Psychology of learning – app design

Most of us at least once have used some sort of learning app. Want to pick up some new words in Spanish quickly? Download Duolingo! Looking for an alternative to learn definitions? Kahoot will be perfect for you! Looking at the entire list of online learning apps, it may seem like a piece of cake to design one. Unfortunately, the truth is that to design a good app, we need to dig very deep – into the brain itself. Based on psychology, we will suggest how to create the perfect learning app, but before we talk about it…

Reasons for the popularity of educational apps


The pandemics came, and we suddenly had a lot of time on our hands. Some have lost their jobs; some were on a break. Others still had to work from home, but they saved time on their everyday commute. A lot of people decided it was a great time to learn! Anything really, from baking bread to getting online degrees and higher education. Educational apps were the driving force behind a lot of that online learning. It is also worth emphasizing that from a psychological point of view, the sense of purpose and development through learning is a component of adult mental health, therefore educational applications helped many people to maintain mental balance during a pandemic, filling excess time with developmental activities.

Worldwide mobile education app downloads from 1Q 2017 to 1Q 2020, by platform[1]

The finance aspect speaks for itself: American EdTech companies raised 2.2 billion dollars in 2020[2]. This market is forecasted to grow by 70.55 billion by 2025[3]. Thanks to all of that, the market became more diverse. For example, classroom education apps became widely popular because of online schooling during pandemics. AppStore data shows education is the third most popular category.

The most popular Apple App Store categories in December 2021, by share of available apps[4]

The price

Another important factor that has influenced the success of educational apps is their price. We don’t need to have a large budget (sometimes even none) to start learning a new language or brush up on our math skills. 

When comparing the prices of tutoring and app subscriptions, an app’s latter will always come out more favorably.


We can use the app anytime. We can study on the streetcar, standing in traffic, or on our lunch break. We can take the app anywhere and probably even on an exotic island we can use it (wherever wi-fi coverage is available). We also don’t have a predetermined study time – we can spend 30 minutes on it one day, 15 on another, and do it at any time. In this aspect, practically nothing is imposed on the user in advance.


A very important reason for the popularity (if not the most important) of learning through online applications is their attractiveness. The huge number of apps flooding the market gives the user the freedom to choose the best option. Besides, who has a positive association with sitting on a bench and cramming more vocabulary or definitions into heads? Probably no one. Who among us likes to play a cool game or click on the phone sometimes? Most. And that’s the advantage of an app, which probably no school or course can counteract. Gamification, aesthetically pleasing design, rewards for progress – these few features make app-based learning can be excellent entertainment.

However, speaking of attractiveness, one very important aspect cannot be overlooked – competition in the market. Today it is not difficult to create an app! The trick is to create an app that users will want to use every day and will not abandon after a free trial period.

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How can you make a great educational app?

As we wrote at the beginning – the brain is the best inspiration. There are plenty of psychological factors that play a part in the popularity and results of learning apps. Let’s see how to use them while designing an educational app!

Minimalism- keep it simple

Make an effort to keep your app minimalistic. And we’re not talking just about graphic design. Keep the tasks and choices users have to make to a necessary minimum. While we use those apps to learn something, we still do it mostly on our phones and in our free time. Our brains are not expecting too much thinking or focusing. It makes sense – if we wanted to make a huge effort, we would use traditional methods. Hick’s law is a designing rule that says that the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices. When faced with too many options, some of the users will simply quit the app. To avoid that, you should make the choices simple or break them into smaller ones. Our short-term memory has limited processing capacity – the latest research by Nelson Cowan (2010) proved that we are able to accommodate 4 (- + 1) elements during mental activity. This limitation should be borne in mind when designing subpages that require the user to make a decision based on the presented variables.

source: Elevate, Brainly

Design for the right age

You need to know who your end-user is and design with them in mind. For example, if you’re designing for children, the colors should be bright and happy. On the other hand, most adults would find those colors tiring and annoying in the long run. Children will love a lot of animation and cute graphics. Adults would prefer a more professional-looking app to enhance the feeling of learning something “serious”.

source: Lingokids, Math Learner
source: Hello Talk, Elevate


Online learning wins over traditional education when it comes to modern life. One of the examples is microlearning. Users of educational apps or platforms often use them while on a bus, in a traffic jam, or waiting for a friend. Platforms functioning like regular classes, where you have to be somewhere at the exact time and follow a curriculum, don’t stand a chance. The power of educational apps lies in microlearning. It’s believed to be 17% more efficient than traditional classroom training[5]. When designing your app, you should divide the tasks into smaller ones that users can do in a few minutes. Additionally, the key to successful learning is regularity, and few options guarantee regularity like the availability of an educational medium on your phone.

source: Busuu, Yousician

Social influence

People are social animals. We like sharing our success with others, for example, on social media. Be sure to implement social media buttons on your app or platforms. It will be easy for users to contact you and give you social media engagement simultaneously. It is easier for us as users/consumers to trust a company application when we see that our friends or other people are using something (in psychology, social proof of rightness). If your app features a leaderboard, points, or levels, give users an option to share it on social media! It will boost dopamine in their brains and, again: will trigger engagement.

source: Busuu, Kahoot, Hello Talk

More knowledge about the social influence you can find here: Community impact on online education!


Many things can be said about video games, but everyone can agree they are fun. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro gamer or enjoy some fairly easy mobile games. Educational apps should behave like games. Users should get rewards, gather points or coins, and win the first spot. All of those things will activate users’ neurons that release dopamine. Dopamine makes us happy, and your brain will know where you got it. This will make users come back to your app! Make sure to gamify when designing a learning app.

source: Duolingo, Kahoot

Video content

Videos are the most popular format for online learning – just think of all the tutorials on YouTube or TikTok! If you decide to put video content on your app, consider videos with a lecturer. Our brains are wired to detect faces and get drawn to them. All thanks to the fusiform face area (FFA) – a region in the cortex that responds most strongly to faces over anything else. Videos with a human speaker are certain to draw more attention and keep it for a longer time than those without them.

source: Busuu

Push notifications

The biggest problem most of us face when it comes to learning is consistency. That’s why you can’t forget to include push notifications. Having a busy life, people can easily forget that they were supposed to learn, especially initially. The push notification will help them remember about your app and develop a habit. Remember – you need to ask for users’ consent to turn them on!

Do you want to know more about app design? Read this article: How to create a phenomenal learning app – a comparison of self-study tools!

Trends in EduTech you should know about

EduTech is such a hot topic right now; certain trends are coming and going. As of right now, we can see some of them that most definitely are here to stay.

VR/AR technology

Many think just about entertainment when it comes to virtual or augmented reality (VR/AR). But it becomes more and more useful when it comes to education as well! Perhaps not the one at home, but many companies use VR for employee training. It allows the employees to get easily immersed in the situation. It brings out the emotion in people, and those are crucial for memorization. AR-based visualization helps to show objects simply. It increases the depth of understanding and allows users to remember what they’ve learned.

Big data is playing its part

Big data influences EdTech, just like it influences many aspects of our life. It helps personalize education. Just like it’s personalizing your online adverts, it can help create a learning process just for you. On the other hand, it also helps measure students’ progress. Even if it’s not graded, it’s good to know how well students are doing. Lastly, big data increases participation. People are turning away from formal education and regular lectures and courses. Thanks to its personalization abilities, big data helps to interest people again.

Innovative homeschooling startups

Homeschooling is quite big in the United States, and it’s growing every year. About 3.4% of American kids of school age are being homeschooled[6]. Since the pandemics, every parent has gotten a taste of homeschooling, and many of them have decided to continue. That, of course, creates the necessity for homeschooling apps. They are designed with regular school in mind so that the kids won’t miss anything and can take the necessary exams when the time comes. Some of them, like Primer, help parents navigate through local regulations as well.

EduTech is here to stay (and grow)

The covid-19 pandemic triggered a big part of that growth. It’s estimated that between 2021 and 2025, the market will grow by 112.39 billion dollars. Well-known platforms like Udemy, Coursera, and Teachable are getting bigger every day. But many smaller ones are seeing amazing growth as well. Teachoo – an app for students in India, has seen an 8500% increase in Google searches[8]. That’s huge, but many others are seeing more online searches – from a few hundred up to thousands[9]. If you want to develop an educational app, there has never been a better time!

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Jagoda Złakowska

Communication Manager

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