Can we engage students by allowing them to become co-creators of collaborative digital experiences?
In 2014, SMART released Amp, an award-winning web-based platform that connects student devices to collaborative environment. Reviewers lauded the technology and called it "the first of its kind," but it had trouble achieving widespread 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 its replacement - Workspace - a new collaborative learning software to meet the needs of today's teachers.
I designed Workspace to correct the usability issues and steep learning curve that prevented Amp's widespread adoption. Within a year of launch, Workspace became the second most popular activity in our software suite. Our team created software that allows students to become more engaged in their learning process by becoming co-authors instead of passive receivers.
- Role: Lead UX Designer
- Tools: Sketch, InVision, Adobe CC, Zeplin, Balsamiq
- Timeline: December 2017 to December 2018 (13 months)
- Alison: UX Designer
- Min: Product Manager
- Kenny: Dev Manager
- Serena: User Researcher
At the beginning of this project, the big question was should we faithfully re-create Amp to provide a soft landing for our small, but dedicated, Amp user base? Or should we start from scratch, and design digital collaborative software to meet the needs of today's teachers?
We did 4 rounds of user research in 2018, but our first study was key to putting us on the right path. To discover what teachers did and didn't like about Amp, we surveyed 700+ teachers, and conducted 1:1 interviews with 16 of them.
We learned that Amp is SMART’s highest lapsing product. Teachers would try it once and never come back. Many teachers wouldn't even use it at all - 80% of SMART software users had never tried Amp.
Amp had only two successes, but they were important - teacher controls, and digital citizenship for students. Our research report noted that "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." Amp provides an "internet lite" experience for young students.
Research Conclusions and Design Goals
The research showed us that there was little benefit to rebuilding Amp the way it was. We should create something better. By creating something that addresses today's teacher needs, we'll enable teachers to engage their students, and SMART will be able to increase adoption and retention. These key design goals would be necessary for Workspace to be more successful than Amp:
- An overarching design goal to fix usability issues and decrease the learning curve
- Simplify creation and set-up flows
- Promote digital citizenship for students
- Enable teacher controls
- Integrate seamlessly with the rest of our software suite
Workspace was a big project, featuring multiple releases. We had significant technical constraints around 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 December 2017 and December 2018, we 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
- 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 of Workspace on large format SMART Boards
- Next stage of teacher dashboards with more student data and teacher control
- Extend the dashboard design across other activities in our software suite
- Enable persistent Workspaces and out-of-class scenarios
- Amp end-of-life messaging - help teachers convert old Amp files to open in Workspace
It's challenging to summarize design work that took place over 12+ months, so I'll focus on the key design goals mentioned above and illustrate how these were achieved for Workspace.
Simplified Creation and Set-Up
In our legacy product Amp, teachers had to create their lessons in the app. This led to poor user adoption, since teachers have limited time, and they didn't want to learn a whole new software creation program. Across our software suite, we've pivoted to focus more 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. These lessons are imported and converted into an interactive Workspace, which showcases SMART's unique technical capabilities.
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 the skills they need to be part of a digital community. This was a valued feature of Amp that I've carried over into Workspace, but with significant simplifications, and a decreased learning curve.
Amp was most often used by grades 3-7. We introduced young students to teamwork, research skills, and web tools. I simplified the student toolset (it will have intentional expansion in future releases) and scaled back the unnecessary features that had populated Amp over the years. I’ll illustrate these "before and after" changes in the next several images.
As a peek into my design process, the image below shows the evolution of that Insert Media menu. I always start a project with quick sketches on paper so I can iterate quickly. Then I move onto wireframes, and then higher fidelity visuals.
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.
Seamless Integration with our Software Suite
Integration was an area where cross-team design collaboration was essential. One significant barrier to adoption of Amp was that it always orbited outside of the rest of our suite. 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 late 2018 with the live product. Workspace performed very well in each of the areas that I was particularly concerned about - overall usability, setting up teams, teacher dashboard, and student tools.
Our tests uncovered one usability issue though - some teachers had trouble navigating back to the dashboard after viewing a team's progress. My solution to this issue is shown below. It incorporated UI changes plus helpful animations.
Below is a short video illustrating how teachers can incorporate Workspace into their classes to encourage student-led learning.
Workspace became the 2nd most popular activity in our software suite last year! In context, Workspace is part of SMART Learning Suite Online (SLSO) - our flagship software collection. As of 2019, SLSO has ~1 million paid subscribers, up from 400k in 2015, and an 82% software renewal rate. 1 in 5 classrooms in North America have a paid subscription to SLSO.