Udemy & the Design of Binge-Learning

An Application of Nir Eyal’s Hook Model


As I clicked the big green “Take This Course” button I became acutely aware of an uneasy feeling creeping up on me. This would be the 22nd course I’d have signed up for on Udemy.com, one of the world’s leading platforms for teaching and learning classes online. I had become a binge-learner.

My To-Learn list on Udemy.com

Or had I? After scanning my enrolled course list, I gathered the following stats:

And so the uneasy feelings that were gnawing at my insides started bubbling to the surface. With 13 courses that were virtually untouched since the moment of enrollment (after having paid anywhere between nothing and $30 for each of them) I, naturally, started deriding myself. I thought I was a non-finisher, bad at commitments, and lacking of focus. Perhaps even a compulsive buyer, financially carefree, or worse yet, a wanna-be learner. Or perhaps it was some combination of the above.

In other words, I thought something was wrong with me.

But just as soon as I thought that, I remembered the teachings of designer Donald A. Norman in his most popular work, The Design of Everyday Things. In it, he extolls that people’s ineptitude in using objects stems not from their own incompetence but because of poor design. He says:

“… people feel guilt when they are unable to use simple things, guilt that should not be theirs but rather the designers and manufacturers of the object.”

This gave me a little respite.

But I began to think about another question: is Udemy well-designed because of its ability to convince me to continuously enroll for new courses or is it badly-designed because of its inability to help me follow-through with my learning objectives?

Turns out it may have a bit of both going on. In the rest of this article, I step through Nir Eyal’s Hook framework and give my thoughts on how some specific design decisions may be giving rise to Udemy’s seemingly diametric user experiences. The views are strictly based on my own observations, and not informed by any conversations with employees of Udemy.

Also note that this analysis assumes the user is the student and not the teacher.

Triggers

Udemy operates in the familiar education sector, and thus, the triggers that drive students to it are not that difficult to understand.

The external triggers are quite explicit. As far as I have seen, they come largely in two types: 1) Email triggers, and 2) On-site triggers.

  1. Email-triggers: Once someone signs up as a registered member, the company periodically sends promotional emails to entice users to revisit the site. The ones that have had the most compelling draws for me have been those that advertise the relatively frequent promotional sales, sometimes upwards of 75% off. Interestingly, these emails generally tend be sent by the teachers of the courses rather than by Udemy staff itself. I assume this is done mainly to send more targeted/relevant emails to students based on their current course offerings, and to give the teachers more control and power over their efforts to engage in on their own promotional activities, lessening the marketing burden off of Udemy.
Tasty, tasty deep discounts!
  1. On-site triggers: once the user is sufficiently enticed to visit the site, she becomes prone to purchasing a course or two. Udemy’s course catalog is an aesthetically pleasing display of courses with compelling titles (e.g. “7 Comedy Habits to Becoming a Better Speaker”) laid out in aisles upon aisles of course offerings. The easy-on-the-eyes look and feel of the course listings coupled with the announcements of deep discounts makes browsing Udemy similar to window-shopping at Nordstrom during Black Friday. To give another analogy, you enter a grocery store looking to buy milk and then leave with some frozen fruits, a bag of potato chips, a jar of pickles and some condiments.

Over time, if the user follows through on these external triggers enough, she will start associating the need to shop for skill-building courses with Udemy. On a personal note, I have stepped through the above external triggers so much that the next time I find myself wanting to pick up mobile app development, I will very likely make it a point to search for a course on Udemy first. And thus, my internal trigger is borne.

Action

On a basic level, a number of students are most likely led to Udemy’s course offerings mainly when they are motivated to learn a particular skill, from gaining mastery in Excel to learning how to sing. This can be borne out of our innate need to learn or perhaps even when the rigours of our daytime jobs require us to strengthen or complement our skillsets. Udemy’s course offerings have a tendency to be on the side of practical how-to guides rather than theoretical exegeses, which further lends evidence to professional skill-building motivations.

But motivations alone are not sufficient. Similar to Amazon’s one-click shopping model, Udemy makes the ability for one to enroll in courses as easy as clicking two buttons — first to pop-up a purchase window and a second time to send in the purchase order (your credit card details are kept on file, saving you time and energy for repeat purchases).

Udemy is like Steam for online courses. It’s so easy to buy; before you know it, you’ve purchased a couple of items in a single spree.

When the ability to enroll is made so easy, deep discounts and compelling motivators to sign up for a course are present, and the right triggers are made, BJ Fogg’s Behaviour Model predicts that the student will follow through with the intended behaviour of enrolling.

Rewards

By virtue of there being a constantly updating roster of courses on a wide range of topics, Udemy’s offering and payoff has an inherent variability to it. Depending on what courses you are taking, in one day you may learn how to code an app in Javascript and then learn how to get better sleep. This variability keeps things interesting for revisiting users.

Udemy makes a strong use of leveraging what Nir calls the Reward of the Hunt — that is to say, our craving for amassing possessions. This is manifested in the site’s two main lists that students most often use: the Learning list and the Wishlist, the former displaying courses that the student is currently enrolled in and the latter showing courses that the user wants to keep track of for future reference or in case promotional offers are made on them. I have often found myself adding courses to my Wishlist, even if they only partially interest me. I feel comfortable knowing that I won’t lose the course in the growing catalog and, furthermore, I possibly even enjoy visualizing all the potential skills I aspire to learn. It is worth noting that a number of the courses I am currently enrolled in were previously on my Wishlist.

It goes without saying that Udemy’s enroll-and-learn model also plays towards the Rewards of the Self. People typically see value in learning new skills and increasing their perceived self-worth. Learning something new becomes its own reward.

Investment

The final major design decision that Udemy employs to try to keep its users habitually coming back for more is in displaying to the user how much they have invested in their own learning. The company achieves this by giving users a real-time progress bar that shows students what percentage of the course they have completed.

Slick progress mechanics and design makes you want to move forward

Interestingly, another design decision that seems to have been made in order to cater to increasing one’s investment into binge-learning is the way a course will seamlessly and automatically move onto the subsequent lectures after having completed one. This serves to reduce friction in one’s progress through a course but also, more importantly, to hopefully create a larger footprint for the student in the coursework, making her more liable to return.

Possible Improvements

I think it is safe to say that the product designers at Udemy deserve credit for implementing design decisions that lead to higher user enrollments. The Hook framework demonstrates a number of key areas that Udemy has benefitted from in its rapid growth to 2 million members, specifically making the ability of students to discover and sign-up for courses as painless as possible while providing relevant and timely triggers for them to act on their inherent motivations to learn more.

But what of my struggle to complete my courses?

At the end of 2012, Udemy was said to have had an average course completion rate of 10%. I am clearly not alone. And Udemy should be concerned.

If its goal is to assist people to learn, then the company should invest more deliberately into helping its users to not only sign up for courses but also see them through to the end. The danger of not doing this is that students like me who find themselves overwhelmed by their course-loads might suffer from a kind of learning fatigue and avoid coming to the site altogether. Here are some ways I suggest that Udemy can address this:

1) Invest in Rewards of the Tribe: Currently, the social aspect of Udemy’s offering is very limited. In my 6 months on the site, I have yet to collaborate with other students, and I am not even sure how to. Much like going to the gym with workout buddies, a livelier and supportive community may provide a sufficient amount of camaraderie to encourage the members to stick to their lesson plans and see themselves through to completion. While each course does have a discussion section, the site does not provide too many cues or incentives for students to collaborate.

2) Implement course-based triggers: in its current design, once users sign up for a course, they are only reached out to when the course instructor has a message to broadcast. Perhaps Udemy might consider sending reminder messages or emails to prompt students to revisit courses they have enrolled in but have not been active on. A harsher and more tenuous measure might be to set caps on students’ course-loads, much like at traditional schools. A hard limit of, say, five courses at a time will act as a trigger for students to buckle down and concentrate on their enrolled classes. While this might hamper sales initially, it may very well lead to higher course-completion rates, thus a higher sense of accomplishment amongst its student base, which could drive more word-of-mouth, leading to more signups and higher sales in the long-run.

Final Thoughts

So will Udemy be to binge-learning as Netflix is to binge-watching? Can (and should) proper learning even be transformed into a binging activity?

Udemy has two types of users: instructors and students. Each has a starting point (starting a new course) and end-goal (finish teaching or learning that course [1]). Udemy’s job, then, is to ensure that each set of users are quickly and rewardingly completing as many of these start-to-end paths as possible. As long as Udemy is helping its customers achieve their goals of teaching and learning as opposed to amassing a growing user base of disheartened and overwhelmed non-finishers, then I believe it has a bright future ahead of itself.


[1] Addendum: there is an ongoing and polarizing debate about what the objectives of MOOC based platforms like Udemy are. Here is an article that discusses how MOOC advocates from Harvard and MIT believe course completion is NOT their ultimate objective.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Udemy except that I enjoy their platform as a student, and am hoping to soon teach my first course on it.

EDIT: I have started teaching my first course on Udemy. It’s a whole other experience that deserves an article on its own.

Are you a binge-learner? Want to talk product? Reminisce with me on @alirtariq or catch me on my blog www.artariq.com/blog where I talk about entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation.

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