The Building Blocks of Engaging UX

A user experience expert shares his best practices on how software designers and educators can better collaborate to inspire joyful learning.

By Sean Oakes – Principal and Creative Director at SOS Brooklyn and Backpack Interactive

MDR-Engaging-UXWhen starting to design a smart user experience (UX), you need to think big. In EdTech, this means strategically synthesizing educational requirements with a creative vision that will delight teachers and students. This is the big idea. On the other hand, thinking small is the crucial second phase, the process of nailing the details by repeatedly prototyping and testing products. During this time, software designers often collaborate with teachers and students to create an outcome that serves their specific educational needs. Here are four ways that educators and designers can come together to develop products that ultimately improve student engagement and achievement.


Investing in real research with teachers and learners must be part of the full development cycle of EdTech products from day one. It’s rarely cheap and never fast, but it almost always saves money in the long run, because the content experts in a subject field bring an invaluable perspective with their years of hands-on experience. It also makes for a more effective product that ultimately has greater engagement with end users who have been a part of its development.

Conducting either quantitative or qualitative surveys with users is another powerful way to get baseline information on behaviors, identify pain points, and test out assumptions before jumping into the product requirements.


Every design process should include at least two to three touch points with users, then many more after the rollout. Sometimes, our clients are lucky enough to have more direct access to their users. On a recent project with a non-profit curriculum organization, we had the opportunity to regularly have our prototypes vetted by school coaches and teachers. Having the users as partners throughout the process resulted in an extraordinarily high quality of feedback. In this case, we could ask these users questions and get answers about new features in nearly real time. If organizations have the ability to plan a project in a way that enlists a user research team throughout the process, the benefits can be tremendous.

Usability testing

Our EdTech customers sometimes ask me what they should look for in an interactive UX, and the challenge in answering them is that often, when it’s done right, UX should be barely noticeable. However, I can say this: if administrators have trouble using a product, their students will have the same problems. They will quickly notice if they have to do a lot of learning about how to use a product, instead of putting the focus on learning the material that the product should be teaching.

Considering the end-to-end experience

It’s the designer’s job to understand not just what a piece of software aims to teach, but how it fits into an entire system of learning. For example, ask these series of fundamental questions:

  • How does independent reading actually work in the classroom?
  • How are students going to use the product at home?
  • What device are they going to use?
  • Will schools need to install apps on multiple student and teacher devices?
  • What data will schools and administrators want, and how can we make that data both secure and actionable?

Answering these questions helps designers create the end-to-end experience. However, these tools are rarely meant to be the only touch point for a learner. Even the best EdTech product is intended to work in tandem with other resources. In the best-case scenario, the other resources include savvy teachers and a system of support that personalizes the total experience to each student’s specific learning style.

To inspire this sort of collaboration, the EdTech design process should be collaborative, too. Whether we’re thinking big or thinking small, the most successful products come from partners who are dedicated to thinking together, and who are excited about digging in to the true needs of learners.

engaging-ux-sean-oakesSean Oakes is the Principal and Creative Director at SOS Brooklyn and Backpack Interactive. In his 18 years of experience in the EdTech world, he has worked with Scholastic, Learning Ally, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Connect with him on LinkedIn.