Loading ...
How did you get started in interactive/digital design? I super lucked out as a kid. My father saw Apple as the underdog who was prioritizing great design, user empowerment and real innovation over profit. He wanted to support that and got us one of the first Macs. The early Apple visions about creative empowerment brought me to MacPaint, KidPix and HyperCard, which meant I started coding little interactive games as a kid. This was the beginning of me getting familiar with creating in the digital medium. In my first job out of college, while drawing in Photoshop and making interactive things in Flash, I realized that I was essentially doing what I’d done as a kid, but with more modern tools.

Why did you want to leave Apple to become the director of design and codirector of long-term research at Khan Academy? To be perfectly honest, I didn’t. I knew I wanted to work on interactions for learning or creativity. I knew I wanted to leave. I didn’t think I was going to join another organization. My father passed in July of 2013. When somebody close to you passes, it’s not unusual for you to ask yourself some hard questions.

It’s worth calling out that there are two crucial themes underlying my leaving: The first is a creative yearning, and the other is a deep urge to work more directly toward a just and equitable world.

While prototyping interactions for new hardware at Apple, I noticed that I was most passionate about ideas which involved playful interactions that could give rise to learning or creativity. This isn’t something I knew from the start; it’s a pattern that I saw emerge over time.

When I had an opportunity to speak to a group of female students interested in technology, many from underrepresented backgrounds, I picked up the microphone and was shocked to hear the emotion in my own voice. Years of being the only woman in the room, let alone the only person of color—years of changing my behavior to accommodate the status quo—add up, and I was tired of it. I wanted to work more directly to change the systems that made others like me never start, never get in, or worse, leave at the height of their careers.

My community outside of work is mostly made up of teachers, artists and organizers who are working toward positive change in a far more direct way than I was at Apple. They inspire me constantly. So when my father passed, I decided it was time to pay attention to my creative yearnings and combine them with the sense that I wanted to help more people, especially women and people of color, to empower themselves as contributors to the design and invention of a better future.

Khan Academy learned of my intentions through my friend and engineering partner, Andy Matuschak, and welcomed us to pursue them within the organization. I saw it as a chance to not only reach millions of learners, but also, as a leader, to help mold an organization’s ways of working to be more fundamentally inclusive and innovative. People at Khan Academy aim to be better not only at technical skills, but better as human beings, and that is something that’s truly refreshing. Both in the design and long-term research teams, we are deliberate and introspective about the ways we work, not just what we produce. My ambition is to achieve excellence both in the quality of our work and the way we treat each other along the way.
My hope is that 100 years from now, we look back at this time and shake our heads at how unsustainably we were living.

What do you want the future to look like? I love this question. I’d encourage everyone reading to think about this for yourself.

My hope is that 100 years from now, we look back at this time and shake our heads at how unsustainably we were living. We remember how much we had to clear out piles and piles of unneeded possessions, how there were top-selling books about throwing away unneeded things, and we agree that mass consumerism just had to end. We look at the ways that some societies relied on taking advantage of an underclass or the way that the global North had to take advantage of the global South for cheap labor and produce, and we see how outdated and myopic the vestiges of imperialism were.

Ideally, people worldwide would no longer have to worry about the basics of safety, shelter and food, yet would still feel the pride in being self-made. Sexism, racism and homophobia would be the quaintest of quaint—“that’s so last century.” We’d giggle about how naively we isolated ourselves with technology that kept us from having real human contact. We would thank goodness we narrowly evaded burning up the entire planet with climate change. And technology would be something we use to augment our intelligence—rather than replacing it with a kind of “servant class”—so we could all be empowered to understand better, empathize better, solve problems, think critically, create more easily and still stay deeply connected to each other, to our communities and to the real world.

What role can tech play in subverting the status quo? This could be an article on its own! For one, using technology to provide learning and education that’s accessible to everyone for free can help empower those traditionally marginalized to solve problems. Creating systems to help ease the costs of building, publication and marketing of new solutions also helps democratize problem solving at a larger scale. Innovating in how projects get funded or sustained in the first place is another massive opportunity.

Technology can also create new behavior patterns that are better for people. An easy example of that is how we might reduce meanness on the Internet—game designers and projects such as Civil Comments are trying to work on that. Also, right now, a lot of products are stuck maximizing click-through, especially because so much revenue depends on selling user data to advertising. That means that if we aren’t careful, everyone will only be shown information that they’ll engage with due to confirmation bias or the clickbait nature of the content. As a result, people might be challenged less with thinking that’s different from their own. As we know, that’s not the best way for us to coexist and certainly bad for creativity. How might we help people not wind up isolated in thought-silos?

How has designing for Khan Academy’s users challenged how you approach design and UI? More than anything, the experience has been humbling. The kinds of problems we tackle are both deeper and broader than the thinking I’ve had to do in the past. There is so much to learn about teaching, learning, human behavior, mindset, narrative, policy, administration, game design and more, not to mention any details about specific subject areas.

It’s too much to go into all of it, but I’ll highlight a few things we think about a lot. All of them are still in the works! There is constant room for improvement.

For one, I’ve had to think more deeply about how people learn. The old school idea of learning is that students’ minds are an empty vessel, and teachers pour the knowledge in. We now know that isn’t how it works. We also have to think about how any particular concept is learned; great teachers often understand the smaller steps that students need to take toward understanding a larger, more complex topic. We have several experienced teachers on staff: one on our design team, others in our content and engineering teams, more in the Khan Lab School downstairs, and another, Scott Farrar, who we’ve just hired into the long-term research group. We work very closely with them. We also speak to students regularly; they teach us so much. When designing for learning, we have to think more deeply about motivation, human behavior and emotion. Everything we do needs to embody a growth mindset; we want our learners to understand that grit and persistence are more important than getting something correct the first time. Our messaging and UI has to embody this.

Our navigational interactions need to be as clear as possible because the students are there to learn the concepts, not our UI. We have huge opportunities to add more moments of joy because learning is something that should be celebrated as much as possible! And of course, people need more of a sense of progress through their learning, so that they can understand that it’s all about the journey. We have huge opportunities around how to use interaction and play to facilitate learning, and we’re very inspired by explorable explanations and the potential of learning by doing.

Both in our design and long-term research teams, we know that although Khan Academy has already helped millions of learners worldwide, we’re really just getting started in taking all of our design work to the next level. In the tech industry, there’s a lot of talk about “user-centered design” and “product design”—but when the problem we’re tackling ranges from the pixels to larger, messier human systems, I think we need a term that’s more expansive. I like to use the term “solution design” to describe what we do.

What questions should every interactive/digital designer answer before building? Why are you building this? Are you helping solve a real problem? Is it a nontrivial problem, or one that isn’t going to get solved unless we all work toward it? How well do you understand the problem? Have you listened to those who experience it most? Have you taken a look at what’s been said by those who have already thought deeply about it before you?

Another question I ask myself is: Are you helping solve a problem that will help more people help solve problems?

There are real, deep challenges that we have the opportunity to solve together as human race. We need to stop being blinded by mass consumerism and find better, more sustainable ways to live, both with our planet and each other. As an interactive/digital designer, you hold a powerful tool in your hands to help shape people’s behavior and empowerment. If you are in a position to help, consider how you might contribute! It’s the most gratifying thing.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in interactive/digital design? Remember: Your work is your work; it’s not you. Being receptive to constructive criticism is probably the best favor you can do for yourself. I can work with designers who lack skill but have a great attitude and a hunger to learn; the opposite is not true.
May-Li Khoe invents new ways for humans to interact with computers by learning about people, sculpting pixels and playing with code. Khoe directs design and long-term research at Khan Academy, which she joined in fall 2014. She’s excited to explore ideas that empower learners through curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and play. Previously at Apple, Khoe designed and prototyped UI concepts that pushed hardware innovations, including Force Touch, the Taptic Engine, face tracking, multitouch and location tracking. She enjoys dancing, DJing, dancing while DJing, blurring the line between art and computer science, and daydreaming about joyful ways to subvert the status quo.

With a free Commarts account, you can enjoy 50% more free content
Create an Account
Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber or have a Commarts account?
Sign In

Get a subscription and have unlimited access
Already a subscriber?
Sign In