How Khan Academy is using design to pave the way for the future of education

Khan Academy designers Jason Rosoff, Tabitha Yong and  Marcos Ojeda.

Every morning Khan Academy’s lead designer, Jason Rosoff, spends the first 15 minutes of his day reading over the constant flow of new feedback from Khan Academy’s 10 million monthly users, who hail from more than 200 countries. In the company’s airy offices on the second floor of a building that bumps up against Google’s sprawling Mountain View campus, Rosoff pours over these little details from sometimes frustrated users that collectively can overwhelm. Do algebra students like the new feature they added? Are students still having problems getting credit for their calculus exercises?

Rosoff — who was one of the first employees hired at the non-profit over three years ago — calls the daily morning ritual his way of keeping a finger on the “pulse of what students are talking about.” It’s also his inspiration for the design decisions that have helped turn the company into the world’s largest interactive online classroom, with a mission to deliver a world-class free education to anyone, anywhere, at anytime across the planet.

Khan Academy's head designer Jason Rosoff, two designers Tabitha Yong and Marcos Ojeda.

Khan Academy’s lead designer Jason Rosoff, with two of the company’s designers Tabitha Yong and Marcos Ojeda.

Since its founding in 2008 by former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan — who was making math videos in his spare time to tutor his cousins — Khan Academy has emerged as a new way to learn; one that is self paced, approachable, conversational and tries to help students master individual subjects before moving onto the next. Bill Gates is a big fan, as is Google and its chairman Eric Schmidt as well as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings — all of these big names invested in the company.

While millions of users access the site and watch its content, 30,000 classrooms also use the videos for in-school teaching and teachers (they call them coaches) can also use the software to track student progress. All of these moving parts are tied together by an understated design ethos that highlights simplicity, puts the content first, and tries remove frustration and friction from learning.

Designing software to get out of the way

At a time in Silicon Valley when everything’s getting major design treatments — from connected thermostats to calender apps — Khan Academy is using design to get out of the way of learning. Khan Academy is a content company first and foremost, with hundreds of thousands of micro, modular bits of education videos that use Khan’s now famous ‘over-the-shoulder’ tutoring technique. Khan — who Russian investor Yuri Milner called the world’s first superstar teacher — has made thousands of these videos himself, doodling out equations on the screen and soothingly talking his viewers through complex math problems without appearing onscreen in the sessions.

It’s this unique content that Rosoff, and his team of three designers, put at the center of the site design, as they seek to remove laborious processes and distracting software. The overarching goal of the design is to “make the software recede into the background,” says Rosoff, emphasizing that “the content is the experience; there is no separation.” For example, the videos take up almost the entire screen when you’re viewing them, adding to the feeling that everything else has stopped and Khan is sitting in the same room as you, as your personal tutor.

Designing that much simplicity into the product isn’t as simple as it sounds. Rosoff noted that whenever the designers put software in the way of students viewing content and learning, the users would push back, and the team would realize the mistake and peel it away. Hence, why the morning user feedback sessions are so important.

Using design to take the frustration out of learning

When students do interact with the Khan Academy software itself — and not the videos — the design team has worked hard to deliver a feeling of approachable learning and friendly conversation, some of it through the text itself, and some of it through color choices. The idea is to use design to remove some of the inherent frustrations of learning and keep users coming back.

Khan Academy head design Jason Rosoff discusses layout with designer Tabitha Yong.

Khan Academy head design Jason Rosoff discusses layout with designer Tabitha Yong.

For example, Khan Academy originally used green checks and red X’s to track problems that students got right and wrong. The universal stop-and-go color codes were understood by everyone, but there was one problem: “people got really bummed out by the red X,” Rosoff said. So the team started to brainstorm how to change that in order to reduce that frustration.

It turns out that just changing the red X to a neutral gray X made students feel much better when they got a wrong answer. “We don’t emphasize that you made a mistake, we emphasize that you did something correctly,” said Rosoff.

It’s moments like those that made Rosoff realize that there were ways in which the software itself could support Khan Academy’s mission to deliver this new type of education. Early last year the design team launched a total visual refresh of the site with a particular focus on using color-based navigation for domains like math and science.

Khan Academy’s design team is also helping the company address a unique issue with the way its users consume content. Many of Khan Academy’s users go onto the site to solve one specific problem — they need to refresh their understanding of fractions, or pass a test — so they watch some content and then they leave. But some of Khan Academy’s users end up sticking around and using the site to supplement, enhance or complete their learning across many topics. These are the power users and are using the site in a much more aspirational way.

Khan Academy is designing the site for both these types of users. Rosoff described it as an approach that is “supplemental but exhaustive.” The idea is to solve their immediate problem as quickly as possible, and then offer them the ability to buy into this bigger adventure, he explained.

The Khan Academy office in Mountain View, California.

The Khan Academy office in Mountain View, California.

One tool that Khan Academy has built to get users to buy into this “bigger adventure” rests with the “Learning Dashboard.” The company launched it last year — just for math content for now — and it acts as a user’s personalized home page that tells them where they left off the last time they visited and guides them to the next step or piece of content. It’s a little like the personalized page you see when you log onto Netflix or Amazon.

This year Khan Academy’s designers will be working on expanding the Learning Dashboard to the rest of the domains beyond math. Rosoff and his design team will also be looking hard at figuring out their mobile strategy this year, determining what aspects to tackle first through mobile, and how to enable interaction with current content on cell phones.

Khan Academy is hiring more designers (two more for now), and it’s also working with Designer Fund on their Bridge apprenticeship program. Designers that apply for the Bridge program can get matched with Khan Academy and start working with the design team this spring.

Khan Academy is a mission-driven nonprofit with an ambitious goal to create a “one world classroom,” as Khan described it in a TED talk in 2011 that helped put the company on the map. Being a non-profit means certain things, like none of the 55-person team will become millionaires in an IPO or acquisition.

But being a non-profit also means that the team doesn’t have to sprint to the finish line — and show unnatural growth to hit certain financial metrics. They can slow down and run the long marathon. Because no doubt the future of education might take awhile to unfold.

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