ARTICLE: Yanni Xiang

Your user base includes 1M+ non-native English students. Is your EdTech product ready to serve ESL learners well?

Your EdTech product serves an international, multilingual, and multicultural audience. That’s true even if your product is only ever used in schools and colleges within the United States.

You see, whether your product is geared toward K-12 or higher education, the demographic trends are the same: Schools are increasingly composed of students who speak English as a second language (ESL). According to the Open Doors 2020 Report on International Educational Exchange, over a million non-native English speakers enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2019-2020 alone. This represents 5.5% of the overall EdTech user base in higher ed. 

While non-native English speakers typically enroll in all the same classes as their native English-speaking peers, their needs are slightly different when it comes to EdTech products like yours. Products that are especially text-heavy and unintuitive can be even more challenging and frustrating for non-native English speakers to navigate.  

I know because I was one. 

When I first came to the United States from China to attend college, I had to use a particular EdTech product to manage my coursework. I can remember how difficult it was to navigate a product that wasn’t written in my language and that clearly wasn’t designed with users like me in mind. I frequently had to go to instructors and other students to ask for help as I tried to navigate it, and I often worried I was bothering others. 

Now that I work as an EdTech UX Designer, I know that it didn’t have to be that way. My frustrating user experience was a totally preventable problem. 

With the right UX research and design practices, you can optimize your product for non-native English users — and elevate the experience for all users in the process. Here’s how. 

5 Tips To Dramatically Improve Your EdTech Product’s User Experience For Non-Native English-Speaking Users 

Creating a more user-friendly experience for non-native English-speaking users isn’t all that difficult. You really just need to pause and think about how this growing group will interact with your EdTech product. The following list of five UX design best practices should get you started in the right direction. 

Consider readability 

Non-native English students have two goals in any class: The first is to understand the course material, the same as any student. And the second is to understand the language in which the content is being taught.

The same set of goals applies to your EdTech product. Your non-native English users must learn to master your product. But in order to do that they must also get past the language barrier that may be part of your user experience.

In that context, the words you choose matter to your non-native English-speaking users. The more complicated or difficult your copy, the harder they will need to work to simply use your product as intended. 

Make things easier for non-native English users by crafting clear, concise microcopy. In addition, plan to run all your copy through a reading level checker and make sure you don’t exceed a sixth- or eighth-grade reading level.

Use clean, simple fonts 

How you style your product’s copy is just as important as what you say. Most non-native English students learn to read English from texts that use clean, simple fonts. So it makes sense that similarly clean, simple fonts are the easiest for these users to read.

Fancy fonts (especially scripted ones) are much more difficult. After all, the letter shapes in these stylized fonts can vary widely compared with simpler fonts. Decoding those unusual letter shapes can seem like a secondary level of translation for non-native English speakers (particularly those for whom the Latin alphabet is also new). 

It’s an easy fix: Present your product’s copy in clean, simple fonts to promote easy reading and reduce stress among non-native English users. 

Be culturally sensitive 

In order to serve non-native English users well, you need to be aware of and sensitive to culturally specific references that may not make sense to this growing group of users.

For example, many American English idioms, common sayings, and figures of speech — such as “hit the books,” “ballpark figure,” “sit tight,” and “rule of thumb” — require more than a simple word-for-word translation to understand. You may be tempted to use expressions like these to make your product’s copy more friendly or lively. But beware: They also create a more frustrating user experience for non-native English users.

The same rule applies to images and graphics. While many symbols carry global significance, others are more culturally specific. Be especially careful about hand gestures (such as a thumbs up) in your iconography, as these may carry different meanings in different cultures.

Another example: In China, we use a check mark icon to indicate selections when filling out a form. But here in the United States, I’ve noticed that an “x” is sometimes used instead.  

Use visual as well as written cues

Another way to create a superior user experience for non-native English users? Don’t over-rely on written copy to provide instructions and move users through your product. The more you can use visuals and interactive elements to show your users what to do next, the better. 

Icons, illustrations, and even colors can all be used to convey meaning. For instance, green is almost universally used to signal “success” or forward motion, while red means “warning” or “alert.” When using informational icons, don’t forget to include a tooltip, or a brief written explanation of the icon’s meaning that appears as a hover state. 

A great place to apply these principles is in your onboarding experience. Rather than bombarding users with a wall of written instructions, think creatively about ways to visually show them how to interact with your product. A great way to do that is to visually isolate individual portions of the interface one step at a time and use simple animations to demonstrate different actions. 

Include non-native students in your user research

Perhaps most importantly, make sure to include non-native English speakers in your UX research user panels. They are the ones who can tell you exactly what they — and other users like them — need from your product. 

A Better User Experience For Non-Native English Speakers is a Better User Experience For Everyone

Designing your product in a way that supports non-native English speakers is really just another way of making your product accessible for everyone, including users with a range of physical or situational disabilities. 

While each individual group is sure to have unique needs — our advice for optimizing a product for, say, colorblind users would look different than what we’ve laid out here — the end result is the same: a better, more user-friendly product for everyone. And that’s a win you can’t afford to lose.

  • Photo of Yanni Xiang
    Yanni Xiang

    Yanni began her design journey on a much different path than most UX Designers. Initially enrolling in the Fine Arts program at the University of Cincinnati and then studying abroad at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, she returned to U.C. to earn a Bachelor’s of Science in Fashion Design with a Minor in Marketing. While working in the luxury fashion retail space, she began to feel it was a designer-centric industry that wasn’t truly meeting the needs of its clientele. For Yanni, UX Design was the antidote. After intensive study at General Assembly in Los Angeles, she launched a career in UX that ultimately led her to Openfield. Originally from Wuhan, China, Yanni has lived in Shanghai, London, Los Angeles and now Cincinnati. She has travelled extensively throughout her homeland of China, as well as, Japan, United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Greece (Santorini is her fav). Outside of work, she enjoys drawing and painting in a variety of media and hanging out with Lenny, the Sugar Glider she rescued, her Golden Retriever puppy, Ginger, and of course, her husband, Jackson.

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