Finding the Balance: Prioritizing User Needs in edTech Product Design As You Meet Business and Curriculum Requirements

Sean Oakes bio picture Sean Oakes

Even if you love the idea of incorporating learning science techniques into your digital learning tool, it’s not always an easy sell for product teams. Prioritizing user needs in edTech product design can cause tension between business requirements or curriculum requirements, even if everyone on the team has the end user’s best interests in mind.

In this article, we offer simple tips for spotting product design plans that skew too heavily toward curriculum requirements or business needs. We know you don’t want to leave your users behind, so you’ll also find simple solutions for course correcting in each of these scenarios. The hope is to meet in the middle!

After all, your editorial and business teams will always have demands you can’t ignore. That’s why it’s so important to balance design and curriculum requirements with what users want, need, and expect from edTech products. The end result is a stronger overall learning tool—and a better user experience.

Balancing Design and Curriculum Requirements with User Needs

Just remember: human-centered design in edTech doesn’t ignore instructional approaches or product requirements. You’re building a learning tool that will be used by students and teachers with very real needs, challenges, and pain points. That’s why it’s so important to recognize when a design team is leaving your users behind. 

For example, your team might feel strongly about designing an edTech product around a specific pedagogical approach. Other project stakeholders might even shut down specific feature ideas because the curriculum has never incorporated them before. Or, you could be asked to focus on business requirements ahead of user needs. Hey, it happens!

Here’s how to recognize and balance all your business needs while keeping your users front-and-center—even if the budget is tight and there are competing priorities.

What are teachers looking for in edTech products? Download our free Teacher Council Report for insights from real educators on edTech tools to find out.

The Risks of Taking an Instructional-Centered Design Approach

If you’re a publisher itching to transform a specific curriculum into an edTech product, it’s tempting to migrate your original print content to a new digital format. After all, you already have a well-loved, well-understood curriculum. Everyone on your team might even assume that your content doesn’t need to change—or that it can’t change and produce the same results.

While many successful curricula work well on paper, it’s often not possible to translate them directly into a digital medium. Trying to make a 1-to-1 print-to-digital product also means lost opportunities for helping students learn your material more effectively. 

Here are a few signs you might be leaning too hard on your original print product as you make the leap to digital. Does your digital learning tool:

  • Recreate, in a one-to-one way, an online workbook or “curriculum under glass”?
  • Reach for print strategies, rather than leveraging digital strategies for student engagement?
  • Require teachers to complete repetitive, time-consuming tasks better-suited to technology automation?

Then it might be time to retrace your steps, starting with any edTech research you’ve conducted on the teachers and learners who will use your product.

Tips for Incorporating User-Centered Design Principles into Your Instructional Tool

While it might seem like a smart move not to change an already-successful curriculum, it’s often a bigger risk to stick to the same content sequence. Integrating user experience research and the best digital formats for your user base is not only a better bet—it packs major ROI.

Here are three things you can do to incorporate user-centered design approaches into a tool that depends on an existing curriculum:

  1. Dig into your user experience research.
    Taking advantage of new developments in digital products makes sense from a user experience research standpoint. Our research consistently shows that users are busier than ever. Teachers have exponential new demands on their time, and students are doing their best to make progress on new concepts while making up for lost ground from at-home learning. Meanwhile, new teachers are joining the workforce with different expectations for digital products in the classroom. A digital learning tool with content sequencing based on a paper format will simply miss the mark.

  2. Reimagine your learning content.
    The best edTech products transform your existing learning content—not just recreate it. Remember: you’re no longer creating a print product with a specific sequence. You’re leveraging a digital medium with an expanded set of possibilities and features. You’ll have many options for content sequencing, developing adaptive content, and integrating learning science techniques, like reflection and “learning by doing,” into your new digital framework.

  3. Take advantage of accessible design practices.
    You’ll also have more opportunities to develop a learning tool that better supports neurodivergent learners. In edTech product development, accessible design works better for all users. When users are able to learn at their own pace or receive immediate feedback, engagement and understanding improves for users across the board.

How to Spot a Requirements-Driven Design Approach

Most edTech product teams are used to working from an initial set of feature requirements. Reporting feature? Check. Rostering? Need that, too. Curriculum. Check and check. 

These requirements come from sales, customer service, or customer success reps. They can also be driven by technology constraints, as publishers attempt to optimize their approach to digital formats.

Here are a few signs that your product team might be overly focused on business requirements rather than user needs. Your edTech product strategy might:

  • Focus on meeting business needs rather than addressing user pain points
  • Depend on optimizing for specific platforms like WordPress, rather than engaging with a range of technical and engineering needs
  • Be overly constrained by narrow budget parameters

Every product design team has to contend with a budget and technology needs. However, focusing too intently on business needs over the needs of your users will result in a product that doesn’t adequately solve a problem—and likely isn’t very pleasant to use.

Tips for Balancing Business Requirements with User Experience Design

Ideally, everything you learn about your users should align with your business needs and your final product requirements. Or, at the very least, there should be a healthy compromise between user expectations, your brand’s goals, and the product budget.

Here’s three tips for how to get there:

  1. Start with a clean slate.
    If you can start designing your tool by setting preconceived notions about learning content or business requirements aside, you’ll have an easier time identifying creative solutions to real user problems.
  2. Define the primary user challenge.
    Identify your user’s biggest challenge—and how your product will solve it. That way, you’ll be able to marry your solution to any content or business requirements—not the other way around. This approach guarantees your solution will be compelling to users. After all, no one wants to sell users on a solution they’re not interested in!
  3. Re-balance “blue sky” ideas with your business needs.
    Sometimes you have both an incredible pedagogy and an exciting creative solution to offer in your digital tool. But you’re just not sure how to make it profitable. For example, say you came up with a great new feature idea, but it requires your content team to completely overhaul their work. Does this fit into your budget or timeline? Probably not! Once you’re done brainstorming, don’t forget to factor business back into the equation.

3 Ways to Scale User Experience Research to Your Budget

One of the best aspects of user experience research and design is that it’s scalable to an edTech product’s specific needs—and budget. Below, we sketch out three approaches to getting more bang for your buck when it comes to making room for UX in the budget.

Even if you’re constrained by the parameters of a specific curriculum or your business needs, you can get a great deal out of user experience expertise at every price point.

The “Room to Spare” Budget

User experience research can help you validate content, or validate the usability of print content in a digital format. Conduct discovery sessions with your editorial and business teams to identify opportunities for transforming existing curricula into a digital experience that’s easy and delightful to use.

From a user experience standpoint, you might even decide to incorporate formative assessment into your product. With a specialized UX team in your corner, you can use learning science techniques to develop these features without creating a heavy lift for your design and engineering teams.

The “Just Enough UX” Budget

Can’t budget for the complete overhaul of your content and a major user experience discovery? Keep things affordable by conducting just enough user research to support future decision making.

For example, maybe you interview and test three user representatives rather than conduct a longitudinal study. Or maybe you validate hypotheses about user needs based on team experience and the input of your user success or customer service teams. There are simple ways to check your decisions that don’t have to eat into your entire product budget.

The “Budget Is Tight” Budget

Even with a limited budget, you can put user experience dollars to good use. For example, have your UX team ensure that your user interface has common patterns to help users navigate your learning tool easily. Your UX team might also help you effectively scale down your content presentation. This way, you can deliver some learning content very effectively, rather than design an overall clunky experience no one will use.

No matter what the price tag winds up to be, leaving your users out of the equation isn’t a risk worth taking. You’ll wind up with an edTech product that won’t help students learn—and won’t support teachers in the classroom. 

It’s better to introduce just enough UX into your product development plan, so you can ensure that you’re solving real challenges and creating a learning tool worth investing in. 

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

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