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Educator Development

How educators illuminated our next step forward in collaborative learning

You told us what you wanted out of online chats. We listened.

In the past year, Participate merged two education platforms together, broadening our offerings to include professional development (PD) courses, featured collections of partner resources and educator-driven experiences such as chats and Edcamps.

All the pieces of our collaborative learning platform are, and should be, user-driven, so we started focusing on user experience research and design as the foundation to improve our product and investigate potential product features we’d build next. We set out to spend a lot of time talking with educators in and out of the classroom, trying to deeply understand their experiences and what they find valuable in their professional day to day.

All the pieces of our collaborative learning platform are, and should be, user-driven.

As we relaunch our online chats feature—a place to capture informal Educator Development that thousands of educators are participating in—we want to share what the research and design process looked like, and why we decided to make the changes we did. We are deeply grateful to the many educators who were so generous with their time and insights through the last several months. We are proud to be a company built by and for educators, and we couldn’t do it without you all!

Research

We started with a research sprint in February of this year—as an agile product team, we work in two-week design and development sprints to organize our work aligned to user goals and push changes to the live platform frequently. During this particular research sprint, we reviewed the entire platform with educators. We looked for insights on what was easy, what was challenging and where the potential for most value existed. From this research, we decided to focus on the chats feature specifically, knowing that we had an opportunity to be part of the rise of teacher-driven PD. We also aimed to build a better experience for any educator who experienced frustrations using other online chat tools.

After completing extensive interviews, we developed educator/user personas to help the platform development team understand exactly who we were building the platform for—this is key. These personas were an aggregate of insights we learned from many educators; what their days are like, what contexts they work in, pain points in their existing tools and processes, and what their goals are when interacting with educational products.

We wanted to have a common language as a team when building product, such as, “This is how we should design or develop this, because it supports Megan’s goal of connecting to other educators as efficiently as possible.” Our team knows who Megan, an educator persona, is, and it helps inform our choices.

These personas were an aggregate of insights we learned from many educators; what their days are like, what contexts they work in, pain points in their existing tools and processes, and what their goals are when interacting with educational products.

Once we understood more about our users’ goals, demographics, behaviors, pain points and needs, we began to map features to build, prioritizing them. This process involved a lot of sticky notes, some colored dots and passionate debates about trade-offs we had to make. When you’re a small team, you can’t build everything at once (unfortunately)!

Sketching

As a development team, we sat and sketched together, presenting ideas and further shaping where this feature could go. The developers who joined us were pretty uncomfortable with this part, but they still jumped in with both feet! As engineers, they spend a majority of their time immersed in code at the computer and never really have the opportunity to sketch through ideas. Since this is a process they don’t often engage in, there was apprehension about inability, or getting it right—at Participate, it’s important to all of us to continuously learn by moving beyond the comfort zone, and doing this work together cemented our commitment as a team to work toward building a better chat experience.

Prototyping

At this point, it was time for the user experience (UX) designers to get going—we set up a schedule to run agile design sprints for each set of user goals and corresponding features that we needed to build. We created wireframes, which are layouts of basic flows through the feature (see photo below), and higher definition prototypes, testing what we built with educators week after week. It is an incredibly humbling experience as a designer to labor over something, put it in front of the person you built it for and have them not understand it or experience frustration—each round of user testing basically shows you how little you know, and illuminates the next step forward.

It is an incredibly humbling experience as a designer to labor over something, put it in front of the person you built it for and have them not understand it or experience frustration—each round of user testing basically shows you how little you know, and illuminates the next step forward.

After several sprints of testing different aspects of the chats feature flow, we began working with the developers to watch the design work truly come to life. Each round of prototypes, wireframes and full designs were testing fully with a range of educators, allowing us to iterate toward an improved design quickly. In many of our discussions with educators, we realized something pretty quickly: the need for an improved mobile experience. Educators are constantly on the go, and our research revealed that the mobile chat experience become another priority.

We are thrilled to share this work with the world! Look for us at ISTE and say hello—we are always looking for more educators to co-create with!

Lauren is the head of user experience design at Participate. She can be reached on Twitter at @partridgehouse.