Most digital products require a bit of user learning on the job. In a sense, user processes and flows are like small puzzle games that the user needs to solve each time they use a product.
UX Designers craft experiences to be simple and intuitive, yet the puzzling aspect of how to get from A to B remains, especially if a user is new to a product.
Educating a user on any digital app or platform requires design to sync with human cognition and behavioral psychology.
In practice, digital product learning environments take advantage of the user’s collective new and existing knowledge to create conceptual maps of the world and how it works, often tackling new challenges with existing behaviors.
In many cases, tweaks or shifts in user behavior are a necessary consideration in UX design. Without taking psychological factors into account, users can be left alone to educate themselves through trial and error which can lead to frustration and abandonment of the product.
Key aspects of learning environments in UX design
- User information is collected from two places: the product and the user’s conceptual map of the world (ie. past experience and memories)
- Information architecture is orchestrated to accommodate short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM)
- Feedback loops are generated in real-time to accommodate diverse user behavior
- Information and aesthetics strike a balance in order to give the user the best combination of educational help without sacrificing product appeal
Users use conceptual maps to inform behavior
Much like schematics, conceptual maps relay how the user understands the perceived structure and relationships that are present in the world. These conceptual maps are learned, and they coordinate perceived triggers with behavioral responses.
User behavior stems from conceptual maps at the subconscious level.
Thus, digital products are tasked with providing enough information to develop new and accurate conceptual maps, all the while putting the least amount of strain on the user’s mental systems.
Consider this, developing user intuition is really about developing conceptual maps that accurately lead to the right user outcomes. A user does not need to know exactly how or why a feature works, they just need to know how they can interact with it properly.
Application: Proactively set user expectations. Consider how users expect your product to work and then alert them proactively when you plan on altering those expectations.
Take advantage of user memory
Another key element of an educational environment is choosing which processes or tasks need to be learned and committed to LTM and which can simply be taught over and over again using STM.
As you can imagine, committing a process to LTM takes significant brain power both when creating the memory and when retrieving the memory.
On the other hand, if a process is simple enough, teaching it over and over again is a much more efficient use of brain power, albeit less elegant in practice.
Memory is incredibly useful when teaching complex behavior, but consider sparing brainpower whenever necessary.
Perhaps a better way is to make memory unnecessary: put the required information in the world. — Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things (2013)
Perhaps the best solution to educating users is investing in strategic ways to build educational information directly into the product’s UI in order to completely do away with the cognitive stress created by LTM processes.
Application: Take a continual approach to educating users rather than a one-and-done approach. Build educational cues directly into UI components.
Trial and error is the bane of any user and a sure-fire way to lose the user’s confidence. Feedback loops are key to behavior design, especially when solving for diverse user behavior.
Feedback communicates corrective behavior after a single misstep or reinforces ideal behavior after a successful user action.
In terms of education, users need feedback to understand how their actions make progress. Think of button states, buffer screens, and error messages (the list is endless). These responsive changes to user behavior communicate timely and critical information.
Keeping the user in the loop is the best way to keep user confidence high.
Application: Give feedback to user actions as often as possible. Each piece of feedback will reinforce ideal behavior and teach new user behavior where appropriate.
Striking the right balance between information and aesthetics
One of the biggest problems with education in digital products is the compromise of aesthetics. More text, more feedback, and more options inevitably leads to more clutter.
While learnability is a necessary part of usability, aesthetics are equally valuable to the user experience and product success.
Thus, it helps for educational design to take a minimalist approach, providing just enough information for the user to grasp learnings without compromising look and feel.
Even better, educational components should slip seamlessly into the existing UI and fade into the background until the moment that they are needed.
Application: Strike a balance. Build minimal effective educational components that blend with the product’s visual aesthetics.
Education is a key challenge for every design process. Rarely do product designs match exactly with user conceptual maps which can create underlying friction and frustration.
By taking advantage of human cognition and behavior psychology in UX design, digital products can evolve into intuitive experiences with educated users, even shifting user behavior over time.