Pearson’s Director of UX on designing for education

4 min read
Kristin Hillery
  •  Jun 7, 2017
Link copied to clipboard

London-based Pearson Education is the world’s largest education company. We chatted with Nathan Harris, Pearson’s Director of User Experience and Design, about supporting creativity in a corporate environment, the importance of transparency, and where the education industry is headed in terms of design.

How is your UX team set up at Pearson?

David Schell, Vice President of UX and Design, heads up our Global Product UX team—it’s 100 strong, with hubs in Denver, Boston, Chennai, and London.

The teams I lead in London, Poznan, and Chennai work closely with Learning Design, Product, and Engineering on products and services for Pearson’s Schools and English portfolios, used around the world by learners of all ages and at all stages of their education journey.

During a UX team outing to the London Design Museum.

Our London team has a flat structure, with 6 UX designers and 2 UX architects. The distinction between these role titles is partly historical legacy, although architects tend to spend slightly more time on research and evaluation, and less on high-fidelity design deliverables.

“Seek out and encourage critiques of your work.”

Twitter Logo

The nature of the problem being considered, or the stage the project is at, determines how individuals can best contribute to different projects. The team are empowered to self-organize in this respect.

With such a large team, how do you keep everybody on the same page?

The breadth of the products we work on—from software for adult private language schools, to learning apps for 5-year-olds—makes a singular approach to some aspects of UX (e.g. design language) challenging, or even inappropriate.

We have a weekly 90-minute session that’s an opportunity for all team members to run through anything they’re currently working on and to get feedback and support from other team members. This helps to identify any areas where alignment would be beneficial. It’s also the first point at which designs will get identified for evaluation in the lab. Our evaluation days run on the third Wednesday of each month, with planning leading up to this and iteration based upon findings happening throughout the following week. We’re aiming to increase this cadence later this year.

We also designed our new working space in a way that encourages movement and greater team interaction, with standing desks, different types of soft seating areas, and writable magnetic walls within arm’s reach of everyone. It’s amazing how this has naturally facilitated collaboration.

What’s your team culture like?

It’s changed a great deal over the last year. We made a decision to focus our efforts on developing our working space and design process in a single location in London. Previously we’d been more distributed. Although there were advantages, we expended a lot of effort on maintaining synchronicity through online meetings, etc. Because most of the London team members joined while we were planning our new space, ownership of the design was almost part of the onboarding process, giving the team a stake in what we were building.

Related: What exactly is a design culture?

The UX team, with CEO John Fallon, at the opening of Pearson’s London lab.

Within a couple of years we’ve moved from a fairly traditional corporate environment to something a lot more supportive for creativity, and the benefits to our process and outputs have been tangible. We’ve just run our first annual summit, where the team came together for a week to discuss long-term goals and ran our first evaluations in the new lab together. It was great—ideas and new collaborations seemed to be sparking in every corner.

“Hug developers, and wear gold shoes.”

Twitter Logo

To strengthen the team, we talk regularly and openly about what’s working and what isn’t, and we often pair people on particular projects to take advantage of specialisms. Then, when we train or recruit, we move to fill the areas in which we think we need extend our range.

What’s your approach to giving feedback?

First and foremost, I try to understand the process and rationale that has led to the conclusions I’m being asked to provide feedback on—understanding the context within which the designer is operating, and as a result, revealing to what extent they have been able to apply our definition of a successful user-centred design process.

It’s hardly original, but asking the 5 “whys” in relation to any design or feature of a design can quickly uncover a rationale, constraint, or approach that I may not be personally aware of. From that more informed position it’s easier to identify the key hypotheses and start a discussion on how we might validate them. Jeff Gothelf’s Lean UX was a great touch-point for the development of our process in this respect, encouraging not just designers but everyone we work with to think in terms of assumptions and hypotheses, constantly trying to identify the quickest ways to get incremental validation of our work from end users.

Finally, I try to encourage the team to avoid spending too much effort on “solved problems.” This is part of our broader effort to establish a comprehensive pattern library, but in practice means encouraging a constant dialogue within the team about problems faced, and demonstrably solved.

What do you look for when you’re hiring?

Evidence of design process, and curiosity. I’ve found that the so-called “dribbblisation” of design can be a problem when it comes to portfolios, when they dwell on the finished article at the expense of design process. As an example, it’s unusual to see business or technical constraints declared in a portfolio case study.

Related: 8 things to know about building a design portfolio

Yet evidence of how a practitioner came up with an elegant and user-centric solution to a problem imposed upon their practice is definitely something that would catch my eye. It indicates flexibility, adaptability, and determination in the face of the kind of obstacles that we know exist in any industry or organization.  

Shiban Sayed, UX Architect.

More than anything else, I’m looking for evidence that the stated problem has been considered from multiple angles, ideally in person by the designer, exploring and modelling the domain in detail and speaking to the actors who inhabit it. This will nearly always uncover unexpected dimensions, which a great designer can then transform into the creation of additional customer value—some of which may not have been anticipated by the original brief.

Where do you think the education industry is headed, design-wise? Where would you like to see it headed?

I attended the UXUK Awards last year, as part of the City University team that won the student award (for our London parks service design—an interesting change of scene for me!). I was saddened but not entirely shocked to hear the organizers announce that they weren’t giving out the education award because no submissions had met the necessary standard.

“Seize every opportunity to observe real-world use of your design.”

Twitter Logo

We have a mountain to climb in some aspects of design for education—it’s realistic and appropriate to recognize that we’re trailing consumer-grade experiences in places.

It’s the classic “innovator’s dilemma” in some respects; as our CEO John Fallon put it recently, the need to be one step ahead of teachers and students, not a hundred miles ahead. Some of the solutions that have promised to disrupt the education industry look great as a canned product demo, but then they hit the classroom… and teachers have other ideas. While the temptation may be to revolutionize, the tangible problems faced by learners that we should be solving are plentiful—and not necessarily best solved by starting from scratch, because scratch is usually an impoverished place to be!

There has been a step-change within Pearson over the last couple of years in terms of the way UX is perceived and prioritized. In particular the creation of a global product division, and the emphasis senior leadership are placing on the importance of learning and experience design, give me great optimism for the near future, as does the work the team are doing now.

I think that educational UX is evolving rapidly to a point of close alignment and integration with learning design. Some of the best learning experiences we’ve developed have come from a tight alignment between learning and experience design practitioners in the pursuit of a particular problem, so I see the increasing formalization and growth of this combined discipline as essential for the future.

Asli Yilmaz, UX Architect, and Rachel Liu, UX Designer.

Our journey to raise the profile of UX started with intensively socializing the field research we were doing. For example, by providing access to video recordings of our legacy digital platforms and new designs being evaluated. For some members of the product and engineering teams, this was the first time they’d watched our users interact with the products they were working on, and it was revelatory and occasionally unsettling.

So, I recommend being totally transparent about the design process, particularly in relation to evidence gathered, and sharing it as broadly and openly as possible. Also, appreciate that it’s almost impossible to overstate the power of video or first-hand observation to illustrate a design problem or solution to stakeholders. Positioning that learning in a constructive and solution-orientated way is vital.

“Be visible and transparent—don’t work in a bubble.”

Twitter Logo

If successful, this opens a clear path away from subjectivity in discussions about design. Many of our colleagues now demand a validation-orientated approach, having realized the benefits of being able to use such evidence as part of making a wider business case.

How do you think your design process differs from your competitors’ process?

Our ability to be on the ground with learners and teachers around the world, through the close relationships that our local teams build with their customers, is a big differentiator. In recent years members of the team have run field studies in China, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea, Turkey, and Canada.

I think we’ve developed a unique perspective on shared facets of the educational domain, and where local practice and culture demand customization. It gives us great economies of scale, and the insight to build global design patterns for learning, but also a deep empathy for our users and an understanding of where specializing for specific use cases will deliver the most value.

How do you use InVision?

Primarily as a rapid prototyping tool. Sketch has become our primary design tool, so the ability to quickly assemble prototypes from its outputs, either for evaluation with our users or when communicating specifications to our development teams, especially across a global team like ours, is invaluable.

Pearson Experience Lab, from the observation room.

InVision fills that gap in a way that doesn’t introduce a disproportionate overhead in either the initial creation or subsequent maintenance, for the designer. Developers can instantly get a tangible sense of the journey we need to build together, including the use of transitions and gestures such as swipes on mobile devices. In the future we’re looking to see if we can get additional value by using Inspect to communicate design specifications as well.

What’s your best advice for young designers?

  • Seek out and encourage critiques of your work
  • Seize every opportunity to observe real-world use of your design
  • Be visible and transparent—don’t work in a bubble
  • Share your evidence and understanding of users across your organization
  • Hug developers, and wear gold shoes

Want to see your design team featured here on the InVision Blog? Get in touch: @InVisionApp.

Read more interviews with design leaders

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard