Textbook Lessons On User Interface Design

Depending on how you want to count, we’re somewhere between twenty and thirty years into the digital transformation of education. As I look at the digital learning landscape today, in particular applications and tools to enhance student learning, I find it remarkable that we’ve largely ignored time-tested insights garnered from one of the most familiar user interfaces available — the book! So allow me to unpack some ideas from those heavy tomes and see how we might apply them to digital learning.

1. Clutter-free presentation

Chances are you’re reading this on Medium, and what do you notice? Lots of ads, popups, menus, drop-downs and popups? Of course not! They have expertly applied (at least one, probably more as we’ll see) lessons from a printed page — minimal distractions with plenty of white space and focus solely on the content to be conveyed. What don’t you see when you open a book? No fixed left-rail menu occupying visual real estate, no fixed bars at the top and bottom of the screen and no hovers or popups. Just. The. Content.

2. Intuitive navigation

Textbook navigation is blindingly simple — guesstimate how far into the book you want to go, flip that far into the stack, quickly scan the page title and section, adjust by flipping back / forward accordingly. Great, now we’re on the page we want so to then move forwards or backwards, it’s the same action in either direction, just a quick flip. Oh, and the navigation approach is the same on any ‘device’ — a pocket-sized paperback works the same way as does a larger format cartography title. Ever call a help desk or look for FAQ’s on using a book? Didn’t think so.

3. Keep all content in-frame

When we launched our MVP we tested long vertical scroll and other popular ways of displaying content. What the data showed us was a near exponential decay in the percentage of students who referenced information 1, 2 and 3 or more screens below the main viewport. Yes, the familiar book UI of all the content you need is in front of you, nothing hidden, wins again.

4. Visuals > prose

Well-done textbooks have a broad range of imagery — annotated photos, illustrations and sketches — that support the points being conveyed through the prose. On screens, we can take that a step further and supplement learning not only with supportive images, but video as well. It’s no surprise that a decade-plus post-YouTube learners prefer short-form video to reading dozens of pages of prose. Our research with college students shows that they are spending as much time watching video as they are reading long-form text. So it seems the old adage of a picture is worth a thousands words not only holds, but is far more impactful for video.

5. Student-directed experience

In an era of whiz-bang adaptive learning tools filled with endless promise it’s hard not to think of a scene from ‘The Matrix’ where Neo learns Kung Fu. Knowledge isn’t so much implanted, as it is acquired through hard work. Student motivation, and control over their learning, plays a part in engagement and eventual success.

The Matrix © Warner Brothers, Village Roadshow Pictures

So lesson #5 borrowed from textbooks is empower learners by giving them control over their learning experience — what to review, when and how (and ideally through what format as well). In a book world formats were limited to images and prose, online we have video, animations, simulations, peer exploration and a wide variety of tools to bring to bear. That isn’t to say that students can’t be provided guidance or suggestions, but locking them onto certain paths with the only guidance mirroring an overly intrusive GPS system ‘You missed the turn! Make an immediate U turn or else!’ isn’t helpful and may end up, as it does in the GPS example, with people driving into lakes.

Over a thousand years of refinement (or more if you’re going back to cuneiform tablets) sharing information with billions of learners distilled down to a handful of points on user experience and user interface. Why haven’t all digital learning tools for the last two to three decades taken advantage of these insights? I’d hypothesize because it’s too easy to take for granted what you see around you every day. However through careful observation and a return to first principles we can relearn what make books so enduring and apply those lessons to develop a new generation of learner-centric, focused, and easy to use applications. The proof will be in the results — faster learning, lower expenses and higher degrees of student satisfaction.

Vineet Madan is the founder and CEO of Junction Education, a company working with colleges and universities to deliver affordable, engaging and effective learning experiences.