ARTICLE: Trevor Minton

2020 Trends in EdTech UX – What product leaders should expect in the coming year

Being a great product leader requires a constant balancing act between meeting the need to release immediate improvements while simultaneously planning for what’s coming in the next year and beyond. Dealing with today’s concerns, such as accessibility compliance and onboarding issues, has a way of getting in the way of planning for bigger trends that will have an impact on the success of your product.

As a UX Design and Research company focused solely on educational technologies, we see a lot of patterns and trends across all the products we work on. Entering the new year and new decade, we are naturally thinking a lot about trends in EdTech and how UX teams should think about them. We asked our team to reflect on the past year and to share what they are thinking about for 2020 and beyond. Below are our collected thoughts grouped into common themes that emerged in our survey.

Accessibility / Inclusive Design will continue to be a top concern in 2020.

While awareness of accessibility issues and inclusive design practices has risen dramatically throughout the past year, product teams still struggle to navigate the myriad concerns related to this issue. Many still approach compliance as an event rather than a way of life by checking the boxes at single moments in time rather than adopting sweeping inclusive design practices that ensure accessibility is baked in at every step of the product development process.

Julee Peterson / Accessibility Lead & Senior UX Designer:
It’s great to see issues around accessibility and inclusive design remaining a major concern for product teams, but I believe EdTech needs to invest more resources into ensuring their products are usable by all users. For many, merely achieving the base level of accessibility compliance is still the goal. While those requirements are important to fulfill, that approach still leaves many potential gaps in usability that can hinder your users.

Some product teams still see accessibility as meeting a need for a marginal number of users. Some argue that something has to give in order to avoid over-engineering. It’s important to understand that accessibility and inclusive design are NOT features within your product. They are what ensures all the features in your product work for ALL your users. Product teams should stop thinking of accessibility requirements and inclusive design as answers to particular use cases they are solving for. Use cases yield features. Practicing inclusive design is the methodology that should be followed to ensure that your solution for every use case is accessible to ALL users.

Adam Sonnett / Vice President:
The focus on accessibility and inclusion along with user centered design reached a new plateau in 2019 across all industries. Many EdTech products still lag in these areas though. As customer expectations and requirements continue to grow to mitigate risk, product teams need to be ready to step it up in 2020, or suffer grave consequences.

Annie Hensley / Design Lead:
I think the most interesting development this year was continued attention to product accessibility, and how it is perceived in the space by those who advocate for it. Accessibility advocates are reflecting on their language choice/perception to the world. They are moving toward the idea of “inclusive design” rather than just accessibility. Accessibility is a word that can create a marginalization, but inclusive design is relatable to the general public. The term allows people to understand how design for all makes experiences better for everyone (speech to text, screen dimming, etc), rather than looking at it as “fixing something” for the 20%. The industry has an opportunity to be on the forefront of how we talk about our design, writing, research, and accessibility process to meet true inclusive design. We will have to continue to advocate for the right processes and push our leadership to champion inclusive design.

Autumn Gilbert / UX Researcher:
The push for accessibility will continue to grow in the UX field, not only in the design practices, but also within research teams. I hope that there will be growing advocacy and action for a good user experience, not just through testing in the design process, but testing what is currently out there in the live environment.

Tanner Sotkiewicz / UX Designer:
With the Domino’s / Supreme Court story making headlines, I believe that has caused many more people to talk about the issue. It’ll be interesting to watch this and similar actions unfold in 2020.

UX writing and microcopy: The language we use and when we use it matters.

In 2019, there was a dramatic rise in chatter around the topic of UX writing and microcopy as product teams became more sensitive to the power of words used within interfaces. Design and research teams previously had tended to look solely to the visual aspects of products for clues about why users were having trouble with them. In 2020, we expect to see even more emphasis placed on the language used within interfaces. As product teams at-large make improvements in verbal cues, those who don’t will run the risk of delivering user experience that seem to fall flat. User expectations will be reset to a much higher level by all the other digital experiences the have in their everyday lives.

Lauren Klintworth / UX Designer:
In 2019, the amount of thought UX teams put into the language of screens and how much that can impact the user experience and understanding of the experience rose dramatically. Going forward in 2020, designers and writers need to hone their ability to develop better language within their interfaces. Tools such as the Hemingway app can help ensure that language being used on screens is going to give users the best experience.

Kyle Bentle / UX Designer:
We need to push for more personal and conversational UX copy within products. We’re talking to people – students, teachers, parents, and administrators, not machines.

Yanni Xiang / UX Designer:
When the product involves a complicated flow, no matter how much time we spent on the visual to make all the icons and colors look beautiful and attractive, without clear labeling of the icons and buttons, the experience might still be painful for users if the UI is ambiguous.

Sarah Freitag / UX Research Lead:
It’s becoming more important to consider how we surface important information through email or even through LMSs to meet instructors, students, parents and administrators where they are, rather than having them check their courseware. EdTech product teams need to invest some additional time in 2020 to understand how different user groups expect to receive important notifications and timely information.

EdTech product teams need to spend more time looking outside the industry to understand how their users expect products to work.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing solely on what your competitors are doing. The danger in doing so is that so often new innovations happen in unrelated markets. It’s important to remember to look outside of EdTech for how similar challenges are being solved. For instance, when creating dashboards that provide users with access to vast amounts of data, we have looked to healthcare and finance for cues for how data visualization practices could elevate EdTech products that we are working on. Additionally, other technologies such as AI and VR are finding their way into users’ lives every day and we should expect to see much more of that within EdTech over the following year.

Sarah Freitag / UX Research Lead:
Apps outside of the EdTech space are focused on introducing more moments of delight (i.e. the Waze app can give directions in multiple accents) or are geared at making life easier (i.e. Gmail can predict commonly used phrases and also prompts users to follow up on old emails). I hope that 2020 will see products that have more moments of joy and use data from collective user behaviors to help create smart suggestions.

Allie Lozinak / UX Designer:
The current generation of students are so ingrained into technology that they are used to having every app they use track their data in some way, creating magic in the background. Think about how everyone LOVES Spotify’s end of year feature. It literally tells you how many hours of music you listened to and breaks it down by genre, etc. – yet no one finds that creepy.

Trevor Minton / Vice President, Product Experience:
Several co-creation sessions with college students this year showed us that users bring their consumer-based expectations of good design and UX to EdTech products. EdTech products have often been considered “good enough” if they checked the boxes of completing an assignment, even while the aesthetic and workflow of the product fell far behind what users have come to expect from other apps, sites and software they use on a daily basis. Many EdTech companies dedicated themselves to catching up to these expectations, taking advantage of the mental models of modern users while providing more pleasant, less stressful user experiences.

Kyle Bentle / UX Designer:
More personalized, in-context UI will become more expected in EdTech products. AI and other advancing technologies will play a huge role. For instance, if the app senses a student is stuck on a process, it can intervene with gentle hints.

Jacob Hansen / UX Designer:
UX is going to be huge when it comes to AR/VR/MR development in the near future. Apple’s long talked about AR/VR headset could accelerate the need for UX teams to ramp up how they create for these technologies. I’m very excited to see how EdTech fits into this space.

Lauren DeMarks / UX Designer:
EdTech products need to catch up to other industries in making use of auditory and haptic experiences (elements outside of the visual to round out the overall user experience when using a product).

Onboarding continues to be challenging for product teams.

One of the most critical challenges in product development is how easy it is for new users to come up to speed with your product. This is the moment when the most friction in the user experience occurs. If the learning curve feels daunting for your users, you risk abandonment. As a product leader, you need to push your UX research and design teams to better understand how your users are feeling about the onboarding experience. Frustration at this juncture in the user journey can have a negative cascading effect for your users.

Allie Lozinak / UX Designer:
With complex features, we are already starting to address how we educate users and simplify features through copy, onboarding, and progressive disclosure of information. 
In the future, I expect to see more robust, in-product onboarding that can provide more “just in time” moments of product education.

As EdTech tools continue to evolve and become more innovative, the features that we introduce become more complex. This means more time spent trying to simplify features, and puts us in the role of “educating the educators” on how to use said features. This also means that we are trying to create more features that go above and beyond competitors, making it difficult to “benchmark” for these features.

Sarah Freitag / UX Research Lead:
Instructors continue not to read onboarding guides and are banner-blind to messages at the top of their screens. Instead, instructors rely on their ability to click around and learn products on their own or sit through a demo with a sales rep. Therefore, the empty states of EdTech products become extremely important to help guide instructors through the product.

EdTech Isn’t Just for K-12 and Higher Ed (the rise of corporate and personal learning products)

In the past few years, there has been much investment in the personal and corporate learning spaces as interest in lifelong learning platforms grows and more companies seek to elevate training and certification practices to advance their workforces. Product teams need to push to understand the inherent differences in user populations. The user journeys of personal and corporate learners and educators can be vastly different from their K-12 and higher ed counterparts.

Brian Keenan / Co-founder:
There’s an incredible amount of investment activity around corporate and personal learning but competition in the space is fierce. It remains to be seen how successful new entries to the field will be. As EdTech companies seek to expand into professional environments to follow their users as they transition into the workforce, they need to bring their A-games when it comes to delivering meaningful user experiences that will differentiate them from the crowd. That means they need to commit to serious investments in UX research and design. I also think it’s worth watching carefully what’s been happening with Instructure’s Bridge product, a corporate-focused LMS. According to a recent article on EdSurge, “Learning management system provider Instructure has laid off as many as 100 full-time employees as the publicly traded company nears a key shareholder vote on a proposed sale to a private equity firm.” This is an interesting development for any product team hoping to compete for customers in the space.

Crissie Raines / Project Manager:
I think something we are going to see even more of in 2020 is EdTech used in noneducational companies. We can’t narrow our thinking to just k-12 and higher ed. A majority of companies have something to teach their employees (training, internal apps, etc).

Data collection and privacy issues are a growing concern for EdTech product teams.

The security of our personal data is an ever changing issue that all users face. EdTech product teams are not immune to the issues that threaten data and privacy security. In 2020 and beyond we expect to see a much higher scrutiny on educational products. EdTech product leaders need to assess what level of risk they face and institute plans to mitigate them.

Brandon Blangger / Co-founder:
UX teams will need to continue to evaluate their role in understanding user concerns and delivering the appropriate experience. What drives privacy concerns? How is it different by demographic and by role (student vs instructor vs admin)? What level of data usage and collection transparency is expected? How often might data collection and privacy issues become a barrier to entry for EdTech products? For product teams based in the U.S. who might seek to grow revenue and users by entering international markets, you need to understand what regulations may prevent you from doing so depending on your data and privacy policies.

Allie Lozinak / UX Designer:
As far as how we use student’s data – we are already building products for administrators that reveal the power of data consolidation in relation to student retention. However, I would like to look at how we use student data for the students themselves. How can we use it to customize student’s experiences, and create moments of learning or success for the student?

Using Design Systems to Navigate Product Complexity.

As a product matures and grows in complexity, product teams need to rely on well articulated design standards in order to ensure they continue to deliver cohesive user experiences. Ad-hoc approaches lead to disparate experiences within a product and that can be very confusing to your users. The earlier your team adopts such a system, the easier it is to stay on track.

Chris Albert / Design Director:
EdTech companies will likely continue to struggle with product continuity given the current rate of change they’re all experiencing. But they would do well to invest in creating more meaningful, deeper integrations across products — rather than just connections between silos — to improve the overall value of the brand experience. For example, integration in a performance dashboard might mean helping instructors draw more useful insights by surfacing patterns across performance in one dimension (e.g., adaptive learning measures) and performance in another dimension (e.g., clinical assessment measures). There are just so many silos within any given EdTech product suite that really need to be broken down to build more value.

Design systems for larger product suites should be built agnostic of style: Sizes, typefaces, colors, etc. can be separated from the structure and behavior of components and patterns to facilitate system flexibility across product sub-brands that need to maintain a unique presence. I’ll be talking more about this in upcoming articles.

Jacob Hansen / UX Designer:
In 2019, the need for simplification has become extremely apparent. We’re hitting the point where major products have added too many features and now need to start scaling back for the sake of the user experience. Big UI overhauls are favoring a more minimal approach.

Other trends in EdTech that we’re watching.

The EdTech industry is in a stage of constant evolution resulting from changes in user expectations and unanticipated market conditions. As a product leader, this should fall solely on you – expect your UX research and design teams to be educating themselves about emerging trends so they consider how it might affect the product development plan in the future.

Annie Hensley / UX Lead:
Clients are looking to be the “full course” solution. Our clients are looking to play in all parts of the learning journey. Right now most of the publishing companies play in the pre- and post-class space through their ebook and homework/assessment solutions. There will be a race to see who can get to market first to offer their customers the “full learning picture.” These companies are also creating a focus on not only having the pre-, in-, and post-class features in place, but focusing on what data and insights they can return to the instructors around student performance and learning objectives. I think full-class solutions including insights into what is going on in class will be a major focus for next year.

Trevor Minton / Vice President, Product Experience:
In 2020, standalone courseware products are poised to compete with learning management systems, rather than merely integrating with them. Products dedicated to course management, assignment creation & completion, attendance and gradebooks are reaching levels of power and sophistication that, in some cases, outpace the offerings of LMS leaders in terms of good UX, inclusivity and simplicity. These standalone products may pose a challenge to the status quo of the LMS as the most important digital system at an institution.

Emily Nordwick / UX Researcher:
Recently, I read an article by the Christensen Institute about the growing degree inflation over the past three decades and how it’s now starting to dip downwards, with students and employers realizing that not every professional position should require a bachelor’s degree. Universities should start looking at offering more non-traditional degrees, such as competency-based education, to mitigate risks related to enrollment and revenue.

As colleges attract fewer and fewer students for traditional 4-year degrees we could see more students opting for unconventional, online-based routes to completing their education. The implications of that for EdTech UX and product teams are immense.

A final thought on the landscape of EdTech.

We’re EdTech geeks who are always reading about the industry. There are many great sources but we’ll offer one recent piece that we think all product leaders should read. If you haven’t already read it, we highly recommend checking out the Global EdTechLandscape 3.0 published by Navitas Ventures. In it, they identify 26 clusters of 15,000 companies into eight steps they refer to as “the next generation learning lifecycle.” The report looks at each cluster from a number of angles including the number of organizations, the total investment, the momentum of each group, and their disruptive potential. It’s the best map of our industry that we’ve come across.

In summary, as a product leader, it’s important to inspire your team to help you think through more than just the problems of today. Your UX research and design teams often live in the weeds of immediate user experiences issues. By enlisting them to think about the bigger picture that affects the future viability of your product, you can increase their level of ownership and effectiveness.

We hope our collected thoughts get you thinking about what lies ahead over the next year. As always, we’d love to hear from you regarding challenges that your team is facing. Here’s to a great 2020!

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    Trevor Minton

    As CXO at Openfield, Trevor collaborates closely with our clients and ensures that our team delivers world-class design thinking and execution that results in strong emotional connections between users and digital products. He is passionately enthusiastic about music, local and international soccer, automotive design and racing, and getting under the hood of his old but new-to-him BMW to keep it on the road for another couple of decades.

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