How Human-Centered Design Creates Better edTech Products

Sean Oakes bio picture Sean Oakes

In industrial design, considering how the human body interacts with objects has led to incredible, intuitive products. In fact, you can see human-centered design in many everyday objects.

Think of the standard light switch. Or a bicycle.

These objects don’t come with instructions, but their designers acknowledged the “human factors” that make it easy for us to switch them on or peddle away. 

Similarly, in digital design for edTech products, we consider both how people learn and how they will physically interact with your tool.

After all, there are commonalities in how people learn, backed by science. If edTech product design doesn’t leverage these elements, it’s a missed opportunity for your users—and for you.

User-centered design in edTech isn’t just something you can check off your requirements list — it’s an overall approach to design that impacts your work, every step of the way.

From conducting user experience research to designing for specific technology needs, user-centered design will shape how you create learning tools—and make stronger products for your users.

Conducting User Experience Research (UXR) and Testing

When you build a new edTech tool, you begin by trying to solve a specific user problem. Before you start designing, though, it’s important to validate user challenges and pain points through qualitative interviews and testing.

No matter how talented your team is, you won’t know if you have created a user-centered learning tool without researching and testing it first.

When you interview and observe your users closely, you also determine the many human factors that drive how a product is used. In edTech, these physical factors include:

  • How much time a teacher or student has to use the tool
  • The classroom environment
  • Whether your product can work with slow or crummy internet connections
  • How users physically interact with the tool, including:
    • Audio components—Do users need headphones?
    • Printed components—Do teachers need printers or scanners?
    • Inputs—Do users swipe with their thumb or  index finger? Do they need a stylus, keyboard, or mouse? Can they use voice commands? 

By designing within the physical limitations of the classroom, you’ll solve the challenges faced by teachers and students in a way that engages their interest and piques their delight.

Designing through the Lens of Teacher Personas

Human-centered design also means understanding the limitations of those who are teaching with your edTech product.

It doesn’t matter how effective your edTech product is—or how much students love it. If it’s too complicated for teachers or learners to use in the classroom, educators might not think your product is worth the trouble. 

When you design through the lens of your teacher persona, you ensure that learning tools integrate into a teacher’s classroom, their pace, and their available time.

Without validating these challenges ahead of time, you’ll run into problems with use and adoption. That’s why ease of product set-up and product management is foundational to edTech product design—and to understanding your teacher persona.

Creating Prototypes and Wireframes

The best wireframes and clickable prototypes reflect user needs, research, and requirements. In other words, they’re a great opportunity to put human-centered design to work!

Say you’re designing an edTech product with a complex reporting process. From user research, you might know that many of the teachers who use your product are intimidated by generating reports about their classroom. For your first iteration, you might design a product look-and-feel that offers teachers a friendly boost of confidence. Reflect these choices in a high-fidelity prototype and test it with your users for feedback.

Ultimately, your product team will design many prototypes to validate the user-centered approach to your design. They’re a lightweight, inexpensive way to ensure you’re making the right design decisions for your users.

Developing Learning Content

Whether it’s microcopy or a full curriculum, the content in your edTech product is inextricable from user experience.

Here are three ways you can ensure your content is centered on the needs of real people:

  • Consider sequencing. In a digital tool, you have more control over content sequencing. You can create something adaptive or non-linear to support the learners who use your product. What’s the optimal way to organize content for your specific users?
  • Allow for learner choice and agency. Print curricula doesn’t typically allow the flexibility for learners to make choices. But in digital tools, you have the opportunity to break learning content into smaller, more discrete pieces that can be recombined in many coherent ways.

    Say you have a digital reading tool. After a student reads a chapter, they might have four or five options for where they can go next. Or, they might always be able to choose where they go next in your product because you provide just-in-time support along the way.
  • Use learning science techniques. Learning science techniques are critical to developing content in a human-centered way. Whether you plan to accommodate contextualization needs or create reflection activities, work with your content team to develop additional support and scaffolding. To be most effective, your content team should be prepared to work in concert with your user experience team.

Addressing Technology Needs

edTech product teams are used to designing responsive screens for mobile devices. But there are other ways to keep users top-of-mind as you discuss technology needs for your learning tool.

Optimize Your Learning Tool

As you consider mobile vs. desktop design needs, you’ll have to think beyond optimizing by screen size. User-centered design also requires that your team understands where and how your learning tool will be used. 

Remember: the physical use of your product determines everything from button placement to product accessibility. Very young learners, for instance, have smaller hands than adults, and they may be more tempted to use their pointer finger than their thumbs. This may change your layout more than you realize!

Optimizing your tool for the mobile version also requires you to streamline your features. For example, mobile doesn’t typically provide a great experience for data-driven features like reporting or rostering. Now’s the time to think about how you can still provide robust mobile features and a great user experience.

Engage your Engineering Team

Ask your technology team to participate in user testing. This way, they can watch teachers and learners use your product and observe these interactions for themselves. At the very least, make sure they participate in the analysis and recommendations that come out of UXR.

In order to address UX and engineering challenges, it’s crucial for technologists to see where users hit stumbling blocks. Good engineers will step up with creative solutions. They may even be able to solve a “UX problem” with a smart technology fix! But they can only provide this level of support when they’re engaged in the creative process from the very beginning.

Reconsidering Design ‘Frills’

Design teams often use techniques like micro animations or transitions to get a minimum viable product, or MVP, out the door. When it’s down to the wire, engineering teams push these ‘frills’ to the bottom of the priority list. 

These carefully designed UI elements guide users’ attention, sometimes even making users aware that they haven’t completed a form, assessment, or quiz. In edTech, the stakes for these fun extras are often quite high!

When engineers take into account that these elements add to the usability of your product, making the design even more human, they can be reprioritized in product planning (and perhaps even the budget). Very often these elements aren’t just icing on the cake—they’re essential to your product’s success.

The ROI of Human-Centered Design

If your team lays a strong foundation for user-centered design during the initial phases of UX strategy, you’ll avoid expensive changes down the line. (That expensive technology platform you’ve been eyeing…does it really align with user needs? Or support a user-centered product experience? Don’t wait to find out!)

But focusing on your users is about more than avoiding painful mistakes or wrong turns. It also opens up the possibility to create edTech products that truly engage your users. After all, once you’ve solved a challenge in the best possible way, your product team can focus on designs that deliver delight. What’s more human than that?

Are you looking for more ways to center the needs of your users? Contact our team to find out how we can help!

Let’s build the future of digital products together.