ARTICLE: Trevor Minton

Borrow cues from search, retail, gaming to improve UX in EdTech products

From administrative tasks like taking attendance and grading quizzes to features that enable students to learn and succeed, EdTech products have become more and more powerful. But that power can make these tools more complicated for users.

That complexity stems from a variety of sources. Every new function means users have to learn to use the tool differently. In large EdTech companies, products may be developed by different teams, which means products from the same family may not offer identical user experiences. In the continuous cycle of updates and releases, usability may atrophy over time.

What’s more, a whole suite of products — and often from different providers — might come together in the classroom. Apps to manage grade books, attendance and assignment materials, each with their own robust functionality, plug into a learning management system (LMS). Complexity layered upon complexity raises greater barriers to entry and adoption.

Making EdTech Tools More User Friendly

Complexity in itself isn’t necessarily bad. But EdTech tools must become easier and more enjoyable to use as their power and functionality increases. Here are four ways to make products more user-friendly as they become more complicated:

Center on user needs.

Up-front, evidence-based understanding will be increasingly important as your EdTech product adds features and functions. Observational research, either interviews or tests with the real or simulated product, will let you explore what people need and how they use the tool. You’ll also discover any points of friction that users have learned to either live with or to work around.

UX research is valuable not just at the start of a new product, but after it’s been introduced. In EdTech, releases are timed to new semesters, when teachers and students are at their busiest. Complex updates can create confusion and trigger negative feedback and a rush of calls to customer service. UX research professionals can help you quickly identify the problems and prioritize which to address first.

Create a seamless experience across products.

When users open two related tools from the same EdTech company, they naturally expect them to look, feel and work the same. As you add products and features to your portfolio, they should offer the same friendly user experience across the board. A Design System can help different development teams ensure that tools feel familiar to students and instructors, no matter which tool or version they open.

Many EdTech products rely on other EdTech products to achieve their full potential, introducing additional risk for user confusion or abandonment. Complicated and buggy integrations with LMS are a top offender. The poor usability of one product — that you may have no control over — can adversely affect users’ perception of your product. Your product may offer a true benefit that is proven to be intuitive and productive, but if it relies on integration with other platforms, such as an LMS, you can’t ignore how it interacts with the other product. It’s increasingly essential that your product provides guidance on how to use other products.

Help users navigate the tool.

For users of EdTech tools, sometime we find out that the hardest part is the initial setup. Instructors bear the brunt of a tool’s complexity, and they may or may not be digital natives. Setting up a product at the start of every semester is like filing taxes: It’s hard but we muddle through it. But one reason why filing taxes is so hard is that we only do it once a year. We forget some of the nuances and tricks from year to year, and the process changes every time we do it.

When a professor begins a task that she last tackled four to six months ago — such as importing a class roster into her digital gradebook — she may have forgotten how to do it because it’s been a while and the product may have been updated multiple times in the meantime. So the process of learning the tool must be tightly integrated with the actual use of the tool itself. Effective onboarding and self-service help features can guide the instructor through her gradebook task, much as TurboTax helps consumers walk step-by-step through the process of filing taxes.

Leverage users’ mental models to create familiarity.

In our everyday digital experiences — shopping online, engaging in social media, playing games, streaming video and using digital to-do lists — we’ve become comfortable with how those platforms work. Those experiences create mental models: We expect all e-commerce sites to function pretty much the same way, all desktop calendars to work in a similar fashion.

EdTech companies should align their products with these common mental models, borrowing from other platforms to integrate experiences that users recognize from elsewhere in their digital lives. This familiarity goes a long way to make your product feel intuitive because it mirrors the ways people use other tools. Consider these mental models to minimize your product’s complexity:

  • Online shopping — many EdTech tools allow instructors to create courses by choosing materials from a library. The workflow of searching or browsing items by category, filtering selections, choosing, and collecting borrows heavily from the retail experience.
  • Gaming — developers can look to online games for ways to guide users to complete tasks and “level up.” Gaming also offers models for creating joy and addictiveness in tech products.
  • Online storage — tools like DropBox and Google Drive enable the organization and sharing of tons of line-item content. EdTech products can mirror this familiar way of visually identifying different types of content and organizing it in a nested hierarchy.
  • Null states — consider how search engines and websites build in fun and user confidence with empty fields or zero search results pages. EdTech tools can reassure users with thoughtful messages like, “Don’t worry, you didn’t break it.”

A note of caution, though: You can’t apply models from other aspects of tech without understanding how people use your product. Your team might assume that instructors use a class roster feature the same way they use a smartphone’s Contacts app; user research might tell you otherwise. Keep in mind that many legacy processes in higher ed are analog: Pen and paper have been part of students’ and instructors’ lives forever. If scribbling in a gradebook with a pen is easier than performing the task digitally, then what’s the tool for?

EdTech products promise instructors, students, and administrators powerful actions, results, and insights. Delivering on this expectation means identifying, addressing, and planning for inherently complex processes and interactions throughout the UX process, from product roadmaps to design validation. Complexity must be allowed to exist where necessary, but it must be managed with design plans that leverage familiarity, joy, and integrated teaching and learning with the usability of the product itself.

  • Photo of Trevor Minton
    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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