How to design a differentiated digital learning experience

By RocketAir Crew
May 19, 2022

How we learn is such a fundamental question in our societies and personal lives that it’s no surprise that education technology has become, and continues to be, a colossal industry. 

Much of what we see are off-the-shelf, white-label products, but the industry has countless problems crying out for solutions. Replicating the traditional, in-person classroom is only a small fraction of what's needed. 

From learning a few key phrases in a foreign language for an upcoming vacation, to earning an accredited degree from your dream school on the other side of the world. From joining a class for the fun of it, to getting a pivotal certification that will advance your career. Edtech companies are responding to the hopes and dreams of educators and learners. 

But how well are they doing?

Where edtech falls short

Everyone has a story of how they tried and failed at online learning. We inadvertently blame ourselves, saying we were too distracted or didn’t have the motivation to see it through. We dropped that class, never got that certification, or fumbled a bit too much trying to order that coffee in another language. 

But what if—rather than a fault of our own—it’s our tools that are failing us.

The sheer size of the edtech industry doesn’t mean it's winning on all fronts. When procuring an edtech solution, whether as a learner, educator, or institution, usability is a key factor for buyers. But few products, if any, are known for their emphasis on good user experience. Design Lead at RocketAir, Cal Notman, says:

Fundamentally, many are difficult to use. Few people are saying, 'Wow, that was super easy. I found everything the second I looked for it.'

Much of this comes down to a lack of solid product strategy. Moving fast may lead to more features getting released but it often leads to bloated digital experiences with confusing navigations, unclear content hierarchies, and complex course navigation, and frustrated users. Hilary Swaim, VP of Operations RocketAir, reflects on her prior experience in the education sector:

When I was working with professors, I heard the sentiment, 'There is a bunch of fanfare, but it doesn’t do what I want it to do.'

But where many solutions and platforms fall short, other edtech companies thrive. By leading with intentional design, you can stand out in the crowded arena with hyper-useable, enjoyable digital experiences that win over educators and learners.

How to differentiate by design

Above all, start with users 

Regardless of what solution you’re creating, one thing that stands is the undeniable importance of starting with your users. Whether it’s an LMS for a K-12 classroom or an HR learning platform, you need to know your audience and what they’re trying to achieve to get to the best design solution.

Peter Weir, CPO at Discovery Education, calls this approach "backwards design."

“We have to start with a predefined goal of what we want our teachers and students to think, feel, and do in using and engaging with our products. That starts with our reason for being, our reason for existence. And that’s kids… So for us, whenever we’re designing a product, we start here.”

UX research is the vehicle to know your target users, their needs and goals. It’s a way of working that should be integral to how your teams discover insights and build better products.

Articulate your value proposition

Developing a validated understanding of your users’ education goals and desires also allows  you to figure out the "what" and "how" of living up to your value proposition. 

This enables you to craft your product’s messaging and content strategy in a way that can speak to users in a concise and compelling way.

In our partnership with Coursera, for example, we conducted a series of moderated interviews with their core target audience and A/B tests and discovered that visual design and content layout—in particular, the right balance of content density—were significant factors in users’ perception of the program’s credibility. This shaped our designs, leading us to create a more effective, digestible content hierarchy that highlighted what matters most to learners, such as in-depth course previews, instructor credentials, and testimonials. As a result, students were able to make informed enrollment decisions and have an overall better user experience.

Look outside of education

An easy way to differentiate your edtech product by design is to get inspiration from other industries.

There’s no reason why edtech can’t look and feel like your favorite consumer products. Consider how they tackle the challenge of presenting information-dense interfaces. Analyze how they engage users with interactivity and motion. Break down their user flows to build seamless experiences.

Like the best tech companies, you can apply the same principles for great design to the insights you gain from your own UX research and user feedback to create something truly unique and delightful.

Build inclusive learning experiences

Today, accessible products are table stakes. But beyond the fundamental standards of accessibility, companies that are integrating inclusive design into how they work are winning in their journey to differentiation. 

Accessibility here isn’t just about color contrasts and font readability. It’s also about the medium of your content, such as mixing in audio for visually impaired learners.

Waiting to prioritize inclusivity is a risky proposition. Especially in edtech, where inclusiveness means not only that more people can access what you offer, but that anyone can achieve their goals just as easily as anyone else.

Some fuel for thought

  • What can you learn from other industries? Don’t be afraid to look at best practices outside of education. Think about products you enjoy using.
  • Are you guilty of replicating what another company is doing?
  • What’s your one-sentence pitch to learners and/or educators?