background

Briteline

Project

Teacher
Parent

Role

UX Designer

As part of the first phase of the programme, DESIGNATION tasked us to complete a mock project that would increase parental involvement in middle school education. We had 4 weeks to deliver a dual-sided interface with annotated wireframes and prototypes as well as any deliverables that would help us get there.
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Initial Thoughts

I had spent a brief spell in teaching several years before this project. This gave me a glimpse into some of the attitudes and behaviours of teachers. I’d witnessed first hands the kind of issues they encounter on a daily basis. Communication with parents was a recurring theme in staff room conversations. I remember my colleagues dreading parent-teacher meetings or dealing with ongoing discipline issues. Even more striking to me was how much it personally affected some teachers when a child was underperforming. I think emotional investment is demanded more by this profession than almost any other. That said, my knowledge of the American education system was rather wobbly, which demanded some extra time invested in research on my behalf.

The Challenge

Both teacher-facing and parent-facing experiences were required for this project. The product had to be accessible to all teachers and families. We wanted to reach everyone regardless of location, race, ethnicity, or income. The key metrics which were set in the brief to measure the performance and success of our product were: Allow for a measurable improvement in student achievement and parental involvement Capture student performance in a variety of capacities Likelihood of parents and teachers adopting and using this product Measure academic performance Measure performance in extracurricular activities With these key metrics in mind, we had a framework of sorts which we wanted to build on with domain research.

Grounding ourselves in the domain

I found education to be a particularly dense subject area. We started by consulting academic journals from the American Psychological Association as well as professional development publications such as Principal. These sources helped us develop a better understanding of our end user and their domain. Our research uncovered some interesting findings: Parental involvement in their child's education directly impacts performance. Parents think children don’t want them involved. Surveys with children showed the opposite. Parents felt alienated by authority figures in schools. Parents are often too busy or have too many commitments. Communication is greatly increased through personalised positive contact. There is a recognised drop off in parent involvement in middle school. Social and emotional development are key concerns for this age group. Our research helped us develop a good grounding before proceeding to see what the competition was doing.

What's out there already?

We wanted to develop a deeper understanding of industry standards. To do so we took a look at some other educational tools used in middle school settings. What we found posed a contradiction to our domain research. We had already learned that social and emotional development and are vital. Despite this, existing products seem to lean towards quantitative academic tracking. Image Some existing tools have a behavioural development component. Classdojo is a great example of this. The app attempts to quantify student behaviour as a metric rather than capturing the nuances of emotional, social, and personal growth. Others like Google Classroom had a strong academic and scheduling focus. Our research indicated this need is already solved and not a gaping hole in the market. Messaging is a common, but not robust, feature in nearly all of the products we looked at. Appletree for example allows teachers to push information to parents but doesn't allow a response. Consequently, parents play a passive role in the communication process. The vast majority of competitors offered a desktop and mobile component. Image We assumed email and phone calls would still be the go-to method of communication for teachers and parents. To validate our assumptions we decided to conduct a survey. To our surprise, apps and online tools strongly outnumbered traditional channels of contact. Emails came out on top, as expected. Digital channels as a whole were the method of choice. The findings revealed a fragmented market made up of numerous different products.

Speaking to our users

Now that we had a fundamental grounding in the domain we needed to talk to some potential users. We managed to track down teachers, parents and subject matter experts. They shared with us some of their experiences and frustrations. It was imperative to reach as broad a demographic base as possible with these interviews. Our product needed to be as useful to wealthy suburban parents as it was to teachers in poor urban areas. We gathered a heap of data from our interviews. I had noticed some trends as we conducted them but there were still some missing links. Image We began to organise our data from the surveys and interviews. This was a challenging but enlightening process. The sheer volume of information was intimidating at first. As we started grouping information into smaller clusters, the task became less daunting. As we synthesised the data we were able to identify some key trends: Teachers lack support Teachers find themselves in an awkward position. They feel unsupported by the administration whilst simultaneously attacked by parents. Many teachers gathered and maintained evidence to support their decisions. They feared mistrust from parents and administrators. Parental appreciation of teachers' effort is helpful and reinforcing, but sadly too infrequent. Sometimes kids would lie and parents would go straight to the principal, who gave me a telling off. I wouldn’t even get a hearing, it would be assumed that what the child had said was the truth. Parents lack community Parents expressed a strong desire to connect with each other. Interestingly, teachers are also affected when parents aren’t engaged with one another. Parents with previous experience are a valuable resource to other parents. Old-school contact lists were plentiful but we found no existing digital tool which facilitates this kind of interaction. In our old (elementary) school we had a directory of every family and you could contact parents by phone or email. That was easy. There’s no directory here. Impersonal, overwhelming communication Both parties find communication to be ineffective and excessive. Teacher-to-parent communication is primarily conducted via email blast. Teachers are frustrated by their communication falling on deaf ears. Meanwhile, parents found it impersonal, generic and sterile. Most communication relates to quantitative, academic feedback. Parents are interested in qualitative behavioural, and developmental information. They want to engage in active communication and not only be on the receiving end of messages. I’m tired of the impersonal computer crap. All I get are a billion grades and no feedback about actual skills, areas that need improvement, etc. Parents and teachers aren't on the same team One of the most striking insights was the conflict both parties feel. There is an adversarial relationship between teachers and parents. Trust and empathy are low. Teachers raised more concerns in this regard but it was still a concern for parents. This phenomenon poses something of a vicious cycle. The less involved parents are, the less each party trusts the other. Parents who are more involved trust the teacher and gain their respect as a good parent. Parents who are involved tend to have a more positive view of teachers. This results in improved teacher morale. Everyone values emotional development Both parents and teachers noted emotional and behavioural development as a primary goal. Each side believes the other cares more about quantitative metrics. Parents feel that teachers should be less rigid and should let kids explore more. Teachers feel that parents should care less about grades and more about growth. These two parallel viewpoints illustrate the disconnect between perception and reality. How can I encourage parents to care less about the grades? That was my mission for the year.

Framing the problem

We distilled these insights along with our research to put ourselves in the shoes of both sets of users. The fulcrum of the issue we were solving involved increasing valuable communication. Parents and teachers both possess a wealth of segregated information about students. How might help them share and track behaviour and development with each other? In order to stay true to our research, we developed a set of design principles to guide us. We needed to use our design to encourage active and passive communication whilst reinforcing the notion that teachers and parents are on the same team. Even if I'm silent, I'm listening Active and passive communication must be effectively supported and promoted. We want to make it clear that the option to communicate is always available to users. That said, we want them to know that they don't have an obligation to initiate contact for the sake of it. Two heads are better than one: Wherever possible we must build trust and empathy between our user groups. We want to encourage and facilitate valuable dialogue between parties. By providing suitable avenues help teachers and parents support each other. Cast the net wide The accessibility spectrum is more diverse than ever. Our product must be built with all potential users in mind.

Modelling our users

Now we had a stronger understanding of our users. We felt confident in our ability to create two sets of user personas, one for teachers and the other for parents. The diversity on both sides reflected our research as well as the design brief. Our parent persona was Sung-Min, a Korean small-business owner. Sung-Min had a strong desire to contact other parents. Sung-Min had the added complexity of not speaking English well. We focused on Sung-Min to gain a better understanding of his particular pain points. Image Our teacher was Henry, the older, traditional teacher who was skeptical about adopting technology in the classroom. As young designers, we recognise our age bias and wanted to build empathy with teachers like Henry. We had all known a “Henry” teacher in our youth but had not found ourselves in a situation to empathise with him before. Image We approached user stories as tools. This helped us to brainstorm more detailed nuances of each persona. We employed details from our interviews to rapidly ideate potential scenarios. We imagined what kind of challenges a person like this might face. We found ourselves able to empathise with the personas in a variety situations. User scenarios acted as an exercise to dive deep into user stories. We tried to consult our synthesised research in mind while creating them. The stories were a high level look at incidents that our personas could encounter. Scenarios helped us narrow down to understand our personas in more depth. We were able to express their motivations, environment, pain points and associated feelings. I mapped out these scenarios onto journey maps. This illustrated the kind of struggles that Sung-Min goes through on a daily basis when trying to communicate with his children’s teachers whilst running a busy business. Image

Getting our ideas down on paper

Going forward, we decided to ideate and diverge with our ideas. We wanted to explore communication, learning styles and behavioural tracking. We planned three different concepts which incorporated these ideas and more (my concept was Quip). We defined each concept with a single statement and put them in front of some potential users to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. We contacted local schools and teachers we found through our networks. We were strict about our requirements and found a diverse group of middle school teachers. Similarly, we found a variety of parents through contacts and a craigslist post, as well as conducting some guerrilla tests in coffee shops.

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Briteline

Briteline makes it easy for teachers and parents to message each other and relevant adults, and streamlines the experience by having a “front page” that only shows messages directed at the user where they can easily reply. Image What worked Being able to see who else taught a particular student A directory concept for the students’ guardians Parents found the messenger more efficient than email Both sides liked the idea of having a record of conversations Parents didn't like being accessible to every other parent What didn't The screen needed to be simplified. Messaging lacked privacy. Teachers feared that students would impersonate parents.

Quip

Quip provides a “living record” of each student as they progress through school, from the perspectives of their various teachers as well as parents. Image What worked Teachers liked having a finger on the pulse to approach students' problems. They liked the idea of collaboration with other teachers. Student information was all readily accessible. Parents thought it would be useful if there child was in trouble at school. What didn't Teachers didn't want their opinions of a child influenced by their predecessors. There was no instantaneous method to take notes.. The purpose and expected user was unclear upon first glance. There was concern about the frequency of notifications.

My Cup of Tea

My Cup of Tea helps teachers and parents understand a student’s learning style and provides ideas of how to best cater to it. Image What worked Getting a high level overview of students in the classroom Useful tool for group formation for teachers. Tracking the types of assignments each student chooses to work on Discovering their child’s learning styles and have activities for it. Encouragement of parental involvement What didn't Some teachers don’t believe in grouping students by learning modalities. Its use was limited to lesson planning. Not robust enough alone, but would be useful as a supplemental feature. Some parents thought it would involve too much work for them and their child.

Concept testing takeaways

Overall, the Briteline concept fared best with both teachers and parents. There were successful elements in all three concepts, but Briteline ultimately built the foundation for our final product. We synthesised our findings to develop some key takeaways from this round of concept testing. Teachers need to be presented with their students in an organised fashion. They want to be able to share information about their students with other teachers in a quick and easy way. Another important aspect to them which we overlooked was confidentiality when talking to parents and wanted records and documentation. Parents need to be able to contact teachers in a quick and easy way. They also expressed a strong desire to contact other parents in their child’s classes. Lastly, it is important that they aree notified early on if there is a problem or other important information about their child. Successful features among testers included messaging, student profile and a class view for teachers. Parents and teachers both responded to elements that tracked student information. Confidentiality is vital; allowing for private communications is an absolute must. Having tested our divergent concepts, the project deadline was rapidly approaching. We reviewed our test findings and began to ideate and converge on a single product. We wanted to incorporate successful elements from each concept. However, we were wary of ending up with a disjointed, fractured output. We identified some key features for our product. Messaging, class and student profiles, information tracking and private communication were all important.

Platform Considerations

Due to the condensed timeframe of our project there were some limitations to the scope. We needed to decide which platforms were most suitable for either side of the interface. Reflecting back on our interviews and survey we decided to design each interface differently. Teachers generally work from a laptop or desktop computer. They expressed restrictions on mobile usage in their schools. The obvious choice was to design for desktop. Parents emphasised time constraints and instant accessibility in our user research. The need to be able quickly and easily message teachers and/or parents. We decided to also design a native mobile app for their convenience.

Site architecture

Before delving into screens, we needed to understand the entire flow for both prototypes. We spent a long time mapping out the features of both interfaces. The product’s dual-sided nature added some complexity to the architecture. We envisioned scenarios and tested our map against them, to check for snags. Image After conducting such comprehensive planning and concept testing, we were able to rapidly build out the screens. It was immensely satisfying put together a working prototype in such a short timeframe. On the parent side, we utilised many of the iOS design guidelines. We implemented the standard bottom navigation to differentiate the different sections of the app. We wanted to ensure that all important options were easily accessible. Parents don’t have time to navigate through complex information structures. They need to be able to access grades, messages and posts from teachers and we positioned them accordingly. We used these tried and tested design patterns to give them instant access to the vital information.On the teacher side we used modern design patterns. A message drawer on the right hand side of the screen gave teachers easy access to communications with colleagues and parents. We structured the class overview in a similar manner to how a physical classroom would be laid out, with the name and the photo of each student easily visible. This resonated hugely with teachers during our concept testing.

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User testing

We put our working prototype in front of both teachers and parents using in-person and remote testing. Our initial tests validated one of our main concerns about the vocabulary and information hierarchy used. Some terminology we used was unsuitable or wasn’t a common pedagogical term. We also realized that it would be logical to see the child’s teachers alongside the teacher feedback, rather than on the initial home screen. We iterated rapidly between tests to make the most of our restrictive schedule. Beyond quantitative usability metrics, we wanted to understand how our users felt about the product. This helped us to make iterations and improve some of the organisation and interactions. After multiple tests we had arrived at a viable final prototype.

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Future considerations

We wanted to add more features, more robust settings and differentiation between the two interfaces. We wanted to ensure that both sides matched the mental model of respective users. Teacher feedback needed to be more prominent on the parent side. On the teacher side, there was a risk of posts being pushed to the wrong audience We changed the interaction to eliminate this risk. Users would have to check a box to include the parent rather than to exclude them. The messaging sidebar was completely overlooked in several tests. We decided to increase its visibility. Student grading and lesson plans were something that teachers felt was missing as well. This taught us to not always take user input at face value in the research phase. On the teacher side we had discussed expanding the functionality of our product. To gain widespread traction we would need to add some new sections. Areas of particular interest to explore included assignments and grading. The utility of a mobile application to compliment the web tool is also something we had considered. On the parent side I would like to include more personalisation, particularly for parents with multiple children. To be truly accessible I think it would be necessary to integrate language and translation options. A huge percentage of americans speak Spanish as a first language and the app could alienate them in its current state. We might consider a potential redesign of the bottom navigation, but this would require intensive testing.

Final thoughts

Overall I was really proud of what we achieved during the four week scope of this project. Considering we had never worked together, and we were all from different professional backgrounds, we gelled well as a team. The product integrated a broad feature set. We were careful to stay true to our research throughout. We achieved almost everything set out in the brief. Our student log and messaging features allowed for a measurable improvement in student achievement and parental involvement. We had a whole section to capture student’s academic performance. The messaging feature aimed to increase involvement in performance in extracurricular activities. Our project got selected as the best in the cohort by the panel of expert judges. It will be taken on to the next level by a UI team in the upcoming cohort. I look forward to checking in with them and offering advice to any user experience questions they may have during their project.

Reflection

I enjoyed the exposure to both desktop and mobile interfaces on the same project. By designing for mobile we could reach a wider audience which our design principles helped us achieve. It was an interesting contrast working with strict mobile design guidelines as well as more liberal desktop web patterns. Although we diverged I think we could have possibly gone wider. In the end we had a solid concept but perhaps we played it a bit safe. My short experience as a teacher definitely helped to link up some missing pieces during the process. I think it would have been a helpful tool to have in school to keep track of so many different classes. I also feel that being able to empathise with teachers and knowing the struggles they constantly face made them more comfortable to share their truthful experiences from the classroom.