Communication Breakdown (Part 2 of 2)

By Kameko Branchaud, December 11, 2014

Grade Level

  • High School


  • Beautiful Users

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Language Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Technology

Lesson Time

2 classes


Our opening exhibition Beautiful Users: Designing for People tells the story of how designers began to consider the experience and needs of the user in their product designs. This is the second part of a lesson that focuses on the evolution of the telephone through the lens of user-centered design, although it also works separately (Part 1 is also available on our Educator Resource Center). After analyzing trends in the development of the telephone, students will design a proposal for a communication system for the future. They will wrap up their prototyping session in a role-playing presentation in which students pitch their final idea to a panel of potential investors. 

National Standards

Common Core

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1-3, 7, 9; W.1, 2, 7-9; SL.1-6; L1, 2, 4, 6



New York Learning Standards

Mathematics, Science, and Technology Standards 1, 6, 7

 English Language Arts Standards 1 & 3

 The Arts Standards 3 & 4

Career Development and Occupational Studies Standards 1-3b

Social Studies Standard 4


Students will be able to:

·         Analyze the physical transformation of the design of the telephone.

·         Interpret the role and needs of the user on the development of the phone.

·         Identify trends and made deductions about the future of the phone.

·         Design a communication system for the future.

·         Present their ideas in a role-playing context.

            Evaluate the work of others and provide feedback. 


Lupton, E. (2014, November 6). Model 302 Telephone, Henry Dreyfuss [Web log post]. Retrieved from Lupton, E. (2014, November 7). Model 500 Telephone, Henry Dreyfuss [Web log post]. Retrieved from Lupton, E. (2014, November 8). Princess Phone, Henry Dreyfuss [Web log post]. Retrieved from The Evolution of Cell Phone Design Between 1983 -2009 [Web Log Post]. (2009, May 22). Retrieved from Artifact Analysis worksheet from National Archives:


Pencil and paper for writing and for sketching designs

Various prototyping materials:

·         firm/structural materials­—cardboard, cardstock, etc.

·         binding materials and adhesives—tape, staples, rubber bands, clips

·         flexible materials— foil, paper, fabric scraps

·         clear materials—acetate, saran wrap (this could be handy to act as screens













Pull up the link “The Evolution of Cell Phone Design Between 1983-2009.” Compare the original cell phone, a high-end cell phone from the year your students were born (or if working with young students, the 2004 Motorola Razr would be a good mid-point to work with), and their current phone. Lead your students through a visual analysis by posing the following questions. If you would like them to complete worksheets for the following objects, follow the link provided for the Artifact Analysis Worksheet by National Archives.

·         What major changes occurred to the structures and functions of the phone?  What do you think were the reasons for these changes?

·         How have the original parts and functions been integrated into smartphones?

·         How have interactions with the user been taken into account in each iteration?

·         What were/are the limitations of each design?

·         How have aesthetics influenced the designs?

·         What do the changes that are happening to the design of phones tell you about the consumer?

·         What patterns do you notice in the changes that are happening? If this trend continues, what does the phone of the future look like? Is it still a phone? What makes it a phone? Are our smartphones still phones, or are they something else?


As smart devices evolve, the phone function becomes only one of many apps, and other communication systems take its place. What might the future of the phone look like? Challenge your students to design a communication system for the future!


Organize your class into small groups (3-4). Have them compare their notes on the development of the phone and identify trends and think about how they can push these trends. Their communication system must:

·         Have voice capabilities (aka a phone function)

·         Consider what the user’s needs are and how they will interact with it

·         Continue the trends that have been happening, but not resemble our current handheld devices.

Provide them with various materials to use for prototyping. Include some firm/structural materials, some binding materials and adhesives, some flexible materials, some clear ones, and some markers. Give them one day to brainstorm and prototype designs.




Wrap up this lesson with a role-playing activity! Everyone in the room will have a chance to play each of the two roles: the entrepreneur pitching their idea, and the venture capitalist who is a potential investor. Each group will take turns presenting their prototypes, describe how their system operates, what its capabilities are, how the user’s needs and the user’s experience was taken into account, and how their object fits into the evolution of the phone. As the groups present, the rest of the class will imagine that they are potential investors being pitched an idea. They will take notes during the presentations, evaluate the success of the system going by the criteria assigned, and decide whether or not they would make an offer/invest in the development of this product. If they decide not to invest, they should offer a suggestion to the presenters that would make their product stronger. 

Enrichment Extension Activities

·         Use cell phone ads from different years and have students analyze how the product is designed for specific consumers.

·         For older groups, introduce students to the idea of obsolescence. Discuss how things that are planned to become obsolete are built into products to drive up future sales.

·         Have students compare and evaluate different current cell phone service plans. Have them analyze the actual costs, figure out which deals are the best, and who the target consumer is for each plan type. This can be a great way to make some math and economics connections. 

Teacher Reflection

Have your students write the following on a piece of scrap paper:


1.    Which part of this activity did you find most interesting?

2.    Which part of this activity did you find most enjoyable?

3.     Now that you have spent time learning about the history of the phone and its potential future, how do                            you look at your phone differently? 

  1. I like the role playing portion of this lesson. You could do it with everyone going at the same time to rehearse/practice, then they could do it individually for the rest of the class.

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