UX Designers are the Learning Engineers of the Future

Sean Oakes bio picture Sean Oakes

To most UX designers, the process of combining research, testing, and creative problem-solving sounds familiar. It’s what they already know how to do!

After all, transformative digital products aren’t made by UX designers who act on gut instinct. They’re made by designers who examine a great deal of data throughout the design process.

Unlike other fields, however, a generalist approach to edTech product design simply doesn’t cut it.

Learning products have very different requirements than consumer tech. They’re used by teachers and students in school environments to achieve high-stakes outcomes.

That’s why it’s even more important for learning tools to be based on research that reflects how students learn most effectively. And that’s why we think specialized UX designers are poised to become the learning engineers of the future.

What Is a Learning Engineer?

This new term from the world of learning science describes specialists with backgrounds in both pedagogy and technology. We think it has even more applications for edTech product design.

A great UX designer in edTech understands how to reflect good pedagogy and learning science through the medium of a digital product. Our products must help students learn effectively, and UX designers play a special role in choosing the features that facilitate learning.

When UX designers have the right background in learning science, pedagogy, and product design, they create transformative learning products. This level of expertise is what makes UX designers the learning engineers of the future.

If you have a strong UX team, you’re already on the path to creating a team of unstoppable learning engineers. Here’s what you can do to help them specialize:

How to Support the Learning Engineers on Your UX Team

Incorporating research findings from learning science into your edTech product makes your product stronger, more effective, and more appealing to educators. It also means you aren’t chasing the latest trends in edTech. You’re building a product based on research that works.

But the decision to incorporate learning science into your next edTech product isn’t a small one. It gets to the very heart of your UX planning process and will affect both your content and feature design decisions. For example, a designer creating a digital math product might build into its interface an overview that references outcomes from previous lessons. This reflective learning technique gives students a context for the next math concept they’ll learn and helps them build connections between past lessons and new ones. If students are given opportunities to reflect on concepts they’ve already mastered, they learn new concepts even more quickly.

When your UX team develops the skills they need to incorporate learning science into product design, you’ll find innovative solutions for encouraging learning throughout your products. Here are three key qualities you can encourage in your UX team as they become learning engineers:

  • Subject-matter expertise: Depending on the type of edTech product you’re designing, your UX team will likely need to conduct research on the topic or content area. If your product’s goal is to encourage reading in young students, for example, they’ll need to study up on the mechanics of early reading in order to reflect this technical knowledge in UX design. Talk to reading specialists or pick up a copy of The ABCs of How We Learn by Daniel Schwartz in order to dive deep.
  • User-centered research: Ensure that your UX team understands the specific user for your edTech product. Will the product be used primarily by teachers and administrators? Or by students trying to learn a specific skill?Desk research, focus groups, and interviews can help your team uncover user needs and pain points, as well as highlight specific environmental challenges to address during the iteration process. The way a product is used can also give your team ideas about which scientific techniques might be most effective for your users. Will a teacher ask students to remember historical facts? Use a system of contextualization and staggered repetition. More on this below.
  • Creative problem-solving: In order to apply a creative new solution to a common learning challenge, your UX team needs a firm understanding of the problem. Leverage all your product research — from subject-matter expertise to testing data — and apply it throughout the iteration process. The more research you conduct, the easier it will be for your team to come up with creative solutions that will delight your users.

If you’re designing an edTech product with a UX team that needs more time to research, test, and iterate, you can be an advocate for learning science in the early stages of product design.

Once you create a culture of research-driven problem-solving on your UX team, you’re ready to leverage real learning science in the design features of your product.

A Practical Guide for UX Designers to Use Learning Science in edTech

As your UX team becomes more familiar with the pedagogical requirements of a learning tool, they’ll be able to reimagine and package powerful lessons with even more powerful design.

For instance, they might use “just in time telling” to help students learn new math skills, rather than replicate a workbook or set of drills. Or they might give learners a chance to set their own goals and become more involved in their own learning.

Steer your product away from “interactive workbook syndrome” and toward more meaningful UX with these three common principles from learning science:

  1. Elaboration
    Elaboration is a method for helping learners retain new information. By encouraging learners to associate new information with knowledge they’ve stored in their longterm memory, learning engineers — and UX designers — can help learners better “encode” new information. These associations help learners create a familiar context for the new idea, allowing them to recall new information more easily.

    How to Use Elaboration in UX Design/Learning Engineering:
    Designers can create more playful interfaces for new information, including familiar contexts, characters, and interactive patterns that draw from the real world. Relevant cultural references or even familiar gameplay can help learners contextualize new information. This approach works for teachers, as well, especially if you’re designing a professional development (PD) component in your software. PD components in edTech can be more than big, impersonal databases of training videos and downloadable PDFs. Consider how a carefully structured learning sequence might help your team leverage the same learning science techniques you’ve used successfully in student-facing products.
  2. Learner Agency and Self-Efficacy
    Empowering a learner in the process of acquiring knowledge and skills is a proven-effective teaching technique. Self-efficacy is at the heart of some of the most powerful learning skills, including growth mindset and grit. Even for software, it’s much easier to teach a student who is more interested in learning than in performing. This type of student is more likely to stick with tasks even as they get more difficult.

    How to Use Learner Agency in UX Design/Learning Engineering:
    Give users control over feedback systems within your product. Maybe that looks like allowing a learner to set their own reading goals or choose their own rewards. With just a few questions and selectors, you can help young learners decide for themselves how often they want to read or what kind of reward they want for reaching the next level of a skills-based product. It seems simple, but this technique immediately shifts the user’s mindset from performing for a teacher to thinking about their role in the learning process. How much time do they think they’ll need to reach their reading goal? What is reaching that goal worth to them?
  3. Just-In-Time Telling
    Allow users to try out an experience and succeed—or fail—before providing them with background information and ‘correct’ answers. The experience of learning helps your users understand a concept in real time. With that experience behind them, your users will be able to incorporate information about a new concept or skill more effectively. They get the information about the new concept just in time to be useful and memorable as they build on what they already know.

    How to Use Just-In-Time Telling in UX Design/Learning Engineering: Incorporate demonstrations, experiments, and games into your product that give users a foundation for new concepts. This should be done without asking your users to read lots of new content or get bogged down in explainers. Through interacting with your product, users will be able to tell whether or not they understand a new idea — or if there’s something that doesn’t quite click.If you let users explore before explaining what’s happening or introducing something new, your users will develop a broader context for learning that brand new concept. This gives your product an opportunity to explain the concept later in a more sophisticated way and helps your users learn even more effectively.

By combining the principles of learning science, user research, and good design, UX teams create more effective edTech products with a longer shelf life.

Learning tools that leverage learning science and good UX ultimately help learners master new concepts more easily. They also help teachers facilitate learning in the classroom with cutting-edge technology.

As the “learning engineers” of the future, UX designers are also poised to take learning science out of the laboratory. It’s time to put more powerful edTech tools in the hands of the teachers and students who need them most.

Let’s build the future of digital products together.