7 Ways UX Design Theory Transformed My Approach to Course Design

A little over a year ago, when we were just beginning to revise Write About, Brad Wilson encouraged me to research the theories behind user experience design (UX). We had created a blogging platform that complete with all the functionality we could imagine but we needed it to work seamlessly for students and teachers. It had become clunky.

User experience design theory (sometimes abbreviated as XD, UX, UXD or UED) focuses on the user experience of a platform. This might include accessibility, usability, enjoyment, and the overall flow of the experience. UX design focuses on both on how we use digital tools and on how we inhabit digital spaces. It 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?

As I dove deeper into UX design, I began to question my approach to classroom systems. One of the key ideas in UX is to build systems that people will intuitively understand rather than trying to get people to fit into a system. Yet, in classrooms, I had spent hours teaching procedures. I had designed the physical spaces with little thought to what students could figure out on their own. I hadn’t even considered the “user experience” of my pedagogy, classroom management, or classroom space. UX design was a game-changer for me.

Now, as a professor, I am designing courses from scratch. Some of these are in-person, others hybrid, and others fully online. However, once again, I have the same desire to create something that flows seamlessly for students. I want to create something that they enjoy. Here are seven ideas of UX design that I am trying to incorporate into my course design:

1. Embrace On-Boarding

Sign up for a website and you’ll probably experience a “virtual tour.” Often, it’s something simple, with things clearly labeled as you use them. They might have pop-ups or rollover text or part of the screen that gets lighter. Platform designers want you to feel comfortable as you easily navigate that first experience.

What if we did the same in classrooms?

In my online courses, I have a “start here” section with a video tour of the course. It’s been one of the most popular features so far. When I teach in person, on-boarding is more about explaining / labelling things as we go rather than having a long, drawn-out explanation of procedures ahead of time. The goal of an on-boarding experience is to alleviate fear, help students feel comfortable, and answer questions as you go rather than giving a list of instructions ahead of time.

2. Begin with the User in Mind

At my work, we regularly use Google Drive and Taskstream. It’s an interesting contrast. Google Drive seems to be built around what a user would want to do. So, when I have students who have never used it before, they usually tinker around for five minutes before saying, “this totally makes sense.” It seems to be designed for the user. By contrast, after a full school year of using Taskstream, I am still confused by it. Menus disappear. The settings make no sense. It’s a mess. But it’s a mess that works efficiently for gathering data at the macro level. It’s great for institutions but wonky and confusing for the users.

Most of the teacher productivity advice tends to focus on how to make the job easier for the teacher. We see things like managing the paper trail or getting organized. But user experience should focus on making things easier for the students. This is why I have been collecting surveys and needs assessments on what students want from the layout and design of an online course. When I teach in person, I try to take notes on the “pain points” I see from activities that didn’t flow well. Where are they getting confused? What could I modify? What could I do to make things more intuitive? This user-end focus has shaped the way I create project papers and rubrics. It’s changed the way I deliver feedback and instruction.

3. Create Multimedia Instructions

I remember a point in Write About when we were creating short instructional videos explaining how to use various features (we also experimented with a mix of text and .gifs) and I realized that I had never done this for my students. So, I started creating short instructional videos for projects. This wasn’t a “flipped classroom” approach. The videos didn’t explain skills or concepts. They certainly weren’t lectures. Instead, they were multimedia instructions for how to do specific tasks.

4. Be Intentional with Copy Text

If you check out the sites you frequent most often, they have clear, easy-to-understand copy text. It’s part of what makes Facebook so easy to navigate. It’s why you can hop on YouTube and figure out within seconds where you need to go. This copy text feels invisible. You don’t even notice it. But that’s the point. This invisible design is what makes it work so well.

I’ve written before that students should learn how to write great copy. However, I think it’s also something teachers might want to explore. How can we create short, simple text that guides students intuitively through systems? How do we create simple, minimalist visuals that accomplish the same thing? What would it mean to create instructions with clarity and brevity?

5. Be Linear and Connective

Open any decent app on your phone and you’ll notice a logical, linear flow. Things are exactly where they need to be. You can go sequentially through things and you won’t feel lost. At the same time, there’s a good chance that you can move back and forth between things at any time. This is part of what makes the user experience work. It’s the notion of being logical but intuitive and being linear but also connective.

So, when we think about course design, we need to consider how things can flow logically and sequentially in a linear way. At the same time, we need to incorporate elements of a web-like, connective experience. This is easier to accomplish in online spaces. But it’s also a mindset within projects. It’s an approach to classroom conversations. It’s the idea of remembering to keep things both linear and connective at the same time.

6. Be Consistent

If you go on Facebook, you’ll notice that a profile is always called a profile. A group is always a group. They don’t call a group a “team” or a “gathering.” The symbols remain constant. The framework and interface stay the same. And when they do an update, people freak out! For a day. Then they get over it, because even after an update, the language remains consistent. That’s the beauty of consistent design. It’s the idea of using patterns and familiarity to speed of cognition.

I’m not suggesting that we do the exact same thing in a classroom. We can use the terms “group” and “teams” interchangeably. It would feel weird to standardize the language. However, there is value in incorporating consistent language and predictable frameworks so that students know what to do.

This is why I use the same templates each time for project papers. I continually use student feedback to guide what the project papers should look like. I want the handouts to be clear, concise, intentional, and intuitive. I then use the same template each time on all the project papers. This creates a seamless flow. On the other hand, I made the mistake in my first online course of using different terms (calling it the Teacher Blog Project in the syllabus and then Reflective Blog on the project paper). I had four emails the first day asking about the Teacher Blog Project paper. (Note: this is also why I started linking my syllabus to my project papers with a simple hyperlink)

7. Be Simple

Open the Instagram app and you’ll see a home icon, a search icon, the picture icon, the heart icon and the profile icon. You have five simple icons with no words. But packed within each icon is a ton of functionality. This ease of function creates an experience that’s calm and minimal and fun. So, the UX and the UI fit together perfectly. However, if you’ve ever visited a cumbersome website with tons of options and banner ads and movement all over the place, you will most likely want to leave. You’ll feel overwhelmed. For a small comparison, look at how cluttered CNN.com is compared to Vox.com. Which one evokes a mood that says, “Hey, feel free to stick around?”

Procedures and systems shouldn’t feel cumbersome and bureaucratic. Imagine you want to have a first name, last name, class period, and date at the top of each student’s paper. You might tell students, “I want the name followed by the class period followed by the date.” Some students will forget the date or class period. Some will change up the order. Some will write their first name and forget the last name. It’s cumbersome. So, another option might be to give students a 3-digit number with the class period and their number on the roll (if I’m in period 4, I might be 417) and then you have “blind grading” and you can easily sort the papers. Students then need to write two things: their number and the date. If you’re willing to let go of the date, you just have a student number each time.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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