Designing for education can be challenging. As I transitioned from user experience (UX) designer to educator, I witnessed the rise of the digital classroom, the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning, and the ongoing debates around classroom management. At the core of UX design there is the “U,” the user, and at the heart of teaching there is the student. The parallels were uncanny, and it was this realization that helped me connect with students in the classroom and create a more interactive learning experience using UX design principles.
Today I’ll share with you some of the ways we can achieve this; but first…
What is UX?
Don Norman (1988) first coined the term “User Experience,” referring to product design being about more than just the finished product.
The user interface (UI) versus user experience (UX) of the Heinz ketchup bottle in this image (Teixeira, 2019) is an example I use often in my lectures. UI refers to the outward appearance, the color, shape, and overall visual design. UX refers to the functionality and the way in which a user interacts with the object. In this example, the UI refers to the sleek, curved bottle on the left; designed to be attractive to shoppers. Despite its sleek appearance the glass bottle shape isn’t the easiest one to use when getting ketchup out. The UX of the bottle on the right was updated to improve the experience of getting the ketchup out of the bottle—not by tapping, hitting, and vigorously shaking but by squeezing. After watching students struggle with a task in the way we struggle with ketchup bottles, how can we adjust the user experience for our students.
Don Norman himself gives a great example of what happens when the User Experience is not considered in design. “Norman Doors” are doors that have signifiers (a handle) that tell your brain you should pull to open them but are really opened by being pushed, as you can see in this video.
Now think of how many “Norman Doors” students face in poorly designed materials made by teachers themselves. They might be:
– Lesson materials with very few visuals for support and all text from margin to margin making it difficult for students to know where to read for the gist;
– Activity sheets with wordy instructions using linguistics terms they never learned;
– Activities that do not make it clear why they should be done or how the activity fits into the overall lesson theme.
Alas, the learners end up pulling when they should be pushing.
UX Design in the Classroom
So, how can UX work in the classroom? If the user interface is our sleek lecture slides and glossy, color-coded annotations, then UX is the detailed approach to the lesson plan—making educators the user experience designers of the classroom.
Let’s look at some of the core principles of user-experience design (Norman, 1988) and some of the ways they can be integrated into classroom learning.
Relevance – Design for your users. A key principle of design for establishing relevance is starting with the learner’s problem and using the lesson as the solution. For example, a student might want to know how to introduce themselves when traveling abroad. This is a perfect opportunity to craft a lesson around this challenge. Keep in mind the age of your students, their interests, and trending topics that you can use to connect with them.
Feedback – Listen to your students and get feedback. Use anonymous questionnaires or simply ask students about the activities, lessons, and materials. The way they feel about a lesson will ultimately impact their receptiveness to learning. What was challenging for them? What could be improved? If necessary, change or modify lesson plans while the lesson is in progress if you realize things aren’t going as planned.
Digestibility –When opening a new mobile application there is a process called “onboarding.” When you first launch the app, you’re greeted with a series of steps to collect your login data, set your preferences, and finally learn how the app works. Think about an app like Spotify which can very quickly set your music preferences with a few simple questions. Using process flowcharts, students can mimic the experience of onboarding. Students sift through the textbook to fill in the information on the flow chart and, using YES/NO questions, they move along to the next step until they’ve reached the end. This method breaks down a large Unit for review into incremental steps digestible for the students.
Clarity – From music to illustrations, there are countless ways to help provide clarity on a topic. Like smartphone games, lesson plans should be designed for the user to see the goal from the very first screen, understand the task, and be guided throughout the mission.
Familiarity – We can connect with our students by using universal themes or by tapping into their pre-existing behaviors. For example, students can tell stories using blank comic strips instead of just writing dialogue. Use materials they’re already familiar with to get them to a place where they’re receptive to new content. Try using Twitter for a writing activity. Students must summarize the plot of a movie or a lengthy news article in a second language and tweet it by using only 150-characters. Their familiarity with the app will help them dive headfirst into the activity, flexing their creative muscles while making practical use of the language they have acquired.
The U in User Experience
“UX design focuses on systems in a way that is deeply human. What does it feel like for people? What does it look like for them? What are their processes?” (Spencer, 2019).
John Spencer writes about ways in which UX can improve course design and the benefits of applying these techniques across different areas, from university curriculums to elementary school lesson plans. He reminds us about the pitfalls of UX design—the danger of forgetting the U in “user experience design.”
A great lesson in the classroom might also crash and burn if we forget our “users” —the students.
At the core, user experience and human-centered design help the user with their task—to learn. At the end of the day, we are teaching people, not robots. Learning through sharing is an approach with multiple executions that can build classroom relationships, encourage participation, and nurture a student-centered atmosphere in the classroom.
By using the principles listed above, we can add interaction and exploration to our lessons, but don’t stop there. UX can play a crucial role in redesigning curricula to work with today’s tech-savvy audience.
Using Gamification in the Classroom
Gamification is the application of game-design elements (point scoring, competing with others, rules of play) and game principles in non-game contexts. Gamification can be applied to activities and processes to solve problems by applying these game elements.
The language learning app “Duolingo” is a perfect example of gamification used for education; combining language learning lessons with point-based challenges, badges, leaderboards, and other game-design elements that engage the user and tap into their competitive nature. Duolingo maximizes the benefits of gamification by allowing language learners of varying levels to play word games which use semantic and phonological skills to forge important connections between words, helping them to expand their vocabulary and develop better language skills (Loewen et al., 2019).
The UX of the “Duolingo” app forms good learning habits for the user by focusing on tracking progress and using rewards-based repetition reviews for language retention. The addictive elements found in the UX design of smartphone apps and e-learning games like Duolingo can be powerful classroom strategies. There could be a classroom leaderboard, badges awarded for different skills, or even different leagues where students can compete among each other in non-threatening conversation relays. By applying game-design elements, we can change the experience for our students and connect with them through familiar terms.
Finally, before can set off to our classrooms chock-full of fantastic ideas, there is one more bit of UX wisdom I’d like to share.
Pilot testing is commonly used in UX design when finetuning usability studies. It is an opportunity to test the wording of a task, understand the time necessary for an activity, and provide additional information about your area of interest (Schade, 2015). Piloting, for a teacher, gives us the opportunity to test-drive our lesson plan with a few people who aren’t closely associated with the project. TV stations do this often when broadcasting the “pilot episode” of a new show to see if there’s any interest from the audience. You can pilot your lesson plans or activities with friends and family if they’re not too familiar with your work. After watching them navigate your lesson, listen (or not listen) to your instructions, and solve the problem in their own way, I’m positive you will get some fresh ideas to format your lesson differently and will consider things you may not have thought about initially.
As technology continues to advance the way we learn, user experience design is becoming a partner in shaping the future of education by providing the framework for supporting an interactive, student-centered classroom.
Rishma Hansil (MA.) is a UX Designer and language instructor in Tokyo with a passion for EdTech. She’s the author and illustrator of Animal Adventure, an activity book for young learners, inspired by her childhood growing up in the sunny Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago