Knewton’s UX Research Practice Gears Up for Back-to-School
As back-to-school season approaches, Knewton is diligently working on powerful new feature releases and product updates. And Knewton’s User Experience Research (UXR) practice supports this work by incorporating instructor and student feedback through a host of research methods.
We vet draft experiences with users, identify issues, iterate, and validate potential solutions. And this is all often before a single line of code is written for a new feature release or product update.
Knewton UXR recently conducted efforts to inform an upcoming alta feature that allows course coordinators to create and manage multi-section courses. We wanted to first understand educators’ current practice, and then swiftly iterate and validate draft designs in light of user feedback. In doing so, by the end of our process, we could come to a useful and usable solution.
We approached research through:
- Focus Group
- 1:1 Interviews
- Persona Development
- Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation
Focus Groups & 1:1 Interviews
Prior to initiating design work, we took a step back and conducted remote focus groups and 1:1 interviews to understand how coordinators across the country currently create multi-section courses. What does this process look like for them? Where do issues arise? How do Learning Management Systems come into play? This early research provided our cross-functional team with a deeper knowledge of users’ needs and goals.
We used information gleaned from early research sessions to create a course coordinator persona. User goals were defined here, giving teams common language to talk about relevant problems — and how to best solve them.
Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation
As the design team started building out a draft experience, UXR hosted 1:1 remote usability testing sessions with course coordinators (users and potential users) across the country. We screen-shared semi-functional draft designs, turned over control of the keyboard and mouse, and asked participants task-oriented and open-ended questions. Because stakeholders (design, product, engineering) were observing each session, we quickly identified design issues, iterated in-between sessions, and validated potential solutions with subsequent users.
What We Learned
What are some things we learned in our multi-section course research? Well…A LOT! But, sometimes the most memorable findings are the ones that are those ‘aha’ moments — the ones where we watch users go through a potential workflow and an imaginary lightbulb goes off for us.
We immediately consider an easier way for users to accomplish a task. Designs are revised and further validated.
One example of an ‘aha’ moment within our research involved ‘auto-save’ during educators’ process of building out coursework. Auto-save seems harmless enough, right? But employing auto-save within the complex task of building out coursework for a multi-section course didn’t seem to give users enough confidence that their work was indeed being saved. Designs were revised and the issue was alleviated.
Another compelling finding involved course Initialization links — what instructors would need to click within a workflow to make the course section ‘start.’ Early draft designs did not seem to make enough distinction between this link and additional content on the same screen. Again, designs were revised to more overtly highlight where users should navigate to initialize the course.
Effectively Leveraging UXR for Educators
Using a multi-method research approach provided our cross-functional team with a solid understanding of user needs prior to any design work, and the flexibility to improve designs in-between research sessions.
Upon concluding our design research, we came away away with an experience we’re confident is useful and usable, and can be put into development for our customers.
Thanks to Michael Mancuso.
Easy to use: The design of Knewton’s alta
The what, why, and how behind alta’s ease of use, and why focusing on user experience is a differentiator for Knewton.
The mission of the Knewton UX Team is to represent our user’s interests in the product experience. We do this in a few ways: 1) by listening to and observing our users to better know them and provide solutions to their problems, 2) by providing them a high-quality experience that is as delightful to use as it is effective, and 3) to differentiate our products from the competition. By nature, our processes integrate with every corner of the business as we attempt to design our workflows and experiences to achieve the best results. We want to eliminate bad design.
“Bad” design can lead to enormous waste of time and resources and results in lost leads. Be it a technology stack, CRM flow or user experience, poor design choices can all lead to lost opportunity and leave your product at a competitive disadvantage. It might even lead to embarrassingly dangerous errors like, say mistakenly sending out an inbound nuclear missile warning to an entire state!
That’s why Knewton believes that the alta user experience and our business processes must be designed with ease of use and efficiency in mind. And, like many of you, I have observed in software product-focused organizations that these communications, support, management and metrics systems we duct-tape together and call a “business” are severely entropic — as new needs and goals emerge, new people and ideas cycle through the organization, adding to the complexity.
Staying focused on identifying and solving real user problems with a design thinking mindset will help give your product a competitive advantage.
Great product experiences are rarely born of a chaotic set of goals and business processes. Knewton has made a real investment in user experience and research because we understand the advantage these capabilities bring, especially as a differentiator in education.
Only a focused student can effectively learn, and student performance insight is perhaps one of the most important components of effective teaching through software. Both will remain elusive without a carefully considered UX.
Simple Is Hard
No technology company has time to continually take a step back and reflect on their product experience, and then redesign each time new features are added. It’s easier and faster to bolt on features without considering how they impact the usability and perception of a product for users.
At Knewton, in creating alta we’ve asked ourselves, how can we take all these disparate problems and needs and boil them down into a simple product experience that will scale to accommodate our roadmap of the next 24–36 months, all while the plane is flying? How do we create a scalable, elegant design system that will help us be more efficient as a product team?
You can see how hard it is to deliver a quality UX simply by looking at our competitors and other entrants in EdTech. Most are afflicted with a bad case of featuritis.
By contrast, alta’s ease of use is a differentiator. Instructors and students can see that user experience is important to Knewton and naturally gravitate toward an experience that is content-forward, intuitive, calming, focused and responsive.
There are a few key ways we’ve designed the alta experience to build trust with educators and students.
Focus on the Fundamentals
Why will a higher education instructor choose alta over other options already in the marketplace? We start with the fundamental elements that create the conditions for ease of use.
Consistent Navigation and Context
Our users should always know where they are while using alta, and what they should do next. Most good UX designers will tell you that there should be one main purpose per screen, accessible with a clear call to action. In alta, we’ve reduced visual clutter, and replaced it with more structure to prioritize focus.
Done right, a user interface will essentially disappear for users — they won’t be thinking about how to use it, or spending precious time interpreting choices.
This includes a consistent, scalable navigation, which is critical infrastructure for the usability of any piece of software. Done right, a user interface will essentially disappear for users — they won’t be thinking about how to use it, or spending precious time interpreting choices.
But clear navigation is only part of a successful user experience. Since alta is a adaptive learning technology with assignments that can be of variable length, context is the key to a more relaxed, focused student.
We make sure a students options are always accessible and they know their current level of mastery, with persistent access to a prominent progress bar and mastery view. Similar enhancements that make it easy for instructors to track student mastery and easily aid struggling students are on the way.
Clean User Interface
We’re making alta the most usable, legible, and accessible personal learning experience. For students, a responsive user interface adapts to their web device so they can work how and when they like. We’re developing our alta Design System based on Google’s Material Design, not older bootstrap-like frameworks used by our competitors. That means our experience is more modern and mobile-friendly. alta feels more like other native and web apps students and instructors are accustomed to using in their personal lives.
In user experience, friction is defined as interactions that inhibit people from intuitively and painlessly achieving their goals within a digital interface. Friction is a major problem because it leads to bouncing, reduces conversions, and frustrates would-be customers to the point of abandoning their tasks. — Victoria Young, Telepathy
In alta, we’ve focused on enhancing interactions such as our onboarding flow or when a user encounters an empty state, so that a first time a user understands how to proceed without having to investigate. We’ve revamped our course and assignment cover components to feature key information at the top of the screen, such as status and estimated work remaining and completed, as well as making our calls to action more prominent and informative.
Building a User-Centered Process
Some ways UX design and research help the alta user experience resonate with instructors and students, and deliver real results.
Identify Real Problems
Our sales, marketing and product teams all interact with our users. In fact, we’ve built this as a requirement into our business processes. We all work together to make sure we are coordinating methodically in filtering out the noise, identifying real user problems and addressing them in priority order.
Solving real problems means sometimes going beyond what your users are saying to divine what they actually mean. The result is that alta feels almost like magic to our instructors in higher education, because we’ve succeeded in creating a product more powerful and easier to use than anyone else can due to the baggage and their legacy complexity.
The product team is investing in User Experience Research and collaborating with our entire commercial organization. Research in UX informs the decisions we make on how to implement features with real qualitative insights from real users and prospects.
Over the past 6 months we have conducted numerous focus groups and individual research sessions, focused mainly on Grading and Instructor Analytics. The insights from those sessions helped us to iterate quickly on an incredible upgrade to instructor analytics. Meanwhile, we’re planning many more product development focus groups in advance of key roadmap features, such as practice tests and coordinator reports.
An example of the kind of feedback our UX research and sales teams gather in the field. Navigation/UX is their number 2 concern, which speaking volumes about the current state of UX in educational software.
With help from our sales team, we’ll connect with our detractors, instructors considering adoption while awaiting specific features, and those curious about alta as an integral part of our workflow. In many cases, Product and UX communicating with potential users will turn skeptics into evangelists.
And there’s more to come in research, such as recurring feature refinement sessions on existing features, student and instructor surveys, market research, and building out our UX Research capabilities to gather more qualitative insights.
World Class Product UX Design Team
In addition to impressive talent in product, engineering, data science, and more, Knewton has built a high-quality product UX Design team comprised mostly of generalists with a high design pedigree and experience in education and a variety of other industries. We are here because we know that a strong UX gives alta a competitive advantage.
Activities such as UX labs and design sprints are baked into the earliest stages of feature discovery, and we continue to refine and try new techniques. We then cross-reference potential solutions with our design system, current product UX/UI, competitive landscape and most importantly, with our users, through research.
This way we help shape how our products are conceptualized and integrated with the overall experience rather than allowing the solution to be pre-ordained when it appears in the early documentation.
Choosing alta Is A No-Brainer
Here’s why all of these overlapping initiatives and processes make alta an easy choice.
Lower Switching Cost, and Less Training
An instructor’s time is valuable, so a more intuitive experience means less headaches when making the switch. alta is not complicated to configure or learn, for students or instructors, and requires far less documentation than our competitors. It just works — both with major LMS systems, and standalone. This quality is by design.
Happier Students = Happier Instructors
We know what students tell their instructors about their experiences with courseware. We uncover these stories in the field, through our research, focus groups, surveys and metrics. We know where and why these products fail to deliver, and of course seek to avoid those same weaknesses in our product. Through reducing student complaints and actually delivering a delightful experience and improved learning outcomes, we’ll achieve nothing short of making teaching and learning easier.
Powerful Insights for Instructors
We’re rolling out new and improved, research-backed analytic tools for instructors, enabling them to easily monitor student performance at each stage of their coursework. We make it easy to identify struggling students and provide granular views into learning objectives and activity. The product team made a real investment in iterating on these features, setting up a framework for an ever evolving set of performance analytics that instructors can rely on.
Transforming Higher Education with Knewton
We’ll continue to focus on creating a superior user experience as we gather new feedback and insights from instructors and students. Perhaps the most critical aspect of our effort to transform higher education through our digital products is the direct connection between our users and our product team, so if you’re an instructor or student interested in speaking with Knewton or participating in future research, please contact us.
Flipped, tipped or traditional: Adaptive technology can support any blended learning model
Like many people, I funded my graduate school (and early teaching career) by bartending. At the end of any really long or otherwise challenging shift, I looked forward to drowning my sorrows with Waffle House coffee as I contemplated the complexities of their hash brown menu…smothered, covered, and diced went without saying, but then what? Capped? Peppered? Chunked?
If you’re not from the South (or you’re just not a fan of Waffle House, or hash browns), you’re probably feeling a little lost right now. Don’t worry—a quick Google search will clear things right up for you! (Trust me, by the time you get to a Waffle House, you’ll likely know exactly what you want.)
If, on the other hand, it’s the “flipped, tipped, or traditional” that has you wondering, we can dig deeper here for you. What are the differences between these three models of blended learning, and what role can adaptive tools play in each?
According to EDUCAUSE the flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed.
In other words, concepts or skills are introduced to students ahead of class time through a digital medium, and in-class time is spent working with, practicing, or applying their newly acquired knowledge or skills.
In this model, homework typically functions to:
- prepare students for productive in-class time by giving them materials that introduce or develop key concepts and skills you’ll be working on in class;
- provide visibility into students’ current knowledge or skillset ahead of introducing challenging material in class;
- or both of the above.
Adaptive learning tools like Knewton can have a positive impact in this context because they guide students through material that’s coming up in class, offering lots of practice as well as an opportunity to demonstrate mastery so students feel more comfortable participating in class discussion or group activities.
Instructor dashboards and reports enable you to know ahead of time which concepts or skills your students struggle with as a group, so your instructional plan can be targeted to these learning objectives. Some instructors use the Knewton dashboard to build groups or facilitate other peer-to-peer learning opportunities between partners with complementary strengths and weaknesses, or to inform one-on-one instruction or meetings.
The traditional model, in the context of blended learning, refers to a pedagogy that utilizes homework in pretty much the opposite way. The concepts or skills students work on after class are those that were introduced or developed in the class immediately prior. In this model, homework can:
- provide additional practice opportunity;
- enable students to make use of and take greater ownership of new knowledge and skills;
- serve to demonstrate mastery or understanding;
- or, all of the above.
Adaptive learning tools can play a role here similar to their role in the flipped class, offering advantages for both teaching (instructor analytics let you know where your class stands as a whole and also see how each student is faring individually) and learning (lots of additional practice, instruction if needed, and opportunity to demonstrate understanding and build confidence). Inclusion of non-adaptive assignments like quizzes or tests are commonly used to give closure and provide evidence of student learning that can be easily measured and assessed.
This brings us to the tipped model—the newest of the bunch, and not one you’ll have much luck Googling (at least this was true at the time of this draft!) but it’s a term that’s begun surfacing in conference paper titles and abstracts. And it’s floating around with some uncertainty in conversation.
Personally, I love it! In part because of the imagery but mostly because it captures the interstitial nature of this model; its capacity for tilting between the flipped and the traditional.
In this model, you might assign homework that meets the same purposes for which you would assign homework in a flipped context (prepare students for the material, gain insight into students’ prior/current knowledge, etc.), and then use the instructor dashboard to help you decide on the best topics for a “mini-lecture” at the start of class and provide the focus for the day’s activities. Then, after class, you’re back to the traditional model—students return to the platform to take a quiz; you see the results in real time and can adapt accordingly.
Any way you slice it (or dice, smother, cover, cap, or pepper it), adaptive learning tools can add a lot to the experiences of both teaching and learning. I have no doubt that these tools would have made my early teaching life much easier—leaving the tough decision of the day to hash browns.
Editor’s Note: We’ve got some new tools on the market that fit any of these models. Take a spin for yourself!
Aimee Berger, Ph.D, is a solutions architect for Knewton. She travels around the country helping college instructors implement adaptive learning tools.
You can explore this site (or read our press release) for more details, but here are a few things I’m especially excited to call out:
- Alta is affordable: Available at $44 per course, alta delivers an affordable and impactful teaching and learning experience that combines Knewton’s adaptive learning technology with high-quality openly available content.
- Alta is accessible to all learners: its technology, content and user experience are all WCAG 2.0 AA-level ADA compliant.
- Alta helps students achieve mastery: Every assignment in alta is tied to learning objectives that have been selected by the instructor for their course. When students successfully complete an assignment in alta, they demonstrate mastery of the assignment’s learning objectives. If a student struggles to complete an assignment in alta, Knewton’s adaptive technology dynamically diagnoses and remediates the student’s knowledge gaps with instructional content and assessment personalized to help them achieve mastery.
Our CEO, Brian Kibby, sees alta as part of a movement for better results and lower costs for college students.
“Students and instructors have been taken for granted by textbook publishers for too long. They deserve a better experience at a more affordable price,” said Knewton CEO Brian Kibby. “We designed every aspect of alta to empower instructors to put achievement within reach for their students, from its affordability and accessibility to its ability to help all learners achieve mastery.”
We look forward to bringing you more updates about alta in the weeks ahead!