We’re all officially too cool for school


Traditional classroom learning, that is. eLearning services, that enable students to learn from online content at their own pace, are now more popular than ever, especially among millennials. The industry is estimated to be worth $165 billion right now, and to grow at a healthy clip of ~5% year-over-year$, as each new crop of starry-eyed graduates enters an increasingly competitive job market.


With their popularity exploding and more competitors entering the industry to satisfy soaring demand, it’s vital that elearning services keep their students, (and customers), engaged and doing their homework in order to remain relevant – and good UX design is at the forefront of that focus.


In this post, we’ll reveal the UX design best practices being used by the some of the top elearning apps in the space to propel their growth and max out their ability to retain students.


What’s driving the elearning boom?

In order to fully grasp these UX secrets, though, it’s important to first understand the drivers behind the growth of this industry. There are several coinciding factors propelling the rapid growth of elearning.


1. College: no longer guaranteed to be worth it

It’s no secret that college tuition has been on the rise for quite some time now. Forbes reports that due to most universities costing over $40,000 a year, the average graduate approaches upwards of six figures of debt after obtaining their four-year degree.


“If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000.” – Paul F. Campos, The New York Times


While the cost of college tuition has increased significantly over time, guarantees of career security and return on investment have weakened. The Economist points out that thanks to student debt, graduates with certain degrees may end up worse off than if they had started working at the age of 18. To make matters worse, 42% of recent grads have jobs that require less than a four-year college education. In some cases, graduates with certain degrees are even making less than those that skipped college to learn a trade.


When it comes to elearning, time and money are less of a concern. Students are able to learn as much or as little as they wish at any time or place. This learning is also available for free or typically for a low cost, leaving students’ wallets at ease.


2. Retraining is at an all-time high.

When comparing generations, millennials are the least engaged in the workplace and the most likely to switch jobs. Gallup conducted a study revealing that a mere 29% of millennials are actually engaged at their jobs and 60% of millennials are open to a new job opportunity. With these percentages being drastically different from other generations, millennials are seeing a great need for retraining.


A second reason for this increase in retraining is today’s trend of automation replacing highly specialized jobs. Automation replacing manual workers is nothing new – what’s really new is automation replacing information workers.


“In a widely noted study published in 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne examined the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations and found that 47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation.” – The Economist


With automation replacing so many jobs, it’s expected that companies will need to offer employees opportunities to learn new skills and switch jobs when necessary. This is where retraining comes into play once again.

eLearning is a fairly cheap and easy tool for both individuals (such as millennials) looking to learn a new skillset for a job switch and for companies looking to retrain employees being replaced by automation.


3. Online video is more accessible than ever.

Video content is easier to produce and share than ever before. Taking full advantage of this ease, many elearning services create educational videos for their programs that live online. This content is readily available at any time and any place thanks to today’s high bandwidth internet connections worldwide.


“Countless reports, surveys, and studies have shown that elearning industry isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, an increasing number of individuals, corporations, and institutions are turning to elearning as they recognize its effectiveness and its convenience.” – Christopher Pappas, eLearning Industry


Who’s Dominating the eLearning Game?


We decided to dive into 5 of the leading elearning platforms and identify the UX strategies and best practices that they’re leveraging to keep students engaged (and subscribed). Here’s the 5 elearning platforms that we explored and a little about each, in case you’re unfamiliar.


1. Udemy

Udemy is the world’s largest destination for online courses, offering over 45,000 courses in areas of Development, Business, IT & Software, Personal Development, Design, Marketing, Office Productivity, Music and Health & Fitness.


2. Khan Academy

Khan Academy is a non-profit organization with a mission to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere by offering courses in Math, Science & Engineering, Computing, Arts & Humanities, Economics & Finance and Test Prep.


3. Treehouse

Treehouse is one of the many elearning services offering courses in web design, coding and business.


4. Codecademy

Codecademy is another one of the leading elearning services that offers coding classes in 12 different programing languages.


5. Duolingo

Duolingo is the world’s most popular language learning platform, containing 68 courses, covering 23 languages.


The Psychology of User Engagement & Retention


Although the specific tactics and implementations vary, we’ve found that the leaders in the elearning space lean heavily on certain behavioral and psychological traits and quirks to keep their students engaged.


The Zeigarnik Effect – In short, the Zeigarnik Effect shows us people tend to remember unfinished tasks much better than completed tasks. You’ll find plenty of unfinished tasks spread throughout the leading elearning  platforms, in all shapes and sizes.


Investment Phase (Hook Model) – One of the four critical phases in the Hook Model that drives the growth of many of the most habit-forming products, the Investment phase is highly prevalent among the most engaging elearning platforms. In it, people tend to value a product or service more as they continue incrementally investing their time, money and/or effort engaging with it. (For more on the Hook Model, you should read Hooked On Destiny: Product design teardown of the biggest video game in history).


Mastery Motivation – Another quirk of the human psyche, defined as the driver behind focus and persistence:


“We define Mastery Motivation as a psychological force that stimulates an individual to attempt independently, in a focused and persistent manner, to solve a problem or master a skill or task which is at least moderately challenging for him or her.” Mastery Motivation: Definition and Measurement$


How the Top eLearning Apps Keep Users Engaged


Freemium: a low starting investment baits the Hook

The leaders in this space all heavily incorporate  free course options in the design of their services to encourage prospective students to “bite”, before using the both the Investment Phase and Mastery Motivation techniques to incrementally reel them in and convert them into paying customers.

Khan Academy and Duolingo offer 100% free courses, while Treehouse offers a limited-time free trial.

Udemy stokes urgency and FOMO by offering a discounted 48-hr window to new students.

Codeacademy, as well as others also harness that Mastery Motivation by reserving exclusive content only for the most committed (i.e. paying) students, and making sure that the exclusive content is constantly presented to budding students inline with the freely available material.


Progress indicators, everywhere

Users are more comfortable using elearning services when they know ahead of time exactly what they’re getting themselves into. Whether it’s a course curriculum, video series or learning module, the Zeigarnik Effect is leveraged hard to keep students focused right to the end, with frequent use of progress indicators and timelines.

Treehouse sets up their course syllabus in a timeline design that allows students to a see how much time each individual step takes. The time remaining feature serves the dual function of allowing students to decide whether they have enough time to commit to each module, and providing a countdown to completing each section – both increasing the chances they’ll actually finish.

Udemy’s course overviews utilize a completion tracker  bar that allows you to see your overall progress in any class.

Duolingo explicitly calls it a progress bar, with your mastery expressed through levels, words learned section, and skill strength bar. In a twist that’s a little different from the other platforms, this progress bar can actually go backwards, if you don’t keep regularly practicing to keep your language skills sharp. It’s one thing to be motivated to achieve mastery – quite another to constantly fear losing it due to lack of practice!

Khan Academy goes so far as to offer an entire “Progress” section in your student profile, providing a granular reporting dashboard on all your learning activities.


Learning by doing & immediate feedback

Being taught something is great, but being able to immediately apply what you’ve learned is much more beneficial. Offering either some sort of integrated application or testing method within an elearning platform keeps students engaged by maintaining the momentum of students’ Mastery Motivation.

Treehouse gives students a workspace to take on coding challenges after they’ve watched a handful of instructional videos. This hands-on approach notifies you whether your code is correct or incorrect and doesn’t let you advance until you have fixed your mistakes.

Duolingo tests students’ knowledge by asking a variety of questions ranging from translation, to multiple-choice, to listening and speaking. If you answer a question incorrectly, the correct answer will immediately be displayed.


Gamification: making school…fun?

Gamification leverages the addictiveness of game design to improve engagement and retention rates of typically un-fun activities like learning. And what are games, but ways we motivate ourselves to master new skills?

Duolingo is the champion of elearning gamification. Similar to a videogame, Duolingo gives you “lives,” which are visualized and referred to as hearts. When you lose all 3 of your hearts, you’re forced to start over.

Duolingo’s mascot, Duo, reinforces this style as well.

Khan Academy utilizes fun features within your user profile such as streaks, badges and little characters that keep users motivated.

Treehouse awards students with points that are broken into two categories: Achievements (earned while completing lessons) and Forum (earned through your interactions within the community forum).

Duolingo not only awards what they call “lingots,” but also has a lingot store where you can purchase ‘perks’, like double XP points, with what you’ve earned – all so you can fill the imaginary progress bar faster. Zeigarnik in action!

Codecademy likes to send users emails congratulating them on completing sections of a course and encouraging them to continue learning.

Khan Academy emails out weekly progress summaries so that students can keep up with their achievements.


In Summary: eLearning businesses must design for engagement & retention


With the elearning industry taking off, services looking to maintain credibility and competitiveness must continue to design for engagement and retention. These UX strategies are some of the ways that top elearning services are finding success.


Any questions?


Interested in learning more about how UX design can drive growth for your learning platform? You should check out the stories behind our work with companies like BetterLesson, Varsity Tutors and more.