Defining UX for Sixth Grade

The Setup

A dear, passionate, and fearless friend teaches math at a majority low-income school in St. Paul, MN. This week, she invited me in to her class to explain my career and help with a few math exercises. Her first block of students are mainly Hmong, English as a Second Language (ESL) 6th graders and her second block is…rowdy. There are hours upon hours worth of social issues to discuss but the point of this blog is to share my take on explaining user experience to sixth graders.

Deciding on an approach

About a month ago, I did more or less the same thing with a group of 10th graders. Some of the students were vying for a marketing internship that the non-profit who brought me in was offering. The students also spoke english natively and the worst thing I heard while in the classroom was “damn” (as opposed to the impressive string of explicatives I heard in class today today). Realizing my 6th grade audience may be a bit more challenging to reach I knew it would be even more imperative to create a concise and tangible explanation. On a piece of paper, I wrote down my working definition of ux

“Creating or refining a design based on the needs, psyche, and behavior of those who will use it”

From my definition I scratched down a few ideas for how to visualize or create an analogy for that. What did all the 10th graders want to do with their lives? Become video game designers. Personally my videogame obsession is limited to Super Mario Brothers. Vintage is in – they’ll think I’m hip.

With the class

I asked how many people played video games and selected one of the raised hands as my “user research participant” (Juan).

Me: Imagine designing a video game. I’ve created a sky, bricks, and Mario. Before deciding what to spend my time on building into the game next, I bring it to Juan to play with (lots of hand gestures for the ESL students).


Me: Juan is into the game but he sort of doesn’t do much other than run back and forth in the screen so I decide to add in something to chase him.


Me: Once I add in the mushroom, Juan runs away but doesn’t know when to stop. I realize that while I thought the game was about exploring the space, Juan wanted to be able to run to something so I added in a green tube.


Me: Now Juan is pretty happy but he wants a way to get points so he can play against and beat friends – I add in magic bricks.


Me: During my last round of testing, Juan is excited but tells me he wants a way to keep track of the points he is now earning.


Me: Now who can explain user experience to me?

Student: It’s like figuring out what you want something to do or be like by getting people to show you what they do.

Not bad. I’ll take it.