Between playing with Print Shop Deluxe in elementary school, designing my own little website in middle school, and building Linux from scratch in high school, I’ve always been interested in technology—but college took me in a different direction as I became more interested in cultural studies and Arabic. While I kept up with consumer technology, my rudimentary technical skills faded while programming languages grew in complexity and multiplied. My phone became the computer I used the most. Meanwhile, my academic pursuits took me to Syria, Morocco, and eventually San Antonio, where I’ve been a college instructor and adviser the past few years.
In my time working with students, many of whom are underprivileged, I came to a troubling realization. There are still so many people on the margins of our technocratic society for whom there is still no advocate or defender in the design and implementation of technology. As an advisor, I’ve helped students with the minutiae of the process of applying to and succeeding in college. Many of these clients are first-generation college students who face significant financial and social barriers in their educational path, and unfortunately technology is often an obstacle they must overcome rather than an aid.
I’ve seen first-hand how important usability and interaction design are to enabling the disenfranchised and underrepresented. Students are expected to keep track of usernames, passwords, ID numbers, and security questions for financial aid applications, college applications, and university portals; often they are tasked with creating additional, unique usernames and passwords for transcript request systems or orientation session registration pages. Simply signing up for a course can be a byzantine task. Students often use the Caps Lock key to capitalize rather than the Shift key, which demonstrates that they are mobile-first users and often mobile-only. Many students’ typing skills are very poor, and their first instinct to interact with a computer is via touch screen. One student I advised in the past was unfamiliar with how to use a mouse. These examples aren’t meant to shame these students, but to demonstrate how far we as aspiring designers must go to accommodate people who haven’t had the privilege of being exposed to and taught how to use computers. I hope these students elicit empathy rather than scorn.
The assumptions and cues that we take for granted as savvy users are often incomprehensible or counter-intuitive for those who do not have stable internet access at home and are not computer literate. Many educational policies are created under the false assumption that younger people are naturally better at technology than older generations; the truth is, they are not. They may be more willing to learn, but they still must be taught.
This is ultimately what motivated me to research better design and led me to apply to the iSchool, where I’ll be starting classes in the Spring semester. I want to bring what I’ve learned and experienced to the design community and to give myself the tools and experience to empower others. Having been a first-generation college student myself, I know how important it is for these systems to be intuitive and intelligible rather than discouraging. Education completely disrupted the socioeconomic trajectory of my life and that of my family. Information can be transformative. It’s a shame that ill-conceived design is obscuring information for others and also demonstrates how important UX design and research really are. For many companies, the ultimate goal of design is to advance visitors through the buyer’s cycle and to complete a purchase. For others, it’s to make information accessible and to provide a valuable and enjoyable experience. For a college or university, the stakes are high. Bad design can mean the difference between meeting a degree requirement, receiving necessary financial aid, or dropping out.
Whereas industry has adopted UX and human-centered design, colleges, universities, and government and financial aid applications are lagging behind. Portals are decades-old, and updates are implemented unevenly. Systems are not unified, and students are the ones that have to keep track of multiple usernames, PINs, passwords, and email addresses. Digitization is transforming these systems, but their design and implementation are not intentional and thus make matters worse. Many students and parents express a desire for things to be simpler or to “go back to pen and paper.” Bad design is failing them and they are losing trust. The question is whether or not the educational and governmental sectors will become design-intentional or if we have to wait for the private sector to intervene on students’ behalf. It’s up to current and future designers to create and design for those of us who are excluded. That might mean volunteering for an organization that can’t afford to pay for good design, making the underprivileged a crucial participant in the design process, or simply advocating on behalf of those who are being left behind.