Winter 2019

Case Study: Re-imagining Course Discovery on Coursera

I’ve always been a fan of Massively Open Online Courses (“MOOCs”, in shorthand) like Coursera. I picked up my first “formal” training with typography on the platform, and being a huge typography nerd now, I owe a lot of my obsession to that one lesson. For my design challenge, I wanted to look at potential problems Coursera might face as more students join the platform and more educational content is added.

I’ll be linking to my working docs throughout this write-up. I put them all here to make them easy to access.

Diving into MOOCs ⛷

Before I begin, it’s important to note that my direct network consists mainly of students with higher education backgrounds. Interviewing them would bias any obtained data as I’m trying to analyze an alternative education platform, so I opted for external research instead.

There is no doubt that the landscape of jobs available will change in the future. Coursera’s mission aligns with this truth, allowing students to learn skills traditional education does not provide by “accessing the world’s best learning experience”. MOOCs and skill certification providers have been often considered the best alternative to higher education, and as the industry leader when it comes to the number registered students, Coursera is no different.

However, with 3 out of 4 students already having bachelor degrees, perhaps the platform could be doing more for the rest of the folks who would benefit most from open, online courses for advancing their career. Through the rest of this study, I’ll be looking at the consumer facing version of Coursera, and see where it could be improved.

Breaking the product down 🔨

Although the design of an individual course is worth looking at, they are primarily defined by the content produced by educators. Rather, I’ll focus on the value Coursera has outside these courses—being a platform to discover and identify educational content relevant to you as a student.

It is also worth noting that I’ll mainly be focusing on the desktop web non-enterprise version of Coursera, as the mobile app is more of a supplemental resource on top of the web experience, and Coursera for Business is outside the market I’m focusing on.

Mapping the current application

Student Dashboard dashboard

Explore Page exploresmol

Coursera Dashboard & Explore mapped out currentapp

After evaluating the layout of Coursera’s student dashboard and course discovery, two potential pain points stick out:

  1. “Explore” seems to be tailored around the content available, rather than what is relevant to the student, which directly increases the difficulty of doing what Coursera is meant for—learning.
  2. The content itself is not scannable, and it is hard to determine what is relevant as a student.

These are both problems that can be solved with a well-crafted design solution.

From here on out, I should keep in mind certain principles to guide our redesign. Two of Coursera’s principles are relevant here: Betterment and Solidarity. A redesign should be in solidarity with all students, regardless of their educational background. Specifically, I should avoid higher education paradigms and verbiage. In addition, aiming to improve the product for 25% of the students should not compromise the betterment it provides to the remaining 75% of students. I’ll use these principles as the foundation for ideating solutions.

After some brainstorming and analysis, I put together four solutions I can work with.

  1. Separate Degrees from Specializations and Courses, because they have different value propositions and price points
  2. Consolidate Recommendations into Explore
  3. Surface more relevant Courses/Specializations to the student
  4. Move filters such as “Skills”, “Job Title”, and “Level” to Search & Filtering, where they are most useful

The updated content structure would look like so:


This content structure is far more digestible for students. The student’s courses are bundled together, and degrees are split into a separate section. I can convert this into UI to imagine what an implemented solution could look like.

Working/process images




Rethinking the product 🔄

Revised “Your Courses” page


Revised “Explore” page


Design changes not present in screens

  • Topics, job titles, skills, and difficulty are available filters within Search
  • Degrees have been moved to their own section/student dashboard within “Earn your degree”
  • “Updates” and other notifications from the original dashboard have been folded into the “Updates” menu on the upper right above the filter bar
  • All topic page links & thumbnails have been moved into a standalone “Topics” tab

I didn’t redesign these changes as all of these are primarily moving around existing components—the UI for these adjustments would be nearly identical to what they are now, and most of the significant changes take place in the screens above.

Assumptions made

  • Students generally do not alternate between Courses/Specializations and Degrees often—they are on the platform primarily for one or the other
  • Specializations and Courses function similarly visually, and have few differences

    • Specializations have more courses, take more time, and are more challenging
    • Specializations are also more valuable from an industry perspective
  • Untouched behavior (e.g. sub-menus, filtering, search) can remain visually and functionally the same with this updated design.

Rethinking a student’s priorities 👩‍💻

A student should clearly know what courses they are enrolled in—the revised version of the Dashboard reflects this by consolidating all current, inactive, and completed courses into one view.

In addition, students who are aware of how much progress they have made will have better judgement on whether they can finish a course they have put aside. The updated Course card design has a progress indicator so students who have almost finished a course can see whether they can pick it up back up again.


The revised version of the Explore feature on Coursera is driven by the concept that students who are more informed about their education options will learn more through choosing the right content to consume.

Deciding on a course to take is not a trivial task—it can be extremely intimidating to start a new curriculum. In the updated design, information useful for deciding whether to enroll in a course is present on Course and Specialization cards without hovering over anything.


In the current version of the Explore page, students can only filter through courses once they’ve reached a Topic page. By abstracting the filter mechanism to the Explore view, students can narrow down courses directly. Search can be used if text based filtering is necessary. Both these in tandem absolve the need to “curate” lists of courses for students.


In addition, each row title in this section explicitly mentions why the courses displayed are relevant to the student. Not only does this presentation make it clear to the student why they might enroll, but it also lets them know that their learning habits on the platform are being used to benefit them.


Additional UI changes are delineated in my hi-fidelity working document.

Measuring success

A shipped version of this design should definitely be tested against the current interface to test assumptions. Quantitative metrics that should be tracked include:

  • Rate of enrollment (for both courses and specializations)
  • Rate of inactive course completion
  • Number of conversions from audit to certificate
  • Drop-off rate of a standard course
  • Drop-off rate of a specialization

Improvements in these areas will indicate that the updated interface helps students make better judgements about what they should and could study. Similarly, these metrics can also be linked to sales metrics to measure business success.

Wrapping up

Coursera is the world’s leading MOOC platform at 37 million students and counting. Countless hours of education content has been added, all with varying levels of cost and certification. Restructuring the way students discover and manage their courses could lead to massive gains in revenue and user acquisition.

It goes without saying that there are many reasons that Coursera may not be planning on/will plan on implementing something similar to the solution above—perhaps the current presentation of content has been shown to have the highest click-through when testing against alternative interfaces, or maybe the team is focusing on pushing paid content more, focusing more on degrees and certifications. If I had more time, budget, or access to Coursera’s resources, I would have loved to do proper usability research on both the current platform and my revised version. Without access to user/business data from inside the company, I relied on external research, industry experience, and intuition to build my solution, and internal data may suggest a different path.

Along the way, I made sure to stick with the principles I defined as closely as possible. Although I was targeting users without a higher-education background, most of the improvements were agnostic to educational background altogether. I’d like to think that this validates the accessibility concept that designing and building for folks with the most obstacles to using your product will improve the product for the rest of the users.

I hope you enjoyed reading my study on Coursera. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me by email or Twitter. Thanks!