Digital technology is revolutionising the ways we learn and teach. And, we’re not just seeing the impact of this in our classrooms and lecture theatres. Whilst ed-tech often dominates discussions around the disruptive potential of digital to help us to learn in more immersive and integrated ways, the reality is digital products that combine first-rate design and content will naturally boost user-end literacy. At ustwo, we’ve found that a teaching component is required across almost all products – irrelevant of what sector we’re working with.
It’s a need that spans industries. The likes of Alfa Laval, UPS and Walmart are using Virtual Reality to train staff. Business-to-Customer apps are cutting out third-party negotiators and brokers and are empowering users by educating them as well as providing a service. Start-up On-Demand Educational Marketplace (ODEM) are even using blockchain technology to democratise learning and actively move educational authority away from the preview of large institutions like universities.
Because our mission is to create products that have a meaningful impact on the world, including through building user understanding, here are 5 things we’ve learned, working across different sectors from ed-tech to auto to health, about helping users learn.
LEARN BY DOING
Products that teach need to be able to distill complex information into a comprehensible, memorable and, perhaps most importantly, engaging way. One of the most engaging ways to learn is by doing something yourself or discovering an answer through trial and error. This is an approach you see in many experimental play educational apps for children, such as Tocca Boca.
In our own work on a new science education product, we saw how in order to help the users discover where they are going wrong on their own, it can be important to introduce levels of friction that might not be appropriate in other interactions. In a functional app, like an on-demand taxi service, a seamless UX is the number one priority – and when something goes wrong, the user needs to be able to reset at the click of a button or be quickly prompted about how best to correct that mistake.
However, in the example of a science experiment where the goal is to learn why certain chemicals, mixed in precise volumes, react the way they do – being able to undo a mistake too simply undermines the purpose. For example, after overfilling a beaker the error state could prompt you to reset the entire experiment or simply not allow them to continue until the error is resolved. Each of these options allows the user to self-correct and work out what went wrong, learning in the process.
DON’T JUST DIGITISE CONTENT
When it comes to creating digital learning experiences, digitising resources is only one piece of the puzzle. To really play to digital strengths and encourage adoption, you need to look beyond simply transcribing reams of instructional copy onto your website and create new value and a better experience for your users.
In the case of a project where we were looking at the future of digital learning materials, we learned that academic publishers are being pushed to adapt by students themselves. The students we spoke to were digital natives, used to consuming bite-sized content in a variety of forms. Many of the teachers who we invited to user-testing were already responding to this by creating curriculums that hacked together diverse resources rather than relying on a single textbook. There was a clear opportunity for a digital platform that helps teachers assign content in a modular, multi-modal way.
The product team drew on Spotify as a helpful analogy to demonstrate this approach. Spotify organise their content in many different ways: tracks, albums, playlists, radio stations. Each of these meet a different use case. Tracks suit someone who knows exactly what they are looking for. Radio stations are for exploring and discovering. Playlists are slightly more focused, providing the listener with a variation on a theme. By adopting this approach to curriculums, each course could become a playlist of different content – videos, book chapters, academic papers and short exercises.
USE PLAIN ENGLISH
One thing that consistently sets startups apart from the industry heavyweights they are disrupting is their ability to speak to the user on their terms, in the language they actually use.
By cutting through jargon and legalese, dense informative becomes accessible rather than something the user is confused by or ignores. Good, clear language also makes an interface easier to understand not only for those with good language skills, but also for those who might have learning disabilities, or for non-native speakers.
This is something we grappled with whilst building Ford GoPark. Deciphering street signage was a big cause of anxiety for drivers we tested with and was something that directly increased the chance of being fined for an illegally parked car. So we set about building a parking app that not only helps users find a space more quickly but also demystifies the rules and regulations at a glance.
BAKE IT IN
Teaching isn’t always a digital experience’s primary function, but users often need ancillary information to support how they go about using the product.
This became immediately obvious whilst we were working with Co-op to create Shifts, a scheduling app for employees in their grocery stores. From the earliest stages of the project we to built-in chat capabilities so we could get direct and immediate feedback from the users. One thing that was flagged time and again was employees requesting more information about their actual holiday and break entitlements. So we included this information within the app. More testing demonstrated its value, with most people viewing the page between 1-3 times.
Baking easy to understand, instructional information into the product often goes beyond its actual mechanic, in this example planning your shifts and availability, but is invaluable in encouraging engagement and empowering users.
FOCUS ON OUTCOMES
When it comes to the visual design of digital learning experiences, there is often too much focus on painstakingly simulating real-life environments. This visual accuracy is often unnecessary and distracting for the user. Instead, we should be prioritising the learning outcomes – what are we actually trying to teach the user with this interaction or information?
In fact, a level of visual and environmental abstraction can help focus the users on the learning goals rather than being distracted by unnecessary details. During our testing for the science experiment app, teachers and students reported a sense of unease when digital environment tried too closely to mirror the arbitrary details of labs. Instead, they favoured a minimal interface with high-fidelity equipment so that they could focus on the experiment at hand.
Good design research and UX helps users learn how to use the product, guiding them through every step, and we’ve found it can do the same when it comes to helping people digest new content and information. In almost every project we take on, we grapple with ways to increase user understanding.
Are you looking to for ways better engage and teach your users? We’d love to hear more – contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.