8 Ways UX Design Theory Transformed My Approach to Course Design

UX Design Theory can teach us a lot about how to build community, communicate clearly, and set up effective systems as we design our courses. The following is an exploration 8 ways UX Design Theory can change the way we teach. 

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What Is UX Design?

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?

I first embraced UX design when I helped create Write About, a blogging platform for students. We had tons of great features but we initially struggled with how to help students navigate the system seamlessly.

As I dove deeper into UX design, I began to question my approach to classroom systems and course architecture. 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 eight 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 Users 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.

In other words, my goal is to be more like Google Drive and less like Taskstream.

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.

My goal this year is to create a set of preview videos for assignments. I will include an “unboxing” segment where I walk students through the assignment along with a quick exploration of exemplars.

Last year, I split-tested two different video approaches. In the first video, I created a traditional instructional video. I explained how the assignments worked in a logical, sequential way, answering questions that I thought students might ask. In the second video, I created an “unboxing” video, where I took on the role of a student. I said, “I want you to pretend I’m a student. So, here’s what I’m seeing . . . Here’s what I think I’ll do . . . Next, I’m going to want to . . .” The students overwhelmingly chose the second “unboxing” approach rather than the traditional instructional approach.

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 rather than attempting to be comprehensive?

5. Be Linear But Be 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 up cognition so that students can focus on what they are learning.

Now, 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 expect.  

For example, in my online courses, I always use the term “team” rather than “small group.” I use the term “weekly discussions” rather than “forums” or “conversations.” This might not seem like a big deal but it allows students to move seamlessly through a course without needing rethink what a term might mean. Similarly, I use consistent language with assignments and projects. I refer to our Professional Educator Blogs as Professional Educator Blogs. I don’t use the term “teacher blogs” or even “educator blogs.”

This is also 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.

I made this mistake in my first course two years ago. I had an assignment called the Professional Educator Blog. However, I also referred to it as the teacher blog, education blog, reflection blog, and social studies blog. At one point, a student emailed me asking how many blogs she was supposed to have in our course.

I also try to remain consistent with how I structure assignments. For example, I use the same basic template for assignment directions. You can check it out here.

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). This allows you to have  “blind grading” and you can easily sort the papers while your students only have to memorize 3 numbers.

8. Solicit Frequent Feedback

Two years ago, when I taught my first hybrid course, my students gave me a low score in course organization. This was the lowest score in my entire evaluation. The next semester, as I explored UX Design Theory, my friend Luke Neff, offered a great suggestion. Have the students annotate the course documents during the first week. I gave it a try and it was eye-opening. I had been vague in areas where I thought had been clear and I had over-explained areas that actually needed simple explanations. I had failed to provide adequate visuals. This process has been a powerful way to build empathy with students.

Last semester, I used bi-weekly surveys to ask for specific feedback on course organization, course structure, and course communication. I then modified my systems based upon the data trends that I noticed.

In an in-person class, I will make a deliberate effort to watch students interact with course materials and take notes on any areas that are confusing or too time-consuming.

It Should Feel Invisible

The best systems are the ones that feel invisible. You step into it and immediately know where to go and what to do. Don’t get me wrong. Confusion can be a great thing in a classroom if it is leading toward deeper learning. But confusion caused by poorly designed courses leads to disengagement and frustration. It cuts learning short and disrupts creative flow.

I am still early on in this journey. However, I am encouraged by the results so far. I’ve seen huge improvements on my course evaluations in the category of organization. Eventually, I want to get to a place where students aren’t even thinking about the course architecture but are so empowered by the learning that they hardly notice that the systems exist. When that happens, I can focus on what truly matters: the critical thinking, the creativity, and the community we are building together.

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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