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Why Investment in Design is the Only Way to “Win” in Education

by Jon Kolko
11 min read
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For technology to truly improve education, design needs to be the centerpiece for innovation, making the value proposition a better experience.

As consumers, we use technology because it helps us accomplish our goals. “Accomplish our goals” is pretty broad: Sometimes, our goal is utilitarian (I want to accomplish a specific task). Increasingly, our goal may be emotional (I want to feel a certain way). It may also be enduring (I want more transparency into a policy), informative (I want to know something), and even passive (I want to witness a certain type of experience). Alan Cooper, founder of Cooper Design, explains that goals are lasting over time: “Tasks change as technology changes, but goals have the pleasant property of remaining very stable.”

According to educator Clay Christianson, disruptive innovation isn’t about having superior technology—it’s about offering a superior fit between existing technology and these lasting human goals. He uses the jobs-to-be-done framework to describe this fit, explaining that “customers rarely make buying decisions around what the ‘average’ customer in their category may do—but they often buy things because they find themselves with a problem they would like to solve.”

This fit between problem and solution is sometimes called a value proposition—a promise a brand makes about the ability of a product to help someone achieve a specific goal. I use the label payoffs to describe the successful outcome of that promise, and to describe when the value proposition has been achieved. These payoffs typically include increased convenience, increased access to information or content, the ability to leverage efficiencies, the ability to gain transparency, improved communication, and increased access to resources.

For example, I worked at a startup called MyEdu, which was acquired in 2013 by Blackboard. MyEdu’s technology platform is interesting, but it’s not in any way technically surprising or innovative: we use basic REST services, our product is accessible over the internet, and the code renders in the browser. While the technology itself is not particularly unique, MyEdu offers a value proposition to students that is unique. We promise to help college students succeed in college, tell their story, and get a job. Students can use MyEdu to plan their schedule in a visual format, to create a rich profile that shows their accomplishments, and to connect with employers in order to get a job or internship. The payoff for students is in the form of networking and connection, as students are able to gain professional access to college recruiters. They are able to present themselves in a meaningful and thoughtful way in order to gain employment.

At MyEdu, our success is directly tied to our ability to deliver that payoff. That’s true for all product or service companies. Success depends on the ability to deliver the promised value proposition. Typically, consumers are extraordinarily forgiving of products and services when they fail, as long as the promised payoff is still delivered. For example, early digital cameras promised us a payoff of “faster pictures.” They delivered on this promise, and so for years we put up with poor image resolution, small image size, difficult photo management software, and other headaches. These attributes that we put up with are called forgivable attributes: negative qualities of the product that are ignored, so long as the core payoff is still delivered. First-wave Internet access offered a payoff of free global communication. As long as technology delivered on the promised payoffs, we put up with forgivable attributes like difficult command-line interfaces, complex software, and slow connections. The promised payoff of air travel is the convenience of traveling exponentially faster than in a car or train. As long as we receive that payoff, we’ll continue to overlook the forgivable attributes like physical discomfort, poor service, and even privacy intrusions from the TSA.

The value proposition of educational technology should be better education

We see this juxtaposition between payoff attributes and forgivable attributes on a more detailed level as well. Consumers put up with notoriously poor aesthetics of sites like Amazon or eBay because they gain a payoff of access to an enormous inventory, or lower costs, or increased convenience. Early adopters of home automation forgive terribly confounding and complex controls because they value the payoff of convenience. In some cases, the forgivable attributes are purely financial. Consumers will forgive high prices to get the promised payoff of healthy organic produce or better viewing of an event with front-row seats.


Design describes the quality of an experience as it relates to aesthetics, emotions, pleasure, usability, and cognition. We typically think of design as a forgivable attribute, and we overlook products or services that are hard to use, confusing, demanding, degrading, and downright ugly as long as that payoff is still delivered. The payoff of rapid air travel is so great that we’ll forgive uncomfortable (and potentially physically dangerous) seats, loud noise, an unpredictable cabin climate, long lines, poor service, and so-on. These are design attributes. We can design better experiential qualities for air travel, fixing the seats, the line, and the service, but why would a company bother with the expense if consumers are singly motivated by the payoff?

Payoffs in Educational Technology

In education technology, we’ve been promised various payoffs with each new wave of technological advancement.

  • Tablets promised a payoff of access to unlimited content; students would hold all of the world’s information in their hands, and be able to access any content, anywhere.
  • MOOCs promised a payoff of affordability or scale. Teachers would be able to educate hundreds or even thousands of students, spreading education across the global.
  • Distance learning promised a payoff of convenience. Students in remote locations, or students with non-academic commitments (like families) would be able to study from the convenience of their homes.
  • Badges promised payoff of recognition and skill assessment. Students would link their motivation to an extrinsic reward, and would then be able to accumulate a custom “degree” based on their own interests.

Yet with all of these technological advancements, we still have the same poor results; the same poor graduation rates; the same poor performance metrics. Four-year colleges graduate 53% of students in 6 years. Put another way, 47% of students don’t receive their bachelor’s degree at all, or take longer than 6 years to complete it. Cost of education has skyrocketed. On average, it costs $35,572 to complete a 4-year degree at a state university, and $120,376 to complete a 4-year private degree. The median household income in the US in 2012 was $51,371 and a four-year degree is likely the most expensive thing many Americans will ever purchase. At least according to cost or success rate, we can say with a high degree of confidence that education has not been “disrupted.” And it’s obviously not for lack of trying. As the blog Hack Education describes it, “By many considerations, the business of ed-tech flourished this year, with both investment and revenue continuing to grow. VC investment was up by 6%, according to NewSchools Venture Fund; and revenue in the K–12 market was up by 2.7%, according to the Software & Information Industry Association. The global education market, as calculated by IBIS Capital, has reached $4.4 trillion; e-learning, a $91 billion chunk of that.”

Given this large-scale investment, an obvious desire by entrepreneurs to cause large-scale change in education, and a great deal of good intention, why can’t we do better? What’s holding us back?

Conflating Payoffs with Forgiveness

The reason education has not been disrupted by technology is because we’ve confused the forgivable attribute with the payoff attribute. The value proposition of educational technology should be better education; this should be the promised payoff. Pragmatist educators like John Dewey made it clear that better education is inextricably tied to better experience; this is validated by cognitive psychology research indicating that experiential learning (through problem-based learning, for example) leads to increased retention of knowledge, intrinsic interest in the subject matter, and enhances self-directed learning skills. (See for example Norman & Schmidt, “The psychological basis of problem-based learning: a review of the evidence”, Rogoff, “Developing understanding of the idea of communities of learners”, and Barron et al, ” Doing with understanding: Lessons from research on problem- and project-based learning”) But in most disruptive innovations, the quality of the experience is a forgivable attribute, not the payoff attribute.

When digital cameras were first introduced, we accepted low image resolution in exchange for convenience. With text messaging, we sacrificed rich communication for speed. In ed-tech, we’ve traditionally traded qualities of the learning experience for things like access, scale, and convenience. But the experience part of education is non-forgivable. A positive learning experience is the payoff. And when we miss this, we miss it all.

Wait, What?

That’s confusing enough that our assumptions bear repeating, but with more nuance and detail. Here’s the argument, spelled out.

  1. Designers aim to shape the quality of experiences. Sometimes this is called “user experience design” or “interaction design.” Designers are trained to think about emotions, motivation, and psychology. This is a view of design that extends beyond the way things look. Designers are experts in manipulating how people feel.
  2. Typically, design is treated as an “extra,” and as a forgivable attribute—something that differentiates, but isn’t core to the value proposition. If this approach succeeds, it’s because there is an existing payoff of consequence: the value promise is so great that it will be realized even if the experience itself is lousy.
  3. There are some contexts where the quality of the experience is so fundamental that design can’t be seen as extraneous. In these contexts, design is the payoff attribute.
  4. Education is one of those contexts. Successful learning requires a certain type of experience. Good teachers create positive learning contexts, so students can have these positive experiences. In many ways, a good teacher is a designer—a teacher is an expert in manipulating how people feel, and in structuring activities and interactions in a way that is thoughtful, appropriate, and instructional. In the best scenarios, that teacher is aware of a larger series of student/institutional touchpoints, like academic advising, psychological counseling, and other student services. They can build upon a larger academic journey, and support a consistent, contiguous experience of learning.
  5. Most of technology-driven change in higher education (in the form of computer-based learning: hybrid, MOOC, and distance learning software)—suffers from a lack of “attention to experience.” Most online learning solutions take the form of a content repository, a discussion forum, and video distribution. This is akin to giving an expert teacher control over the content, pacing, and sequence of their class, but little control over the remaining attributes of the learning experience.

But what are those missing attributes?

The Missing Experiential Attributes

Many of these attributes are subtle, rather than broad, and describe small things that expert teachers do to help students succeed:

Expert teachers focus on teaching in a broad, experiential sense, while most educational software focuses on the logistical complexities of content delivery. Educational software could focus on these other things, but this requires reconsidering the nature of experience and design, and recasting these qualities from forgivable attributes to payoff attributes.

Design as a Payoff Attribute: The Cost of Doing It Right

Most industries have historically treated design as a forgivable attribute. But there’s one industry that has always understood the relationship between design, experience, and value: the entertainment industry. Disney’s parks are a celebration of detailed interaction design, shepherding attendees through a series of interactions that build a memorable experience. The attractions have always been extravagant and considered, with attention focused on engagement and delight. Recently, Disney announced the results of their billion-dollar investment in MyMagic+, a new platform in their parks intended to delight users and support a rich-data experience scaffold. frog design’s Global Vice President Theo Forbath describes how frog helped them develop this system to “create a better visitor experience. Kids could be personally greeted by Mickey or parents could receive alerts about the shortest line for rides.” The system is comprehensive, detailed, and thoughtful; it’s systemic, in that it has a presence on the web, on devices, and in person; and it humanizes technology while providing a value promise that is fully focused on enriching the experience of visitors to the park.

Disney treats design—aesthetics, emotions, pleasure, usability, and cognition—as a payoff attribute. Consequently, they fund design as if it were a strategic imperative: “The initiative is part of a broader effort, estimated by analysts to cost between $800 million and $1 billion, to make visiting Disney parks less daunting and more amenable to modern consumer behavior.” According to Wired, “This represents a new frontier for design. Over the past 30 years, as every facet of our lives, from shopping to schooling, has migrated on to computer screens, designers have focused on perfecting user interfaces—placing a button in just the right place for a camera trigger or collapsing the entire payment process into a series of swipes and taps. But in the coming era of ubiquitous sensors and miniaturized mobile computing, our digital interactions won’t take place simply on screens. As the new Disney World suggests, they will happen all around us, constantly, as we go about our day.” Design, for Disney—and for other entertainment companies—is not a nice to have. It’s fundamental.

In Summary

I want to be clear that in equating education to Disney—and highlighting the commitment of the entertainment industry to design endeavors—I’m not arguing that we should gamify online learning.

Instead, I’m arguing that we’ve misconstrued goals like scale, affordability, convenience, and skill assessment as the primary reason to build educational technology. Education is about learning through structured experience scaffolds—frameworks that are crafted by an expert. Designers know how to build these frameworks and drive the emotional and qualitative qualities of engagement. Design needs to be the centerpiece for educational innovation, just likes it’s the centerpiece for entertainment innovation. For this to be true, design can’t be presented as a forgivable quality to users, and entrepreneurs can’t treat it as an ancillary extra.

More specifically, for us to collectively realize the benefits of advanced technology in the context of education, we need to treat the experience of learning as the primary “thing we are trying to improve.” This requires empathy with the people doing the teaching and learning, which is gained through a qualitative design process. It requires attending to the details of interactions, gained through an iterative interaction design process. It requires building in the various educational strategies described above, which are all experiential. And most importantly, it requires funding a commitment to design as a core competency—as something that is inextricably linked to the value proposition of the products and services we make.

It’s not “icing on the cake” or a “nice to have”—in education, the experience is not a forgivable attribute. It’s the payoff.


Image of blackboard courtesy shutterstock

post authorJon Kolko

Jon Kolko, Jon Kolko is Vice President of Consumer Design at Blackboard; he joined Blackboard with the acquisition of MyEdu, a startup focused on helping students succeed in college and get jobs. Jon is also the Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design. His work focuses on bringing the power of design to social enterprises, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. He has worked extensively with both startups and Fortune 500 companies, and he's most interested in humanizing educational technology. Jon has previously held positions of Executive Director of Design Strategy at Thinktiv, a venture accelerator in Austin, Texas, and both Principal Designer and Associate Creative Director at frog design, a global innovation firm. He has been a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he was instrumental in building both the Interaction and Industrial Design undergraduate and graduate programs. Jon has also held the role of Director for the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), and Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine, published by the ACM. He is regularly asked to participate in high-profile conferences and judged design events, including the 2013 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards. He has taught at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for Design Studies of Monterrey, in Mexico, and Malmö University, in Sweden. Jon is the author of three books: Thoughts on Interaction Design, published by Morgan Kaufmann, Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner's Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis, published by Oxford University Press, and Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, published by Austin Center for Design. His fourth book, Well Designed: How to use Empathy to Create Products People Love will be published by Harvard Business Review Press in November, 2014.


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