March 3, 2020

Who Are We Making Our Products For? Designing across unique edTech personas.

There's plenty you already know about the basic needs and wants of your edTech audience. Teachers want tools that make their jobs easier. Administrators crave products with strong efficacy data. And students want learning tools that engage and delight, as well as instruct.

Unlike commercial applications, however, edTech software is not always used by the same people who make purchasing decisions. This makes designing an edTech product a special kind of challenge. Products often have multiple users with very different personas, like experiences meant for both teachers and students. But what happens if you put most of your resources into the student experience, leaving little time or money to create a delightful teacher experience, too? Budgets and turn-around times are real constraints for product teams, and these constraints can have an outsized effect on whether or not your product actually gets adopted in schools.

User Experience Research, or UXR, is the key to unlocking the primary user of your product without losing valuable time or resources. But in user-centered design for edTech, you can't just stop there. You have to understand the user's entire ecosystem, too. How is a teacher actually using your product in their classroom? Who are they thinking about as they enter student data or generate reports? Who's the next person they'll talk to about your product's output or analytics?

We spent some time chatting with Jessica Millstone, former Director of Engagement & UX Researcher for BrainPOP, about how to use UXR to narrow your edTech product design to specific user personas. Read on to discover the value of UXR as a preparatory lens for product design and learn how we use persona research to guide design conversations at Backpack.

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How UXR guides edTech product design

User experience research is targeted quantitative and qualitative research that offers insights for both your product and your users. Because UXR moves you closer to achieving a specific product goal, you and your team should already know how you will apply UXR insights to your product when you begin the process.

"I think people know how important it is to collect real information about user needs," said Millstone. "But the rich, qualitative data product developers get from interviewing, surveying, and doing deep market research on their target audience comes with its own problem: volume and noise."

Strategic discussions about the primary user of your product cut down on the "volume and noise" of UXR. With so many different edTech personas in play, it's crucial to understand how your primary persona will interact with or serve other personas, from students to administrators to parents.

"The goal is to create a story, based on real data, about a person authentically using your product," Millstone adds. "The more specific the better! Personas are hands-down the best way to create a memorable imprint of your customer's needs that your team can connect with throughout the product design process."

Ultimately, a persona's environment and their specific audiences will resonate through the design decisions you make for the product itself. At Backpack, we call this effect "persona resonance," and we use it to identify the interactions between our primary persona and their audiences. UXR uncovers these interactions and helps us emphasize the right features for the right persona at the right time within your product.

For example, if you're working on a product that serves pre-K educators, you'll use a different tone within the product than you would in a product designed for high school or higher ed instructors. While you're still designing a product meant to be used by adults and educational experts, this persona's interactions with young students will affect the way you approach both product experience and design.

No matter what kind of edTech software you're designing, UXR and persona resonance can help you narrow your focus. When UXR and UX work hand-in-hand, your primary persona experiences the value of your product with every click or swipe.

Preparing for UXR the Backpack Way

At Backpack, we have a specific process for identifying the needs of a persona. Desk research is the foundational work that helps your UX team make each element of your UXR actionable, and that's where we always start.

Here's an outline of what we do before we ever talk to a user:

  • Make a plan for the outcome of each research element. Identify how UXR will help your team be more precise and tactical so you won't get distracted or go down a research rabbit hole. We always start with a rubric that allows us to test the actionability of our UXR.
  • Conduct a UX audit of your existing product. If you're redesigning a product, this is the time to analyze user data, site maps, and user journeys. Dissect the product's UX to create a road map for your next steps.
  • Complete a competitive audit. Where does this product fit into your edTech niche? Who's already built an experience like yours? This audit will also help you map the UX language of your market through the lens of user expectations. What kinds of words and experiences do users already expect from products like yours?
  • Administer quantitative user surveys. Establish a baseline for user data in order to develop more targeted qualitative questions. For example, how does demographic data, like years spent teaching or level of education, cross-reference with teacher technology usage? Interesting patterns will help you identify areas worthy of deeper investigation in the next phases of user research and testing.
  • Observe students and teachers in a real-time environment. It's crucial to have a UXR lens in place before you head out into the field. Purposeful in-person investigations lead to better insights about your personas and your product.

How UXR Helps You Showcase the Value of edTech Software

This discovery process takes anywhere from 4 weeks to 4 months. Within that time frame, Backpack narrows in on what your user needs and what's missing from the products they already use.

Because of UXR, we're able to pinpoint precise tactical recommendations that work for your specific persona. Without these insights, it's all too easy to lose the interest and investment of your user. The value proposition of your product simply won't be visible enough throughout your UX.

Value matters for every persona, whether you're designing for students, teachers, or administrators. Students need exciting ebooks and easier ways to access major texts. Teachers need to know their time isn't being wasted and that they'll look professional in front of supervisors and parents. Administrators need to know your products are effective and easy to use.

When you've conducted strong UXR, every moment of your product's experience is created in concert with that value proposition. UX, visual design, copywriting choices, and technology decisions will each make your product more relevant and even more delightful. Persona resonance will have a ripple effect on each of these decisions, too. Understanding the interactions our primary user will have with secondary users makes it even easier to unlock the nuances of your persona and design a product that's both useful and reassuring.

Amplify Case Study: When Parents Facilitate Student Learning at Home

In Amplify's "Mobile Solos" application, middle schoolers track reading assignments and take mini quizzes. Even though the tone and design of the product is friendly and easy for 7th and 8th graders to use, the application is made to feel like an assignment from a teacher. The design challenge for this product was to make middle schoolers take "Mobile Solos" seriously — without missing the mark in terms of age.

Mobile solos screens

These images show the Amplify mobile solos user interface designs.

We used persona resonance to address the needs of two secondary personas: administrators and parents. Administrators make the purchasing decision for "Mobile Solos" within their school or district, which means they're an important gatekeeper to the product's success. UXR revealed that admins are highly aware of the technology available to their students at school and at home. Because students often complete digital assignments on mobile devices, we optimized our UX for mobile before making suggestions about the desktop experience.

UXR also revealed that middle schoolers often interact with their parents to complete assignments in digital products or applications, especially on mobile devices. Your average middle schooler may not have their own smart phone. It's far more likely they will depend on their parent's device, especially if there are no computers at home.

This meant parents were a secondary audience for Amplify's "Mobile Solos." Many parents are used to helping their children with programs like Jump Rope, Canvas, and Google Classroom, which means they already have a set of expectations for how sophisticated edTech products should look and feel. "Mobile Solos" had to rise to meet those expectations — even though the product wasn't specifically designed with this persona as a primary audience.

When you design for edTech, you're never designing a product for just one persona. But conducting strong UXR, facilitating thoughtful discovery, and mapping persona resonance can result in a better, more focused product for your target persona.

Want to learn more or have something you’d like to add about designing for specific edTech audiences? Join Sean Oakes and Jessica Millstone at their SXSW EDU campfire on March 11, 2020 for a lively campfire discussion. Learn more here.

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Published by: Sean Oakes in Digital Strategy, Product Development, UX Design