By Dr Yiota Demetriou (Head of UX Design & Research at Lyfta)

Designing digital experiences for adults can be tricky, but designing educational tools that facilitate pedagogical experiences for children and young people, particularly in school settings, is a whole other challenge. Here Yiota outlines her key advice on designing EdTech tools.

The challenge of designing EdTech tools

It is standard practice that the first step towards designing any digital product is to understand the user: their needs, wants, and pain points, and weigh these insights against sociocultural contexts. A designer ensures that the product serves a scalable need and is usable– accessible, inclusive, easy to use, efficient, and the list goes on– NOT only useful. 

Similar rules apply while designing for a young audience, but creating learning experiences for these users and their teachers requires extra care and responsibility.

Different age groups learn in different ways, so it is essential to tailor the experience to the specific audience. This also means understanding the needs of the teachers using the experience, as they will need to deliver the content to their students effectively.

We often consider today’s youth digital natives because of their ever-growing exposure to digital technologies. However, having access to digital technology and the internet does not necessarily make a person a digital native.

Despite growing up in the digital age, children and young people are not always equipped with the skills and knowledge to use technology safely and effectively, which can put them at risk. Additionally, not all children and young people have equal access to technology, which can further disadvantage them.

Children and young people learn through doing and being guided, just like in other areas of life. Therefore, they also need guidance on living and thriving in experiences facilitated by digital tech. They need help to understand the risks and benefits of using technology, and they need help to develop healthy habits around technology use.

In this context, designing a fun, flashy, and playful product for younger audiences is not enough to make the experience educational, engaging, healthy, and usable. We must also take the extra mile to prevent any potential risks of harm, ensuring that these are age-appropriate and relevant.

This can be achieved by (but not limited to this list):

  • Following policy guidelines on safeguarding children and their private information online. 
  • Providing controls limiting access to features, content, or screen time.
  • Designing a stress-free environment where young users are not overwhelmed and/or anxious when using the product. 
  • Ensuring the evaluation of all potential risks and harm to mitigate these. 

The above can only be implemented by following a research and evaluation practice and doing costly but beneficial UX research.

Designers know that research is critical to creating safe, effective, and engaging products for all users, but they often don’t have the necessary resources to conduct it. This is a huge problem. I’m often asked for advice on how to persuade senior management to adopt UX research.

Senior leaders in tech companies need to pay more attention to the long-term benefits of UX research. This critical research helps build an understanding of younger user needs, identify potential risks, and develop solutions that mitigate those risks.

Beyond that, UX research has countless benefits. From ensuring products are invested in the right target audience to building more user-friendly, engaging, and effective products to increasing customer satisfaction, reducing costs, and improving brand reputation.

Techno-skeptics or Time-strapped?

In my UX research within the EdTech space, I’ve found that teachers in the UK are often apprehensive about new technologies being rolled out in their classrooms. This isn’t because they’re techno-skeptics, as is often assumed. Instead, it’s because they’re time-strapped.

With budget constraints and staff shortages, teachers are already overworked. Teachers must juggle teaching, admin, planning, and pastoral duties, with little time to explore new learning environments. As one educator friend said, “I rarely have time to go to the toilet, let alone a lunch break.”

“Tech companies go to schools without fully understanding the realities of the classroom and the actual needs of teachers and students”

So when a new tech tool is introduced, teachers have to ask themselves: “Is this really worth my time? Will it actually help my students learn? Or will it just be one more thing on my plate?”

Teachers’ overall concern is that technologies rolled out into their schools are nothing more than gimmicks, taking an otherwise unremarkable learning experience and repackaging it with unnecessary bells and whistles.

Teachers are often eager to use technology to improve their teaching. They want to broaden their students’ horizons and find ways to engage them. Even so, my research has found that many teachers feel they are not given enough say in what technologies are rolled out in their schools. Many teachers feel that they are at the mercy of senior management, who may not be as familiar with the realities of the classroom.

This is a problem because teachers are the experts in the classroom. They know their students best, and they know what works and what doesn’t.

Imagine a school adopting a new virtual learning platform. The platform is designed to make it easier for students to learn at their own pace, but it is unclear how it will be used in the classroom. If teachers are not involved in the planning process, they may be unable to use the platform effectively. This could lead to students becoming disengaged and teachers feeling like their school is not supporting them.

The Digital Sell

Tech founders often visit schools with promises of a better future. They tell the school leads and/or senior management that their digital tools will revolutionise students’ learning. They show teachers slick demos and flashy presentations.

But sometimes, the reality doesn’t match the hype.

During my UX research, one teacher told me about a time when their school adopted a new digital tool. The tool was supposed to make it easier for students to collaborate on projects. But when it was rolled out, the tool couldn’t handle all students simultaneously being on it.

This happens all the time. Tech companies go to schools without fully understanding the realities of the classroom and the ACTUAL needs of teachers and students.

As a result, the developed tools are often ineffective or unusable. They are designed for a world that doesn’t exist.

Beyond educators being time-strapped, the reality is that schools may not have access to the best technological infrastructure, hardware, internet connection, or IT support. This shows that the tech company in the anecdote was so focused on its product vision that it lost sight of its users, which is primarily due to technologies not being tested in real environments.

Educators are responsible for providing authentic learning experiences that facilitate student learning and growth in meaningful ways. Technology can serve as a conduit for these experiences where appropriate. Therefore, companies developing digital learning experiences should be responsible for investing in research and carrying it out meaningfully to help educators achieve this goal.

“As we continue to develop new technologies, it is essential to remember that the goal is not to replace educators”

At Lyfta, a small EdTech company, it’s not always easy. However, I’m lucky to have contributed to a culture where customer and user insights are at the forefront of our product cycle.

We’ve created a culture of feedback loops from each team, producing insights that funnel into product development. These insights influence how we design for our adult users (teachers, curriculum leads, heads, etc.) and the different age groups of our younger users.

This has advanced Lyfta’s UX maturity and has a direct positive impact on the schools that use it. We’re not perfect, but we’ve created a culture of research and risk mitigation to ensure we’re constantly learning and improving. As a UXer, it feels great to be part of a company committed to putting our users’ needs first, making a difference in the lives of students and teachers, and helping to shape the future of education.

Technology cannot transform the future of education on its own. True innovation is achieved when strategic product design and user experience (UX) research are used to harness the power of technology to meet real human needs. This means making digital learning experiences accessible to all students, regardless of their background, supporting teachers in their workloads, and helping schools make the most of their tight budgets.

As we continue to develop new technologies, it is essential to remember that the goal is not to replace educators. Instead, technology should be used to enhance and complement their teaching methods, creating new, accessible, and inclusive ways to learn. By doing so, we can help educators ensure that all young learners have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Author: Dr Yiota Demetriou (Head of UX Design & Research at Lyfta)

Shona Wright

Shona covers all things editorial at TechSPARK. She publishes news articles, interviews and features about our fantastic tech and digital ecosystem, working with startups and scaleups to spread the word about the cool things they're up to. She also oversees TechSPARK's social media, sharing the latest updates on everything from investment news to green tech meetups and inspirational stories.