ARTICLE: Sarah Freitag

Building powerful EdTech tools starts with understanding students & instructors

What we’ve learned about students and instructors throughout years of user research and testing in higher education.

When we helped Macmillan Learning evolve its classroom polling hardware into the award-winning iClicker Education app, we built in a small feature to reward users. When they create an account, students see a splash of confetti float across the screen.

It’s a seemingly throw-away element. But it works. And when we spoke with instructors after launch, they told us they wanted confetti, too.

Confetti is fun. But it has a serious purpose: To offer a moment of delight in an academic environment of tests, attendance, and administrative tasks that don’t often allow for delight. Prompting those moments requires that you deeply understand what’s going on in the minds of your users.

Why User Experience Matters in EdTech

Remember that you’re creating products for two audiences with distinct but overlapping needs. Instructors select the tools for their classrooms, so tech companies often develop products with them in mind. But for every one instructor there may be 600 student users, and if something goes wrong with the app, instructors get 600 emails about the problem.

It’s also important to note the context in which these tools are used. Giving and taking quizzes, assigning and checking homework — these tasks are foundational to education, of course. But nobody enters the teaching profession because they love to grade papers and give quizzes (safe to say that students don’t love them, either). EdTech tools exist to facilitate administrative work so instructors can focus on teaching and students on learning. They should fit into users’ lives, not require them to modify their routines. Anything that makes them go out of their way is a stumbling block.

But beyond functionality, great UX makes a digital education tool sticky, cementing it in the habits of both students and instructors. And it depends on your knowledge of your audience.

For every one instructor there may be 600 student users, and if something goes wrong with the app, instructors get 600 emails about the problem.

Understand Basic User Needs to Create a Great UX

Students and instructors have the same basic needs as everyone else, but through our specialization in EdTech, we understand how they manifest in unique ways. We look to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a way to frame the audience when we’re developing an app for the education market.

Self-Actualization: Achieving One’s Full Potential

Students are working toward future career goals. Education is a means to an end that’s further subdivided into short-term goals like earning a grade, moving to the next semester, and earning credits toward graduation. Their lives are a series of mini milestones.

Instructors are likewise working toward higher professional goals, such as promotion or tenure, that rely on their classroom performance. On a personal level, they feel accomplished when they see students’ faces light up. Student wins are their wins.

As we build products for the classroom, we work to incorporate ways to recognize students for making progress through a series of steps. When students feel good about their progress, instructors do, too.

Self-Esteem: Prestige and Feeling of Accomplishment

As they pursue their college education, students are in the process of creating their own “brands,” determining who they’ll be in the future. They crave recognition and reward; incentives encourage them to do the work and achieve their goals. The confetti feature in the iClicker Education app is a great example: a minor feature that proved incredibly successful because it celebrates student accomplishments.

Instructors are concerned with building student confidence through their teaching methods. Their personal integrity — with students and peers — is tied to their knowledge and the way they transfer it. So they need classroom aids that work seamlessly, as expected, every time. When things go wrong, they worry about looking foolish, even if the problem is not their fault.

Social Belonging: Interpersonal Relationships

Students thrive when they’re successful socially as well as academically. In fact, social engagement on campus is a predictor of whether students are at risk of dropping out. Their instructors recognize the powerful connection between their social and academic lives and request group work features on their behalf because they feel that opportunities for students to guide and learn from each other benefits everyone.

Instructors rely on relationships with other instructors and with students to validate whether or not they’re successful educators. Because they’re busy with multiple classes and hundreds of students to manage, they turn to their peers for guidance when evaluating textbooks, course outlines, and classroom tools. We often hear instructors say they make choices because other teachers recommended them. That’s especially true at the start of their careers; as they gain experience, they start to develop their own material and trust their instincts. Feedback from students helps them know they’re getting it right.

We know that digital products that make it easier for students to engage with each other and with their teachers provide richer user experiences and contribute to feelings of belonging. And tools that enable a feedback loop for instructors help them build confidence in their abilities.

Safety: Physical and Emotional

Safety on campus doesn’t just refer to freedom from physical danger. To achieve academically, students need to feel safe using learning tools to explore ideas and refine their thinking on their own. Trying and failing is part of the learning process.

Instructors need to feel secure in their jobs. They need to feel safe and confident when presenting to their students, and they’re conscious of creating an environment that’s fair to all students.

That means that EdTech products must be predictable, comfortable, and confidence-inspiring. They need to flat-out work. And they need to fit seamlessly into the academic environment. This is why product releases and upgrades are timed for the start of the fall semester; midyear updates are incredibly disruptive.

Physiological: The Universal Drive for Survival

Time is a major driver in the academic environment. Students have a fixed window of time to study and graduate; instructors struggle to manage teaching and related obligations.

Tools should maximize time rather than consume it. Every added feature should be built for speed. A physiological need also reflects accessibility for differently-abled instructors and students; tools must be adaptive to all users.

When we work with clients in the education space to develop functional, beautiful, delightful products for instructors and students, those users and their most essential human needs are constant touchpoints. Users demand exceptional experiences. We can help you deliver them.

Cue confetti.


  • Photo of Sarah Freitag
    Sarah Freitag

    As Director of UX Research, Sarah draws on her deep understanding of EdTech users and her background in research, design and business strategy to enable our clients to make confident decisions that result in products that solve real needs and create demonstrable impacts on their business’ bottom lines. Like her design-side counterpart at Openfield, Sarah is responsible for fostering collaboration, team development and for bringing new strategic initiatives and methodologies that allow our company to stay ahead of the curve of what EdTech users truly need to realize higher levels of learning and teaching success. Sarah is an avid reader and an adventurous explorer. Highlights from her favorite travels include Morocco, Peru, Italy, Denmark and France. With the recent pandemic-induced reduction in travel, she makes it a point to fulfill her wanderlust with another one of her passions, cooking and baking, by experimenting with recipes inspired by cultures around the world.

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