Designing a College Curriculum for VUI Design


In December 2017, I was asked to design a curriculum and class for a VUI Design class within the Digital Media department’s Interaction Design degree. I'd never taught in this context, and I'd only had six months of experience at RAIN Agency. But I accepted, and learned some significant lessons about my practice.

I care deeply about learning and teaching. But the first semester was rough. After jumping in and learning from the hard-knock school of experience, I started to ask: what is learning? And how do I know it's happening? After some conversation and research, I realized that neuroscientists, instructional designers, and experienced teachers were all wells of knowledge.

  1. I learned about how learning happens on the neurological level, and how concepts like interleaving, spaced repetition, and recall can help cement knowledge.
  2. I learned about learning gaps, and how to diagnose where issues really like.
  3. I learned about the importance of setting instructional goals, and how to design them.
  4. I learned about the importance of making learning visible, to teacher and student.

Both semesters benefitted from my efforts to learn, but the second class is where I really kicked these into high gear. We focused on memorizing and understanding using frequent quizzes, including the fun use of the Quizlet Live game. We also focused on higher-level goals, like analyzing, evaluating, and creating actual interfaces–as well as documents that showed our thinking.





In the first iteration of the class, we spent a few weeks on what voice technology is; a week each on scripting, flow charts, prototyping, and other artifacts; and then how to conduct usability testing. So I expected that, two months in, they should be prepared to build a skill.

But I was wrong. They had learned these points in isolation, but never together. They didn't see how each part flowed into the next.

So I invented a rapid prototyping exercise. In a single evening class, I gave them a brief, and we walked from beginning use cases to a working prototype, set in front of a user–all in two hours. They arguably learned more in those two hours than in the whole two months.

We did this many more times, and in my second version of the class, we tried this exercise on week three. And we repeated it often. The result? They never lost sight of how the parts fit into the whole.

In our first class, I was very focused on helping people design and develop a working Alexa skill. I created a whole course on how to code a "Talk to Batman" skill. (Part of the reason for this was that prototyping tools weren't very advanced at this point.)

But it was too much. I assumed they knew more Javascript than they did, and I assumed I knew more Javascript than I did. Although we left with a better knowledge of how skills actually do work on the backend, I decided that in the future we'd rely on other tools for prototyping.

Luckily, other tools did emerge: I reached out to Sayspring and collaborated with them for a class account. Voiceflow came onto the scene mid-way through the second semester.

In the second form of the class, we talked more about learning from our prototypes, than how to prototypes–staying truer to the overall goal of UVU's program, and of my own goals for the class.





Speaking of goals, I always knew one thing: I wanted the end result to benefit the students tangibly. I knew most of these students wouldn't leave the class wanting to go into conversational design–most were more UX and UI focused–so I decided that a strong portfolio piece, showing that they could think well, was most important.

Very few portfolio pieces of VUI design existed when I began. I made my own example from my work on Headspace, which helped the class tremendously.

Because of the prototyping issues, the first class had less time to really flesh out a story in their portfolio pieces, and it was more focused on the artifacts. In the second class, I had them write more throughout the class–usually focused on their experiences with the "rapid prototyping" activities I had them do. And we did two portfolio pieces, instead of one.

This meant that communication about design had truly become one of the goals of the class, from the outset; not just a last-minute appendix.


I learned several things, but these were the most important:

  • The portfolio is the goal. The most generalizable skill across all design disciplines is the ability to tell a story about your process: your failures and successes.
  • Prototyping is about speed and learning. In the service of prototyping with voice, I taught Javascript. But this was the wrong class for that. With better tools and a clearer vision of the goal on my part, we prototyped more frequently with users.
  • Holistic learning. We spent as much time going through the whole process of designing and prototyping an conversational interface as we did on any one part.
  • Learning to Learn. With some effort, I was able to weave sound instructional principles and design patterns into my class. The result? More visible, assured learning.

In addition, because of this class, I gained friends. Many of these students became peers, and one "student" even became my co-worker and friend at RAIN Agency. Now I'm learning with–and from–her.


The following artifacts are no longer available, so this block is just here for my own reference.

Case Studies

Class One
Russell Andlauer
Kimberly Feldman
Duran Bickmore
Joshua Ells
Kyle Casey
Cam Sackett
John Toral

Class Two
Katie Murdoch

Brian Talbert
Heather Wright
Annie Wouden
Ashley Stephenson
Caden Damiano
Lauren Madsen

Handouts & Presentations

Presentation example
Batman course
Prototyping handout
Rapid prototyping challenge 1
Rapid prototyping challenge 2
Rapid prototyping challenge 3

Presentation 1
Online video 1
Headspace case study
Quizlet term deck


Essay 1
Essay 2
Essay 3
Essay 4
Essay 5
Essay 6
Essay 7