A Montessori Approach to Product Design
7 Montessori Principles to Apply to Your UX Design Practice for More Thoughtful User Experiences
As a product designer and parent, I'm fascinated by how humans learn and engage with their surroundings. And like most designers, I also have a strong affinity for thoughtful design that marries aesthetics, with creativity, purpose, and order. This may explain why I was so excited to learn that my daughter's preschool uses Montessori style teaching, which is known for its individualized approach to learning.
Admittedly, I was first drawn to the visual appeal of finely crafted Montessori style wooden toys and beautifully arranged play areas. When child #2 came along I fell hard for a Montessori toy box subscription. Each month we received boxes of color coordinated, impeccably crafted wooden toys carefully curated according to her age and milestones.
Toy subscriptions aside, I've since discovered so much more about the Montessori methodology that is really inspiring and applicable beyond my daughter's play area. And I can't help but draw parallels between the experiences of my little ones at home and the interactions of the “grown-ups” who use the products and experiences I design.
This has led me to consider: can we apply Montessori principles to the field of user experience design? What would it entail and what sort of impact could it have?
The Montessori Method
To answer these questions, let's first define what this method is, and what makes it unique. The Montessori Method, developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, is a distinctive educational approach characterized by its child-centered philosophy. It emphasizes individualized learning within carefully prepared environments where children are encouraged to explore, make choices, and work independently. Mixed-age groups encourage collaboration, and self-directed learning is at the core, with children progressing at their own pace. Hands-on, sensory-rich materials facilitate the understanding of abstract concepts, while practical life skills are integrated to promote independence and responsibility. Montessori education values the development of the whole child, fostering qualities like empathy and a love of learning alongside academic skills.
I know you're thinking, that's all well and good...for kindergardeners but how on earth does this to relate to UX design? Bear with me. There are several fundamental Montessori principles that can be applied to your UX design process.
One of the fundamental principles of Montessori education is respecting the child's autonomy. In UX design, this translates to respecting the user's autonomy and giving them control over their interactions. In literal terms, we should strive to provide users with options and choices rather than forcing them down a predefined path. Allow them multiple ways to explore and navigate at their own pace.
2. Purposeful Design
Montessori classrooms are carefully designed to facilitate learning through exploration. They are thoughtfully arranged and aesthetically pleasing. For example, rather than large boxes overflowing with toys, the Montessori classroom or play area features well-organized and highly-edited shelves of strategically placed toys on rotation. Everything is grouped logically, has its place and is in a logical order.
Sound familiar? A well-designed user experience is also one that is organized and presents the user with the information that they require at that moment in time as opposed to inundating users with too much information at once. Well organized navigation, a strong hierarchy and consistency bring a sense of order, enabling users to either explore or complete their desired task intuitively without additional explanation.
According to a study conducted by the Stanford Credibility Project, 75% of users judge a company's credibility based on the visual design of its website.
This finding underscores the significant impact that aesthetics have on user perceptions and behaviors. Users are more likely to trust and engage with experiences that are visually appealing and well-designed. This is one of the many reasons it's imperative to take the time and effort required to establish a strong brand and consistent design system.
3. Multi-Sensory Learning
Montessori education emphasizes engaging multiple senses in the learning process. In UX design, incorporating multimedia elements such as videos, animations, and sound can make the user experience more immersive and intuitive. Think about how different sensory outputs can enhance your product's usability. A specific sound or animation can provide the user with valuable feedback as they interact, reach certain steps or complete tasks.
4. Individualized Learning & Development
Montessori educators recognize that each child has unique learning needs and interests. Product and UX designers can adopt this philosophy by personalizing user experiences. By developing personas, product design teams can ensure their solutions meet the needs of their unique audiences. Personalized content based on the user's profile, behavior, or customizable settings further individualize the experience.
5. Hands-On Exploration
In Montessori classrooms, children learn through hands-on activities. In UX design, consider incorporating interactive elements that encourage users to actively participate in the experience. This could include drag-and-drop interactions, simulations, or gamified elements. Rather than long-winded tutorial explaining specific features, allow users to learn as they navigate through your product experience, providing tips or feedback long the way.
6. Observation and Iteration
Montessori educators closely observe children's interactions to adapt their teaching methods. UX designers should similarly gather user feedback through testing and analytics. Whether it be concept testing, usability testing or evaluating the usage of your product or experience, observing and understanding your audience is a critical step. Use this data to refine and iterate on the design, ensuring that it aligns with users' evolving needs and behaviors.
7. Intrinsic Motivation
Montessori education fosters intrinsic motivation, where children are driven by their innate curiosity and desire to learn. In UX design, aim to create habit-forming products that intrinsically motivate users by making the experience enjoyable, rewarding, and fulfilling.
Perhaps I've read a few too many parenting books or endured too many late nights with a teething toddler, but it seems to me that incorporating Montessori principles into your UX design process can only lead to more user-centered and engaging digital products. By nurturing a sense of curiosity, autonomy, and exploration, we can design products that not only serve functional purposes but also inspire and enrich the lives of our users. Just like Dr. Montessori method has enriched the lives of children for generations. So, why not take a page from the Montessori play book? Your users may thank you for it.
About the Author
Allison Sarno is a product and branding designer based in Zürich, Switzerland. She specializes in lean design for startups and emerging brands. Have a project you'd like to discuss? Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org