Top 5 Asks from K-12 Teachers for a Great eTextbook User Experience

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What teachers mean when they say “make it user friendly”—and what your team can do to help.

At the end of just about every user experience research session we hold with teachers, we ask the participant to share any final advice they have for design and development teams working on educational technology products. In these wrap-up conversations, we hear recurring themes. Here are five of the most common bits of advice to platform creators from e-textbook users, and some ideas for addressing their needs.


1. “Make it easy for me to get started.”

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Teachers would like learning platforms to allow for easy on-boarding—ideally, a process with zero learning curve. They believe they shouldn’t have to attend a professional development session to start using a product. As first-time users, they expect to grasp the overall structure from a quick glance and find the starting point they’re looking for.

Here’s advice to product teams from Madeline, a 4th grade teacher:

“As you're designing it, keep in your head that teachers aren't going to get trained in how to use it. Every single time I've used the e-textbook, I have been given the access code the day before I start teaching. So I had to navigate it all myself. And I think if you know that as the designer and the developer, then you know that perhaps that you need to make certain sections a little bit more obvious. I think that a lot of times people assume that we're going to be trained, and instead I'm learning on my 50-minute plan times along with everything else.”


2. “Make it easy to navigate.”

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On a similar note, one of the main reasons products aren’t adopted by teachers for classroom use is that they're too difficult (and thus time-consuming) to navigate. Though they don’t use these words, teachers are asking teams to have a smart content strategy in place and to carefully design the information architecture of the platforms and e-books they’re building.

Here’s some advice from Matthew, a high school science teacher:

"Simplify things as much as possible. The drawback from the [now abandoned e-textbook]...was just that it became too complicated to use, so it didn't become a resource. The whole class time was about navigating it, not about the content itself. So I wasn't even helping kids with chemistry. I was helping kids with navigating the website, which, to me, was like totally not a productive endeavor…. If tech-savvy kids were having difficulty with it, there obviously was an issue.”


3. “Remember that our infrastructure is part of the experience.”

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While no team can control the tech infrastructure at customers’ schools or homes, they can be mindful of the various contexts customers are in. Teachers are asking teams to untether learning solutions from a single mode of delivery, making some form of the content available online and off.

Here’s what Heather, a high school English language arts teacher has to share:

“I think one of the most helpful things to have in an e-book would be to have offline access so that my kids can download the e-book and we could still work with it when the Internet's down. Because really, that's one of my main frustrations with the e-book… If the Internet is not working for whatever reason that day, it's really frustrating to plan a whole unit and then find out that the students don't have access to it. So that for me has been highly frustrating to the point that sometimes I'm like, I'm not even dealing with the e-book. I'm just going to go with what I know I can have in my classroom today.”


4. “In case you were wondering—yes—design for phones.”

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Related to the previous point, teachers in some contexts would like teams to know that their students indeed use phones for online learning experiences—particularly when families don't have computers at home. They’re asking that companies be mindful of this case, especially when providing content in a digital-only format. 

Lindsay, 4th grade teacher, has this to say:

“I would definitely say that the reason why all the kids don't use [e-textbooks] all the time—it's because you have to know your population. A lot of these companies are going more towards e-textbooks, so it's less paper. However, if your population in your district doesn't allow for that, you really can't rely on it. Because it's also asking their home life to do a lot more than we've asked in the past, where everything was really done in school: You took a book home, you brought it back, and we knew that the student would at least get it done because they had access.

But with the e-textbooks, you always have to have a backup. Because you can't expect that the wi-fi is going to be working or that the student has access to a computer. And if it is an e-textbook, companies definitely need to be making more smartphone capabilities and compatibilities.… That's what a lot of these students have now, and that's what a lot of these students’ parents have.”


5. “Innovate. (And, no, digital and innovative aren’t synonymous.)”

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Teachers are asking product teams to release themselves from old metaphors and consider offering something new. Turning print books into digital books can be helpful for some use cases, but it isn’t “innovation” in many teachers’ minds. Many teachers are seeking content, tools, ideas, and activities that will allow them to engage their students in completely new ways—ways that might not even require technology.

Erin, a middle school math teacher, says this:

“Technology is the future of education. I absolutely get it. However, the novelty of technology is no longer there for our students because it's everywhere for them. So that extrinsic motivation, that key interest, keeping them engaged—it's really, really something that needs to be visited because what used to do it before doesn't do it anymore. Just having a computer is not enough to keep them engaged anymore. It's really about what we're asking them to do and the way we're asking them to do it. We kind of have to put the student back into the teaching, you know? [....]

I think the dependency on technology is really taking away from learning, so that would just be something that I would encourage the companies to think about. The kids aren't excited by the games and the graphics and the videos anymore. They watch that all day, every day. So a new way to engage—a different platform for engagement, I think, is really key to reaching students in this day and age.”


What can your team do to help?

Embrace human-centered approaches.

To address these asks, the first step is advocating for a human-centered / user-centered design approach to be adopted among your product development teams. This means empathy over ego, curiosity before JIRA tickets. It's not the same as graphic design or creative direction, nor can it be owned by any one team; it's a systems-level approach with people at the center. Of course, shifting mindsets is easier said than done—and requires stellar leadership—but your team can begin by investing in qualitative research to understand your customers in context.

Partner up to slay Franken-features.

Customers often convey their needs for product enhancements during field visits, when sales-focused trainers check in with teachers and gather feedback. When a customer conveys a request without a UX specialist there to observe the interaction and interpret the underlying ask, the feature request may go straight into a development backlog as a literal ask: add a button here, put an extra tool there, for instance. Then, when it’s developed, the feature is layered onto the platform like an extra appendage. This common practice is one of the major reasons that students and teachers get lost in so many platforms: each has the stitched-together feel of a Frankenstein’s monster constructed with literal, additive feature requests.

To honor your customers’ deeper needs for user friendliness, consider pairing researchers and designers with the trainers when they go into the field. Ensure there’s at least one person present who has expertise in observational research methodologies, whether ethnography or human-computer interaction. When there’s a request, watch customers as they use the product, and then address the underlying ask. Wherever possible, budget for true Agile development, which allows for refactoring when new features are implemented and can promote a more seamless feel.

Make IA your friend.

For navigation issues, invest in user-centered content strategy and information architecture: the planning of content and platform navigation, hierarchy, and tagging so that things are easy to find. This, of course, isn’t as splashy as a new data dashboard, but teachers and students will love your company for the ease they sense as they make their way through your products.

Designing a user-centered information architecture (IA) involves conducting card sorts and tree tests with your customers and ensuring your content platform is built for their mental models and language rather than yours. (Hint: What many platforms label “assignments” and “resources” are different from what teachers call “assignments” and “resources.”)

Think big-picture. Co-create.

Assuming you have qualitative user research to draw from, invest in user-centered strategic design, service design, and UX strategy—the “big-picture” relatives of user experience design—to innovate and craft the end-to-end experience.

Particularly if you’re part of a large company with multiple platforms and legacy systems, map your users’ journeys through your product ecosystem, noting the touch points and contexts of use. Provide teams access to the research so that there's shared understanding. Avoid designing and building in silos, and co-create instead. Use a systems approach to create a "seamless" experience for the contexts your customer will be in. Use participatory design methods to innovate. 

In short, empathize.

Whenever possible, seek to understand customers’ mental models and contexts before simply building more. Sometimes they need companies to streamline the experience—by removing stuff that’s in their way—rather than add that new feature.

Encourage your team to play with new possibilities and stretch in new directions. (You can call on us if you need help getting started!) 

We believe teachers and students are worth your empathy and highest creativity, and that your business will benefit when “user friendliness” is a strategic priority.

Marcy Van Horn is founder and principal at Metaxu UX. Contact us to discuss your research, design, and facilitation needs. We'd be happy to coach your team in design research and co-creation, or any of the other methods described here.

A special thanks to the teachers mentioned in this post. Their quotes were included with permission and gathered as part of a 2018 U.S. research study sponsored by Metaxu. Please note that qualitative data gathered during client-sponsored studies is not used in blog posts or other public formats.

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