How can we enable teachers to augment their lessons with collaborative digital activities?
In 2014, SMART released Amp, an award-winning web-based platform that connects student devices to collaborative environment. It won a prestigious award at BETT (the world's largest annual education technology show), and the judges called it "the first of its kind." But in many ways, it was ahead of its time, so it never achieved wide adoption or retention.
Amp was shut down in December 2018 due to the deprecation of Google's Realtime API, which Amp was built on. This gave us the impetus and the opportunity to design Workspace, a new collaborative learning software that better meets teacher and student needs. The beta release of Workspace was launched in June 2018, followed by production releases in September and December 2018.
After examining our user research and our business needs, I determined that there were 5 design goals that were necessary for Workspace to be successful:
- Simplify Workspace creation and team set-up
- Promote digital citizenship for students
- Give teachers a controlled online environment
- Allow for persistent activities and out-of-class scenarios
- Integrate seamlessly with our software suite
- Role: Lead UX Designer
- Tools: Sketch, InVision, Zeplin, Balsamiq, Confluence
- Timeline: December 2017 to December 2018
- Alison: Lead UX Designer
- Min: Product Manager
- Kenny: Dev Manager
- Serena: User Researcher
- Catherine: UX Intern
User research has been integral to this project. I worked closely with our User Research team to ensure that I understood and met teachers’ needs around collaboration.
- In Dec 2017, we conducted qualitative and quantitative user research to learn what teachers did and didn't like about Amp, our older product. This was crucial for setting us on the right path, and determining the design goals for Workspace. We conducted a survey of 700+ teachers, plus 1:1 interviews with 16 teachers.
- In Feb 2018, we tested a wireframe prototype.
- In Aug 2018, I personally conducted several user interviews with teachers to answer key questions about classroom needs, and learn more about real-life collaborative activities.
- Then in Nov 2018, we ran usability tests on the live product to learn what was working well, and what we could improve.
What Amp Did Poorly
At the beginning of this project, the biggest question we had was “what would we build?” Rebuild Amp and provide a soft landing for our small, but dedicated, Amp user base? Or start from scratch, and design digital collaborative software to meet the needs of everyday teachers in 2018?
In December 2017, our User Researcher conducted a quantitative survey of 700+ teachers, plus qualitative 1:1 interviews with 16 of them. This study was key to putting us on the right path. Our research showed that Amp is SMART’s highest lapsing product. The percentage of lapsed users to current users was 170%. Amp also had the most users of our software suite who have never tried the product at 80%. Here are the biggest problems uncovered:
- Lack of usability: participants described a steep learning curve.
- Creation is time-consuming and a barrier to adoption.
- No integration with the rest of our software. It requires a separate login to Google Drive to view or manage the files.
What Amp Did Well
Amp had only two successes, but they were big, and interrelated - teacher controls, and a safe space for students to learn digital citizenship. According to the research report, "the Amp environment is safe and teacher controlled; it provides all-in-one access to web tools and opportunities for online social collaboration. This aligns with teachers' needs to teach digital citizenship and web tools, as they feel these are important skills for the workplace." Essentially, it provides an "internet lite" experience where students can learn how to use web tools without being exposed to everything on the internet.
Workspace was a big project, featuring multiple releases. We had a significant number of technical constraints regarding how quickly we could release features due to our small development team, so we had to make some tradeoffs and compromises about feature timing. Between Dec 2017 and Dec 2018, we've had 3 releases.
- Teachers can import and convert other documents into a Workspace.
- Teachers can group students into teams.
- Teachers have a basic dashboard that allows them to view each team.
- Student tools include move, ink, erase, search/add images.
- This release also included work on branding, a new name, and a new icon.
- Students can add text, upload local images, and add link URLs.
- There are contextual tools for objects: scale, rotate, delete, and duplicate.
- Behind-the-scenes work for converting images and links from our older software products.
- Cross-platform coordination for use on SMART Boards.
- Next stage of teacher dashboards with more student data.
- Coherent dashboards across different activities in our suite.
- Enabling persistent Workspaces and out-of-class scenarios (this is big!).
- Amp end-of-life messaging - instructions for converting old Amp files so they'll continue to be usable.
I always start a project with quick sketches on paper, then move onto wireframes. The early designs go through many iterations. I work closely with my PM and Dev teams to reach alignment on the user and business needs, and our technical constraints and capabilities. I have several check-in's each week with my PM and Dev Manager so that any conflicts are frequent, minor, and forgettable, and so that we can find a balance between competing priorities.Additionally, Workspace can be shown on devices ranging in size from a phone up to a 86" SMART Board, so my designs needed to be very responsive.
It's challenging to summarize design work that took place over 12+ months, so I'll focus on the 5 primary design goals mentioned above, and illustrate how these were achieved for Workspace.
Simplified Workspace Creation and Team Set-Up
In our legacy product Amp, teachers had to create lessons in the app. This led to poor user adoption and retention, since teachers had to learn anotehr software creation program. Our new company focus is on integration, rather than creation. In Workspace, we encourage teachers to create lessons in programs that they already know, such as PowerPoint or Google Slides. The lessons are imported and converted to an interactive Workspace, showcasing our unique technical abilities.
One major improvement in Workspace is the team set-up flow. In Amp, team set-up took more than 6 steps; it was confusing and inefficient. In Workspace, the flow is simple and intuitive.
Digital Citizenship for Students
"Digital citizenship" means teaching students how to use the internet in a safe and controlled environment, something like "internet lite". This was one of the most valued features of Amp, and one that I've carried over into Workspace.
Research showed that Amp was most often used by grades 3-7. We have the opportunity to introduce those young students to teamwork, research skills, and web tools. In addition to incorporating guardrails like "safe search", I worked to simplify the student toolset, and scale back the unnecessary features that had populated Amp over the years. I’ll illustrate the changes in the next several images.
- Student Toolbar
- Ink Menu
- Insert Media Tool
- Text Tool
- Contextual Menus
One of Amp's successful differentiators was the teacher controls, so I made sure to carry these into Workspace. I give the teacher control over team selections, and a dashboard to view team progress. There are additional teacher controls on our 2019 roadmap, including contributor attribution, so that a teacher has insight into which student added text or images to the Workspace.
Persistent Workspaces and Out-of-Class Scenarios
A primary focus of our Dec 2018 release was enabling persistent and out-of-class scenarios. This involved significant cross-team collaboration. Prior to this release, students didn't have their own accounts in our software - they were all logged in anonymously as "guests". Once Workspace became persistent, the behavior became more complicated. Most of the student authentication work was handled by another team, but figuring out the requirements and special cases for collaborative activities was my work.
Seamless Integration with our Software Suite
Integration was another area where cross-team design collaboration was essential. One of the biggest barriers to adoption of Amp was that it always orbited outside of the rest of our suite. Amp required a Google account, so schools using Microsoft were left out. Unlike Amp, Workspace is fully integrated into SMART Learning Suite Online, so that teachers can easily incorporate collaborative activities to their lessons.
We ran usability tests in November 2018 with the live product. I also included some research questions regarding features that are on our roadmap for 2019 to determine if there’s a real need for those features.
Workspace performed well in the tests. We examined converting a lesson into a Workspace, setting up teams, dashboard utility and navigation, plus all of the student tools. Our tests uncovered two usability issues. One relates to navigating back to the teacher dashboard, and the other relates to impromptu conversion of a lesson into a Workspace during delivery in front of the class. I'm working on addressing both of these issues for our next release.
I like to optimize and simplify. We have another activity called a Handout, which is essentially a "Workspace for one student". Since this product has a lot of overlap with Workspace, I'm pushing for us to converge both experiences into one product.
Combining these products would save us significant dev and test effort, since we wouldn't need to maintain two different code bases and keep them both up to date with each other. But most importantly, this would greatly simplify the mental model for teachers. Teachers are unlikely to understand the difference between a "Workspace" and a "Handout", but they can easily determine their preferred distribution model.
A simple flow would allow a teacher to "make this page interactive", then the teacher could choose how to distribute it - to individuals, small teams, or to the whole class on one team. I've presented this idea to a number of key stakeholders and they're all on board with it.
Workspace's full release just happened in December 2018, so I don't have many stats on it yet. I've been working closely with my team to determine the best metrics to implement for Workspace. We're following Google's HEART framework, with its focus goals, signals, and metrics to measure Happiness, Engagement, Adoption, Retention, and Task Success.
Anecdotally, teachers and students are already starting to have fun with it!