The importance of user experience in education

In the last decade, user experience has evolved from an afterthought to a competitive advantage. The education industry is no exception. Industry pressure and user demographics have made excellent UX a required course for graduation.

The age of UX

The user experience industry is big and growing. Want proof?

  • 103,000 user experience professionals on LinkedIn right now
  • 100% growth on Google trends since 2008
  • 12,000+ “user experience followers on Quora

All of this growth comes down to one thing: what some companies used to “give” users, users now demand from every company. It’s a classic tale really: innovation is introduced into the field and is accepted, copied and iterated.

This effect is compounded by the nature of software. Code, like viruses, has a short inter-generational lifecycle. New features, improvements and bug fixes, can be introduced quickly. The good ones are passed on. The bad are rolled back. This quick pace means that smart coders can quickly hone in on a user’s needs, bringing every deployment closer to perfection.

Apple gets the lion’s share of the credit for taking world class user experience to the people. Their work on the “Natural User Interface” or NUI in, for example, multi-touch displays actually goes back to 1984, the year the first Macintosh debuted. Apple’s NUI-based devices are now used by millions (coveted by even more) and even the subject of lawsuits alleging patent-infringement.

Digital Natives

There are lots of great definitions for digital natives. Mine is simple: for digital natives, NUI is not an invention, it’s a reality. They don’t remember a time when ATM machines sucked or you had to use a stylus to interact with a screen. They just expect interaction miracles and shiny devices that cater to their every whim. Although this may be problematic for their emotional and spiritual health, digital natives are tomorrow’s consumers and today’s students.

Digital natives’ way of understanding the world affects how and when they learn. It also guides their interaction with the tools they use to learn. For starters, they don’t see software as software. They don’t even see it as a machine really. They expect software to be an extension of themselves, to be anthropomorphized and, in many ways, to think for them. My four year old isn’t aware of Youtube’s related videos algorithm. He just expected it to keep serving up videos of Lego ninjas.

Digital natives despise barriers. Their “all access, all the time” ethos perfectly matches the level of need-fulfillment technology has granted them. Bad UX and poor usability are some of the biggest barriers of all. Digital natives are good at finding workarounds but all that technological coddling has also made them less patient than generations past. If it doesn’t work, if it’s not available on “their device”, they just move on.

World-class user experience annihilates barriers by making the previously impossible possible. I could share movies before Youtube but it was a pain. For years I could edit a video on my PC but iMovie made it intuitive. I could read online but it took Scribd to make it easy and social. The list goes on. In education, this means teachers can now self-publish and reach students anywhere in the world. Similarly, students can now guide their own learning.

Education is embracing user experience

Smart education companies are turning great user experience into a competitive advantage. Leading the charge are start-ups like Sclipo (I used to work there), Udemy and AppSumo. They get that the future is all about making it fast, easy and intuitive. Then just hand the reins over to students and teachers. Self-built and self-guided from day one.

Khan Academy is also worth a mention, mostly because they have always understood what digital natives want. Video is a powerful medium because it combines the aural and the visual. Streaming web video offers something more: full control. Students can go back, watch again even skip over what they don’t need. video is also emotionally engaging and asynchronous, unlike traditional text-based e-learning systems.

Finally, even the mighty Blackboard is trying to shed its more traditional roots and embrace change. Its new CourseSites standalone web app talks about “3 quick steps” and “engage your students in social learning” right on its homepage, proving that Blackboard can hear the digital natives at the gate.

The final exam

Even though many companies get the importance of UX in education, many more don’t. Elearning is still mostly text based, requires training the teacher and the student to use it and is anything but accessible via any browser and any device. For many public, private and non-profit education providers, digital natives and their thirst for excellent user experience represent a set of challenges they’d be foolish to ignore.

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