Designing for the margins

It turns out that if you design for the people in the margins, your building works better for everyone. – CAST (education design and resources)

We’ve been talking this month about customer service and what it looks like in higher education. Thinking about a couple of recent conversations with that lens gave me a new leadership insight – sometimes we don’t know who all the customers will be for our work. We do something that meets the needs of one group, and it turns out to have broader application.

As an instruction designer, I’ve had a version of the same conversation several times. Basically, it’s about the balance between creating content that’s accessible for everyone and using the fun new bells and whistles that don’t work for all learners.

curbWhile I want to make my content as engaging as possible, I also remember the principles of universal design. A good example is sidewalk curb cuts. When they were first proposed as an accessibility measure, there were complaints about the cost and effort. Once they became common, everyone found them useful. After breaking my ankle and being on a scooter for a few months, I know I appreciated them in new ways.

The CAST organization has proposed guidelines for Universal Design for Learning. While their focus is K-12 education, I thought many of their observations were useful in higher education as well. For example, they suggest that teachers ask first, what are my learning goals? Then ask, what barriers in the classroom might interfere with my diverse students reaching those goals? Following their principles about presenting the message in multiple ways and providing multiple means for engagement will make the lessons more informative for everyone.

Similarly, providing excellent service for people in the margins can have a much broader impact. When I worked at the University of Minnesota I saw a good example. For many years the custodial staff were required to wear a uniform that included polo shirts. When newly hired Somali women objected, the leadership team got creative. Rather than asking people to wear a uniform that didn’t fit their cultural norms, they added a second option – a smock that could be worn over existing clothes. It turned out that many staff members preferred the smock and it became a popular alternative.

Who are the customers at your margins, and what can you build that would make things better for everyone?

Dee Anne Bonebright

 

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