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7 Ways for Learning Designers to Build Habit-Forming Experiences

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“Self-paced.” “Mobile.” “On-the-go.” Edtech companies use these buzzwords to describe the next generation of learning tools. We assume that granting learners access to education technology outside the classroom to be used on their own time is unequivocally positive.

Yet, some of these factors are at odds with the way people develop productive, habit-forming behaviors. Without imposed schedules, proximity to peers, or physical classrooms, even the best-intentioned students never make it through a MOOC or fail to reengage with the educational app they downloaded. How can we use insights from psychology and behavioral science to design products that help students actually stick with learning and build it into their lives in the same way that they habitually brush their teeth or go to the gym?

Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and the New York Times bestselling author of “Predictably Irrational,” recently worked with +Acumen to produce an online course about research-backed principles that social entrepreneurs can apply to their products and services. Here are seven behavior-change design principles Ariely taught us that we think are particularly helpful for learning designers and edtech companies to keep in mind:

1. Become a “choice architect” who identifies sources of friction in your learner’s journey and designs paths of least resistance.

Consider every step a student or teacher will have to take to initially use your product and take aggressive measures to make these steps simpler. See every decision a student has to make before actually getting to the learning experience—completing a lengthy survey or filling out a platform registration form—as friction and treat it as the step where people might decide your product isn’t worth the hassle.

Try printing out every page of your sign-up process or storyboarding the initial user experience to figure out where people are most likely to drop out. Then figure out what pieces can be eliminated or what steps can be changed to default options. For example, can learners automatically be placed in a team on an online course platform? How can you make the desired outcomes the default options?

2. Get students to link their goals to implementation intentions using the WOOP Method.

When dealing with busy learners, prompt them to set learning goals in the form of clear if/then statements. If you’re targeting a working parent trying to get through an online course after work, it helps if she thinks through contingency plans in advance, such as “If my kid gets sick then I will block off one hour on my work calendar the next day to get my assignment done.” Getting learners to think through their contingency plans using this four-step method leads to higher rates of persistence.

3. Write concrete instructions that highlight one clear use case for your product.

You might be tempted to give an edtech product to educators and say “use this however you want!” In fact, Ariely’s research demonstrates that offering one clear use case actually leads to greater adoption and sustained use. Instead of telling a student: “Use this flashcard app to study on your own time!” suggest something more concrete like: “Use this app every day for 15 minutes on your commute for the week before you have a big test.” If people can more clearly see how it will fit into their lives, they’ll be more inclined to actually use it in desired ways.

4. Use the power of pre-commitment and loss aversion.

The pain of losing something is felt more acutely than the joy of an equivalent gain. Figure out if there are parts of your product that you can give away to students or get them to commit to up front so that they feel invested in the learning experience and unwilling to give it up. In one of the courses Ariely’s lab designed, they experimented with giving people their Statements of Accomplishment at the beginning—before they had even completed an assignment. Udacity has harnessed this principle effectively with its tuition redemption program.

5. Apply the IKEA effect.

People overvalue things they make themselves. You will look with more pride at the lopsided desk you put together than the chair you bought fully assembled. Give your students a sense of ownership by having them assemble something early in the learning experience. Instead of presenting them with an introductory lecture video, have them solve a problem or make a prototype. In a course +Acumen designed with IDEO.org, we immediately have students run through an accelerated human-centered design cycle in the first module. With their tangible prototypes in hand after the first week, they feel more inclined to log back into the course for the second week.

6. Be transparent about the effort that goes into producing your edtech product.

People are more likely to value the work of a locksmith who labored to open a door over one who showed up and opened it quickly. Think about your own experience as a student—if you ever saw a teacher staying late to prepare materials, you likely valued the resulting learning experience more. Yet, when building digital learning products, the blood, sweat and tears often gets obscured from the learner.

Think about whether there are ways you can pull back the curtain to highlight all of the people involved in production or programming or your product or course. Now that there are so many free MOOCs or freemium products, people often undervalue the time and energy that learning designers and engineers devoted to crafting the experience. Think about ways you can tastefully showcase human effort.

7. Harness the power of social proof.

When we take learners out of classrooms and get them to use edtech products in homes, coffee shops or on commutes, they lose a proximate community of fellow students. Developing alternate forms of “social proof” becomes critical. At junctures where you know people are likely to drop off or hesitate to participate, show them evidence that other people have made it through these steps. Seed discussion forums in an online course with comments. Build features that showcase work samples from other students. Include testimonials from other learners or a pop-up that says, “Many students found this part of the math problem hard!” to help reduce feelings of isolation. Show them evidence that others have made it this far—so that they feel encouraged to take the next step, too.

The crux of habit-forming learning design is not to make the entire process seamless and effort-free. Unlike other designers who aim to craft products that are “sticky” and seamless, educators and learning specialists know that moments of difficulty or dissonance should remain part of a student’s experience.

Learning requires that we shed misconceptions, shift paradigms, or think of things in new ways. As Piaget says, this requires us to pass through a period of cognitive disequilibrium. Designing a learning product should never be exactly like building the next Uber, where you get the outcome you want with a mere click of a button. Yet, we can apply insights from behavioral change research to help learners persist, even when the going gets tough.

Amy Ahearn (@amyahearn11)is a Senior Innovation Associate at Acumen where she designs online courses. She holds a MA in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford.

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