Pearson Education says they are in business to keep the whole world learning. Whether that be in helping people gain new skills to better perform in their job, be fulfilled as a learner, or support their family, Pearson believed that education is the path to opportunity and fulfillment.

David Schell has the enviable task of leading Pearson through thinking about the learner’s experience while interacting with the company’s tools, offerings, and services. His title: Vice President of Global Experience and Design. In 2018, he spoke about the challenge Pearson is facing:

[ (education + design thinking) x scale ]

Simply put, how does a global leader in educational offerings provide an effective user experience when the user base varies so widely and across so many different geographies, cultures, and spectrums? Let alone, how does Pearson do that in the midst of its own digital transformation? (note: read the piece on avoiding the traps of digital transformation by my colleague, Guillaume Pajeot). Schell is working on this and has some fantastic insights to share.

Design and design thinking, Schell shares, is not a department or group in your company (or it shouldn’t be). It’s a culture. He counsels business people – particularly design leaders in companies – to ask the question: “what is the environment in which our design team lives?” We all know that if any group in a company is relegated to also-ran status in a corporation, the impact the group is able to provide is truncated before it begins. Schell says that design can transform culture through things like experience labs, design principles, visual language, standards frameworks, collaboration, and sharing. However, designers and design teams need to remember it isn’t their right to make that impact, they must earn it.

The team at Pearson employed the principle of small wins to earn this right. Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter, Better, Faster and of The Power of Habit, writes that “small wins fuel transformative changes to leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.” What’s that mean? Football fans know that a series of first downs lead to the end zone and points on the board. We at Insigniam say “breakthroughs are a series of breakdowns well handled.” Schell counsels other design teams that they might have to act like an advertising agency and publicize themselves.

At Pearson, Schell’s team employed this ‘small wins’ approach. The question they grappled with was how to create a better digital reading experience for students. Schell’s team started with the foundational stuff you might expect: watch students on campus, do diary studies, interview people for their experience, etc. What they learned was interesting, indeed. Learning through reading and engaging with a text, they found, was a combination of a sense of place, skimming, and estimating.

Those three learnings came from noticing that there are things that physical books provide that digital books do not provide as well. An example is when a student remembers that a useful paragraph was on the page where there was the picture of the cat … in the digital book, the reader can’t ‘search for cat.’ The placement of the page in page in respect to all of the others helps readers find things in very interesting ways (e.g., ‘it was in the first few pages, I think’).

Pearson’s team is now well into work on digital reading design workshops. They have done a digital reading design sprint where they started with low fidelity prototypes, iterated the concept, and then built those into coded prototypes to test the digital experience. Schell points out that one of the best things he has learned managing the approach is that it is really okay to say “that’s close enough” and let the team proceed. Schell’s team is always in learning mode. That’s apropos for Pearson “because where learning flourishes, so do people.”

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