What Schoolchildren Taught Me About Presenting Designs

Recently, I had one of my toughest ever design presentations.

I’d created some design concepts for a local primary school website and was slightly taken aback when the head teacher asked if I could present them to the ‘school council’, made up of a dozen children ranging from five to 11 years old.

I’d designed a website with adults in mind: the staff and parents. How was I going to “sell” my designs to the children? Wasn’t this just a box-ticking exercise – and possibly a bit of a waste of time?

Maybe. But I like keeping my clients happy, so I had a go anyway.

A young girl with blonde hair is drawing with a blue pen. We're looking over her shoulder at the drawing which appears to be an owl.

I explained to the children what we were trying to achieve with the new design: making topical information more prominent, adding some branding (conspicuously absent from the old design!) and making it mobile friendly – I even showed them how the current website looked on a typical mobile phone, so they could see how tricky it was to use.

Then I asked them to think about the designs in the context of those aims, and tell me which they thought did these things best, and why.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much but, of course, they completely got it.

They were able to pick out elements of each design that they ‘liked’ but could also explain why it would accomplish what we needed. Having noticed that one of the mock-ups used a standalone logo, they told me that they preferred the logo with text because it included their school’s name. They talked about how using different images emphasised different aspects of the school. They decided what information ought to be in the header and footer.

In many ways it was a far more useful discussion than many I’ve had with other clients… which got me thinking: Why had this session been so much more productive? Perhaps it wasn’t the age of the children that was significant. Perhaps the difference was me?

I realised that I’d often show a client a couple of designs and ask open questions like “What do you think?” It suddenly became blindingly obvious that that’s a recipe for unhelpful feedback! Anyone asked that kind of question is likely to make a quick judgement based on what the design looks like, not what it does.

With the children, I accidentally did all the things I should be doing every time.

Here’s what they taught me:

1. Talk about the brief

I started by recapping the problems we were trying to solve and explained how the new designs would tackle that. Straight away, I got them thinking about the function of the website, rather than nuances like whether the font was ‘just right’, or which shade of blue worked best.

2. Forget personal taste

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important that a client likes the look of their website. But by encouraging them to think about why they “liked” or “didn’t like” different elements, I got at the reasons behind their preferences, which is ultimately much more useful.

3. Listen… and check you’ve understood

Children don’t always have the vocabulary to say what they mean. So I had to make absolutely sure I understood, by questioning, repeating back what they’d said in my words, and checking that I’d got it right.

Adults may use ‘business’ language but we all express – and interpret – things differently, so it’s always worth checking that you’ve really understood.

4. It’s not about you

When you create something, it can be hard to hear it criticised. Naturally, you want to defend the decisions you made when creating it. So when I get feedback I tend to respond immediately.

With the children, I instinctively held back from doing that. Having kids myself, I know how important it is that they feel their opinions are valued. In this case, even more so, as that was the whole point of the exercise.

Looks like children aren’t the only ones to learn things at primary school!

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