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Medical Education
Technology Enhanced Education

Six User Experience Design (UX) Tools for Educators

By Megan O’Connor, Instructional Designer, UCSF


“Survey fatigue” is a real concern in higher education. By surveying students we want to better understand how we can improve our teaching and solve problems, but we could also learn from observing students’ experiences. After all, a doctor wouldn’t diagnose an illness from survey results. She would closely examine and observe a patient to develop a full diagnosis and treatment. Likewise, we can use User Experience Design (UX) to examine students’ attitudes and behaviors revealing patterns that help us improve everything from enrollment, to classroom learning, to technology.

UX provides valuable tools for this goal. In some cases we’ve been using these tools for a long time, but UX provides a shared vocabulary and methodology to use them in more strategic ways.

1. User Research

User research focuses on observing students attitudes and behaviors using both qualitative and quantitative techniques to identify their needs. Before building a tool to solve a problem for students, you need to be sure you’re solving the right problem. To do this, you can conduct user research through surveys, but also by talking directly with students in an unbiased way through one-on-one interviews or focus groups. You might also conduct a competitive analysis that compares how other schools or companies have addressed similar issues as yours. 

2. Usability Testing

Usability testing involves asking students to perform tasks, observing the results, and then collecting quantitative and qualitative information from your observations. Usability testing is a major tool of UX and is another form of user research. Usability testing is useful to help you measure student experiences. For example, if five out of five students have trouble locating the “submit” button in your learning management system it might need some work. You can conduct a usability test for any task-based scenario including filling out a form, using a piece of equipment, or participating in online learning. You can glean a great deal of information from directly observing these interactions and where they go awry. This type of testing also provides evidence about how to prioritize problems and which problems to fix first.

3. Affinity Mapping

Affinity Mapping is a process for organizing information into groups so it can be reviewed and analysed. You can create an affinity map to help organize and evaluate student feedback from your user research and usability testing in a visual way that reveals trends. To create an affinity map, assign students a specific color sticky note, write summaries of their feedback (one thought per note) and then organize the notes by topic. Through this process, patterns will emerge in your data. The results of affinity mapping can help transform your research into actionable objectives.

Affinity Map

4. Card Sorting

Card sorting is an organizational process that illustrates how students group sets of information.  Card sorting can help you understand how students organize information differently than you do. The idea of card sorting is to ask students to organize sets of information in the way that makes most sense to them and label the categories they create. This provides insights into how they mentally model information, allowing you to organize with their models in mind.

5. User flow

User flow is the route a user or student takes through an interface or experience to complete a task. Mapping out user flow can help you see how students move through a task, what obstacles they encounter, and what repetitions they endure to complete the task. By evaluating user flows you can see how easy or difficult it is for a student to complete a task, allowing you to smooth out processes that aren’t efficient.

User flow chart

6. Cognitive Overload

Cognitive Overload is the idea that only so much information can be held in working memory at one time. Avoiding cognitive overload and not overwhelming your user with so much information that they miss elements of a interface is important in UX design. Likewise, you don’t want to overwhelm students with cluttered slide design, barely organized syllabi, and overgrown course websites. You can do this by clearly stating learning objectives, and grouping related content into accessible chunks.


User Experience Design has a lot to offer educators, so like good doctors, we too can develop full diagnoses and treatments to improve teaching and solve problems through careful observation and examination. UX methods and tools provide a fresh perspective to improve student experience through analysis of both behavior and attitudes of students and through the visualization and synthesis of the resulting data. 

Faculty, Public