Everything I Know about User-Centric Design I Learned at Sesame Street
Children are insightful; they tell you exactly how they feel about something, with no filters to dilute their thoughts. For those of us dedicated to user-centric design, they are the dream target audience. I consider myself very lucky to have cut my teeth in product development at Sesame Street, creating some of the early technologies designed specifically for preschoolers. Today, it’s hard to imagine a world where four-years-olds are not tech-savvy. But 20 years ago, most preschoolers were unfamiliar with computers; there were no handheld devices and no mobile apps. Everything we were doing at Sesame Street was innovative and exciting.
If you’re not familiar with user-centered design, it is a method of crafting experiences that takes into account age, gender, social status, education and background knowledge, physical abilities, product usage expectations and many other important factors that may vary for different projects. This knowledge about the target audience is gathered through various types of research. With kids, my favorite type of research is user testing, or, as we called it, kid testing.
User-centered design (UCD) is an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process.
— Interaction Design Foundation
At that time, we were building the first character-driven, interactive, onscreen, graphic user interfaces for little kids. As part of our research, we would visit preschools in New York City. We’d have to bring our own desktop computers because there weren’t any in the schools, and we’d set up a table and chairs in a quiet hallway and have the kids play the games that we’d carefully designed for them. Of course, before we brought the games for kid testing, we’d worked for hours with the leading PhDs in early childhood education, respected game designers and talented Muppet animators. We almost always thought that we’d done everything right — and in every single testing experience we learned that we had missed something.
For example, when we asked kids to “Click on a picture of something that starts with the letter H,” we had to be sure that there was nothing on the screen besides the target that could be interpreted as starting with an H. A baseball cap on a Muppet, for example, could be interpreted as a hat. And it took us a while to find the right combination of verbal instructions and visual aids even to get kids to understand what a cursor is. We actually had to redesign and reprogram the standard computer cursor, which some of you may remember was an arrow back then. An arrow is an unfamiliar shape to the Sesame Street preschool audience, who are just beginning to learn numbers, shapes and colors. So we changed the arrow into a star and included simple directions to build confidence: “Move your star to Elmo and click.” When the kids followed those instructions successfully, Elmo laughed and all was well with the world.
There’s just no way we would have been able to anticipate all our design flaws without watching different children from different backgrounds testing our games over and over again.
Fast forward two decades, and I’m now developing Alzheimer’s light therapy products for older adults. There may be a 65-year age difference between my two target audiences, but the principles and the process for user-centric design are exactly the same.
There are five main user-centric design principles that I follow.
- Clearly define and understand the expected user outcomes and requirements.
- Proactively gather and then rely on user feedback to define the product requirements and the design.
- Beginning early, actively and continually involve users of varying backgrounds and experiences to evaluate the product design.
- Adopt iterative design processes that allow multiple feedback loops.
- Respect the user feedback collected and make a commitment to interpret it as truth.
The specific audience for whom I am now designing products is likely to be experiencing symptoms of dementia, which include impairments in thinking and communicating and memory loss. Additionally for this group, I consider general challenges that can accompany aging, like shaking hands, loss of hearing and visual impairment. What my users can see and hear and how they experience new technologies — these considerations are of paramount importance to my design because their experience of the Alzheimer light therapy, directly impacts their health and wellness.
The most sophisticated people I know — inside they’re all children. We never really lose a certain sense we had when we were kids.
— Jim Henson
Ultimately, every product developer dreams of creating a product that her users truly love — and that has a lasting beneficial impact. Knowing your users, trusting their feedback and listening to their ideas, whether they are 6 or 65, seems like the best way to reach that goal.