Edtech’s Ideal User Interface Requires More Than Simplicity

Most discussions regarding the development of educational technology boil down to one key factor: How easy is it to use? Simplicity is often the name of the game when it comes to creating new technologies — any application or tool that doesn’t offer an optimal experience in terms of usability is usually rejected in favor of one that has a better user experience.

While simplicity and usability are undoubtedly important considerations when developing educational technology, educators have other priorities as well. The most well-designed, elegant solution is meaningless in the face of other deficiencies, which means that edtech developers need to consider the entire experience and role of the technology in the classroom if they expect their products to be embraced and successful. Everything from the graphics interface to the page layout must be designed so that it supports the cognitive processes of learning to improve outcomes.

What does this look like? Good user interfaces incorporate any number of features, but the following are among the most important.

Graphics User Interface (GUI)

The look and feel of any educational technology tool, whether an online classroom, an educational game, or a multimedia presentation, is important to the effectiveness of the overall learning experience. All too often, the GUI dominates the experience to the point that the content becomes secondary to the colors, design features, cartoon characters, logos, and more.

This creates a cognitive overload, in which more of the user’s attention and brain power is devoted to processing the graphics than on the subject matter being presented.

Ideally, then, the GUI should play a secondary role to the content, or enhance the presentation. On a more technical level, this means choosing the right technology for the device or product, e.g., 8-bit, 16-bit, or 32-bit graphics processor, as well as the right colors and design. At the same time, the GUI must be responsive, and compatible with a variety of different devices and screen sizes. Consider developing interfaces that borrow characteristics from familiar websites or games, which help make the product more intuitive and comfortable for students to use.

Also, when choosing graphics for the product, avoid adding graphics or photos simply for decoration. Although studies indicate that most learners are more successful with a combination of text and graphics, that doesn’t mean adding random or unrelated graphics just to break up the text. Graphics should always serve a purpose, whether to explain a concept (especially those that would otherwise be invisible), indicate transitions and progress, show relationships, or indicate the structure of the learning. When technology is designed in this way, it has a better chance of being attractive, intuitive, and effective.

Add a Human Element

It almost seems counterintuitive, but some of the most effective educational technology tools are those that include a human element in the instructional. Studies indicate that people learn better when they perceive some type of social presence, rather than a disembodied “other” providing the instruction. This can be accomplished as easily as using a conversational tone, but most edtech developers also include a virtual agent of some type, whether an avatar, cartoon character, or just a human voice providing narration.

However, while virtual agents can have a positive effect on the learning, it can also be distracting when the agent is used for entertainment rather than instruction — or overused. In other words, a cartoon character that provides an occasional hint or guidance is effective. A cartoon character that pops up every two minutes will quickly become annoying. In addition, your virtual agent doesn’t necessarily need human appearance. As long as the agent exhibits human-like behaviors, such as gesturing, it can be effective, especially when accompanied by a human voice.

Offer Feedback and Control

Learning is most effective when it includes feedback and a give and take between the student and the instructor. Effective educational technology includes ample feedback, not only about student performance, but about progress. Design your product so that it responds to user commands; even something as simple as a green light or click sound when the student answers a question can provide assurance that they are on the right track.

And finally, give users some control. While they may not be able to control the sequence of the content or which tasks must be completed, include features like video control, the ability to review older material, or save their progress and exit. This helps learners become active participants, and not simple passive observers.

Educational technology is a growing and expanding field, and developers are still working on the ideal methods of instruction. But understanding how people learn, and using that information to guide product design, will ensure better outcomes in every respect.

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