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User Experience and Human Learning

The underlying thinking of how people learn, acquire knowledge, and understand

Peter J. Bogaards - september 2003

Just recently, I came across an article on Boxes and Arrows by Jason Withrow called "Cognitive Psychology & IA: From Theory to Practice". In this excellent article, Withrow connects expertise in cognitive science to the field of information architecture. He identifies concepts and methods that are common in cognitive psychology and illustrates how information architects can benefit. It is one of the rare occasions that an information architect with an academic background formally attempts to connect with the User Experience (UX) field of practitioners. Typically, too little existing knowledge from established fields is applied during the design of information solutions.

The field of instructional design and technology is also valuable to the UX community, providing theories and knowledge on important aspects of human behaviour and the role technology plays influencing that behaviour. Two theories on how people learn with (information) artifacts we design, 'instructionalism' versus 'constructionism', are directly germane and very valuable for the UX community.

From information to knowledge

The purpose of information is to organize and communicate valuable data to people, so they can derive increased knowledge that guides their thinking and behaviour. Human learning processes mediate the building of knowledge from meaningful information and integration into one's knowledge base. Therefore, a proper understanding of human learning is important to consider while making design decisions.

The purpose of what we design is to facilitate and support human learning. Information as defined by Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver is based upon a physics and engineering perspective: a base for knowledge acquisition and learning can be viewed differently as the ingredient with which these processes work.

UX professionals intend to design compelling and intentional experiences matching business and user requirements. They seek effective ways to use media-specific attributes for an effective manifestation of information. Finding, understanding and using information is necessary for people to successfully perform. But people also search for information because they want to learn. Their learning is geared towards action. People act, intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. To act implies not only physically as in behaviour but also mentally ("the act of thinking"). When designs are based upon a proper knowledge of human learning processes, people can learn, understand and use derived knowledge more effectively and efficiently.

Learning happens during interaction

Human learning occurs by interacting with the outside world. People learn about things through observation, trial-and-error and experiment. Learning brings deeper levels of understanding, an integral part of one's knowledge. Interaction is the method by which humans learn about the world and the people and things in it. This perspective of learning does not seem consistently apparent within the UX community.

Interaction is the state change of two or more entitites (objects and/or subjects). At least one is always human (the subject) because the term does not seem to be related to two software entities (the objects) exchanging data. Both entities exhibit behaviour and act upon the perceived behaviour of the other in the outside world. Another definition of interaction refers to state changes evolving in time due to the state changes of objects in the outside world. One wonders how predictable this all is and how to successfully design it for both entities.

Instructionalism

In his seminal book 'The Nürnberg Funnel' (1990), John M. Carroll calls the conventional perspective of learning 'instructionalism'. In reality, this perspective is not learning at all: it is teaching. Conventional educational processes are situated in a physical classroom with the teacher (the expert) informing students (the novices) about a particular domain. Instruction is seen as the interaction of two people of which one has the appropriate knowledge and the other has not. Through oral communication, the expert instructs the novice on the domain and answers questions. Instructionalists think that the teacher 'pours' the knowledge into the student. Then, depending on the intelligence and understanding capabilities of the students, some pass and others fail their exams as evidence of succesful 'learning'. This is not how humans actually learn.

One noticeable example of 'instructionalism' is Nigel Holmes' 'Explanation Graphics'. Explaining is a communication act based upon a certain level of expertise. Explanation refers to the teaching side of the coin. To explain implies a certain level of understanding and knowledge about a domain on the one side and an audience which does not have this level on the other.

Consider the term 'understanding', which relates to the endresult of a learning or knowledge acquisition process. What is understanding? We have a rather intuitive perception of it. We think we know what it is. But how it happens remains unknown. A catch phrase such as 'Understanding by design' seems too simple. Learning and understanding emerge through interaction and not through design.

The terms 'designer' and 'architect' both relate to the person organizing and shaping information to support information processing and human learning. They both relate to the production side of the coin. Designers and architects have specific intentions ('requirements') about human learning which can be compared to the teacher. However, they are typically not present when the learning takes places, so they are not able to intervene. Presuming the role of design as the facilitator for learning reflects an instructionist mindset.

From instructionalism to constructionism

Carroll poses minimalism as a design approach for (technical) information based upon a new learning paradigm by Seymourt Papert of the Future of Learning Group at MIT Media Lab. Papert showed learning as the transition from thinking and acting patterns in relation to the world around us, the act of constructing knowledge from information. Papert calls this 'constructionism'.

Constructionists believe that the world is determined by the knower and dependent upon human mental activity. Rather than the instructionalist view that the mind processes and mirrors the world, the constructivists believe that mind perceives and constructs reality. The individual perception and experience of the world determines their understanding and conceptual system for constructing that reality.

Constructionism is seen as the process of human learning through interaction with externally identified objects. The perception of these objects generates a pre-conceived model of thinking. By interacting with these objects, humans test their thinking and hypotheses about the behaviour of the object. They are in a process of verifying and falsifying their cognitive and domain models against the behaviour of the object.

UX and Constructionism

It is important for the UX community to pay attention to what is known of human learning processes and how it applies to UX design. Knowledge of human learning capabilities improves design decisions and the ultimate effectiveness of the design. Too often, it seems that the instructionalist point of view of learning guides the design. Solutions designed from a constructionist perspective will allow more flexibilty for use and dynamic interaction for people using and learning from it.

Without the valuable editorial feedback of Dirk Knemeyer, this article would not have been possible.