“Supposing is good,” wrote Mark Twain, “but finding out is better.”
Nowhere is this quote more closely practiced than in user-centered design as a foundation for software development. But, what exactly is user-centered design? In essence, if you want to build software of value and import to users you:
- Listen to your users and understand their actual needs, goals, and activities.
- Observe users in their natural environment as they use your tools.
- Talk with them about their experiences.
- Vet ideas and designs with them during the prototype stage or, better yet, engage their participation in the design process itself.
As a user experience (UX) researcher at Courseload, I spend a lot of time observing and talking with instructors and students about the educational technologies they use every day, including Courseload Engage. Through this research, I learn about needs and goals of instructors, why teaching with technology can be onerous, and why students sometimes feel disengaged from digitally-mediated learning environments. The knowledge gained through UX research practices is central to Courseload’s user-centered design philosophy and the way we develop educational tools.
Our UX research practices also support our company’s mission of empowering institutions to make a successful transition to a digital learning environment. To do this, our UX team takes into account the entire institutional environment of stakeholders, practices, and tools that, collectively, play a role in successful teaching and learning. The “users” of our product are not always instructors and students. Indeed, we’re building tools for deans who need to understand why retention is up or down; department heads who need to flexibly adapt their course catalogs to match changing labor markets; or program chairs who need data to drive experiments with new kinds of content. From top to bottom, facilitating a successful transition to digital in higher education means designing and building products in a user-centered way.
User Experience and Context
User-centered research practices should be a common component of educational technology development. Outside of their academic institutions, students and instructors already live in a digital ecology of friendship, commerce, and work. They do so not simply (or even primarily) because the tools are there, but because those tools capture social context. Understanding context is the key to great UX research because it gets at the fundamental question of motivation, desire, and meaning that grounds user behavior and intentions. When software captures social context, understands user expectations, and situates tools in broader social practices around content, users have engaging, useful, and delightful experiences.
These lessons apply well to designing tools for teaching and learning. Actual user experience, like actual pedagogy, is situated in a context, not in technical or curricular requirements. For instance, consider one of the most popular features in Courseload Engage: the ability for students and instructors to “tag” their notes. “Tagging” is, of course, a popular feature that is available in many modern web applications. But in the context of pedagogical practices, tags take on certain uses and meanings. Through our UX research, we discovered that instructors use tags and guide students to use tags in various innovative ways:
- Instructors guide student interaction with content through tagging certain passages of book as “required” and “optional.”
- Students share notes with team members by using tags, such as “Team #1,” “Team #2,” etc.
- Students use tags like “Exam 1” to more quickly find and organize notes with a particular goal in mind – studying for a particular test.
All of these uses tell us that instructors seek to leverage the context of the class—an exam, homework, or group presentation—for the activities mediated by the tool itself. What drives these activities is not that tags, as technical features, are useful in and of themselves. It is that they are able to capture some aspect of the context of instruction and learning. The question is: Are tags the best way to support that kind of context-construction? From a design and pedagogy perspective, what matters here is that to improve the “tagging” tool you must recognize ways of bringing in and cultivating course context as a vehicle for teaching and learning.
The Narrative is Key
Users describe their experiences in stories. Any instructor will tell you that teaching and learning unfolds in a social context, but the way they tell you is through a narrative about, for example, a particular teaching experience, a student outcome, or their surprise about an assessment. Every class is a unique experience because the context and students – i.e., the stories – are different. The art of pedagogy lies in being able to construct and sustain a context ripe for meaningful narratives to emerge.
A key aspect of Courseload’s product design philosophy is that we build tools that let users live in the narratives of their course. Consider, for example, how Courseload’s UX team addresses analytics. Courseload Engage has great data tools to capture and represent student interaction with content and the course. Where does the value of these analytics lie? In what ways should they be experienced? When we listen to instructors, as they view this data, we hear stories that attempt to explain why students performed as they did. To make sense of student engagement or performance, instructors try to put together a coherent story.
The assumption that the value of analytics lies in generating metrics is generally false. If the goal is to better understand what is going on with their students, instructors need the data to be represented in a way that presents a ‘story’ of engagement and performance. This is because student engagement is a judgment one makes based on observations of behavior– not a metric one can capture quantitatively. The more Courseload’s tools situate student behavior in a broader context and narrative, the better your judgment about engagement. While a computed engagement “score” may be driven by sophisticated models, it doesn’t offer a narrative that instructors can situate in the experience of teaching – and hence offers very little, indeed.
A Philosophy of Partnership
As a company that builds software to enable the transition from print to digital in higher education, we must understand how learning contexts are built; how students find them engaging; and how instructors and students mediate their pedagogical interactions through digital content. When it comes to pedagogy, the social context of instruction is nearly everything. It is the framework in which stories unfold and the garden in which learning grows.
But, partnership isn’t just about what we can learn from our institutional partners. It is also about ensuring that these partners learn from and participate in the knowledge and design necessary for making a successful transition to digital. Consequently, every finding made through our UX research and testing with students and instructors is shared with the leadership of our institutional partners. As the head of our UX team, I spend time with institutional coordinators discussing what we have learned and how what we have learned will inform future product design. Not only are these institutional coordinators excited about our direction, they also gain a sense of the scope and importance of the transition from print to digital in higher education.
Interested in learning more about Courseload's user experience research and user-centered design? Here's how to contact me: etienne (AT) courseload (DOT) com