5 Surprising Lessons When Designing for Education

We hosted our first “Design for Edu” event during SF Design week featuring designers from Khan Academy, AltSchool, Medium, Coursera and Inkling. This was a unique opportunity to hear about examples of surprising user behavior that hint at some of the larger design challenges each company is solving. Below are just a few of the lessons from our discussion.

Teenagers have no time and need answers fast

Khan Academy Circulatory System Q&A
Khan Academy Circulatory System Q&A

Jason Rosoff, Khan Academy’s design lead, has helped the nonprofit scale the impact of its online classes to over 23M registered learners worldwide. He’s observed that more and more teenagers have less control of their schedules. Between the demands of school, family, friends and the endless pursuit of extracurriculars to help with college admissions, there’s surprisingly little time left to use digital tools for things other than entertainment.

This means teenagers have little patience with products and want answers immediately. One way Khan Academy solves for this is by increasingly making their content modular and accessible via Google search. Another way is by surfacing the best questions and answers because often times students have trouble articulating their questions.

Different age groups need different tools

Altschool Wired

AltSchool is expanding its network of micro-schools to increase access to personalized education while building technology to handle many of the administrative and organizational tasks that consume teachers’ time. A core piece of their technology called “playlists” are curated by teachers to direct students through a personalized learning plan.

Kimberly Johnson, User Experience lead at AltSchool, helped uncover the different technology needs of diverse age groups. AltSchool’s earliest playlist was targeted at upper elementary students, but as usage expanded to other grades, new needs emerged. For instance, Middle school students could handle more complex work, but many younger students lacked basic skills like reading, which prevented them from working independently through their playlists. This has led AltSchool to develop new features like project labels and text-to-speech to accommodate different audiences.

Create more than a valuable tool, create value for the network

Medium Responses Top
Responses appear at the top of posts and link back to the original source

Even though Medium doesn’t consider itself an EdTech company, it’s a great place for people to share ideas, learn and find an audience. Tyler Howarth, Product Designer at Medium, has been focusing on interactions between pieces of content and he was part of the team that recently created the “Responses” feature which appear as a thread on top of an article title and at the bottom. Responses give both motivation to writers and increase the chances that people will discover good responses. There are many more people who occasionally have valuable ideas to share than there are people who want to be “bloggers.” This is just one of many features Medium has experimented with to provide value to their whole network.

Medium Responses Bottom
Responses also appear at the bottom of Medium posts

Learners want a familiar structure, not just a minimal one

Coursera Intro to Philosophy

Coursera partners with top universities to offer online courses and has over 13M enrolled students. Minjeong Kim, design team lead at Coursera, talked about the redesigns of their course pages for learners. Originally they thought that simplifying navigation elements and creating more of a linear flow would create a better user experience. But what they discovered is that learners expected a structure that resembled a university course, including a system of grades, weekly schedules, and the instructor’s voice. Rather than minimal UI, subsequent redesigns have taken more of a hybrid approach by focusing on reducing friction and organizing information in a familiar way to users.

Make knowledge available when you need it


Albert Wang, Product Design Lead at Inkling, discussed an internal debate about the best way to train skill development in a large corporation. Are concentrated workshops or self paced learning more effective? Because Inkling is a platform that enables people to create interactive, mobile content that helps businesses share knowledge, they could actually measure the results.

When Inkling looked at long term memory as a success metric, they were surprised to see that self paced learning was more effective for their customers. So they’ve focused on making information less academic, and more like direct search at people’s fingertips that’s easy to pick up. Making knowledge available when people encounter real life challenges in the field turns out to be a powerful way to learn and retain information with mobile devices.

Our first Design for Edu event exceeded our expectations and we welcome any ideas for future ones. If you’re a designer interested in participating in events like Design for Edu, learn more about Bridge and keep in touch with us here.


Photo Credits:
Heather Phillips, Designer Fund
Kristie Hemm Klok, Wired
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