5 secrets to great edtech product design

 
By Sean Oakes
principal and creative director, SOS Brooklyn and Backpack Interactive
January 15th, 2019

The edtech industry has more venture capital than ever—roughly $8.2 billion worldwide, according to Business Insider. Still, many teachers remain skeptical of technology in the classroom, which means, as edtech pioneers, it’s our job to ease barriers, listen deeply to the needs of educators, and make meaningful products that enhance the existing curriculum.

So what makes edtech product design successful—both for a client, and in the classroom? At Backpack Interactive, we think it comes down to creating an effective teaching tool that is widely adopted, sells well, and provides a transformative learning experience for students. Here are our five secrets for creating an edtech product that teachers love and will actually use.

1. Solve a real problem or address a pressing need
Many edtech products are designed because publishers want to recreate the success of a popular worksheet or textbook. But just because a resource or tool works well in print, doesn’t mean it should be replicated as a digital product. Re-creating a print product as a digital tool could even add to a teacher’s workload—or to a school district’s bottom line—without changing how a student learns a concept for the better.

Teachers have plenty of concepts to cover, and they need products that will help their students master curricular content and feel more motivated to learn. That’s why it’s so important for edtech designers to observe teachers and students in action, and to understand where their product fits into the curriculum. What every-day needs and pain points in the classroom can be solved with interactive software? And how will your product supplement the teacher’s efforts in a meaningful way?

2. Design a meaningful learning experience
When edtech designers observe students and teachers in action, we create opportunities for better UX in our products, too. Not only do we achieve a better understanding of how concepts are taught, but we also gain insight into which tactics help students learn more effectively.

Take our work with Amplify, for example. We designed two educational games that target and build specific English Language Arts skills, like identifying word syllables and phonemes. For “All Aboard,” we started the design process by understanding how syllable identification is traditionally taught in a classroom: students tap their chin for each sound they hear. This motion translates easily into gameplay. For every syllable they can identify, learners tap a set of train tracks in “All Aboard.” If they’re correct, the train moves ahead for each tap.

“All Aboard” helps learners visualize the concept of syllable counting, invites interaction, and provides immediate feedback. Together, these design elements create a more memorable and meaningful learning experience for students by enhancing what’s already happening in the classroom and reinforcing the concept itself. (It’s also just really fun to play!)

3. Understand how the product is used in its environment
The most helpful beta testing for our products involves real-time observation of teachers and students. Because when it comes to designing products for kids, you need real-time interaction to gauge their stumbling blocks, questions, and interests.

For example, our beta testing process for Literacy Pro, an independent reading app for Scholastic, revealed tech hurdles we hadn’t anticipated. As 35 students logged into their accounts for the first time, we watched as the hardware struggled to load our software. The opportunity to observe this in real time helped our team think through UX—how could we indicate to students that the product was still loading? What could we streamline to make the product faster on older technology or with limited WiFi?

While we didn’t have to go back to the drawing board, we introduced changes that addressed our observations. Our development team made incredible adjustments to speed up performance. We also spoke to reading experts to understand how often independent lessons were conducted in small groups, which helped us tailor how the product would be integrated into the classroom.

4. Explore new UX and tech opportunities as you design your product
When edtech companies understand how teachers and students use products in the classroom, exciting opportunities for both UX and tech can emerge during the design process. Could a product initially designed to help students find books they love also be used for collaborative lessons and projects? Could you incorporate machine learning to better personalize the learner’s experience as they use the product?

As we designed an assessment tool for teachers, we considered whether the data that faculty entered could be constantly saved and backed up. While this change ultimately affected the development costs, the client potentially saved money by avoiding product redesign within the next few years. It also meant that we designed a product that lived up to baseline technical expectations set by cloud-based products and technology, like Google Classroom.

5. Create a great onboarding experience
There are at least two ways we tackle the onboarding process: by creating a mini-training to acquaint new users with the product, and by designing products with progressive personalization features from the start.

While in-person trainings are expensive and time-intensive, they’re necessary for helping you create buy-in for the product from both teachers and administrators. Even if in-person trainings are cost-effective for clients to arrange, products still require great webinars and virtual support over time. You want to give all your new users a foundation for success in the classroom.

Designing an edtech product with progressive personalization also helps onboard customers. A popular eCommerce UX technique, progressive personalization allows users to answer UX questions and develop a set of preferences over time, rather than requiring them to develop a customized profile before they can engage with the product. This minimizes the barriers to entry and ultimately eases the onboarding process—which is especially important when you’re designing products for young students and busy teachers.

We like to seize design opportunities to make the onboarding process for a product fun, visual, and encouraging for students, too. Engaging students with friendly prompts or goal-setting questions eases potential anxieties about learning and motivates students to engage even more deeply with content.

With all the hard work, planning, and testing that goes into a new edtech product, onboarding users is often overlooked. But strong onboarding strategies are one of the most important parts of the design process. If you use up all your resources on creating the product without thinking about user support, the product might never get off the ground and make a difference in the classroom!

Our 250+ Clients Include