All Posts in Digital Strategy

January 14, 2020 - No Comments!

How to Incorporate SEL into any edTech Product

Over the past decade, the education world has embraced the idea that respect, social awareness, and relationship skills are integral to a student's success in school.

These qualities are fundamental to a student's social-emotional learning, or SEL. After all, data shows that when a student doesn't have to worry about bullying or knows how to manage the pressure of taking a final exam, their ability to learn and retain new information improves.

edTech has zeroed in on this trend, too. There are now a slew of digital products that offer SEL teaching strategies and improve students' SEL. But if we want to be truly inclusive edTech designers, we can incorporate SEL features into any product—not just ones that are designed specifically to teach social-emotional skills.

This forward-thinking, equitable approach to product design bolsters student engagement, creates more effective learning tools, and addresses customer pain points in a more seamless way.

SEL Design Strategies: How SEL Concepts Map onto Product Features

According to The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, social-emotional learning can be defined by how a student develops the following attributes:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • And responsible decision-making

Teachers incorporate classroom activities that promote student growth in these areas all the time, from peer feedback activities to group projects to reflection prompts. Crucially, curricular activities designed to bolster SEL aren't just taught in isolation. SEL strategies are often incorporated into lessons on any subject, from math to reading to life sciences.

EdTech can draw on this framework, too. By using product features that promote collaboration, community-building, and creative problem-solving, we transform an edTech tool dedicated to subject-area content into a more comprehensive learning opportunity.

SEL techniques deliver more robust outcomes from any edTech application, as well as higher engagement from students. But digital tools with SEL features do more than help students tackle and retain new concepts. These features promote growth through process skills, communication, and collaboration.

For example, if you're designing a math or physics learning tool, consider incorporating ways for students to visualize, model, or sort data. By giving students multiple ways to analyze and solve a problem, you allow them to apply lesson content in broader contexts. They might even arrive at more unexpected—and brilliant—solutions.

In addition to promoting process skills, products with SEL features have the ability to address how users feel about difficult subjects like math and reading. When we research, design, and test with SEL strategies in mind, our products become more understanding of students' needs—and more useful to the teachers and students we serve.

Uncovering the Right SEL Features Through User Testing

It's an edTech designer's job to understand the emotional mindset of their user, a process often clarified by user testing and research. When you conduct initial research on users, you learn crucial information about their pain points as they try to accomplish tasks within your software.

This stage of the design process also offers opportunities to research and test the SEL components of your digital learning product. How do your users feel about math or reading in general? What's their preferred learning style? Can you uncover the way students think about math concepts? How might they communicate those concepts to someone like an instructor or a peer?

By researching the emotional mindset of your users during product testing, you can more effectively pinpoint what motivates students to learn. You'll gain insights into a student's emotional stumbling blocks around a subject. You'll also learn more about how students communicate with one another and with their instructors.

These interactions are also valuable to capture in testing environments because they help UX teams understand the complex mechanics behind collaborative group projects. Your UX team will be better positioned to design reflective or multi-step workflows that facilitate group learning in a digital format.

The more you learn about emotional mindsets and group dynamics during the testing process, the easier it will be to incorporate meaningful SEL features into your product. No matter what subject area your product happens to be in, SEL features immediately add value to students and instructors alike.

Learning tools that provide SEL strategies for students build engagement, efficacy, and delight in learning. They also give teachers a better understanding of how their students explain complex ideas and process complicated tasks.

Wondering how to translate SEL concepts into effective product features that students and teachers will love? We've got you covered.

January 6, 2020 - No Comments!

What’s Next in edTech: 4 Trends You Need to Know

When we talk about the "future" of edTech, we sometimes risk leaving teachers and their students out of the equation entirely. No wonder edTech is beleaguered by accusations of wanting to "replace" teachers in the classroom!

At Backpack, we believe the best classroom technology amplifies a teacher's ability to help their students learn. Sometimes that means leveraging powerful machine learning capabilities. But, more often, it means developing an even deeper understanding of what teachers do and what kinds of tools will help them teach even more effectively.

In order to design better tools, edTech can springboard off the cutting-edge thinking that's already happening in classrooms all around the country. So forget machine learning and artificial intelligence—at least for now. They might once have felt like the future of edTech, but that future is already here.

Instead, we think edTech products that master these four pedagogically-driven trends will be ahead of the curve.

  1. Assessing social-emotional learning in any subject area
    Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a twenty-first century skill integral to how teachers approach learning today. Teachers and administrators alike are considering how to assess process skills, as well as qualities like collaboration, tolerance, and empathy. How do you encourage students to be more accepting of others and celebrate differences? How do you encourage them to recognize their own emotional states and communicate with others effectively about them? As teachers and administrators embrace process skills and SEL components across the curriculum, edTech needs to anticipate how to address SEL in any type of learning product. Even if students are using your product to improve their math or reading skills, for example, it's important that students also think about process skills and how to communicate concepts to others. How will students use your product to express a new concept? How will it help them explain their thinking to a teacher or another student? How can you encourage communication through visual design in your next edTech product? After all, this type of process communication doesn't just help build subject mastery. It requires empathy, which is at the heart of SEL.

    Products that incorporate SEL design features give teachers more powerful tools, too. When teachers evaluate SEL skills along with subject-area content, their feedback becomes even more detailed and meaningful for students. With a window into process skills, teachers are better able to understand how students think. They follow a student's process to the "right" or "wrong" answer. Verbal assessment then becomes all about soft skills, including how a student communicates, rather than evaluating test scores.

    Attentiveness to SEL also makes edTech feel more human and produces more nuanced responses from software. Even when incorporating machine learning or AI, you'll open up opportunities to create activities that feel responsive to students in a more human way.


  2. Centering learner agency through design
    The more students understand their role in the learning process, the more engaged, inquisitive, and curious they become. We want students to internalize that learning is not just something that happens with a textbook in a classroom—it happens all the time, and it depends on their personal goals. You can encourage learner agency in edTech product design through student data dashboards, feedback systems, and personal goal-setting systems. By encouraging students to set goals or choose projects that are meaningful to their development, you have the opportunity to give students even more agency over their education. Even young students have the ability to set learning goals when prompted.

    This type of learner agency makes students feel more invested in their education, more delighted by the learning process, and more engaged with the helpful tools you've designed.


  3. Embracing decentralized learning
    edTech products can be used outside of the traditional classroom as an extension of teacher instruction or as a way to reach learners in remote areas. Learning products have the potential to make decentralized learning even easier and more powerful for users who want to work at their own pace. Even project-based learning can be accomplished through shared comments as users have time to complete tasks. This can give learners an edge as they complete tasks on their own time or during their most productive times of day.

    edTech products that facilitate decentralized learning are especially powerful tools for students living in rural areas. Remote school districts are increasingly looking for solutions to reach these students, too. Students who experience challenges getting to school need new ways to connect with their teachers and classmates, and edTech tools provide one such solution.


  4. Re-imagining workforce training and adult learning
    It's easy to think of edTech as an industry that only provides solutions for K-12 learners, but edTech serves teachers and learners in higher education, corporate training, and adult education, too. Adults approach learning very differently from K-12 students, and the edTech industry is still developing a deeper understanding of what motivates adult learners. For instance, adults are more likely to be independent learners. They might not even need a traditional "teacher" to learn new information or skills. Especially in professional settings, adult learners make conscious choices to study a specific subject or skill. Unlike K-12 learners, they're already motivated to study or complete a course module. They want to be sure that the product will help them achieve their intended goal.

    From a product design standpoint, this mindset often shifts adults into more of a consumer role than K-12 learners. Depending on your product research, you might consider building value explanation into tasks or product features, so adult learners understand exactly what they'll get out of engaging with your product.


Whether your next edTech product helps students choose their own learning goals or targets young professionals in their career development, integrate these forward-thinking edTech trends to provide even more value to your customers.

December 19, 2019 - No Comments!

7 Best Practices for Testing Digital Products in Schools

User testing is exciting. You finally get to see your edTech product at work as 25 little people in a classroom begin pushing all the buttons on your product at once.

Testing digital products in schools also presents a number of challenges for product designers.

For example, there might not be enough time in your schedule—or enough wiggle room in your budget—to make substantive changes.

Or the questions developed by your UX team might gently color a user's experience of your product, giving you inaccurate data about how new users engage with each feature.

Set your team up for success by thinking through user testing in schools from the very beginning of the process. Here's how we design user testing to get to the heart of your users in their every-day environment.

User Testing in Schools: Getting to the Heart of Your Users in their Environment

  1. Develop the right mindset. You've already tested your prototypes. You've iterated your product along the way. You've even road-tested it with users. By the time you're ready to test in schools, you might think there are no surprises left. But that's where your mindset can shift. The point of user testing is to discover the many unexpected ways users will interact with your product. It's important to remain open-minded to the possibility of change, even late in the game. After all, small changes in your UX can create a much better experience for your users.

  2. Build design changes into your schedule and budget. To get the most value out of testing, incorporate design changes into your schedule and budget. Be clear with your team about the differences between cosmetic changes that won't impact a product's success and changes that will make a lasting, positive impact on your user's experience. Use all the feedback you receive from testing to improve your product's UX in substantive ways.

  3. Choose a true sample of users.Testing reveals how the average user learns to engage with your product in real time. For the data to be most effective, strike a balance between testing internal and external users. Internal users will give you important insights into how the product should work in an ideal world. External users, especially those who aren't tech savvy, reveal what might be confusing or unexpected about your product.

  4. Identify specific microflows that are essential to the product. At this point, it's probably been awhile since you thought about how students and teachers log in to your product. Or how teachers create a new class. Or how students engage with their peers on your platform. Think through the microflows that are most meaningful in each user journey and focus your attention there during testing. What did students have difficulty doing? What features confused or excited them?

  5. Concentrate on functionality. Help your users focus on functionality by incorporating clickable wireframes and other prototyping into your testing process. Wireframes eliminate any potential distractions created by visual design and allow users to really think about how a product works. Screensharing and heatmapping tools also help you see where users are directing their mouse. Are they wandering around on screen? Skipping over the login button because they expect it to be located in a different corner of their monitor? Be open to changing visual designs based on what you see after testing functionality first.

  6. Design open-ended questions. If you "lead the witness" in user testing, you're not going to get a real answer about your product. Open-ended questions allow you to dig into responses and discover whether users are getting what they should out of your product.

  7. Understand — and prepare for — the school environment. It's good practice for both product owners and the UX team to be in the room when users test products. This is especially true in school environments, which might have outdated hardware or bad internet connections. These hurdles are easy to forget in the comforts of your own office. The technology available in schools will also affect your testing outcomes. Make your product as lightweight as possible and scale it for the ChromeBook, which is commonly used in schools. Observe how the school environment impacts the ways your users interact with the product. Were there any unexpected stumbling blocks that might impact your UX or UI?

Done right, user testing reveals how your product will help students learn a new concept or guide teachers to create detailed reports about their classrooms. This crucial process also reveals where you can still improve the UX and UI in meaningful ways for your users.

Time and again, we've seen how a thoughtful, data-driven user testing process affects final product design in surprising ways. With these best practices in place, you'll be ready to tackle user testing for any edTech product and give your users exactly what they need.

September 3, 2019 - No Comments!

The Power of Simplicity: Making Learning Design for Everyone

From the sleek, pared-back sensibilities of Apple products to the broad appeal of human-centered design, there's power in designing digital products with elegance and simplicity. But embracing the goal of simplicity during the product planning process doesn't mean a product can't be complex, interesting, or enriching to use, too. Deeply elegant design solutions can also delight.

When it comes to building edTech products, it can be challenging to design a complex product with an elegant interface. You want to put your stamp on a product before it hits the market. You also want to give your customers a new and innovative tool that solves their problems in the classroom. The drive for complexity at this stage can encourage product teams to add layers of added instruction or content — when a simple interface often leads to a better experience for the user.

Great design is for everyone, and that rings especially true for teachers and students using edTech tools in the classroom.

Here's why you should embrace the goal of simplicity throughout your next project — and a roadmap for how to create a successful, transformative learning product built around the goal of simplicity:

The Value of Simplicity in edTech

As designers and developers know well, there's nothing "simple" about simplicity. In product design, "simplicity" comes from a deeper understanding of a product's larger goal. Even if you and your team already know what kind of edTech product you want to build, taking the time to refine the purpose of your product makes all the difference in the design and user experience.

For example, distilling the goal or purpose of your product will make it easier for you and your team to navigate the murky waters of determining a product's features. It's notoriously easy for UX and UI teams to get caught up in overly complex design by adding features. With a refined purpose in mind, however, you'll be able to cut, edit, and consolidate features, even as you tackle new and more sophisticated ways of designing how your product does what it's supposed to do.

By refining a solution through the lens of the product's larger purpose, design teams and UX developers can build a sleek, easy-to-use interface that teachers love to use and students are eager to engage with. Even if a product performs a complex action — like sorting student data or helping a student practice their reading skills — the design itself should be simple and accessible.

Simplicity is especially important in edTech products because it naturally makes design solutions more universal. Complexity and overwrought style often result in awkward design solutions or solutions that narrow your audience.

This poses a real problem for edTech consumers, in particular. Teachers may have little time to engage with a complex dashboard that's difficult to learn, for example. Because edTech products come into contact with users who have a wide range of abilities, they also need to meet benchmarks for inclusivity. One of the best ways to think about inclusivity in edTech design is through the lens of simplicity.

What Does Simplicity in edTech Look Like?

In edTech, we often have complex stories to tell and experiences to facilitate. Many edTech products — like reading tools for young learners or assessment tools for teachers and administrators — are robust systems that perform complex tasks.

Complexity is not the enemy of simplicity. We value presenting rich topic areas to students and giving teachers powerful tools for exploring and comparing student data. However, our goal is always to present this information in a way that feels simple and intuitive to the user, no matter how challenging the product was to build.

It's easy to design products that go too far in the opposite direction, too. Oversimplification can result in incomplete or boring experiences for students and leave teachers with tools that don't have the depth to achieve their goals.

So what does simplicity in edTech actually look like? Here's a quick guide:

  • Limited user options. Think hard about what goals a user wants to achieve, so you can decide which features a user needs to see; which features can be made available but remain 'closed;' and which features you can combine or eliminate.
  • Common design and interaction patterns. Simplicity is predictable. When you use common UI patterns, the user can guess how features function before they interact with them. This frees up their conscious mind to make more formal decisions or learn a new concept. This could be as simple as designing controls that look like toggle switches to allow a user to turn a feature on or off, for example, or using a magnifying glass icon to indicate the "search" function.
  • Clear benefits. Complicated products tend to confuse the user about the benefits of interacting with a product, or they make it difficult to determine what the goal of interaction should be. Make it easy for users to understand why they might want to tackle learning new consonant or vowel sounds. Help teachers understand how they can use the assessment data they're collecting to make actionable student learning plans.
  • Less interface. Think about the learning experience itself. Rather than present a video describing a physics principle followed by a series of multiple choice questions, for example, create an interactive model of an experiment that allows learners to "play" until they get it right. Find ways in your product design to embrace experiential learning or other pedagogically sound teaching methods.
  • Fewer instructions. When you bog a user down with instructions, they can get confused, frustrated, or scared off. The interface itself should encourage interaction. This includes letting users know how much more time it might take to complete a step in a longer process.

When you use these principles in edTech product design, the result is a learning or educational tool that's simple but robust, user-friendly, and accessible to many different kinds of users.

Case Study: How Simple Design Widened the Audience for Scholastic's Literacy Pro App

Literacy Pro is an independent reading app we created for Scholastic. Upon launching the app, learners gain immediate access to books through an eReader and can begin reading after just one click. We made this exciting — and easy to do — by including a single, dimensional object on the first screen: a book cover that invites students to click. It required a lot of iterations to arrive at this direct interaction, but our testing showed that this pattern was so simple that students didn't have to think about it.

Literacy Pro's purpose was to "develop a love of reading"not to launch an eReader or to provide reading reports for teachers. It certainly does both of these things, but they are in service of the larger core purpose of the product. Keeping this purpose in mind helped us make tough decisions when it came time to set priorities or cut features.

By starting this project with a simple statement of purpose (and not the product's features or business requirements), we focused our work through the lens of simplicity to achieve the stated goal of the product.

The simplicity and elegance of our design led to students using Literacy Pro intuitively and well. In terms of visual design, Literacy Pro has a spare interface and a limited color palette. A system of visual icons allows users who are new to reading, or who may have reading impairments, to search for books by category. By eliminating instructions for how the search function works, the search interaction is as direct and simple as possible for the user.

While the design is simple, it's still colorful and has a personality. It's not sterile or boring. Even though the target grade level for the product was K-3, our testing showed that it appealed to students up to 6th grade. Simplicity, when done well, broadens the appeal of design and opens up your potential audience.

Simplicity & Accessibility Go Hand in Hand

Simplicity in design results in greater accessibility, and accessibility should be our goal, especially in an industry like edTech.

While there are specific standards for designing accessible products, solutions that are less cluttered, more direct, and more intuitive will be easier for people with visual impairments, dyslexia, and alternative learning styles to use.

You can apply our approach to accessible design to your work. It's all about the lens of simplicity:

  • Limited user options. Put fewer barriers between users and the rich educational content of an educational tool. Fewer options lessens the cognitive load required of a user and makes it easier for them to understand what to do. This also makes the interface easier for users with different learning abilities or visual impairments.
  • Bold, visual communication. Rather than depending on text-heavy instructions or complicated interfaces, think about how to present choices and information more visually, possibly through simple infographics or clear illustrations. This helps users with dyslexia and color blindness, or those who are visually impaired but not blind, take a visual shortcut to understanding a concept or what they should do next.
  • Fewer instructions. Few or no instructions means that an instructional product can transcend language, encouraging a wide range of users to engage intuitively with your product. This is particularly important when designing for early or pre-readers.

Designing with accessibility in mind is especially crucial for edTech UX and UI teams. Your products will wind up in the hands of many different kinds of users, including learners with different abilities. Simplicity is an added lens you can use to design elegant, accessible solutions that make your learning products tools everyone can use.

Case Study: Learning Ally's LINK App Shows Accessible Design At Its Best

The non-profit organization Learning Ally is the world’s largest provider of audio textbooks and literature. Their desktop and mobile app, called LINK, is an audiobook reader designed for students with dyslexia, as well as students who have learning disabilities or visual impairments.

Because Learning Ally's audiences often approach reading with fear or worry, the interface for their audiobook reader needed to be as simple and friendly as it is powerful. In addition to adhering to ADA best practices around color contrast and font sizes, we followed a philosophy of simplicity when creating the UX and UI design. As you can see, the color palette for this product is intentionally limited. Using fewer colors in more deliberate ways creates a simple experience for the user.

Text on every button is accompanied by an icon, and buttons are large, flat, and unadorned. This allows for a visual reinforcement of each button's purpose that doesn't require reading. We also eliminated additional instructions and how-to information, or, if necessary, we made it available only by clicking.

By leveraging existing interactive patterns, the UX for Learning Ally is also immediately familiar to users. Recognizable patterns make it easier for students to learn how the product works. Ultimately, familiar UX patterns are essential to any product design accessibility strategy.

Because of Learning Ally's attentiveness to the standards of accessible design, as well as our own benchmarks for simplicity and elegance, its UX has received multiple industry design awards. In 2018, Learning Ally was recognized in accessibility categories by Parent and Teacher Choice Awards, the SIIA CODiE Awards, and EdTech Digest’s Cool Tool Awards for its innovative, creative, and pedagogically sound approaches to reading.

Highly-accessible products for users with learning disabilities often present UX and UI teams with unique design challenges. By following ADA guidelines around accessibility, focusing on simple design, and leveraging familiar UX patterns, your team can create successful products that meet the needs of students who have a range of abilities.

While there's inherent value in designing edTech products for elegance and simplicity, the tangible benefits for your users make simplicity in design a win-win. Whether you're looking for ways to design a more satisfying learning experience for students or make your product design more accessible to users of different abilities, simplicity is key.