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  • Writer's pictureKendra Oliver

Grounding Product Education in Learning Theory

To what extent should designers make assumptions about users' knowledge and skills before using products? What are the pros and cons of teaching users through the product itself?

While it is essential to know your target user, assumptions about your user's skills and knowledge could lead to confusion, frustration, and disappointment. But making assumptions is also the first step in developing the design. Therefore, it is essential that UX Designers articulate assumptions and then test them. This is particularly true for assumptions that present the highest risk for product success. Testing assumptions will likely lead to a better understanding of the problem a product or service is solving. Through testing, UX Designers can also form more impactful hypotheses regarding design solutions.

Even the most intuitively designed platform requires that users become familiar with it to use it to its fullest potential. Familiarity means learning about how the platform works and the product or service's potential. Two critical aspects of this familiarity are product education and user training. Product education is educating users about the uses and benefits and how to engage with the product to achieve those benefits. User training or end-user training ensures that the target audience is in sync with the company and its needs. This is different from customer training because the customer and the end-user might not be (and likely) not the same people.

There are a few different practical strategies that UX Designers (specifically those focused on product education and user training) can use to educate users. Self-Instruction training, which requires the user to learn the platform independently, is the least successful because it doesn't help ensure users' success. The burden is entirely on the user to learn how to use your product or service. On the opposite end of the effort spectrum is face-to-face training. In this instance, the end-user is being trained by an instructor, and the sole purpose of that one person is to train end-users. While effective, it is also immensely time-consuming. Therefore many rely on automated online (virtual) training instead of self-instruction or face-to-face instruction.

Beyond the approach, there are also the issues of content and delivery of materials. The content must detail how the product benefits the users. These materials are intended to present the overall concepts of the product or service and how they are expected to work. Ultimately, this content should communicate best practices for the product or services implementation, articulate expectations, and provide timelines. After narrowing down to approach and the content, it is also essential to think through the delivery. It can be challenging to get users' attention. For example, they may ignore emails, dismiss notifications, and speed through videos to save time. Adding to your challenges, if users complete the educational activities, they will forget ~70% of what you teach them within a day (Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve).

Understanding learning theories can help UX Designers connect to all different kinds of users. Designers can focus on different learning styles to reach different users, creating teaching that focuses directly on user needs and aptitudes. Below are some learning theories with example approaches to product education and user training:

Cognitive learning theory blends cognition (the mental process of gaining knowledge and understanding) to learn new material efficiently. The cognitive theory emphasizes that users can be influenced by both internal and external elements and encourages reflecting on the application to real-world situations. Cognitive learning theory places the user at the center of the learning process. Product education and user training could mean customizing the learning experience based on the driving internal and external forces motivating the user to use your product.

Internal-based learning theories:

Transformative learning theory focuses on how an adult's 'perspective' on some part of their life and world can be regarded as a form of learning. This conception of learning contrasts with the more common understanding of learning as acquiring new knowledge or skills. As a UX designer, finding ways to promote and display a transformation in the learner by using your product is likely to provide an incentive for product education and training,

Constructivism learning theory is based on users contextualizing new knowledge from previous experiences. Users build new information on their previous knowledge and experiences. The information structure is unique to each user. This learning theory focuses on learning as an active process, which is personal and individual for each student. A UX designer could ask the user to present their current knowledge structure and then connect the content to that existing knowledge structure.

Humanism is similar to constructivism but is more positive and centered on the idea of self-actualization. In striving for self-actualization, the UX designer's educational approach to the product or service can move toward or away from user needs. The alignment of the user's self-actualization and the product is central to the humanistic learning theory and humanistic psychology.

Externally-based learning theories:

Behaviorism learning theory is based on behavior and suggests that behavior is influenced and learned from external rather than internal forces. How a user behaves is influenced by their interaction with their environment. As a designer, one way to utilize the behaviorism learning theory is by asking the user to demonstrate mastery of a particular behavior essential for product utility before adding new components.

Social learning theory focuses on users learning from observing others. The social learning theory explains that when people see someone else performing a specific behavior, they utilize this information to inform and modify their future behaviors.

Connectivism is one of the newest educational learning theories that assert users learn and grow when they form social connections. Users can be connections with each other or connections with their jobs or other obligations in their lives. Things like hobbies, goals, and people can all be connections that influence learning. Within connectivism, learning occurs when users are connected and share opinions, viewpoints, and ideas through a collaborative process.

Experiential learning theory focuses on learning by doing. Using this theory, users learn through experiences that can help them retain information and new skills. Through engagement, users "learn by doing" and reflect on the experience.


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