Crossing the streams

Alastair Somerville
8 min readOct 6, 2019

Jenny Theolin (@jennytheolin) asked this question on Twitter this week:-

If there was one digital education (programme or course) missing in the world, what would it be? Any competence you’re struggling to find talent for?

It relates to her deep work in User Experience (UX) and digital education at places like Berghs School of Communication.

There were a number of responses: teaching impact-centered rather than process-based UX came up strongly. This would be a good shift: the obsession with process and tool is a major problem with UX

This post is just a few ideas that the question raised from my perspective and in the work I’m doing and planning at the moment.

School and syllabus

A fake week planner for a UX course with subject topics

My family home-educate in the UK. We use a method called Unschooling.

What this basically means is we do not use a formal syllabus and we try to build education around the evolving interests of our children.

It also means we have to self-interrogate our intents and expectations about how and when learning happens. Both my wife and I were school-educated and that means we are patterned by ideas of teachers, school years, topics and syllabuses. The ideas that knowledge is dividable into specific silos, sliced into a specific order and then learnt over a specific timescale.

School and syllabus is a 19th century solidifiction of older ideas of pedagogy. It’s the industrialised and productised version of education.

It leads to odd arguments today:

  • Should STEM be STEAM?
  • Should everyone be taught to Code?
  • Did everything fall apart when Latin was taken off the syllabus?

Everything is tidily separate.

Everything is about subdividing knowledge acquisition over time.

Structure and control enable appropriate education.

This may be a fine pattern when preparing children for adult life and work (tho I’d be wary of that) but it certainly can be no way to enable adults as professionals to learn to work in complex and complicated realities.

Yet it is the pattern we live with as most of us grew up in it. Unschooling is an endless process of asking why you feel stressed that your child must know that thing at this time. The pattern, of splitting knowledge up, hierarching it and prioritising it, is strong.

Designing workshops

I design a lot of workshops for conferences, colleges and companies. They are generally around my knowledge areas of human-centred design, senses and co-design but drift into other topics like human transcendence and virtual reality.

Most of the workshops are 1/2 day long and try to teach a few ideas and maybe use of one or two tools.

This is within the pattern of school and syllabus.

My workshops are known to be experiential (doing-based) and mobile (not staying in the training room).

This pushes at the edges of school and syllabus.

However, I need to do more. The pattern is still holding me back and holding back people from learning.

This is why Jenny Theolin’s question interested me. I don’t think one course or programme will help: the problem is in the fact that we package the education into courses and programmes that is the problem.

Taking control

Self-survey on sense of intensity and effort at work: before, during and after workshop

Cognitive accessibility has been an issue in my work and workshops for a couple of years. The amount of effort and stress that we experience in an attention-driven economy is high but it is much greater and meaningful for people for whom this sensory and cognitive load can cause anxiety and pain.

The image above is from some prototyping work on enabling people to self-recognise stress and effort before and after a workshop so they can take control and take action when things are too loud, too hard or too much.

I don’t use it as I was correctly criticised for extending my desire to control people beyond my workshop. I may be nice, I may have good intentions but I am still trying to embed my sense of thinking into other people’s lives using my privilege and authority as a workshop leader.

This is how easily it is to take on roles and powers of teacher when working within the structures of school and syllabus.

In trying to enable individual self-control in workshops, I attempted to extend my control outside of them.

This is how the idea of school still holds me. To be a responsible workshop facilitator, I need to take on the role of a teacher. This was wrong.

Currently, I’m using cards on tables to act as reminders to think about self care. They are the blue cards in the above photo from a Dortmund workshop. I talk about them at the start of the workshop and then let people use them as they want. It’s probably less directly effective but I’m trying to find a space as a facilitator that enables participant autonomy.

This thing, not that thing

I’m combining a couple of 1/2 day workshops into a full day soon.

This is an attempt to start mixing up separated elements of education.

I often talk about senses, perception and emotions in design and have a well developed workshop on those topics.

In the last year, I’ve also been doing a new workshop on emotion in communication. This came out of interest in information architecture of conversational design that accepts emotion is fundamental to human interactions not a byproduct or result of them.

This separation makes sense: talk about the ways in which senses/emotions interact in product design and talk about how emotion is important in research and team dynamics.

But that’s a syllabus separation.

Emotion runs thru the whole of life.

Talking about it as an engineering issue for product build and then as a ‘soft skill’ for team or research dynamics is creating the kind of silo, the kind of hierarchy, the kind of prioritisation that school and syllabus does.

Doing the first part is important as it clearly impacts product manufacture. It matters.

Doing the second (and creating a ‘second’) is less important. The hideous phrase of ‘soft skills’ is part of that hierarchy (like the 3R’s) that makes some truly human and meaningful parts of education seem less necessary.

It’s easy to drop elements from a syllabus (as a teacher) or skip some courses (as a pupil) because the pattern shows that some things do matter more.

The one-day course is a deliberate attempt to make the hard and soft skills one thing. The theme is emotion: you cannot design for emotion in products and services if you are unwilling to face them in research or team interactions.

This is why I get worried by teaching design ethics as a subject and questions framed like the one Jenny asked.

If it’s separate then it’s an Add On. Perhaps it’s an Extra Credit Assignment? The engineering skills and the process knowledge are still the heart of the matter but you might add some ethics.

This is the problem of using a syllabus model with complex and complicated design issues. The separation into syllabus comes with a pattern of meanings and importance that does not help.

The new workshop is not a full solution but it is a first attempt at trying to directly link elements that are generally viewed as separate.

Human centred

Finally, some work on prototype form. I’m working a workshop that is about enabling junior staff to recognise and build on their strengths and to protect their psychological safety when working in large organisations in Agile teams.

It’s based on conversations I have had at the edges of talks about codesign. How large organisations put junior staff into frontline positions without fully appreciating the stress of being junior and powerless in a large organisation while representing that organisation to users who know the power of that organisation. Power, privilege and emotion mix in very difficult ways and staff (let alone users) are badly supported.

I’m using a number of ideas, from books like Clear Bright Future, to centre the workshop on self-recognition and strength building.

The workshop has to flow around that human-centeredness – the school and syllabus problems need to be in plain sight.

I have a format but it will need testing soon.

To return to the opening question by Jenny Theolin – yes there needs to be a lot more subjects that digital design pays attention to but the trap is how we think in terms of school and syllabus.

I’m not sure how we move from a 19th century model that patterns how we think about how we teach and how we learn. Everything in this post is a prototype, an attempt at something different, but I’m always hoping to be told of what is being done or experimented with by other people.

Crossing the streams

We need to cross the streams of what people learn to enable them to be effective and ethical. The school model of education can be a barrier to this. The idea of syllabus, that knowledge can be parceled, hierarched and prioritised by teachers, is not necessarily useful for professionals. Human-centered education needs to start with anchoring people to their own sense of safety and capacity and then look to adding layers of capabilities that mix what we used to describe as hard and soft skills.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX