Learning from Teaching

teacher standing in front of college students for lesson


By Shaun Illingworth, co-founder, DFFRNT

What started as brown bag “lunch and learn” sessions over 15 years ago have evolved into a full program of corporate and academic teaching – and we love it! 

The principals at DFFRNT have long been involved in teaching and mentoring. We speak at industry events and actively participate in professional organizations. For over a decade now, we have been leading public- and private-sector training on all things innovation and UX, from introductory to experienced-level topics.

As a startup consultancy almost 15 years ago, we desperately needed to get the word out about UX, what it is, how it is done, and why it matters. Senior management awareness in both the public and private sectors was low. To fuel the business, we hit the road with an offer that was hard to refuse – free lunch-hour information sessions to companies and departments who could organize a group session. Sometimes we even paid for the pizza!

Our offer was 99% relevant content, 1% marketing. The 45-minute presentations evolved into one-day training sessions, then more topics and more sessions, more detail and more sessions. A service offering was born!

Recently, Dominira Saul and I began teaching design thinking, UX research, visual and interaction design courses in the University of Ottawa’s new Digital Transformation and Innovation program.

This post-grad program is a multi-faculty collaboration to train professionals how to create, manage and research the changes in our world that are a result of digital technology. It emphasizes the re-invention and creative design of user experiences in business and social interactions. 

Through this work, we are shaping the experience of future decision-makers in UX. Teaching them to look beyond the operational level, to have a larger perspective and react strategically to digital technology.

Joining formal academia is a big, important step for us.  So what should we focus on?  Here’s a few guiding principles that shape both why and how we teach.

Focus on Strategic

UX is both strategic and tactical. Strategy and tactics co-exist in many disciplines, and both are needed to deliver a service.  But with the proliferation of tools for both research and design, we have lost focus on the strategic value of UX.  Proficiency with tools should never take precedence over the quality of our thought.  Our focus is on developing strategic thinking skills as the foundation for sound researchers and designers.

We believe the strategic value of UX to the business is significant, and to demonstrate this is to understand and focus on its role in the fabric of the overall business.  How can UX support a business plan, or a product/service roadmap?  How can we contribute to business outcomes?  How can we best leverage our analytic and creative skills to move the business forward?

Top researchers and designers are problem solvers, strategic thinkers, and visionaries.  Average researchers and designers write good reports and create good designs.  Understanding business challenges and technology constraints are equally important as understanding the user.

Shared Experiences

The principals at DFFRNT have decades of experience and catalog of “teachable” moments. We believe by sharing that knowledge, we can prevent the errors of the past from recurring. Let’s call it our accelerated version of “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We also believe one can, and should, actively “give back.” Being a positive influence and sharing insights and advice is being a good steward of the discipline, and frankly, a decent thing to do.

Another reason to share our knowledge is to experience the spark that comes from growing together. As a teacher, you can often see when your topic begins to “click” for your students. Occasionally, when doing corporate UX training, there’s generally a transition from “I’m here because my manager sent me,” to the revelation: “Okay, I understand what this discipline is all about and how it fits into my job.”

Through teaching we also experience new perspectives, cultures, and values. We learn about our own biases and habits.

Design is fundamentally based in values and behaviours, so we need to be immersed in the wonderful tapestry of experiences and perspectives to appreciate our own values, and those of others.  Teaching also allows us to learn about companies, their challenges, and their unique characteristics.

Back to the basics

UX consulting is a confusing space, lacking in definition and in discipline. Trying to sell UX services can be a bit like the traveling medicine men of the 1800s selling snake oil – there are many variations of the product and many unsubstantiated claims.

As an industry, we call our field user experience, user centred-design, design thinking, service design, human factors, cognitive ergonomics, behavioural economics…. I could go on. We seem to change our name each time somebody famous writes a book. Yet much like an adolescent maturing into an adult, we are still who we are.

It’s a sign of immaturity in our industry. Businesses follow the money, so when there is market demand for a service or the industry picks up on a buzzword, immediately, that’s what every consultant offers. Remember “deliverology”?

These constantly shifting labels can lead to people in positions of power making decisions based on an immature understanding of what companies like DFFRNT can do. I believe teaching others our view and our experiences help to define what falls under the umbrella of UX and strategic research and design, and clarifies the scope and possibilities of this field.

There should be no patent on knowledge. If we want to grow as practitioners, we need to share our skills, practices and experiences so others can build up and innovate.

I don’t teach for the sake of my business. I teach for personal growth, and to help shape the industry we’re in. Every time I teach, I end up learning.

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UX consulting is a confusing space, lacking in definition and in discipline. Trying to sell UX services can be a bit like the traveling medicine men of the 1800s selling snake oil. We seem to change our name each time somebody famous writes a book. We need to fix this!

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We are visionary, intelligent, funny and not afraid to speak out because we are backed by years of experience and knowledge. We are DFFRNT.