that. Better yet: agree to be a guest speaker in our classes. Better yet: help us create learning modules on UX that we can use in multiple classes. Better yet: help us create and advocate for an entire class in UX. Better yet: volunteer to co-teach the class with us. Better yet: help us form an industry advisory committee for our entire program. The list goes on and on.

If you want that 18-year-old who is fresh out of high school to consider going into a field they may have never heard of, a field that probably first makes sense to them as a subset of an existing major, partner with your local university or community college to make sure that 18-year-old does hear about UX, to make sure they get some training in it, and to make sure they’re on a path toward being useful to you someday.

This is how all of this makes for a stronger UX community

If nothing else, I hope to start a conversation around expanding UX partnerships between interested professionals within both higher ed and industry. These partnerships exist, but they need to be the norm, not the exception. If every industry professional who reads this article volunteers as a research partner, teacher consultant, mentor, or service-learning partner at their local university, UX could become one of the most sought-after careers in higher ed. Students could be beating down academic doors asking for more experience in UX.

That kind of demand could create the kind of pressure we academics need to start new courses and majors in UX. If our students are demanding UX, then we can give it to them. If our students have no idea what UX is because they don’t hear about it until their senior year, then it becomes very difficult to create high-quality UX learning opportunities.

In the past three years, since my real interest in UX began, I have been working diligently to introduce students to UX in every course I teach. That’s a tall order considering that I can’t simply teach five sections (my current teaching load) of “Introductory UX Design” every year. I have had the opportunity to teach some standalone UX courses, but, as I mentioned above, mostly I introduce UX through individual learning modules and homework assignments in classes in technical communication, business writing, and web design.

But I have also met resistance, and not only from the academic side. A lot of industry-based people have helped me and inspired me in immeasurable ways, but I have also been met with downright suspicion. I have been asked if I feel like I am a form of competition for industry-based apprenticeship programs and for the newly formed Unicorn Institute, the UX field’s first standalone design school. Mostly, I have been asked repeatedly how I know enough about UX to teach it.

And the simple fact of the matter is: I don’t. I have been researching and practicing UX for three years now, research that has included in-depth practice with nearly every UX method on the market. I have published both research and practice-based articles on it (some of which were co-authored by UX designers), and have taught numerous courses in it, but I am not a full-time UX designer. Professionals like me are also all that stand between industry organizations looking to hire new UX talent and those 20 million people I mentioned earlier, few of whom start college even knowing what UX is.

My invitation is to see us as partners in helping to improve the quality of UX education regardless of where students and mentees are getting that education.

So, rather than seeing professionals like me as a form of competition–we simply don’t have the resources to compete with industry-based organizations, even if we wanted to–my invitation is to see us as partners in helping to improve the quality of UX education regardless of where students and mentees are getting that education.

Let’s face it: UX is difficult for many of us who study it, teach it, and do it for a living to define. We owe it to the next generation of UX professionals to introduce them to UX as soon as possible in their professional development, to be the frontline of UX education, so-to-speak. That’s the only way to make certain that students who are dedicated to becoming UX professionals have the opportunities they need to make that possibility a reality.

How to Make a Concept Model

Written by: Christina Wodtke


I can draw.

I went to art school. I studied painting until I fell out with the abstract expressionists and switched to photography. But I can draw.

What I cannot do is diagram. I always wanted to. I have models in my head all the time of how things work. But when it comes time to make a visual model of those ideas, I can’t figure out to to represent them. I find myself resorting to pre-existing models like four-squares or the Sierpinski triangle (I dig fractals.) For example:


Other than the oh-god-my-eyes color choices, my social architecture diagram has deeper problems. For example, the ideas in it are limited to threes within threes because that’s the form triangles take. The model served to communicate my ideas well enough for the sake of my workshop, but… shouldn’t form FOLLOW meaning? If I had more than four elements for any section, I’d have to either collapse two, or fudge it in some other way. I was sacrificing accuracy for consistency. But I didn’t know how to make to make it better.

A concept model is a visual representation of a set of ideas that clarifies the concept for both the thinker and the audience. It is a useful and powerful tool for user experience designers but also for business, engineering, and marketing… basically anyone who needs to communicate complexity. Which is most of us, these days.

The best known concept model in the user experience profession is probably Jesse James Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience.” The best known in start-up circles is the lean startup process. Both of these models encapsulate the ideas they hold in such a memorable way that they launched movements.


If you wish to clearly present a set of ideas to an audience and represent how they fit together, a diagram is much more powerful than words alone. Dan Roam points this out in his latest book, Blah Blah Blah:

“The more we draw, the more our ideas become visible, and as they become visible they become clear, and as they become clear they become easier to discuss—which in the virtuous cycle of visual thinking prompts us to discuss even more.”

Concept models can serve many purposes. You can use concept models to show your teammates how a complex website is organized before the site is built…

Andrew Hinton’s model of a “virtual shared organizational ‘building’ where people spread all over the country were collaborating to run and participate in the org”.
Andrew Hinton’s model of a “virtual shared organizational ‘building’ where people spread all over the country were collaborating to run and participate in the org.”

… or to help teammates understand how the site currently works…

Bryce Glass’s concept model of Flickr use.
Bryce Glass’s concept model of Flickr use.

… or to show end users how a service works, to help sell it.

    Biblios uses a concept model to help users understand the power of social cataloging. What it lacks in elegance, it makes up in clarity.
Biblios uses a concept model to help users understand the power of social cataloging. What it lacks in elegance, it makes up in clarity.

I teach user experience design, and my syllabus always includes concept models. Students of mine who do a concept model before working on the interaction design and information architecture always make better and more coherent products. The act of ordering information forces them to think through how all the disparate elements of a product fit together.

Stephen’s handout from the workshop on representing types of visual relationships. Advanced and useful thinking.
Stephen’s handout from the workshop on representing types of visual relationships–advanced and useful thinking.

You can imagine how excited I was to take the Design for Understanding workshop at the 2014 IA Summit. Partly because I will go see anything Karl Fast or Stephen P Anderson talk about and having them together is Christmas come early. But mostly in hopes of learning a way to make a good concept model.

The workshop was brain-candy and eye-opening: They covered how the brain processes information and how ways of interacting with information can promote understanding. BUT I still couldn’t make a model to save my life. I didn’t know where to begin!

At lunch, Stephen was manning the room while Karl grabbed food for them. I had been struggling with a model for negotiation I wanted for a talk I was presenting later in the program. Seeing Stephen idle, I pounced and begged for help.

Stephan P. Anderson is author of Seductive Interfaces and the upcoming Design for Understanding. He’s also a patient soul who will put up with ham-handed diagramming and ridiculous requests. He started to sketch my model and tell me what he was thinking as he drew. Then I had my bingo moment: Stephen had forgotten what it was like not to know how to begin! This happens to all experts. After a while some knowledge is so deeply embedded in their psyche they forgot what it was like not to know. They then teach the nuances rather than the fundamentals.

I suggested we do a think aloud protocol while he made a concept diagram; he would draw, and I’d prompt him to talk about what was going through his mind. He was excited to have me reflect his thinking back to him so he could become a better teacher as well. We arranged to have a sketching session after the workshop.


    Stephen Anderson draws; I do a think aloud protocol to capture how he works.
Stephen Anderson draws; I do a think aloud protocol to capture how he works.

Later in the day, we met in the quiet hotel bar with wine and a sketchbook. I asked him what he wanted to draw. “Do you have something you are working on?” he asked. “That way I can focus on the model, rather than rethinking the ideas.”

Did I have a model I was struggling with? Always!  I shared my new theory of the nature of digital products. I’ll be writing that up in another article when it’s done, but for now, the short version is that one must iterate through the elements of digital design, which include the framework, interactions, information structure, and aesthetics. But a product doesn’t become an experience until a person interacts with it; your design cannot be known until you see what happens when a human shows up.

Stephen’s first step was to ask me about my goal for the model. I said it was for students and young practitioners to understand the interdependencies of the elements, so they have a more iterative approach. And for critics to be able to understand why things are different, both good and bad.

Next, he did what I’d call a idea inventory. He brainstormed more elements that might play into the model. He made sure no ideas were left out. He made notes of those he suspected might be important in the margins. He sketched as he thought, sometimes just making meaningless marks, as if warming up his hands.

He then carefully asked about each element in my theory, making sure he understood each. What was an information structure and what was a framework and were they different? I ended up telling a little story about a product to make sure he got what I was explaining. I began to draw too, encouraged by his easy scribbles.

Finally, Stephen noted the relationships of the items to each other. Were some things subsets of others? Were some overlapping, or resulting?

Playing with relationships (my drawing).
Playing with relationships (my drawing).

Once he knew what each item was, and how they were related to each other, he began to sketch in earnest. He said, “I always start with circles because edges mean something. They mean you have four items, or five. Circles leave room for play.” His circles quickly became blobs and then shapes.

I don’t know if he’d normally talk to himself out loud when not encouraged to do so, but it was fascinating to to hear him free associate concepts, then draw them out. A string of concepts became a string of beads; moving through an experience became moving through a tunnel; intertwined ideas were a braid. Any important idea got a drawing.

Here Stephen tries on various relationship metaphors, including moving through tunnels, holding something, string of ideas, braided together concepts.
Here, Stephen tries on various relationship metaphors, including moving through tunnels, holding something, string of ideas, and braided-together concepts.

Each time he completed a mini-model, he’d evaluate what was missing and what was working and take that insight to the next drawing. He made dozens of these little thumbnail drawings.

Stephen said, “one shape leads to another…a single word sparks a new representation—we’re always ‘pivoting’ from one thumbnail to the next…”

He pointed out what concepts were left out, or where they could be misinterpreted.

“You want to avoid 3-d, because it’s fraught with problems. You want to be able to sketch it on a napkin.” —Stephen Anderson, on keeping in mind the model’s goal

At one point, he became tapped out, and we spoke of other things. We stared out the window at the harbor, and I drank some of my wine, forgotten in the excitement of drawing and talking.

Then suddenly he started in again and produced a flurry of new drawings. I realized resting and mulling was important too. I was a bit annoyed with myself. An article doesn’t come out perfect in one writing session. Why should I expect a concept model to just materialize?

Finally he came to a stop, several pages filled with a jumble of images. We didn’t have a model, but we had many good directions. As we finished our drinks and headed toward the opening reception, Stephen told me, “You gotta get Dan Brown to do this, too.”


Dan M. Brown is best known in the user experience design community as author of Communicating Design and Designing Together. Both books benefit greatly by clear and succinct conceptual models, and the former even talks about how to use them in the design process:

Purpose—What are concept models for?
There really is only one reason to create a concept model: to understand the different kinds of information that the site needs to display. This structure can drive requirements for the page designs, helping you to determine how to link templates to each other. With the structure ironed out, you might also use the model to help scope your project—determining what parts of the site to build when.

Audience—Who uses them?
Use concept models for yourself. Ultimately, they are the most selfish, introspective, and self-indulgent artifact, a means for facilitating your own creative process.”

–Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning 2nd Edition, Dan Brown, 2010

Clearly, a guy I should be talking to!

The IA Summit was held in sunny San Diego in a hotel with not one but two swimming pools, so Dan had brought his family with him. When I asked him if I could watch him draw a concept model, he said, “I’m at the coffee shop with the boys around 6:30 every morning.”

You take what you can get.

The next morning Dan settled the boys in a corner with books, pastries, and an emergency iPad, and we got to work. We agreed he’d model the same concept, to control for variations. By now I had created a formula for the idea: (F+In+Is+Ae)+P=E. Framework, interactions, information structure, and aesthetics plus a person makes an experience. I was modeling in words as my friends were modeling in pictures.

I took Dan through the same story of an iterative product design process, since it had helped Stephen. I sketched it out. I felt like my hands were waking up from a long sleep, and they were eager to hold a pen now.

As I spoke, Dan wrote down key ideas and also began to scribble. He used the same process as Stephen: collecting the concepts then inspecting them for hidden complexity.

“A question I ask myself is ‘what needs unpacking?’ I can’t diagram an idea until it’s clear in my own brain.” —Dan Brown

He then took each concept and free associated all the sub-elements of the concept. He drew them out loosely, mind-map style.

Dan also started with the goal and wrote it out across the page.


He also asked explicitly who the model was for. To draw, he needed to visualize the audience. This reminded me of a recent presentation workshop at Duarte where we literally drew pictures of our audience. No work can be good unless you know who it’s for.

Duarte has you draw your audience before you design your presentation, so you remember who you are presenting to and how much attention they are (or aren’t) giving you.
Duarte has you draw your audience before you design your presentation, so you remember who you are presenting to and how much attention they are (or aren’t) giving you.

Dan made sure he didn’t carry anything in his head: All ideas were put on paper as a note or a sketch. When he had to turn a page, he ripped it out to lay it next to the other pages. I realized how critical it was to have plenty of room to see everything at once. I saw the same technique of storytelling and drawing of ideas.

Around now, Stephen joined us. He was excited to see what Dan came up with, enough to also climb out of bed at the crack of dawn. I listened as the two diagrammers discussed the poster session and the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas that had been presented.

Dan said, “You can look at people’s posters and see their process. They are so close to their own narrative…In one poster, the key framework was rendered in a very pale text. It was a good story, but there are things you want to jump off the page. For her, my guess is those steps were so self-evident she didn’t see need to highlight them.”

 You have to have a beginner’s mind to explain to beginners.

“Speaking of beginner’s mind, so much of my design process is to throw it all out start all over again.” —Dan Brown

Dan Brown draws it all.
Dan Brown draws it all.

Now Dan began to model the concept. He emphasized the importance of sticking with very simple geometry–circles, squares, triangles, lines–not fussing with trying to find a perfect model at the beginning, just exploring the ideas and their relationships.

He also mentioned he begins with any concept in the model and doesn’t worry about representing order at first. He starts with what catches his interest to get familiar with the ideas.

Dan then deviated from Stephen by seeking the focal point. What concept held all the others together? What was the most important or key idea? He tried out placing one idea, then the other, in the center to see if felt right.

After scrapping one bowtie model, he paused. “I sometimes retreat into common structures and see how these common structures might speak to me. For example, time is one of those fundamental aspects, so I ask myself: How much do I need to show time here?”

He demonstrated by drawing swimlanes and sketched the ideas and their relationships in time.

Swim lanes for moving across the elements.
Swimlanes for moving across the elements.

“Are there other elements you often look for, like time?” I asked

“People,” he replied. “People and time are familiar concepts, easy for an audience to relate to. By using them as a foundation for a model, I’ve already made it easier for people to ‘get on board.'”

He stared at the paper, deep in thought.

Stephen then pointed at the page. “What Dan did here,” he said, poking at where Dan wrote out goal and audience, “I did also but didn’t externalize. I was holding it in my memory, but I like having it on the paper better.”

Eventually Dan, too, was tapped out, and his sons began to play Let It Go on the iPad at higher and higher volumes. He separated his sons from the electronics and left to prepare for the swimming pool.



After Dan, I knew I wanted to try to get one more person to model. Since I was lucky enough to be at a conference full of diagrammers, I chased Joe Elmendorf of The Understanding Group. He had just given a talk on Modeling for Clarity that my friends were raving about. And, with my luck still holding, I got to have breakfast with him. Happily, at 8 am this time.

Joe Elmendorf brings pace layers into the discussion. My handwriting is the ballpoint; his, the nice black ink pen.
Joe Elmendorf brings pace layers into the discussion. My handwriting is the ballpoint; his, the nice black ink pen.

Again, I saw what were becoming familiar concepts (inventory, inspection, relationships, then talk-draw.) I then focused on how he differed from Stephen and Dan. He choose to use the title of the diagram as an element. He did not iterate as widely as Stephen. He was the first person to argue with me about the validity of my theory, which was a great way to understand it (and benefited me by making it better!).

As well, he reinforced something Stephen had mentioned in his workshop and that Dan was obviously doing: Joe had a large mental library of typical models to draw upon, which got him started. Stephen keeps a Pinterest board full of inspiration, if you want to start your own “lego box” of models.

Stephen’s Board http://www.pinterest.com/stephenpa/the-visual-display-of-information/
Stephen’s Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/stephenpa/the-visual-display-of-information/

Overall, there were so many familiar patterns I saw in his approach, the differences were more interesting than important. I had my answer. I knew how they did it.


On the last day of the conference in the afternoon, Stephen and I were scribbling further on the model, playing with petals for the elements, when Dan Willis joined us. Dan is also a master of models as well as an inveterate sketcher.

Stephen further refining ideas, always generating.
Stephen further refining ideas, always generating.

Although Dan declined to diagram for me, claiming brain fatigue (a reasonable claim at this year’s Summit) he pulled up a chair and sat sketching next to us. It was companionable, to sit and talk and draw ideas. We moved back and forth from discussing life to discussing the ideas, teasing, joking, drawing. As we chatted, I realized this was a part of the secret. You need a thinking partner. Sometimes it’s paper, sometimes it’s friends; but it’s best when it’s both. It doesn’t always matter what you draw, just that you draw.

Dan Willis drawing nearby makes me happy.

Dan Willis sketch from a tweet
A Dan Willis sketch from a tweet that day.

Our brains work better when our hands are busy.


Later, sitting in the back of a session, I lobbed a model at Stephen, and he shot back with his own.

Refining an idea, mine on left, Stephen’s on right.
Refining an idea; mine on left, Stephen’s on right.

Then I saw another step, one which Dan had alluded to when he mentioned the poster with the key point too pale to read: You have to refine the model to communicate effectively. Type, color, and labels are all a key part of the communication process. While the model did stand alone without the color and type, adding those–and most especially getting labels right–made the model more effective.


DaveGrayAfter getting home, I started sketching how concept models were made. I drafted this article and then asked my friend Dave Gray if he’d do a quick edit. Dave was the founder of Xplane, a company that used diagrams–concept and other–to transform companies. Dave has been a proponent of visual thinking and clear modeling for years, and I consider him the master of making ideas visible.

Life then intervened and this article sat. I was busy with several things, including Lou Rosenfeld’s 32 Awesome Practical UX Tips. Dave presented right before me, and watching him sketch, I realized I just had to get one more diagramming session in. It was not enough to have him comment, I needed to see him draw. I was grateful I did; otherwise, I would have missed a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Dave Gray draws on cards so he can rearrange, manipulate, and overlay the concepts.
Dave Gray draws on cards so he can rearrange, manipulate, and overlay the concepts.

We hopped on a Google Hangout and he also drew out that same darn design model for me. I saw familiar patterns in his approach: inventory, unpack, relationship exploration. But he added a critical step I hadn’t thought of before: Test the model.

He’s currently writing a book on Agile, and it shows. He said, first design the test, then design the thing. For the model, he suggested using his WhoDo Gamestorming tool as a way to design a test of the effectiveness of the model. He lists who the model is for and what they will do if they understand the model.

If Dave didn’t fully understand the audience for the model, he might do an empathy map for those people.
If Dave didn’t fully understand the audience for the model, he might do an empathy map for those people.

Designing a test of the model’s success radically clarified the goals for the model. Testing it would make sure it did what you wanted it to do.


So then I sat down to make a model of how to make models. And it came easily.

  • Determine the goal: How will the model be used, by whom? What is the job of the model? To change minds, explain a concept, simplify complexity?

  • Inventory the concepts: Brainstorm many parts of your concept. Keep adding more in the margins as you go.

  • Inspect the concepts: Are there many concepts hiding in one? Do you really understand each idea?

  • Determine the relationships: How do the concepts interact?

  • Decision point: Do I understand the ideas and what I’m trying to communicate? 
    Test: Ask yourself if the model “feels” right.
    If yes, then continue.

  • Iterate with words and pictures: Talk to yourself and draw it out!

  • Evaluate with yourself/the client: Keep making sure the drawings match the ideas you wish to communicate. Don’t punk out early! Rest if you need to!

  • Decision point: Does my audience understand the ideas and what I’m trying to communicate? 
    Test: Can my audience answer key questions with the model? 
    If yes, then continue.

  • Refine: Use color, type, line weight, and labels to make sure you are communicating clearly.

A model for making models.
A model for making models. It may not be beautiful, but it’s clear.

The concept model is invaluable. But like so many useful things, it takes time to make.

When my daughter first started drawing My Little Pony, she expected to start at the ears and draw it perfectly down to the hooves. She was angry when it didn’t work that way, and it took some convincing to get her to block out key shapes then refine the whole, and to use pencil before ink. When I sat down to make a concept model, I made the same mistake! I’d start in Powerpoint or Grafio, and expect perfection to flow from my mind.

No more! Stephen, Dan, Joe, and Dave taught me to play, explore, refine, test, and play some more until the result was right. Thank you all!

Now go make a model!



If your hands do not obey your brain, and/or you need more ideas for shapes and relationship models, I recommend Dave Gray’s Visual Thinking School.

See my interview with Dave on how he’d make the experience model

Ending the UX Designer Drought

Written by: Fred Beecher

The user experience design field is booming. We’re making an impact, our community is vibrant, and everyone has a job. And that’s the problem. A quick search for “user experience” on indeed.com reveals over 5,000 jobs posted in the last 15 days (as of March 15, 2014) in the United States alone! Simple math turns that into the staggering statistic of 10,000 new UX-related jobs being created every month.

This amount of work going undone is going to prevent us from delivering the value that UX promises. It’s going to force businesses to look toward something more achievable to provide that value. For user experience design to remain the vibrant, innovation-driving field it is today, we need to make enough designers to fill these positions.

Fortunately, there are a tremendous number of people interested in becoming a UX designer. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for these people to land one of these jobs. That’s because of the experience gap. All these UX jobs are all for people with 2-3 years of experience–or more.

UX design is a strategic discipline in which practitioners make recommendations that can have a big impact on an organization’s revenue. Frankly, a designer isn’t qualified to make these kinds of recommendations without putting in some time doing fundamental, in-the-trenches research and design work. While this might seem like an intractable problem, the skills required to do this fundamental work can be learned!

Someone just has to teach them.

Solving the problem

There are many ways to to teach fundamental UX design skills. Design schools have been doing it for years (and the new, practically-focused Unicorn Institute will start doing it soon). However, to access the full breadth of people interested in UX design, education in UX design needs to be accessible to people at any stage of their lives. To do that, you need to make learning a job.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. Other professions have been doing this for hundreds of years in the form of apprenticeship. This model has a lot to offer the UX design field and can be adapted to meet our particular needs.

What is apprenticeship?

In the traditional model of apprenticeship, an unskilled laborer offers their labor to a master craftsman in exchange for room, board, and instruction in the master’s craft. At the end of a certain period of time, the laborer becomes a journeyman and is qualified to be employed in other workshops. To be considered a master and have their own workshop and apprentices, however, a journeyman must refine their craft until the guild determines that their skill warrants it.

While this sounds medieval–because it is–there are a few key points that are still relevant today.

First, apprenticeship is learning by observation and practice. Designing a user experience requires skills that require practice to acquire. Apprentices are also compensated with more than just the training they receive. Even “unskilled,” they can still provide value. A baker’s apprentice can haul sacks of flour; a UX apprentice can tame the detritus of a design workshop.
Apprenticeship is also limited to a specific duration, after which the apprentice is capable of the basics of the craft. In modern terms, apprenticeship is capable of producing junior designers who can bring fundamental, tactical value to their teams. After a few years of practicing and refining these skills, those designers will be qualified to provide the strategic UX guidance that is so sought after in the marketplace.

A new architecture for UX apprenticeship

The apprenticeship model sounds good in theory, but does it work in practice? Yes. in 2013, The Nerdery, an interactive design and development shop in Minneapolis, ran two twelve-week cohorts of four apprentices each. There are now eight more UX designers in the world. Eight designers might seem like a drop in the 10,000-jobs-per-month bucket, but if more design teams build apprenticeship programs it will fill up very quickly.

Building an apprenticeship program might sound difficult to you. However, The Nerdery’s program was designed in such a way that it could be adapted to fit different companies of different sizes. We call this our UX Apprenticeship Architecture, and I encourage you to use it as the basis of your own apprenticeship program.

There are five components to this architecture. Addressing each of these components in a way that is appropriate for your particular organization will lead to the success of your program. This article only introduces each of these components. Further articles will discuss them in detail.

Define business value

The very first step in building any UX apprenticeship program is to define how the program will benefit your organization. Apprenticeship requires an investment of money, time, and resources, and you need to be able to articulate what value your organization can expect in return for that investment.

Exactly what this value is depends on your organization. For The Nerdery, the value is financial. We train our apprentices for them to become full members of our design team. Apprenticeship allows us to achieve our growth goals (and the revenue increase that accompanies growth for a client services organization). For other organizations, the value might be less tangible and direct.

Hire for traits, not talent

Once you’ve demonstrated the value of apprenticeship to your organization and you’ve got their support, the next thing to focus on is hiring.

It can take a long time at first until you narrow down what you’re looking for. Hiring apprentices is much different from hiring mid to senior level UX designers. You’re not looking for people who are already fantastic designers; you’re looking for people who have the potential to become fantastic designers. Identifying this potential is a matter of identifying certain specific traits within your applicants.

There are two general sets of traits to look for, traits common to good UX designers and traits that indicate someone will be a good apprentice. For example, someone who is defensive and standoffish in the face of critical feedback will not make a good apprentice. In addition to these two sets of traits, there will very likely be an additional set that is particular to your organization. At The Nerdery, we cultivate our culture very carefully, so it’s critical for us that the apprentices we hire fit our culture well.


“Pedagogy” means a system of teaching. Developing the tactics for teaching UX design can take time as well, so it’s best to begin focusing on that once recruiting is underway. At The Nerdery, we found that there are four pedagogical components to learning UX design: orientation, observation, practice, and play.

Orientation refers to exposing apprentices to design methods and teaching them the very basics. In observation, apprentices watch experienced designers apply these methods and have the opportunity to ask them about what they did. Once an apprentice learns a method and observes it in use, they are ready to practice it by doing the method themselves on a real project. The final component of our pedagogy is play. Although practice allows apprentices to get a handle on the basics of a method, playing with that method in a safe environment allows them to make the method their own.


Observation and practice comprise the bulk of an apprentice’s experience. Both of these activities rely on close mentorship to be successful. Mentorship is the engine that makes apprenticeship go.

Although mentorship is the most critical component of apprenticeship, it’s also the most time-intensive. This is the biggest barrier an organization must overcome to implement an apprenticeship program. At The Nerdery, we’ve accomplished this by spreading the burden of mentorship across the entire 40-person design team rather than placing it full-time on the shoulders of four designers. Other teams can do this too, though the structure would be different for both smaller and larger teams.


The final component of our apprenticeship architecture is tracking. It is largely tracking apprentice progress that gives apprenticeship the rigor that differentiates it from other forms of on-the-job training. We track not only the hours an apprentice spends on a given method but qualitative feedback from their mentors on their performance. Critical feedback is key to apprentice progress.

We track other things as well, such as feedback about mentors, feedback about the program, and the apprentice’s thoughts and feelings about the program. Tracking allows the program to be flexible, nimble, and responsive to the evolving needs of the apprentices.

Business value, traits, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking: Think about these five things in relation to your organization to build your own custom apprenticeship program. Although this article has only scratched the surface of each, subsequent articles will go into details.
Part two of this series will cover laying the foundation for apprenticeship, defining its business value and identifying who to hire.

Part three will focus on the instructional design of apprenticeship, pedagogy, mentorship, and tracking.

If you’ve got a design team and you need to grow it, apprenticeship can help you make that happen!

Elements of Learning Experience Design

Written by: Andre Plaut

The process of designing any sort of human experience, regardless of purpose or platform, is centered around reaching a desired outcome, ideally with as little fuss and as much joy as possible.

The purpose of an experience and the platform on which the experience takes place will vary: purchasing a plane ticket on a tablet to vacation, enjoying a musical performance in a theater, or learning to code in a classroom. Although each of these experiences require their own unique methods and frameworks, the elements that should be taken into consideration during the design process remain mostly the same.

The best representation of those elements comes from Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience. While Garrett’s “elements” are most relevant to digital product design, I’ve been able to use them as a roadmap for developing learning experiences for adults.

Designing adult learning experiences that take place either online or in a classroom has always traditionally been about defining a curriculum. That process of curriculum creation is most commonly called instructional design. But, in the same way that user experience design requires much more than deciding what content should go on a website, true learning experience design requires much more than curriculum.

With that in mind, I took Garrett’s Elements as inspiration to create my own Elements of Learning Experience Design to formalize and communicate a design process I have struggled to explain to others.

Elements of learning experience design
Elements of learning experience design

Strategy plane

What are the needs and goals of your learners and your organization?

The goal of almost any learning experience is rooted in acquiring the new skills, knowledge, motivation, and/or confidence to change an existing behavior or create a new one. Those changes in behavior should have measurable impacts, allowing you to define key success metrics.

Before you start building anything, you should first get a better understanding of the needs you’re trying to solve for.

Ultimately, adult learners and their organizations expect learning experiences to establish behaviors that make their lives or work more efficient and effective.

This means identifying the learner’s needs1, which include the additional skills and knowledge required to do something differently, and their goals, which is what they hope to accomplish by doing things differently. Identifying your organization’s needs and goals are equally important. A successful learning experience must be able to address the objectives of both, regardless of how different they may be.

Ultimately, adult learners and their organizations expect learning experiences to establish behaviors that make their lives or work more efficient and effective.

As a learning experience designer, you should focus your time and attention during the strategy plane on identifying the gaps that exist between the learner and his/her desired outcome. Those gaps exist due to a lack of the following:

  • Knowledge: Do learners lack the proper information to complete a task?
  • Skill: Do they have all of the right information but lack the ability to translate that knowledge into action that could be applied to a given situation?
  • Confidence: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill, but do they hesitate or refuse to apply it?
  • Motivation: Are they able to demonstrate or apply the skill confidently but just don’t want to do it?
  • Access: Do they have all of the above but lack the proper tools or resources to complete a task?

Once you are able to properly identify the gaps that cause learners to struggle, you must design a solution that effectively addresses those gaps.

Requirements plane

What are the key topics, methods, activities, and logistics required to create a successful learning experience?

Once your objectives have reached a certain level of clarity, you can begin defining the content and functional requirements needed of the learning experience in order to reach those objectives.

Let’s break this down by using an example.

Start with your objectives. Let’s say your political campaign wants to decrease the amount of inaccurate voter data without decreasing the amount of data coming in.

What key metrics represent success to your organization and your learners? Based on the example’s objectives, the key metrics could be maintaining the amount of data being processed, and decreasing the number of “inaccurate information” reports.

Work backwards from there to figure out the core behaviors that support those metrics from being reached. In this example, volunteers must be able to ask accurate questions, know how to fill out data reports, and do it all pretty quickly.

Then, outline the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources needed to exhibit those behaviors. Asking effective questions is a skill built upon the knowledge of what makes certain questions effective, and what the campaign is interested in learning.

Knowing how to accurately fill out a form is a knowledge-based task requiring a limited amount of practice. Doing something quickly and accurately has a lot to do with practice, confidence, and motivation. Logistically, volunteers need to have access to data entry forms or terminals, and voters to speak to.

Next, map those components to topics and activities. By the end of the training session learners will be able to describe why accurate data is critical to the campaign, prioritize what data is most important to the campaign, identify the right questions to ask to gather that data, and practice inputting that data into different forms or terminals.

And that’s how you arrive at your content requirements.

It’s also important to think beyond what content is required of an experience. The content outlined in our example above may close our learners’ knowledge, skill, and confidence gap, but it will likely fail to achieve the actual objectives without functional requirements.

For offline learning experiences, these functional requirements include facilities, personnel, logistics (materials, A/V, and the like), and pre-/post-course support (including on-boarding and continued engagement and follow-up).

Online learning experiences have similar functional requirements, including platform (such as a custom site versus Articulate), designers and engineers to actually build the digital product, downloadable materials, and pre-/post-course support.

One of the worst mistakes you can make as a learning experience designer is to assume that functional requirements take care of themselves. When functional requirements are not built into the experience, you end up with disgruntled learners that will be much less likely to apply anything they’ve learned during the experience you’ve designed.

Structure plane

How will the topics, activities, logistics, and assessments be structured?

Imagine you’re learning how to drive.

First, your instructor teaches you about starting your car. Next, she goes over how to park your car. After that, she teaches you about the gas pedal, the brake pedal, and going in reverse. And finally, she shows you how to adjust your mirrors.

Does this sequence of events sound strange to you? That’s because the structure of the learning experience described above is not being taken into consideration.

Once you’ve outlined your requirements and objectives, you must think about how those requirements will be structured.

Both in user experience and learning experience design, this relates directly to the organizing of information in order to make it usable, otherwise known as information architecture.

For an adult learning experience to be successful, it must be designed and structured in the way that makes most logical and relevant sense to the learner. To do that, you must first understand how different topics relate to one another in the learner’s mind (example: A key unlocks a door), in what order they usually occur (example: A door must be unlocked before being opened), and what knowledge or skill builds upon another (example: Turning a key builds the skill to turn a doorknob).

If you were to create a sales training program, would you begin with a customer entering the store, or would you begin with the product arriving into inventory? Would the section on point-of-sale systems be near the beginning, middle, or end of the program?

Structure becomes even trickier when your program involves non-linear scenarios, like setting up a multi-channel marketing campaign. Should the learner know about Google Analytics before or after Facebook Paid Advertising? There are valid arguments to either option, but the real question is what makes most sense to the learner?

To answer that question, you’ll often have to look back at your objectives and learner needs. How much do you know about your learners, their daily responsibilities, and their environment? If you’re still finding it difficult to determine the structure of your learning experience, you should probably do more research.

Structure also applies to the functional requirements of your learning experience. When will learners need the most support? Which topics or skills present the largest challenge to your learners? You should also consider whether or not the learning environment is conducive to the type of experience you’re designing (online vs. offline, short-term vs. long-term, facilitated vs. self-led, and the like).

Interaction plane

What will learners actually be doing, hearing, and seeing during the learning experience?

The interaction plane deals directly with designing the materials, activities, lectures, and discussions that make up the learning experience. This is where instructional design lives. As an instructional designer, you will focus most of your efforts on defining exactly how learners are introduced to new skills and knowledge, and what practice and application look like those those skills.

When introducing new knowledge to learners, it helps tremendously to root it in existing knowledge. This can be done through the use of use analogies, previous experiences, and common cultural references. To use these methods effectively, you must have a strong grasp of your learners’ perspectives and experiences as they relate to the content.

Acquiring new skills demands a different approach. Learners must be able to actually apply new skills to both real and hypothetical problems within the learning experience in order to become proficient. Think of how many times you had to practice parking a car in both empty and full parking lots before you felt comfortable parking on a daily basis. You must create opportunities that allow learners to practice and apply their new skills in supportive environments.

This is also the time to think about how your learners’ progress will be tracked. Assessment criteria should first be defined within the requirements plane, and then built into the program in the structure plane. Exactly which tools and processes are used to evaluate a learner’s skill-level, and how progress is communicated back to learners should be defined here.

Sensory plane

What will the learning experience look and sound like?

The experience you design must be able to cater to your learners’ sense as well as align with your organization’s brand. The sensory plane applies to all materials and instructions designed for the program, including presentation decks, guides, web sites, lesson plans, worksheets, activity materials, and so on.

The sensory plane allows your materials to implicitly communicate information to your learners about the experience they are about to have. The tone of your written content, as well as the visual design of your materials, should represent your organization’s branding and communicate the mood of the experience, be it professional, fun, or quirky. In the same way that content should be strategically structured, the visual design of your materials should be cohesive and consistent.

The sensory plane is your opportunity to create a learning experience that is both functional and beautiful. Decks are designed as visual references to anchor learners, but if they’re filled with too much text and poorly chosen images, decks end up being frustrating and useless. A lack of verbal instructions will frustrate learners, but it’s still better than unclear or misleading instructions.

People, regardless of their preferences, are drawn to polished, well-designed materials and clear communication. The sensory layer creates a single, cohesive experience that allows learners to focus on gaining new skills and not deciphering their their learning environment.


Designing learning experiences must be treated in the same way as designing any sort of user experience. Learners, just like users, have needs that can only be solved through proper research, design, validation, and iteration.

Anyone involved in adult learning should step outside the limiting boundaries of curriculum design in order to account for the learner’s entire experience. By only focusing on content, we are missing out and what actually makes up a person’s reality, including the environment in which they’re learning in, and their lives before and after the learning experience.

By taking each of these elements into consideration, any teacher or instructional designer can start begin to think beyond those limitations, and look to create immersive and enriching experiences for their learners. This not only allows us to be more effective at teaching others, but it also establishes a higher level of quality that people should expect of a learning experiences.


1 The well known and accepted theory of learning styles (auditory, visual, and kinesthetic) has in the last few years been debunked and left behind by many learning designers. No scientific evidence has been found to support the theory that students will learn more effective if a topic is presented in their “prefered style.” Ultimately, students learn best by receiving information through all three styles.