Platform vision and incubation: FutureLearn

FutureLearn’s CEO, Simon Nelson, approached Unthinkable to help conceive the platform that would rapidly become Europe’s biggest provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs) from many of the UK’s leading universities, alongside a growing number of global partners.

Project genesis

Our remit was both broad and terrifyingly focused: to direct the development of a vision for the platform, create a delivery plan and get a product launched within six months of the project starting. This was January 2013 – we had till the summer.

Justin and Matthew with FutureLearn CEO, Simon Nelson Justin and Matthew with FutureLearn CEO, Simon Nelson

Platform Vision

Through literature review, competitor analysis, workshops and interviews, we delivered what would become the touchstone document for the development of FutureLearn: a Platform Vision that described what FutureLearn wanted to be, and what it would promise its users. Central to this was a 50-word articulation of FutureLearn’s product vision which we believe is as true two years and one million users later as it was then. The document also included:

  • Market positioning
  • Target audiences
  • An articulation of the qualities of the user experience
  • A model of the content system that illustrated how users would interact with content, experiences and other users
  • Revenue models
  • Product design principles

Central principles

In particular at this stage, Unthinkable defined for FutureLearn two principles that would run through the company like a stick of rock and become key differentiators for the product – a mobile-first design approach and the idea of social learning. The idea of social learning, or a social learning network, drew both on the digital media background of many in the original FutureLearn team but also, and crucially, on the expertise and philosophy of FutureLearn’s founding partner and owner, the Open University. While ‘mobile first’ grew from an early commitment to a truly flexible user experience, and enshrined not only a cast-iron promise of responsive design throughout the life of the product, but also a vision for the shaping of FutureLearn’s content.

Unthinkable have been the driving force behind the development of FutureLearn from idea to first public launch. They facilitated and shaped the initial strategy development, led the stakeholder consultation and management process, supplied and hired the initial product development team and then stepped in to manage key business priorities during the set up phase. I hired them because I trusted their editorial, strategic and operational judgement and they have repaid this faith many times over. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Simon Nelson, CEO, FutureLearn


In parallel with this work (there was no time to wait!), we created a delivery plan and helped to hire the first product team for FutureLearn. In doing so, we were determined to embed the culture and working practices of a startup in keeping with the governance structure that the Open University had wisely put in place for the company. This meant carefully negotiating the technical and product legacy of the Open University, drawing from the best that the OU’s people and experience had to offer while holding fast to a solution that would deliver to the product vision in the time available. That solution turned out to be a bespoke build in Ruby on Rails built within an agile product management framework, and informed by the OU’s expertise in security and quality assurance.

We continued to manage the build on the OU’s behalf through to the launch of a minimum viable product, shipping the first working prototype within weeks of the project starting and launching a private alpha within our target deadline of six months. FutureLearn’s public launch came three months later. By this point, Unthinkable had stepped back from day to day management, having incubated a full-time product team that worked directly for FutureLearn. In the meantime, we had adopted a new role setting up FutureLearn’s content operation, but that is another story.

A year later, FutureLearn was named Startup of the Year at the British Interactive Media Association Awards (BIMAs). In 2015, FutureLearn was nominated for a Webby in the Social Media category. Most recently, in November 2015, FutureLearn won Best User Experience (Education) at the UXUK Awards, as well as the overall grand prize for Best User Experience.

In February 2015 it hit a million users, and less than a year later it passed three million.