October 1, 2019 - No Comments!

The edTech Designer’s Creativity Toolkit: Deep Listening

Sean Oakes

"Deep listening" is a process of engaged inquiry and openness crucial to design work. When you truly listen to clients — including everything they're not saying — you'll find yourself asking better questions and reading between the lines as you move through the design process.

Without embracing deep listening early in the product planning process, you might struggle to refine your edTech product, add too many design features that confuse your users, or roll out a product that lacks a sound pedagogical basis.

With all your deep listening cylinders firing, however, your road from concept to beta testing will be much smoother — and your users will delight in the simple, elegant solution you've designed.

Keeping this in mind, here's how to approach deep listening in your own product planning meetings:

    • Hear everything. You'll generate dozens of details about your product, and it's a design team's job to listen closely to your goals. Designers need to understand what your edTech product should do and what your users need to accomplish or learn. Your design team often provides the fresh perspective you need to unlock or refine the purpose of your product.
    • Ask the right questions. Whether you need to get into the mindset of your users or simply unpack your product's goal, it's important that your design team asks the questions that showcase the learning experience your product will provide students. Knowing the right questions to ask will likely stem from your design team's years of experience in education and product design.
    • Stay open to unexpected solutions. Just because a design team has already built a similar product doesn't mean they already have the best solution at hand. Stay open-minded to alternative designs, so you can hit on the best solution for your users.

When you stay open and curious throughout the design process, you'll generate more helpful information: better questions, more nuanced solutions, and more effective learning tools that get to the heart of your product and the users who will adopt it in the classroom.

Ultimately, the deliberate process of deep listening is designed to help you make decisions that will better serve all of your users, from the administrators who make purchasing decisions to the students trying to bolster their reading skills.

Case Study: Get to the Heart of Your Users with Design-Thinking Workshops and Deep Listening

Design-thinking workshops are important opportunities to practice deep listening at the early stages of the design process. If you're still discovering your user personas and designing their pathways through your product, deep listening can help you get to the heart of what your users value and how they'll engage with your product.

For example, in a design-thinking workshop for Hats & Ladders, an edTech company with an innovative mobile career education platform, we focused intently on who the app's users were and how each of their personas experienced the app.

Through the process of deep listening, it became apparent how each of their user personas approach the app's content differently. An "unmotivated" student might not take the same pathway as an "overachiever," for example, while an "undecided" student might take yet another pathway to uncover the career that's right for them.

By listening to how the client framed who their users were, we were able to develop strong user stories and user pathways. It mattered how we asked questions — and how we listened to the client's answers.

Ultimately, this process resulted in a completely restructured app that appealed more strongly to high school users. We made building a user's profile central to the experience of playing the in-app game. This allows teens to engage with the app's content while explaining their identity in meaningful ways to other users — and to themselves.

Without staying open-minded throughout this process of deep listening and inquiry, we wouldn't have uncovered such meaningful information about Hats & Ladders's user personas.

And without thinking at length about their high school users in particular, we wouldn't have hit on a design solution that appealed so strongly to teens or broadened the audience for the app.

More often than not, deep listening results in more informed — and more effective — product design.

How Deep Listening Leads to Better edTech Design

Asking the right questions — and listening deeply to the answers — is all about discarding your assumptions. Be open to thinking through why certain design decisions are being made, how these decisions apply to each of your users, and how the end results might be different than what you thought at the beginning of the process.

If you're leading product planning meetings, consider making openness your primary goal. Open-ended questions help you stay mindful of any baggage you might be bringing from your last project, while listening deeply to answers from your team will help you stay open to the unique challenges of a new project as you uncover its personality.

Every edTech product is different, but I have a simple set of open-ended questions in my designer toolkit that I return to again and again throughout the product planning process. These questions will help you throughout your design process, too.

Here are three questions that help me listen more deeply:

  1. How much interaction will your user need in order to engage with your product? This question gets to the heart of how different user personas are in edTech, as well as the assumptions you and your team might be making about these personas. For example, students might be sophisticated users of design, but teachers aren't always as comfortable or well-versed. It's also important to understand the different needs of your users. Where are they using the product? How much time do they have to spend on it? How much familiarity will they have with a product like yours? What are their pain points, and what are their expectations? How do you explain something visually to each of these users? These early decisions in the design process profoundly shape the experience of your user, which is why it's so important to ask open-ended questions and listen deeply to the answers.
  2. How do we avoid visual overload to make the product easy to use? This question helps design teams unpack which features are necessary and which can be simplified for ease of use. After all, edTech users don't have a lot of time. If your product can't be used quickly and intuitively, then it won't get used at all. The learning or administrative experience also has to be beneficial for your product to be successful. Sometimes, visual complexity can get in the way of that goal. Without posing this question at the beginning of the design process, you might lose sight of this goal as you introduce exciting new features for your user.
  3. How do we organize content in a rich, meaningful way? This question helps design teams tap into the pedagogical goals of your product. Remember: edTech products are unique. In order to be successful, they need to lead students through a meaningful learning experience or help administrators do their jobs more effectively and with a more robust set of tools. How you organize your content should reflect the depth of these user experiences without introducing too many barriers, over-complicating your user interface, or causing information overload.

Remember to take the time to reflect on what you heard and put it through the filter of your expertise. The decisions you make in early planning affect the organization of your product later on, and it's crucial that you and your team understand the big picture right out of the gate.

Openness coupled with "deep listening" will help you discover exactly what your edTech product should look and feel like. You'll likely go back to these questions again and again as you refine your user personas and the goal of your product in order to give your users the best possible learning experience.

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Published by: Sean Oakes in Product Development, UI Design