Learning Experience Design or User Design: Which Comes First?

by Extension Engine | December 15, 2022

Estimated time to read: minutes

If you spend any time in tech or online learning spaces, you’ve probably heard the words “learning experience” (LX) and “user experience” (UX). Here at Extension Engine, we often talk about these terms in relation to design, because that’s what we do: We offer LX design and UX design to our clients for their learning experience platforms. And while these two things can go hand in hand, they don’t always have to.

A learning experience design is the way in which a designer creates a framework that teaches something specific to a learner. It refers to something learner- or user-focused. To be successful, an LX designer has to know what the learner’s goals are and then design with those things in mind. 

User experience design is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the platform that’s built for a user to interact with. The term “user experience” refers to the way each individual who uses something perceives it, and therefore how they react to it. Do they find it intuitive, simple to navigate, and helpful? Can they move smoothly from one step to the next? Is the branding consistent and understandable? Although the actual user may not be consciously thinking about these elements, the UX designer has to — and if they’re doing their job properly, everything will flow so seamlessly that the user doesn’t notice a particular element standing out.

The ultimate goal for both LX designers and UX designers is to determine what product or experience will work best for the learner and then to create that product or experience. But that doesn’t mean they always end up working together — their places in this process of discovery and creation can be different. Because the content is sometimes set before the design, an LX designer may be the first on the job, and then might step back when it’s time to put the content into its final form; that’s when the UX designer’s work starts. Or, if an organization first just wants to see what’s possible, a UX designer may mock up some possibilities before any other work begins. It’s a bit of a two-pronged approach, with the best order of work ultimately determined by a combination of learner needs and organizational requirements.

Sticking the Legos Together: LX Design and UX Design at Extension Engine

Senior Learning Experience Designer Lexie Bryan explains her role as one that works alongside clients on multiple aspects of a learning experience. “We work really closely with our different client organizations who are looking to create digital learning experiences, whatever that may look like. We work closely with program stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs), and we work with them on a variety of things depending on the needs of the project. It might look like curriculum design or program design.” While working with a client, Lexie always keeps the needs of the learner top of mind. She considers elements such as the reason the client is creating the learning experience in the first place and the desired end goals for the learner. “We do a lot of building and design work,” she says, “whether that’s designing activities, designing assessments, designing content, or choosing how we use technology. And we also do some tasks related to evaluation.”

On the product team, Senior User Experience Designer Matt White has a number of responsibilities, including building prototypes, conducting user testing, and creating wireframes. “My everyday [role] is interacting with product managers and engineering, looking at establishing patterns for the usability inside of products, or doing evaluation of current products. So if the client says, ‘We’re interested in X,’ I can go out and do an evaluation for them on what’s happening there. I work directly with the clients, presenting new approaches — [that is], how do we stick the Jenga [blocks] or the Legos together to see what we’re going to produce.”

Because Extension Engine is a services company, clients typically work more with either LX designers or UX designers, because they often need one skill set more than the other. Lexie says, “Sometimes [clients] buy platform services — design, engineering, project management — and sometimes they buy learning strategy or LX design.” Matt adds, “A lot of times we get a product or a new platform, and the client has already established a learning design pattern or they’ve got a library of content already, and they’re coming in looking for a way to sell what they already have versus creating new content.” The opposite of that is also true: Clients sometimes come in without the budget, time, or desire to build a completely custom project, so they want an adaptable, off-the-shelf platform, but they need assistance from LX designers with their content creation and organization. 

As a result of these differences, for most projects LX designers and UX designers don’t regularly collaborate at Extension Engine. They do, however, consult with each other if LX- or UX-focused questions arise. When the teams do work together on large projects, their work can build on each other’s. For example, if the LX designers do journey mapping (a visual depiction of how a learner interacts with a learning experience platform) to help pick a direction for the learners, the UX designers can create their wireframes (or blueprints) for high-impact areas based on those maps. In that way, they assist in each other’s work.

Occasionally, a project taps all of Extension Engine’s capabilities at once, from creating a custom platform to designing the full curriculum. In those cases, LX designers and UX designers work together when parts of the project overlap. 

Listening to Everyone's Voice: How to Help Clients and Learners

For every learning experience platform we work on, Extension Engine is thinking of the needs of both the client (including all stakeholders at the organization, whether it’s a business, a university, or a nonprofit) and the learner. That’s why our LX designers and UX designers work with clients at different stages, in slightly different ways, and for different lengths of time. Matt says, “[Sometimes we] create what we call D&Ps, or design and plannings, [when a client isn’t] ready to commit to a new platform yet but they need to know all the levers that they could pull. We do things like benchmark analysis, competitive analysis, and content analysis — all that would come into play — and then at the end of the day, [we provide] a deck and a set of recommendations for their advisory board.” For more in-depth projects, he says, “we have some engagements where we’ve been with them for so long, and we’re their primary vendor for design work or doing new feature work on their platform. And sometimes we build things because they say, ‘We have an engineering team here, but we don’t have the resources to get started on this new thing.’” Extension Engine’s UX designers will build whatever the client needs and then turn the maintenance on the platform over to them.

Lexie says the same general thing happens with LX design: Some clients say goodbye after receiving their product, while others seek additional help. “For example, last January we wrapped the initial project engagement with one of our nonprofit clients. A few months later, they asked us to do a bit more, so right now we’re actually wrapping up a short epilogue engagement with them. They’re also looking further ahead on their road map to next year, when they’ll have some data and learner feedback on the program they launched this year. They requested estimates on analyzing the feedback and doing design and content updates, which I hope we’ll get to do.”

As far as working with learners, Lexie and Matt agree that the way they work together is similar because the underlying goal is the same: to understand the learner, where they’re coming from, and what they need — so that the design can help them improve and progress in their learning. Of the ways that learning experience and user experience play off of each other in this regard, Matt says, “In user experience, you’re assessing ‘Can the learner get there, and can they get out of it?’ and ‘How satisfied are they by getting there and getting out of it?’ ‘Do we know that they are satisfied and got what they paid for?’ I know content is important to the user experience, the user journey, and the interface because content and platform work together. But [as a UX designer] I’m just hyper focused on getting them there. I would want someone like Lexie to say, ‘Well yeah, but they’re grad students who do this, this, this, and they don’t have time, and they work five jobs, and they’re going do it this way, so this is the way we’re going do content, and this is the way we’re going to work through the learning plan.’ And then I can say, ‘OK, that’s great to know. Do we need to modify the user experience to fit that model of how they’re learning?’”

LX designers and UX designers also consider administrators when putting together a learning experience, because administrators are the ones who will have to run it. “We need to make the platform really easy for the people who work in the office,” Matt says. “They need to go in and use this thing and modify content, and that’s a totally different workflow than the user might be getting. [It has to be able to] be updated and maintained and taken care of.”

What Extension Engine Can Do for You

Extension Engine’s flexibility in approach to each organization’s projects is part of what makes us successful. We can offer whatever is needed for LX design, UX design, or a combination of both, while providing short- or long-term engagements to take care of a range of needs. We can meet you where you are, bringing our unique tools to help build what you’re looking for to give your learners the best experience possible.

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