The Product Owner’s Guide to Designing Onboarding in edTech Products 

Sean Oakes bio picture Sean Oakes

It’s happened to all of us. You’re in a product planning meeting, discussing features for your digital learning tool. Your product manager wants to invest in a resource library and “Help” section for teachers using your product. But your UX team is advocating to use the design budget for onboarding features. What do you do?

With budget and resource constraints, it can be tempting to downplay the importance of onboarding. After all, if the user experience is strong enough, how much onboarding support will teachers and students actually need?

The answer might surprise you. edTech products are complex tools, and users need support as they learn brand new concepts all while navigating an entirely new product. This makes onboarding a crucial feature for any edTech tool, one that deserves a chunk of your budget for research, design, and testing.

In this article, we’ll help you understand why onboarding in edTech is so high-stakes, review the two types of onboarding every edTech tool should offer, and help you “re-think” your “Help” section, so you don’t run out of budget. Let’s get into it.

Understanding Onboarding in edTech through User Personas

All product owners want their users to navigate software with ease and engage deeply with the app’s content. But, in edTech, the stakes for onboarding a user are incredibly high—even higher than product engagement

A student’s grades might depend on how well they learn to use your product, for example. Or a teacher’s ability to manage their classroom and track learning outcomes might be deeply affected by how many features they master in your tool. The stakes mean that onboarding teachers and learners to your product successfully is essential to its use—and to its success. 

There are other persona-driven factors that will affect your onboarding strategies, too. Because teachers are given very little training for using technology in the classroom, they are often left to their own devices to learn how to use edTech. 

How will your product give them all the context they need to implement the tool on their own in a limited amount of time? If your tool is difficult to use, or it isn’t properly supported, teachers will likely use your edTech tool less effectively or efficiently.

This is also why it’s important to keep onboarding as brief as possible without sacrificing clarity. There’s a reason onboarding pop-ups have a ‘skip’ button. Most users—especially busy teachers—feel like they don’t have time for lengthy videos and practice tasks. If you show them your experience is tight and interactive, they’ll be more likely to engage.

Designing onboarding with your personas in mind isn’t just a design challenge—it’s an extreme empathy challenge. It can be difficult for product teams to get into the mindset of a teacher or student starting from step zero. After all, you’ve been working diligently on your brilliant, elegant solution—how could anyone be confused by it? 

But the better you understand how your learning tool affects your users’ day-to-day experience in the classroom, the more effective your onboarding strategies will be.

Onboarding for Product Training vs. Onboarding for Concept Training

Unlike commercial software, learning tools must accomplish two things for every user:

  1. Concept training: Teach learners a new academic concept, or provide educators with the best tools for teaching subject-matter content more effectively.
  2. Product training: Help all users learn how to get the most out of your edTech product.

It can be a challenge to design just one type of onboarding well. But getting both right in the same product? That takes a lot of thought, great user experience design, user testing, and significant resources.

Prioritizing onboarding features that accomplish both product training and concept training tasks can also be challenging for product designers to remember. Sometimes we’re so interested in our tool’s learning content that we don’t always stop to educate users about how the product works. 

This is especially true for student-facing products. But even young learners need to be trained to use the interface of your edTech tool. No matter their age or role, the users of your product need to understand the relationship between content and design. 

How can teachers expect to use your edTech tool in their classroom? How will students learn while using your product? What will the experience be like? The more you answer these questions through onboarding features, the less likely your users are to be confused by a complex learning tool. 

By providing enough context to understand how the product works and why it’s structured a certain way, you’ll motivate learners to keep going and encourage teachers to use your tool more effectively.

Top Onboarding Features for edTech Products

As an edTech product owner, you already know the types of onboarding features your users respond to. That’s why you gravitate toward just-in-time help for users when you roll out a new feature. Or make sure your product team has an incredible tutorial video ready to roll. 

You can use any of the onboarding features below in an edTech product. The content itself might change based on the onboarding experience you’d like to provide, whether that’s helping a user to understand UI or teaching them a brand new math concept. 

Remember: in order for users to get the most out of your product, you need to cover both types of onboarding.

Product Training

  • Asking users to complete a task in real time. 
  • Providing a user interface tour.
    • onboarding that trains you to understand what each button does
  • Including product tutorial videos, slideshows, or other visualizations.
  • Designing just-in-time help for new or complex features.
  • Helping users run a report or navigate classroom data.

Concept Training

  • Providing expert video content that models specific teaching strategies.
  • Demonstrating what progress looks like.
  • Designing just-in-time teaching tips for new educators.
  • Providing actionable next steps for report data, like how to correct for trends or scaffold content in the classroom.

You can also use personas to further personalize your onboarding features. For example, you might give teachers the ability to engage with onboarding depending on how much time they have. Which onboarding tasks can they tackle in 15 minutes? What should they do if they need to get started right away?

By thinking strategically and intentionally about the onboarding needs of your personas, your learning tools become more customizable—and more valuable to your users.

How Better Onboarding & UX Design Will Make You Rethink the “Help” Section

It’s tempting to divert your design resources to the “Help” section in your product. After all, it’s the one place users go to answer all of their questions. But focusing on “Help” at the expense of onboarding is a big mistake.

Ideally, a robust “Help” section and intentional onboarding features support one another. Not only will you better support users who need more context for their learning experience, but you’ll also meet users where they are when it comes to product support. 

Done well, onboarding takes place over many touchpoints, rather than in the initial moments of a user’s first login. Once you lengthen your onboarding timeline, it’s easier to re-imagine what a useful “Help” section really looks like for your users. With a thoughtful onboarding strategy in place, you’ll be able to successfully scope your content creation budget for “Help”—without short-changing your onboarding experience.

Ideally, a robust “Help” section and intentional onboarding features support one another.

This approach works from a user experience standpoint, too. Most users are resistant to engaging with “Help” sections because they want to keep moving through your experience. “Help” slows users down, but onboarding features don’t have to. For example, integrating just-in-time help sequences for complex tasks is far less overwhelming than requiring users to watch a video tutorial in order to use your learning tool.

However, sometimes edTech products are so complex, user challenges simply can’t be solved through better UX. If you find that your UX leans too heavily on “Help,” consider reducing the complexity of your product. Otherwise, you’ll risk users becoming so frustrated that they give up—even with incredible onboarding that supports their needs!

Using Your Onboarding Resources Wisely

Prioritizing “Help” and designing big ticket features often leads to a dwindling budget for an incredible onboarding experience for teachers and students. 

We know how important it is to build critical features for your minimum viable product (MVP), so here are a few solutions for ensuring that you don’t run out of budget before you tackle onboarding:

    1. Create a first-round onboarding experience.

      By prioritizing onboarding features for first-round designs, you won’t run through your entire budget without addressing onboarding must-haves. Build at least some onboarding into your MVP designs and budget.
    2. Test in the field to see where user pain points are.

      Even if you feel confident about the pain points teachers and students face, onboarding should always be informed by user testing. Before designing a full onboarding experience, test your prototype with users. You’ll likely realize that you haven’t given users enough context about the flow of your entire product.

      Once you identify product trouble spots, solve by improving UX or by finding ways for UX and onboarding to work together. Remember: testing solutions requires at least two touchpoints with users, so be sure to build this into your product timeline.
    3.  Continue to design onboarding features over time.

      Like other features, onboarding can be designed iteratively. To create an onboarding experience teachers and students will actually use, strike a balance between devoting resources to onboarding at kick-off and testing along the way.

      For example, one of the major benefits of designing just-in-time help features is that you can always address challenging UX patterns. As you collect user data over time, you’ll identify areas that require new or modified onboarding support.

Onboarding can make or break your product, so don’t leave it as an afterthought—or make it compete with “Help” for resources. When you allocate time and budget to designing the onboarding experience, users are more likely to see the value of your learning tool. This not only increases user motivation, but will also speed teacher adoption in a crowded marketplace.

Are you designing new onboarding features for your edTech product? Contact us below to find out how we can support your research and design needs!

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