5 Ways UX and Product Design Help Deliver Online Learning ROI

Joshua Thayer
May 25, 2018 2:48:33 PM

The return on investing in design has historically been difficult for organizations to evaluate. A large reason for this is that design has often been viewed as a nice-to-have and, even worse, undervalued. The perception that design is just a quick pass of “making things look nice” paired with a “good enough” approach has kept design practices from being embraced as bottom-line drivers.

As a result, according to Designer Fund, “day-to-day, design teams must compete for their company’s headcount, budget, and cross-functional buy-in.”

To mitigate this, approaching design and user experience as crucial and key components of your online learning product strategy should be imperative for success. Investing the time and resources to build something both beautiful and usable, that serves a real need, will drive true business benefits that mitigate risk, differentiate your learning offerings in the market, and get you to market faster.

So, let’s take a look at five ways product design and user experience design can deliver for your learning organization.

1) Reduce costs with proper planning

Releasing a new training, certification, or other online learning product takes an incredible amount of time, effort, and resources—none of which come free. Product management and product planning can be a complicated stew of market research, persona definition, content and feature prioritization, and organizational buy-in, all stirred together in one overflowing pot.

Smartly utilizing all of those pieces is crucial to keeping costs where they need to be and reducing future troubles. As you get set to launch a new training product, plan properly up front and define your bar for quality and you’ll reduce the hefty costs associated with fixing things later.

Consider the “1-10-100 Rule.” Management Secrets writes, “The primary learning the 1-10-100 Rule brings to the table is the longer it takes to detect a mistake in the work process, the more expensive and devastating it can be in terms of the time and cost to repair the error which was made.”

This means that mapping out a plan, solving problems when they arise, and paying attention to the details of your learning and training products matters from the very beginning. Think through your offering and map your content, release strategy, and growth plan as fully as you can—though not at the exclusion of adaptability and refinement, of course. As you move from design to market to sales of your online learning products, the cost of errors escalates as a result of the failure costs becoming greater.

In product design, preparation takes the form of outlines, sketches, wireframes, and other lo-fidelity drafts that help you think through the particulars of what you’re planning to build. For online learning, this could mean mapping out the entire end-to-end content journey for your learners, or it may mean paying attention to how you’ll expose next steps, related material, upsell opportunities, and other interactive or engagement elements.

Think about what learners will need at each phase of their lifecycle to be successful. Then, consider how all those components look, feel, behave, and inter-relate. Do your research, plan to answer your audience’s challenges, and look at other offerings that already exist in the market. Through a synthesis of inputs, planning, and drafts, you’ll build an up-front understanding of the options they currently have available, where your sweet spot will be, and how to get there smoothly and cleanly.

2) Grow revenue with a user-centric approach to product design

In the early days of Facebook, founder Mark Zuckerberg touted the mantra “move fast and break things.” That sounds exciting and the thinking goes like this: If you aren’t breaking a few things, you must not be pushing hard enough. Over time, though, that risky mindset becomes an addiction. Employees keep chasing that feeling of pushing to the bleeding edge, teetering on collapse.

It’s also largely self-centered and a good way to alienate your dedicated customers. With everything at risk of being broken at any time, how can you expect to develop trust in what you have to offer? Customers often end up with products in their hands—or on their computer screens—that feel half-realized and incomplete.

Instead, practice user-centered design as your build your online learning product line. Here’s how to approach that, adapted from usability.gov:

  • Specify the context of use: Identify the learners who will benefit from the product, what they will learn from it, and under what conditions they will be learning.
  • Specify requirements: Identify any business requirements or user goals that must be met for the learning product to be successful.
  • Create design solutions: Build from a rough concept to a complete design, through stages of iteration, consideration, and revision.
  • Evaluate designs: Evaluation of your content and learning platform—ideally through usability testing with actual users—is an integral part of good online learning development.

The key here is a balance between good looks—what most people consider to be design—and usability—the actual heart and lifeblood of good design. Many beautiful products have been brought to market that favored good looks but shriveled under the harsh light of usability. Something that looks nice, but is confusing or ineffective, is not solving any problem. It’s just creating more.

Focusing on customers first and solving their real problems with effective solutions should be a no-brainer, but takes some sophistication of approach. A well-realized picture of who you’re speaking to and what they need gives you context and requirements. Then, solve that problem effectively by creating and evaluating ways to meet those needs and requirements.

For instance, if you administer job training and certification for x-ray technicians, the online learning you offer must be perfectly matched to what they need to continue doing their jobs. Any distractions, poor user experience, or confusing delivery of information is a hurdle in reaching their goals. Muddy the waters, and they’ll be less likely to wade back to you, explore your other product offerings, or refer their coworkers to you. Deliver in such a way that they can absorb what they need to know, feel prepared for quizzes or assessments, and receive updated certification seamlessly, though, and you’ll keep them hooked and coming back next time.

3) Mitigate risk by prototyping and testing

Designing and delivering products to your market is an inherently risky venture. Along the way from concept to product, there are many assumptions that need to be made and acted upon. Then, once your new training product is available, the true test of customer acceptance and adoption begins. If you’ve missed the mark and your online training doesn’t resonate with customers, you’ve lost time, money, effort, and other resources on the way towards the wrong output.

A way to reduce risk in your learning products is to develop good prototype testing practices and build a Beta Testing team. You’ll be surprised by how many of your customers will want to tag along on the development process to help you make the product better. It makes sense, after all, since they have a vested interest in seeing the product they rely on get better and serve their needs more effectively.

With beta testing, you get your early versions of in-process training products in front of a curated set of testers and then use the results of those test to influence your product roadmap. There are two key components in selecting a beta audience and running a successful testing program:

  1. Knowing who your audience should be.
  2. Clearly defining what you want to test for.

Choose a specific goal for refinement and then identify who is most likely to be able to help you test towards that goal. For example, you may want to uncover weak areas in your learning content. To meet that goal, you could start with a beta list of existing users who have completed multiple trainings successfully. They’ll be used to the way your training products generally unfold, and have insight into what new learners should expect.

Or, you may need to understand whether you’ve chosen the right content types for each subject area. In this case, you could build a list of learners who have been through a variety of your blended learning paths. Those learners will understand the effectiveness of different learning content around a unified topic area and be able to point out where things aren’t working.

Paint an obvious target on the points where you want beta testers to help. Being clear about what you expect them to focus on will get you more actionable responses. Then, with that feedback, you can finetune the design and user experience of your product as you continue to get it ready for primetime.

4) Differentiate yourself in the market

Design can also be a powerful differentiator in the marketplace. This is a bit of a two-pronged attack. First, a pleasing aesthetic can help to elevate the perceived quality of your product. Second, dedicating the time and energy to make the user experience of your learning product streamlined and usable, lean and mean, can be a tremendous differentiator.

Consider Apple Computers, a possibly hackneyed example at this point but still extremely relevant in design conversations. As Inc Magazine writes, “Prior to Apple introducing beautifully designed products, the look and feel of tech gadgets and gear was often ignored. It gave Apple an enormous capability to beat out what was (and continues to be) a crowded market.” They changed their market and those changes have rippled throughout modern culture. You could argue that restaurants, public transit, cafes all feel different now because of how Apple changed popular expectations.

This drive towards valuing the aesthetics of product experience has stretched across all aspects of modern life, including the online learning experience. Products that look distinct from their competitors will stand out, whether that’s a quality of sleekness or by just different from what’s been previously available. The vast majority of online training has felt old-fashioned or been difficult to use. Focusing on the areas of usability where your competition has lagged can be fresh air for your audience.

5) Get to market faster by being consistent

Good UX practices are also beneficial in helping you speed up development workflows by leveraging consistency. This may take the form of standard design patterns for presenting information and interactive elements or could be patterns you’ve developed for the way your online learning looks and feels, how you package similar content types, or how you move learners from one experience to another.

“If a task that takes four steps can easily be completed in two, the UI should always be modified for the shorter task flow,” writes UX Pin. “UI patterns can help with this. After all, this efficiency is why they became patterns in the first place.” In the area of online learning, think of the user interface as everything the learner sees and experiences within your courses and training and look for patterns that you can propagate across all of your offerings.

Streamlining, being consistent, and following best practices helps both your organization and your audience. When you’ve put some stakes in the ground about your presentation, it means less decisions to make each time you bring something new to market. Spend the time to define your color schemes, layouts, placement of call to actions, and other elements—and adhere to them across your entire learning product line. By systematizing those decisions, you gain the room to focus your energies elsewhere, on details and differentiators such as better content, testing, optimization, and marketing.

A good brand relies on good design for good customers

For your customers, especially those that have stuck with you for awhile, a consistently designed experience across your training and courses makes things easier and faster. Repeat customers have already learned how to interact with your learning product to achieve their goals. Customers are more likely to stick for with an organization that has helped them and that delivers with consistency and quality every time. For new customers, solid user experience makes their entry into your offerings smooth, fluid, and memorable.

At the end of it all, design practices offer a route of brand differentiation and advocacy. Embracing design thinking throughout the stages of your course and curriculum development makes go-to-market easier, less risky, more effective, and offers solid return on your investment.

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