Education and training providers are continuously striving to improve the quality of their online learning offerings and to make better use of technology to improve learning experiences for students.
Despite differences in goals and underlying values, educators can find inspiration and new ideas in the operating principles that guide successful companies such as Apple and Google. While there is no doubt that one cannot make direct comparisons between companies operating on a for-profit basis and publicly assisted education and training providers, there is a lot that can be learned and adapted from these very successful companies.
We offer guidelines and strategies for online learning that were developed from the principles that guide Apple and Google, followed by a detailed look at their values and strategies. These companies are living their visions and serving customers in ways that meet, and often exceed, expectations. Apple and Google’s successful business models provide some useful perspectives for online education.
Implications for Online Learning Practices
We are not suggesting that either Apple or Google are role models for online learning. Rather, looked at the best practice framework of two of the most successful companies in the world to see what light this can throw upon online learning education and training practices.
The ideas can be organized in three categories:
- About the online learning team;
- About online learning courses and resources;
- About relationships.
About the Online Learning Team
Be vision- and mission-driven and seek to deliver optimal learning
Best practices, innovation and a focus on quality should drive the work. Quality should be assessed throughout the development process, with the student evaluations looking at both learning success and engagment.
Strive to innovate
Engage with students and stakeholders in such a way as to constantly push the boundaries while always being focused on student needs. The designers can imagine the possibilities of such innovations as mobile applications, simulations, social networks, and animation, while working with the team to make sure they match student and content needs and capacities. The design needs to balance simplicity and accessibility with innovation.
Create a focused and effective team
Construct a team with content expertise, instructional design, support service design, and technology capacities that stress the strengths of both team spirit and individual performance.
Develop appropriate reward and recognition systems
Institutions are past the stage of reliance on early adopters. To produce high quality online learning resources and learning experiences, those engaged in this work need to be appropriately rewarded and recognized for work that differs considerably from other forms of instruction.
About Online Learning Courses and Resources
Simplicity is powerful
Less is more. One of the challenges of design in online learning is that so many things are possible but what students say in feedback and focus groups is that simple is best. This does not mean bare bones. It means that what is offered to students should be intuitive, simple to navigate and efficient. Google says it looks for simplicity; this works for online learning as well.
Delight the eye without distracting the mind
Attention needs to be paid to visual quality and experience in course design to benefit all learners, especially the significant proportion of visual learners. Graphic design, ease of the page on the eye, enabling rapid visualization of navigation, supporting visual learners with images, moving graphics and so on, are all important ingredients of effective online learning spaces.
Google’s principle is that milliseconds count. Students’ time is valuable. It is therefore important that no student has to navigate through a swamp of pages to get to the resources they need. Simple things – how many clicks to the library or quiz, do all of the links to third party materials work, can the image be enlarged quickly and easily – become time critical matters.
Think about connectivity to others
Students need to have access to supports built into the design of their learning – peer, instructor, and technological, as well as remedial learning loops and so on. In the design of a learning platform, consideration needs to be given to how this connectivity is achieved.
It’s about the student – their lives, work, ambitions and dreams
Putting the student at the centre of design is essential for retention and successful online learning. The Google principle of “engage beginners and attract experts” is also important here – there may be a need to provide a variety of routes through a learning experience so as to meet the needs of different kinds of students.
It’s about personal connections
Successful online learning programs and courses are those which enable strong connections between the student, the content, the instructor and peers. Each of these connections has to be efficient, effective meaningful, and focused.
Looking at Apple
Apple designs, manufactures, and markets personal computers, mobile communication devices, and portable digital music and video players, and sells a variety of related software, services, peripherals, and networking solutions. It sells products worldwide through its online stores, retail stores, direct sales force, and third-party wholesalers and resellers. In addition, the company sells a variety of third-party iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch compatible products, including application software, printers, storage devices, speakers, and headphones through its online and retail stores, and digital content and applications through the Mac App Store and iTunes.
A conversation with Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder, published online , provides a broad perspective on Apple’s guiding principles:
Empathy for Customers/Users
We offer superior products that fill real needs and provide lasting value. We deal fairly with competitors and meet customers and vendors more than halfway. We are genuinely interested in solving customer problems, and we will not compromise our ethics or integrity in the name of profit.
We set aggressive goals and drive ourselves hard to achieve them. We recognize that this is a unique time, when our products will change the way people work and live. It is an adventure, and we are in it together.
Positive Social Contribution
We build products that extend human capability, freeing people from drudgery and helping them achieve more than they could alone. But beyond that, we expect to make this world a better place to live. As a corporate citizen, we wish to be an economic, intellectual, and social asset in communities where we operate.
We built our company on innovation, providing products that were new and needed. We accept the risks inherent in following our vision, and work to develop leadership products that command the profit margins we strive for.
We expect individual commitment and performance above the standard for our industry. Only thus will we make the profits that permit us to seek our other corporate objectives. Each employee can and must make a difference. In the final analysis, individuals determine the character and strength of Apple.
Teamwork is essential to Apple's success, for the job is too big to be done by one person. Individuals are encouraged to interact with all levels of management, sharing ideas and suggestions to improve Apple's effectiveness and quality of life. It takes all of us to win. We support each other and share the victories and rewards together. We are enthusiastic about what we do.
We care about what we do. We build into Apple products a level of quality, performance, and value that will earn the respect and loyalty of our customers. At Apple, quality management is critical to our continued success.
We recognize each person's contribution to Apple's success, and we share the financial rewards that flow from high performance. We recognize also that rewards must be psychological as well as financial, and we strive for an atmosphere where each individual can share the adventure and excitement of working at Apple.
The attitudes and behaviours of managers toward their people are of primary importance. Employees should be able to trust the motives and integrity of their supervisors. It is the responsibility of management to create a productive environment where Apple values flourish.
Looking at Google
Amongst the myriad of software developments during the 18 or so years since the Internet began to operate in the public domain, Google is amongst its great success stories.
The company has not only provided a search engine that is ubiquitous; it has also developed many other resources – Gmail, Google maps, a blog system, an alternative to Microsoft Office – and has done so in a way that is very profitable. Google has persistently pursued innovation and pushed the limits of existing technology to provide fast, accurate and easy-to-use services that can be accessed from anywhere. Google has, it would seem, helped to re-define how individuals, businesses and technologists view the Internet.
The descriptions of Google’s values and how they are actualized in company strategies and designs are summarized from their document 10 Things We Know to Be True :
Focus on people – their lives, their work, their dreams
The Google User Experience team works to discover people's actual needs, including needs they can't always articulate. Armed with that information, Google can create products that solve real-world problems and spark the creativity of all kinds of people. Improving people's lives, not just easing step-by-step tasks, is our goal.
Above all, a well-designed Google product is useful in daily life. It doesn't try to impress users with its whiz-bang technology or visual style – though it might have both. It doesn't strong-arm people to use features they don't want – but it does provide a natural growth path for those who are interested. It doesn't intrude on people's lives – but it does open doors for users who want to explore the world's information, work more quickly and creatively, and share ideas with their friends or the world.
Every millisecond counts
Nothing is more valuable than people's time. Google pages load quickly, thanks to slim code and carefully selected image files. The most essential features and text are placed in the easiest-to-find locations. Unnecessary clicks, typing, steps, and other actions are eliminated. Google products ask for information only once and include smart defaults. Tasks are streamlined. Speed is a boon to users. It is also a competitive advantage that Google doesn't sacrifice without good reason.
Simplicity is powerful.
Simplicity fuels many elements of good design, including ease of use, speed, visual appeal, and accessibility. But simplicity starts with the design of a product's fundamental functions. Google doesn't set out to create feature-rich products; our best designs include only the features that people need to accomplish their goals. Ideally, even products that require large feature sets and complex visual designs appear to be simple as well as powerful.
Engage beginners and attract experts
Designing for many people doesn't mean designing for the lowest common denominator. The best Google designs appear quite simple on the surface but include powerful features that are easily accessible to those users who want them. Our intent is to invite beginners with a great initial experience while also attracting power users whose excitement and expertise will draw others to the product.
A well-designed Google product lets new users jump in, offers help when necessary, and ensures that users can make simple and intuitive use of the product's most valuable features. Progressive disclosure of advanced features encourages people to expand their usage of the product. Whenever appropriate, Google offers smart features that entice people with complex online lives – for instance, people who share data across several devices and computers, work online and off, and crave storage space.
Dare to innovate
Design consistency builds a trusted foundation for Google products, makes users comfortable, and speeds their work. But it is the element of imagination that transforms designs from ho-hum to delightful. Google encourages innovative, risk-taking designs whenever they serve the needs of users. Our teams encourage new ideas to come out and play. Instead of just matching the features of existing products, Google wants to change the game.
Design for the world
The World Wide Web has opened all the resources of the Internet to people everywhere. For example, many users are exploring Google products while strolling with a mobile device, not sitting at a desk with a personal computer. Our goal is to design products that are contextually relevant and available through the medium and methods that make sense to users. Google supports slower connections and older browsers when possible, and Google allows people to choose how they view information (screen size, font size) and how they enter information (smart query parsing). The User Experience team researches the fundamental differences in user experiences throughout the world and works to design the right products for each audience, device, and culture.
Google is also committed to improving the accessibility of its products. Our desire for simple and inclusive products, and Google's mission to make the world's information universally accessible, demand products that support assistive technologies and provide a useful and enjoyable experience for everyone, including those with physical and cognitive limitations.
Plan for today's and tomorrow's business
Those Google products that make money strive do so in a way that is helpful to users. To reach that lofty goal, designers work with product teams to ensure that business considerations integrate seamlessly with the goals of users. Teams work to make sure ads are relevant, useful, and clearly identifiable as ads. Google also takes care to protect the interests of advertisers and others who depend on Google for their livelihood.
Google never tries to increase revenue from a product if it would mean reducing the number of Google users in the future. If a profitable design doesn't please users, it's time to go back to the drawing board. Not every product has to make money, and none should be bad for business.
Delight the eye without distracting the mind
If people looked at a Google product and said "Wow, that's beautiful!" the User Experience team would cheer. A positive first impression makes users comfortable, assures them that the product is reliable and professional, and encourages people to make the product their own.
A minimalist aesthetic makes sense for most Google products because a clean, clutter-free design loads quickly and doesn't distract users from their goals. Visually appealing images, color, and fonts are balanced against the needs for speed, scannable text, and easy navigation. Still, "simple elegance" is not the best fit for every product. Audience and cultural context matter. A Google product's visual design should please its users and improve usability for them.
Be worthy of people's trust
Good design can go a long way to earn the trust of the people who use Google products. Establishing Google's reliability starts with the basics – for example, making sure the interface is efficient and professional, actions are easily reversed, ads are clearly identified, terminology is consistent, and users are never unhappily surprised. In addition, Google products open themselves to the world by including links to competitors and encouraging user contributions such as community maps or iGoogle gadgets.
A greater challenge is to make sure that Google demonstrates respect for users' rights to control their own data. Google is transparent about how it uses information and how that information is shared with others (if at all), so that users can make informed choices. Our products warn users about such dangers as unsecure connections, actions that may make users vulnerable to spam, or the possibility that data shared outside Google may be stored elsewhere. The larger Google becomes, the more essential it is to live up to our "Don't be evil" motto.
Add a human touch
Google includes a wide range of personalities, and our designs have personality, too. Text and design elements are friendly, quirky, and smart –not boring, close-minded, or arrogant. Google text talks directly to people and offers the same practical, informal assistance that anyone would offer to a neighbour who asked a question. Google also doesn't let fun or personality interfere with other elements of a design, especially when people's livelihood, or their ability to find vital information, is at stake.
Google doesn't know everything, and no design is perfect. Our products ask for feedback, and Google acts on that feedback. When practicing these design principles, the Google User Experience team seeks the best possible balance in the time available for each product. Then the cycle of iteration, innovation, and improvement continues.