How UX Designers Capture the Attention of Remote Learners
I first suspected the science app Tappity was onto something when I discovered my son, who just turned six, had voluntarily left YouTube to go learn about the solar system. Later that day, he was telling me about Betelgeuse — a star orders of magnitude larger than the sun — and that, if there wasn’t any gravity, we would all fly away.
He’d been charmed by a children’s entertainment actress named Haley McHugh who plays the role of a zany science teacher: leading lessons and congratulating young “Tappernauts” for their achievements with fist-bumps and dance moves.
Founder and CEO Chadwick Swenson, who launched the platform two years ago after a decorated tech career spent re-tooling Yahoo Messenger, building fantasy sports apps and developing mobile software at bill.com, said the science app has experienced unprecedented growth in recent months.
He shared some stats:
- Search volume for educational keywords on the App store peaked at 30 times what it was pre-COVID-19. It is currently 10 times above the baseline.
- Tappity’s user base grew over 300 percent in the past two months.
- Over 10 million lessons have been completed in Tappity in the last two months (a 500 percent increase over the previous two months).
Outschool, a venture-backed San Francisco company that serves as an online marketplace for live, Zoom-based video courses taught by teachers, has seen an equally dramatic uptick and is seeking to hire thousands of new teachers, CEO Amir Nathoo said.
“We almost doubled our business during the span of a couple of weeks.”
“We launched our products in 2017, and we were growing nicely and had 80,000 students enroll in classes and delivered 300,000 plus hours,” Nathoo said. “That was a couple of weeks ago. Now we’re at 150,000 students and 500,000 class hours. So, we almost doubled our business during the span of a couple of weeks.”
Not All Screen Time Is Equal
While the increased hours children are spending online has been a welcome boost for edtech companies like Tappity and Outschool, it has pulled the curtain back on the challenges of designing learning platforms that can compete for children’s attention against fast-paced, peripatetic apps like YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok.
“A lot of education sites provide content, but there’s this worry that they’re not interactive enough,” said Jing Jin, lead designer at Outschool.
As a result, many children are going straight to sites like YouTube.
“That’s the wild West,” said Devorah Heitner, author of Raising Digital Natives. “You can’t be there with your young child, and you probably don’t want them on it. Even for older children, you probably don’t want your kid to learn about sex, drugs and rock and roll from the internet.”
“A lot of education sites provide content, but there’s this worry that they’re not interactive enough.”
Another concern said Nusheen Ameenuddin, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communication and Media, is that, as parents struggle to balance work and homeschool responsibilities, children’s screen time is increasing to levels that can adversely affect their health and learning development.
A series of reports published by the AAP in 2016 recommend children zero to 18 months have no screen time outside of video chatting, those up to age five have no more than one hour per day of entertainment-focused screen time, and children above that have no more than two hours of entertainment-focused screen time per day. (It’s objectively silent on the question of how much time adults should spend playing Animal Crossing.)
But Ameenuddin said the recommendations draw a clear distinction between entertainment-focused apps and educational ones, like Tappity and Outschool, that may provide learning benefits. And while the recommendations haven’t changed since the start of the coronavirus, the AAP has relaxed its stance to take a more holistic view of the health of children and parents looking for ways to unwind.
“We’re not saying just two hours and cut it off. But really, when you’re taking into account everything that children and teenagers are doing, if they’re spending more than two hours a day, it’s going to cut into something — and oftentimes that’s sleep,” Ameenuddin said.
In fact, if parents are co-viewing with their children from ages 18 months to two years, she said, “and then they teach back afterwards what was learned from a high-quality educational program or app, there has potentially been some benefits, or at least not a detriment.”
And as Mike Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media notes on his blog, “all screen time is not equal. We shouldn’t act as though one hour of old DuckTales cartoons is the same as one hour of Zooming with a family member, or one hour of playing Fortnite with a friend, or one hour of drawing tutorials on YouTube. What a kid gets out of each is totally different, and satisfies different needs — and that’s OK.”
It’s an important observation, Swenson acknowledged, and it helped him recognize an opportunity to fill a gap in the remote learning marketplace.
“A big insight was a lot of the products on the App Store really err on the side of allowing free exploration,” he said. “So from the beginning I’ve tried to balance allowing kids to choose what they want to learn, but then also kind of guiding them to what could be next.”
We spoke with Swenson, Nathoo, and Jing Jin to learn more.
User Testing Live Actors
The great thing about children, Swenson said, is they’re brutally honest. So usability testing, unlike in the world of fintech, is remarkably easy. You ask kids what they like and they tell you.
During an audition for the narrator role, Swenson said, children were transfixed by Haley, who won the part in a prototype experiment at his friend’s house. He saw her potential to engage children in a way that strictly animated apps weren’t. She was candid and off the cuff. She could make kids laugh.
“I was trying to create the kind of things that existed in the past, like Bill Nye the Science Guy or the Magic School Bus,” Swenson said.
Haley performed well in subsequent user tests, where kids closely identified with her and often thought they were interacting with a real person when using the app.
“For kids, it felt magical,” Swenson said. “Up until about 10 years old, they’ll at first wonder like, ‘Oh, is Haley really somewhere responding to me or not?’”
“I was trying to create the kind of things that existed in the past, like Bill Nye the Science Guy or the Magic School Bus.”
The project matured quickly. Swenson brought on Brian Barry, an elementary school tech and science teacher in San Diego, to create lesson plans. He hired television and film writer Russ Nickle, who has worked with NASA scientists to develop scripts, to craft the lessons into interactive stories.
“But the process really started at a higher level than that, which is, like, what is some of the science that kids find exciting,” Swenson said.
And this is an area where the app differentiates itself, Swenson said. Lessons take their cues from children’s interests. The science of hot lava. The PSI of a hippo bite. Why boogers are green (do you really want to know?). There are geometric puzzles to unlock story menus, a friendly bot that functions as Haley’s sidekick and Super Mario Brothers-style tubes where students can drag their answers. In all this, Haley is the narrative glue, guiding children through live videos and animations and continuously providing feedback.
Outschool, like Tappity, works to forge a human connection, but it does so in a different way: through its teachers, who are recruited from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and teach courses in virtually any subject — karate, drumming, reading, foreign language, etc.
“It’s really the interactivity with a teacher that builds passion for learning and builds in depth and understanding,” Jing Jin said. “And a lot of that is due to the training and policies our customer experience team has set.”
Teachers go through a formal application and training process, and complete a background check, Jing Jin said. Once approved, they can set the format and context of the class, whether it’s a one-time enrichment class or a semester-long course. Teachers more experienced with the platform help guide neophytes in a community forum.
Courses are limited to 12 students by design; any more than that gets unruly.
Courses are limited to 12 students by design; any more than that gets unruly, according to Jing Jin. A big part of the user experience strategy, she told me, is familiarizing teachers with features for optimizing instruction via Zoom, so the experience can more faithfully represent what you’d find in a physical classroom.
“We encourage teachers to really use the full functionality of Zoom,” Jing Jin said. “So a lot of teachers actually do whiteboard exercises over Zoom where their learners are using annotations to solve math problems. Or they use breakout rooms to do paired work, for example, practicing foreign languages.”
Tappity also offers flexible schedule classes focused on short-term offline projects.
“So, for example, you could be making a scrapbook of plants,” said Jing Jin. “You’ll find a plant and post it in the classroom board and reply to other people’s posts.”
Limiting the Required Attention Span to 45 Seconds
Because children have absurdly short attention spans, Tappity aims for a 45-second cadence to app interactions, a number Swenson derived from talking to elementary school teachers who try to hit that rhythm in the classroom.
As kids respond to prompts, Haley provides feedback based on their level of comprehension. “Even asking questions like, ‘Hey, did that make sense to you?’ Or ‘we just talked about what a hypothesis is, but was it a little bit too brief for you?’” Swenson said.
“So that’s the future: every 45 seconds passing something to Haley or inputting something that changes the direction of the story.”
Regular check-ins for understanding allow children to select from one of two big buttons, querying whether they understand a concept. Over time, Swenson said he hopes to encourage children to say no, just to see what outlandish thing Haley will do next and, thus, learn something new in the process.
“These aren’t just throw-away monologues,” Swenson said. “They’re like actually fully acted-out re-explanations of things.”
Further down the road, he hopes to push the boundaries of interactivity even further, recreating the feeling of real-life synchronous interaction through the exchange of tools.
Continued Swenson: “You could throw a piece of pizza at her and it will literally fall into her hands on set. She’ll take a bite, she’ll respond to what you did. But, say, ‘Oh, that’s not quite the beaker that I was looking for.’ So that’s the future: every 45 seconds passing something to Haley or inputting something that changes the direction of the story.”
Beware of Zoom Bombing and Kids Faking It
Jing Jin admits some things, like physical and outdoor learning, are hard to replicate online. And reports of Zoom bombing and incidents where students have used doctored video backgrounds to fake being in class have led to difficult decisions regarding classroom expectations and rules for behavior.
“One example being custom backgrounds,” Jing Jin said. “We had a very long discussion around ‘Is this a type of expression for learners in a place where the only expression they get to have is this tiny box with their face on it?’”
Eventually, the team decided it was in the best interest of learners to disable them, as some students were spending too much time changing them.
Another tough call was whether to leave the decision to turn on video to students’ discretion.
“Teachers have this frustration: ‘None of my learners have their videos on and they’re not responding to questions. I can’t tell how to engage them. Are they bored? Are they dealing with something else, or are they just confused? If I see their faces, I can tell a lot of that,” Jing Jin said.
Ultimately, Outschool’s policy sided with students.
“We want to support a diverse set of learners and some learners, for various reasons, just aren’t comfortable being on video,” Jing Jin said.
Don’t Guilt Trip Parents With Dashboards
Swenson said he has done his best to align Tappity’s content with Next Generation Science Standards, guidelines active in 20 states and the District of Columbia, but he’s shied away from incorporating the kind of elaborate assessment dashboards he sees emerging as a design trend.
“At the end of the day, I feel like they’re just built to get rid of parents’ guilt. It’s like, look at these graphics, your kid must be doing all sorts of stuff. But it’s hard to understand what level three or level four actually means in some of these products,” Swenson said.
“It’s about being able to learn in a social setting, which is something that kids are hurting for a lot.”
Instead, Tappity alerts parents of children’s learning milestones with an emailed message that includes a child’s selfie superimposed in an image of the scientific world they explored (imagine a face superimposed in a red blood cell). As kids progress through units, they receive degrees, which are sent to parents with ideas for sharing the images socially.
It’s important to note, however, that companies like Outschool do not see themselves as a replacement for traditional teachers.
“We don’t really look at this as a replacement for [children’s] schooling because their schools are still giving assignments and giving instruction. It’s more about being able to learn in a social setting, which is something that kids are hurting for a lot and many schools are not prepared to provide in a remote environment,” Jing Jin said.
Whether apps like Outschool and Tappity will remain popular when the coronavirus wanes remains an open question, but Swenson is optimistic: “New users are actually more active than existing users. I mean, it’s probably obvious why: Kids have more free time right now. But the number of users that come back week after week is higher than ever.”
Even more encouraging, he said, is that users who go inactive often return to the app during spring break, over the summer, or when parents have a more flexible budget. That’s different from what he’s seen in fintech.
“If a user leaves, you can hear re-engagement isn’t even really worth it. Here we haven’t built anything to re-engage churned users, but they come back way more than any other product I’ve ever worked on,” Swenson said.
For Nathoo, who has witnessed a similar cycle of returning users, the breadth of Outschool’s offerings, which draw on the expertise of teachers from around the globe, is what will ultimately gain the favor of schools looking to expand their enrichment and supplemental learning programs.
“Schools are having to very quickly become familiar with this mode of learning and they are seeing the advantages,” he said.