The {software} Architecture of Delight

It is something of a universal truth; that when it comes to education, nobody likes a surprise. Not on the way to school. Not in class. Certainly not in an exam. And almost never in this new digital learning paradigm, mid-pandemic.

It was somewhat surprising, perhaps mildly amusing, the first time a teacher or colleague opted for the outer space virtual backdrop in Zoom. Nevertheless, a couple weeks on and kitchen counters and bookshelves — not virtual unicorn forests — are keeping video calls interesting. Kitchen counters and bookshelves might not be surprising, but they can be interesting: unpredictable, personal. Never surprising.

Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

Delight, on the other hand, now that’s another matter altogether.

As a matter of course, only the rare few of us might hear a student directly describe a learning experience as ‘delightful’. The feeling of delight, however, is exactly the emotional reaction a learner has when using an education platform or learning app for the first time that provides an experience that is unexpected, non-threatening, familiar — or rather, just familiar enough.

Perhaps unexpected, but not surprising.

This, I would argue, is the ultimate combo-punch for a repeatedly engaging and successful learning experience — familiar-enough, non-threatening, unexpected: delightful. The first two are core to the fundamentals of good software architecture, namely ‘Least Principles’: the principle of least astonishment and principle of least effort. It’s the third principle, the ‘unexpected’, that provides the magic in the experience of an end user, carrying them through conversion to retention as a committed member of a user community.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

Creating a learning platform based on a design brief of unexpected, non-threatening, and familiar-enough in order to deliver on the promise of ‘delight’ isn’t particularly difficult. With countless examples of super successful platforms and apps serving just about every slice of the education pie, pulling together an MVP following a competitor analysis to deliver on these three design principles can be pretty recipe-like. Indeed, given the similarity of the bulk of the products in EdTech, there is clearly a lot of ‘inspired’ design going on out there.

Delivering on the promise of ongoing, repeated, limitless delight though, is a design challenge on a whole other scale. I suggested in my post on Interactive Learning that the gaming sector nailed interactive agency-inducing experiences long ago. This too is largely achieved through a continuous stream of delight for the end user. Delight: in the challenge of a new level; in the pace of progress and anticipation of completing challenges; in the unexpected-enough, over and over again.

Complete the game, and the delight is gone; on to a new game or, in the direction that gaming has moved in the past decade, online and interactive gaming, with the addition of UGC in the form of maps and gaming landscapes providing what becomes an endless ecosystem of delight.

There are numerous examples of highly successful education platforms and apps that meet the brief, not least the one I spent nearly a decade on. GeoGebra’s rapid rise and staying power as a world leading mathematics apps and platforms service is founded in the principle of putting its global user community front and centre. Bulldozing the suggestion that math might be, for many, considered the antithesis of simplicity and delight, GeoGebra has largely adhered to the design principles of remaining familiar and non-threatening since its inception.

And where GeoGebra has advanced its value to its user community is in surfacing the millions of user generated content for both existing and new users to explore, adapt and learn in different ways, every day, week, year. Just unexpected enough. Delightful. The GeoGebra team works in the background, expanding features and tools to power UGC — and this results in new ways of thinking about mathematics education, derived almost entirely from its user community (Check out this nice example shared on twitter by a teacher in the GeoGebra community from last week using AR here. Pure delight.).

Quite apart from UGC functioning as a method of delivering the unexpected, I should also mention Newsela, for its capacity to make complex news stories accessible. While my kids might be delighted by the endless facts and figures they have discovered using Newsela, as a parent — and educator — my experience of delight here is in the power of product to finally open-up the possibility of responsive and adaptable text for any given reading assignment, meeting every child at their own, personal reading level and needs. Delight from the unexpectedly personal; delight in enabling learners to access — independently — otherwise-impenetrable information.

Some of our crew, mid-delight.

I couldn’t write an article about delight in education though, or at least one that my children would endorse, without also referencing Prodigy. Prodigy has taken the notion of earning stars in completing math work to the next level…literally. Exploring new maps, and taking on dragons with battle-hardened avatars is pretty compelling, dare I say delightful, for the younger set around here.

Perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, every child will have access to an education that is so full of delight; so compelling, that our biggest problem will be in keeping up with the demand for learning — unlimited learning experiences. What a delightful problem.


Further reading: check out a nice read on Least Principles in software architecture here and a fine step-by-step on designing for delight here.




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Stephen Jull

Stephen Jull


edTech, founder, education for all, STEM innovation, sustainability education