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Design of Educational User Interfaces

Quoting from

Since 1998, Nielsen Norman Group has been a leading voice in the user experience field: conducting groundbreaking research, evaluating interfaces of all shapes and sizes, and guiding critical design decisions to improve the bottom line.

Our clients rely on us to help their websites, applications, intranets, and products realize their full potential for both businesses and their users.

Your first question might be, “What do these people have to do with education? It looks like their target audience is helping businesses increase their profits by designing software that Web interfaces well with business customers.”

A brief answer is that the Nielsen Norman Group has a great deal of expertise in solving a particular customer interface (user interface) problem for businesses. Our educational system is not experiencing a similar rate of progress in solving the education version of this problem.

Many years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed books by Donald Norman such as The Design of Everyday Things and Things that Make Us Smart. Here are two examples from these books that stick in my mind:

•      When attempting to go through a door in a place of business, have you ever pushed when you should have pulled? If the door is designed properly, it is obvious to the user whether to push or pull. Why is it necessary for so many doors to have signs telling how to open them?

•      Have you ever felt stupid as you attempted to follow a written set of directions on how to assemble a toy or other device? It takes very careful design of a set of instructions to make them simple and easy to follow for a typical user.

Think about these two examples in terms of the teacher-learner interface. If the interface is poorly designed relative to the knowledge and skills of the student, the student ends up feeling stupid and is not well served by the learning opportunity. Our high current school dropout rates are one sign of our lack of success in this interface problem area.

Variances in Human Learning Capabilities

Next, consider the following quote about Web design from Jacob Nielsen (12/7/2009):

Although the average human brain is better equipped for mammoth hunting than using websites, we're not all average. In fact, there are huge individual differences in user performance: the top 25% of users are 2.4 times better than the bottom 25%.

A well-designed website fits the capabilities and needs of a very wide range of users. It does not punish or belittle the slow user, and it does not hold back the fast user. Can we say the same about our educational system?

Does the Nielsen quote remind you of statements about how fast students learn? Roughly, the fastest 5 to 10 percent of students in a grade school class learn three to four times as fast as the slowest 5 to 10 percent. Within specific disciplines there are significant differences between the top quarter and the bottom quarter of the students. Teachers tend to aim at the middle—and this approach often does not fit the needs of the top and bottom quarters of the class very well.

Here is a research-based statement about the rate and quality of math learning for students with mild disabilities (Cawley, et al., 2001):

The background literature of special education has long shown that students with mild disabilities:

(a) demonstrate levels of achievement approximating 1 year of academic growth for every 2 or 3 years they are in school (Cawley & Miller, 1989);

(b) exit school achieving approximately 5th- to 6th-grade levels (Warner, Alley, Schumaker, Deshler, & Clark, 1980);

(c) demonstrate that on tests of minimum competency at the secondary level, their performance is lower for mathematics than it is for other areas (Grise, 1980).

Warner et al. showed that students with learning disabilities attained only one-grade equivalent level in mathematics from Grade 7 through Grade 12.

I fail to understand why our educational system tries to force so much math on our students. We have created a set of requirements that contribute substantially to the school dropout rate and to the “I was never very good at math and I hate math” syndrome found in so many adults. Surely there are a large number of students who would benefit more by taking courses suited to their needs rather than being forced to take math courses that they either fail, or pass by the memorize, regurgitate, and forget approach.

The problem is more general than just math. Consider the issue of the years of schooling we require and the emphasis on meeting certain “course standards” for high school graduation. It is one thing to decide that we should provide high-quality education for all students and require them to participate. It is another thing entirely to then punish many of the students with bad grades, feelings of inadequacy, lack of a diploma, and so forth, because they are unable to meet the requirements we set.

The following quoted material provides information about the rate of learning of slow versus fast learners (Gottfredson, 1998):

High-ability students also master material at many times the rate of their low-ability peers. Many investigations have helped quantify this discrepancy. For example, a 1969 study done for the U.S. Army by the Human Resources Research Office found that enlistees in the bottom fifth of the ability distribution required two to six times as many teaching trials and prompts as did their higher-ability peers to attain minimal proficiency in rifle assembly, monitoring signals, combat plotting, and other basic military tasks. Similarly, in school settings the ratio of learning rates between "fast" and "slow" students is typically five to one. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Final Remarks.

Think about the teacher-learner interface in education. In this case the “teacher” includes human teachers, books, computers, and other aids to presenting information to students in a manner that will help them learn. The “learner” is a student who has already acquired a great deal of knowledge and skills, including habits of mind and methods of studying/learning.

How well is the educational user interface designed? As our educational systems incorporate more and more use of computers, we might expect that students would get an increasingly better education through more careful design of the teacher-learner interface. So far, I see little evidence that this is occurring.

What You Can Do

Examine the teacher-learner interface from the student point of view. Think of examples of how students might be better served by changes in the design of this interface. Pay particular attention to ways in which research and development in the fields of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and brain science can be used to improve the interface.


Cawley, J., et al. (March 22, 2001). “Arithmetic performance of students: Implications for standards and programming.” Exceptional Children. Retrieved 3/12/2014 from

Gottfredson, L.S. (January 1, 1998). The general intelligence factor. Scientific American. Retrieved 12/22/05 from

Nielsen, J. (December 7, 2009). Short-term memory and Web usability. Retrieved 3/12/2014 from

Norman, D. (1998). The invisible computer: Why good products can fail, the personal computer

is so complex, and information appliances are the solution. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Norman, D. (1993). Things that make us smart. New York: Persus.

Norman, D. (1988). The design of everyday things. New York: Basic.

Suggested Readings from IAE and other Sources

Moursund, D. (September, 2014). “Educating students for their possible futures.” IAE Blog. Retrieved 3/12/2014 from

Moursund, D. (January, 2014). “Good learners.” IAE Blog. Retrieved 3/12/2014 from

Moursund, D. (March 30, 2006). Computers in education for talented and gifted students: A book for elementary and middle school teachers. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 3/12/2014 from

Moursund, D. (April, 2000). “Information appliances: Powerful ideas shaping our educational system.” Learning and Leading with Technology. Retrieved 3/12/2014 from

Moursund, D. (n.d.). “Cognitive development.” IAE-pedia. Retrieved 3/12/2014 from

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