Analysis of Coursera: taking a course on design

Let’s learn something new! And let’s do it with Coursera: one of the leading company providing massive open online courses.

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Okay, it looks like big universities are teaching here, this make me feel better.

I have a quick look at the featured courses and they look VERY technical. Hmmm… let’s use the search bar at the top and look for course about design because that’s something I care about.

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387 matches. Wow. That’s a lot… I could try the filters to the left but doesn’t seem to help much.

Maybe I could have been more specific. I’m into product design so let’s try with product design.

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Okay same number of matches… that didn’t work. Or maybe it did? Now at the top I can see a title that catches my attention. It’s actually about product design. Also I’ve heard of “design sprints” but never really studied them. Let’s learn more.

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The about this course section looks crammed even though it’s the most important one. But I guess when you’ve thousands of courses you’ve to go for more structured data: that’s why there’s so much more space reserved for less important meta data: like the author, the school, the language etc.

Still I can expand and read the description in just 1 click. Sounds like a good fit.

I like to clearly see the commitment required and the duration.

Actually I notice this is course #2 of a 5 courses sequence (apparently they call this bundle of courses a “specialization”). Let’s click on it to learn more.

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In a new tab I can see more about this specialization. The page looks very similar. I have a quick look at the course #1 but it looks less interesting to me.

Let’s go back to the other course

Before looking at the syllabus let’s jump to the reviews because those can tell you a lot, when you’re lucky.

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SURPRISE! It’s rated 4.5 stars. Like most “okay to excellent” stuff on the internet these days.

Let’s dig into the negative reviews for some insights. I’ll save you the screenshots. Most of the negative reviews critique the quality of the course compared to the first one of this series of courses (this is #2).

Specifically they say “Some lessons are just boring and way too exhaustive” or “most of the information is far too specific and tied to one scenario”.

Anyway these are just 4-5 isolated voices amongst 60 ratings. They won’t stop me.

Let’s have a look at the syllabus.

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This is how week 1 is summarised. It looks like most of the “lessons” will be video lectures. Other than that I can’t really expand this index without enrolling. So let’s “Enroll Now”. If anything to make this button disappear (it’s been following me all along!)

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Standard and sleek modal signup. Let’s go with Facebook and save some clicks.

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I’m in. Woohoo!

Again the text content is hidden away in a Read More corner of the website. Also this 14px font size is driving me blind. Let’s zoom to 125% and make it more readable (hoping it won’t break the layout).

Nice, now let’s click the continue button. It looks like the week 1 is due in 3 days and I better do it.

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it looks like I’ve 3 things I can do. Upgrade but no thanks I haven’t even started trying it.

Then I can go to forum to discuss this week’s module.

Or start the lesson. I guess I’ll invest 10 minutes with the the first lesson about overview & requirements.

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This is easy to scan read content. Thanks!

The typography sucks thought. It’s too many words per line, a too small font. In short it’s not designed to aid reading. Here’s a comparison with a well designed site to make the point clearer.



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At the bottom of the page there’s a Please Note note about session-based course. I’ll follow the link but it bring me to a 404 page.

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It doesn’t matter.

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I flag this page to leave feedback so that they can fix. I like to discover the interface and how they’ve split technical and content feedback.

I click “Mark as completed” to… complete the lesson.

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I didn’t get redirected to the next page or anything. No big deal I’ll just scroll at the top and go to the next lesson.

The next page is a nice “Get to Know Your Classmates” message. An invitation to present myself and update my profile.

The thing is it says to go to the meet and greet forum but there’s no link to it in the content, not even in the page.

Let’s go back to the overview section because I remember there was a discussion forums section there.

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It looks like the forum is organised by week and on top of that we have a general discussion and meet and greet section. Let’s meet and greet some fellow students.

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I read some of the presentations. There are only 3 of them with 0 replies each. Rather than starting yet another thread I decide to reply to an existing one, to make it more social.

Before replying I want to add a profile picture to make it more personal. I’ve encountered some technical glitches but in the end I manage it (side thought: since I signed up through my Facebook account, couldn’t they pull the pic?).

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Cool! I’ve met Daniel: a big Coursera fan.

Now let’s navigate back to the next lesson. Click click click click.

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The first video! I’m happy to see they’ve multiple playback rate. And also an interactive and searchable transcript.

I’m not that happy, instead, to see that the forum is completely separated from the content.


I keep moving on from one 5 minutes videos to another, until I end up in a new type of content

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It’s a question. I can’t see answers from other people until I actually submit mine – even if it doesn’t add anything to the conversation.

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It looks like I’m not the only one just saying no.

This is the kind of integration between forums and learning material that I’d like to see more. If only they were more flexible and refined… I believe they could drive a lot of engagement. Anyway let’s go back to the walkthrough.

The experience continues with video lectures and 1 question quizzes until I end up on the exam page for this week of the course. Tah dah!!!

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The questions are challenging and all the options are credible. I’ve 3 attempts every 8 hours so I’m very relaxed as I attempt it.

Then I try to submit it for grading and I see this.

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It looks like this is a premium feature. Some quizzes and a shareable certificate It’s not worth 99$ so I’ll just keep going without the graded exams.

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Looking at the assignments page in the course overview I can tell in the third week there’s a new kind of activity that’s peer graded. Too bad I won’t make it. I’ve found the materials of this week a bit too academic so I’ll just drop out of this course and move on to something else…

In the meantime… in my inbox

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Right after signing up for the course I get two emails from Coursera.

One is clearly the same template for every course (featuring an oversized image and a big blue button to get started). Nothing useful or special really.

The other is a more discursive email that address the critiques we’ve read in the negative reviews and feature one happy testimonial.

In the following days I’ll only get email reminders about assignments that are due.

Wrapping up

I’m not impressed by the quality of the user interface or the user experience in general.

I get it that having thousands of courses you’ve to standardise. And you have to impose more strict design requirements overall. But still there’re too many confusing points and considering they’ve raised 146 millions of dollars, I would have expected better design standards.









Analysis of the Fizzle course

Today I’ll breakdown the user experience of the Fizzle online course.

The intended audience is: founders or wanna-be founders of online courses that want to learn something about how well designed online courses work.

Reading time: 4-5 minutes (if you read at the average 200 words per minute)

Selling the value proposition

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The guys know what they’re doing. In 3 lines you get:

  • a target: entrepreneurs
  • a value proposition: business training and a community that will keep you from fizzling out
  • a differentiator: “honest”. Are they comparing themselves to some other typical online business training courses? Anyway the smiling face in the video pushes me to learn more about this

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After the video there’s a short “sales letter” text. A very personal message from Corbett Barr. My bet is most of the readers of this page already know him. They know him from the very high quality blog and podcast behind this course (also the main marketing engine).

The call to action is “start my free two weeks”. That bring me to…

The business model

The business model is 35$/month to have instant unlimited access to everything. This is the typical business model for a membership site.

There’re no different pricing points and I think that’s a conscious choice that reflect their branding and messaging. They didn’t want to create hierarchy, and they like to keep things simple.

A downside of giving unlimited access to everything immediately is that some users will

  • get in with a free trial
  • download all the material
  • cancel the account before getting billed

To avoid this kind of behaviour some courses “drip” the content. Meaning the gradually release modules over some weeks/months.

In the case of this course, they’ve the community element that’s a big part of the value proposition and an incentive to stick month over month.

Getting started: the onboarding

This is what you see after entering the credit card information for the free trial (they won’t charge you but it’s a good way to stop people from creating multiple trials).

Just another way to set a light-hearted and personal tone.

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And this is the actual first “real” screen.


The first actual step is a guided tour. Again the video is prominent and the design is impeccable.

To deliver the guided tour they’re using the same interface and layout that’s used for the courses. This is a nice way to introduce the user to the interface.

To host the videos they’re using Wistia – a SaaS video hosting solution with good analytics features.

When the tour is over, you arrive to…

The roadmap or how to go from nothing to a thriving online business2016-08-23_17-40-07

The roadmap screen is a great concept they’re using to give you the big picture. It’s organised in 3 phases and 9 stages. Each stage has some must do actions and then it’s linking to extra courses on Fizzle that expands on the subject.

Speaking of extra courses…

The courses page


Welcome to the page where you can waste invest hundreds of hours watching business training videos. Including the founder stories: high quality interviews to role models that already made a good online business.

Don’t have many days to invest? Use the filter in the sidebar to refine the courses.

Don’t want to go at random? Go back to the roadmap and follow it.

You need some kind of accountability? Enter the community.

The community and the forum


Yes it looks like a jump in the past.

Yes it is not as sleek-ly designed as what we’ve seen so far. That’s because they’re using a SaaS provider (IPS) to run the community and the forum.

  • There’s little integration between forums and courses (e.g. I cannot comment a specific video in the forum directly)
  • They can’t customise it to match their needs. But hey, if they don’t have specific needs, they’re saving many thousands of dollars and getting a lot of value.

They have status updates, events, a leaderboard and a hierarchically organised forum that looks alive, which is not granted.

Keeping things alive: how?

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Having a community with a pulse is a big challenge that Fizzle won.

How did they do?

  • They have weekly events. Webinars with the office hours format.
  • Even many years after starting, the founders are still posting new threads
  • They have at least 1 person dedicated to managing the community
  • They have a series of email that encourage you to connect with other members and post in the community (e.g. reach out to a fellow member and introduce yourself)
  • And most importantly… they’ve a constant stream of new users, thanks to their incredible content marketing machine (blog+podcast)

For instance in the 2 weeks trial I’ve received 1 email every other day. Email is a must-have channel to onboard and activate users.

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Technically speaking they use Intercom to schedule automated emails with smart triggers. That’s a great tool. And generally speaking

My Fizzle homepage: the dashboard

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When you go back to the Fizzle private area you end up in your dashboard. A good starting point because from here:

  • you find a shortcut to go back to the latest course you’ve seen
  • you see a feed with the latest from the entire Fizzle ecosystem

Wrapping up: one way I’d try to improve the user experience

My only remark is about the integration between content and the community. So starting from here I’d try to add a user contributed section inside the content pages.

The 2 broad goals would be

  • Increase the engagement of the users and the success
  • Organise the community inputs so that they increase value of the content

One hard metric I would monitor:

  • # of posts per 100 unique visitor
  • Hours per month spent moderating inputs

Since user contributed areas can get messy quickly I would create some categories to group the kind of user input… for instance:

  • Questions
  • Suggestions
  • Successes

From the interface point of view: I would add this section at the bottom of the page so that it won’t distract users from the main content. This is also a common place for despicable trolls comments in many websites.

Here’s a sketch of the concept


That’s all for now!

See you at the next course analysis 🙂