User Experience Research: Improving Digital Learning One Study at a Time

By September 21, 2018September 27th, 2018Curriculum, Education, General

I have a pretty interesting job, one I didn’t even know existed until grad school. My coworkers come to me with questions, and then I go find the answers. OK, that might not sound that interesting. But in my line of work, the answers I provide affect the lives of thousands of students and educators.

I am a User Experience (UX) Researcher at StrongMind, a leading digital curriculum developer. If you’ve been around the tech industry a while, you might know what UX is. However, there are far more people who aren’t familiar with it. If we UXers do our jobs properly, the people who use our products will never even notice the fruits of our labor. That’s the way we like it. We strive to make the complex seem so simple that the user takes the experience for granted.

User Experience Research in EdTech

Edtech is rather unique with respect to UX. A quick google search for UX returns some broad definitions or case studies, like about making an online shopping experience better. When educating students, the stakes are much higher than getting customers to add an extra pair of socks to their shopping cart. (Because, why not? Shipping is free for orders over $35.) With students, we’re talking about the difference between being motivated to graduate high school or not.

When I was in high school, you could’ve asked me to list all the things I didn’t like about my learning experience. That list would have been exhaustive. However, not once did anyone ask me to do that. Even if they had, I wouldn’t have expected any improvements to happen. As a researcher, I regularly talk with students and teachers about how to make their educational experience better.

Learn how we are working to humanize the online learning experience.


At StongMind, we seek out and really try to understand teacher and student pain points. By removing these problems, we enable an increasingly effective, engaging, and enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

“How the heck do you do that?” you might ask. Broadly speaking, we take two general approaches to making online education as painless as possible. We conduct research on the content as well as on the applications that deliver our content. Both approaches work together to achieve our goal of using technology to remove barriers and improve teaching and learning.

Research Methods

When it comes to what we actually do and how we do it, we employ a myriad of research methods to ensure we’re approaching a problem or possible design thoughtfully and in the best way. Here are just some of the methodologies the StrongMind research team employs to continuously drive curriculum and platform improvements.

  • Affinity Mapping:We use this process of observation and insight clustering to keep our design teams grounded in data as they develop our content and applications.
  • Surveys: We collect self-reported information about student and teacher characteristics, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, behavior, and attitudes.
  • Interviews: We talk to students and teachers in person to gather indepth information and take note of personal expression and body language.
  • Task Analysis: We observe how a task is accomplished by a user, including both manual and mental activities as well as task duration, frequency and complexity.
  • Product Rally/Design Sprint: We use this time constrained, five-phase process (understand, sketch, decide, prototype and validate) to create a solution for a large problem in a short amount of time.
  • Usability Testing:We employ this user-centered technique to evaluate our content or applications and learn how real students and teachers are using our courseware.

Part of our cross-functional team that participated in a design sprint. In a five-day session, we observed how schools assess and select courses, and we prototyped a self-service portal.

Curriculum Research

Last year our research team set out to find what students and teachers thought about our high school algebra course and how to improve it. We sent out surveys and held interviews, and usability tested the course itself. One thing we found was that students struggled with how some of the complex concepts were described. But we also gleaned a major insight from our research: There was one particular way we were explaining algebra concepts that really clicked with students. Our math team immediately began incorporating more of that type of explanation into our math courses. It’s changes like this that help us continually improve learning experiences and outcomes.

This Algebra I color-coded explanation alongside an equation helps students better understand the steps that need to be taken and when.

Application/Platform Research

Content or curriculum research is only valuable if we are able to deliver the course in an easy-to-use way, which brings me to the other approach we use: application research.

If you’ve ever used Microsoft Paint, you know how easy it is to draw something—you also know you won’t be producing any masterpieces! Compare that application to Adobe’s Photoshop where you need some serious skills to get that UFO hoax just right. What happens when something like a learning platform has to be complex, fully capable, and easy to use? Enter UX research and design.

Recently we launched a new learning management system (LMS). It wasn’t a simple process. By collaborating with UX designers and product development teams, we conducted many studies over a year to uncover student and teacher goals. In fact, our research is still going on. It wasn’t until after countless hours of poring over interview notes, usability data and making incremental changes that we launched our intuitive, easy-to-use application.

We spent a significant amount of effort working with teachers. One thing we heard about a lot was the amount of time teachers spent navigating grades and assignment submissions while also trying to engage with students. Because there are only so many hours in a day, we were determined to provide a more effective way for teachers to sift through all of their students’ course activity. Our efforts resulted in a completely redesigned gradebook that is much more efficient and intuitive.

StrongMind’s intutive gradebook delivers student performance data in real-time so teachers know exactly when and where a student needs additional instruction or support.

Whether it’s improving content to drive engagement and improved academic outcomes or providing teachers with powerful and intuitive tools, UX research plays an increasingly important role in edtech. Without it, we would only be guessing at what works in terms of piqueing student interest and helping them succeed in school. As a proud member of the edtech community, I’m excited to be part of an organization that is advancing digital learning through its commitment to extensive research and excellent design.

By Josh Chin

Josh is a User Experience Researcher and UX evangelist. He has a background in human factors engineering, cognitive learning, and cognitive psychology. Josh can usually be found learning about new things and collecting new skills.


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