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Jeff Bradbury

Doing Our Homework: How User Research Builds Great Classroom Tools

Homework Research - TeacherCast Guest Blog

When was the last time you used something that made you think, “That was really inefficient”? Or “That didn’t work the way I thought it would”? Did you feel frustrated, annoyed, or ready to give up? Perhaps it was when you used the photocopy machine in your school for the first time, or when you find doors that look like this:

Is It Bad Design?

Why aren’t they both “Pull”? Without the labels, would people still know to pull one and push the other?

Barring manufacturing defects or accidents, most of the time, these experiences are up-close encounters with bad design. Examples of bad design are, unfortunately, everywhere – it’s not uncommon to encounter products and services that frustrate us because they are confusing, inefficient, or (yikes) both.

So how do products come to be this way?

Do designers conspire to create products that are purposely infuriating? Does the idea of someone trying to pull a push-open door make them cackle with glee? Of course, the answer is no (at least, we hope so). In reality, one of the big factors behind bad design is a bad understanding of the end user. A bad understanding, quite simply, points to a lack of user research. Some companies don’t spend nearly enough time getting into the heads of their users, and their products reflect it. We know you don’t have time to waste on products that are badly designed. We also know that your voice, through user research, can be critical in preventing mistakes in design. So let’s talk about what goes into user research, how it can be used to combat design problems, and how you can be a part of it.

Research … Research … Research

User research is the process of learning about users – what they need, how they behave, and what they think about. At its heart, user experience research is about going straight to the source – real people. For us at D2L, educators like you are the people who drive our work. We want to help make educators as successful as they can be, so gaining a clear understanding through research is critical to designing things that suit their needs.

The user research that we do at D2L typically falls into two categories. The first is exploratory research – this is done to understand the needs, behaviors, and challenges of users. Exploratory research happens at the beginning of a project, especially with a user demographic we’re not familiar with. We usually start by talking to LOTS of people to get as many opinions as we can. Then, we use what we learned to inform the designs of our product. Exploratory research is critical at D2L because ultimately, we want to help our users solve their problems and be awesome – and we can’t do that if we don’t understand and empathize with those problems! The second kind of research we do is validation. This happens after we have some ideas about what our product could look like, and have turned those ideas into prototype designs. At this stage, we want to know if we’re on the right track, so we’ll bring users back into the conversation to ask them what they think about what we’ve made. Using their feedback, we refine our design, then repeat the process until we have something that people are happy with.

Does this sound familiar to you? Maybe you go through a similar process when developing lesson plans. You can tell when a lesson is not going well: lots of blank faces, maybe more fidgeting than usual. Perhaps you finish the lesson, or switch it up partway through, but afterwards, you try to see what you can change and what would get your students engaged. You validate your changes in the next lesson, note what works and what doesn’t, and over time, your lessons become something stellar.

Observing Good Design All Around You

Similar to when you know your lesson is going well with your students, you’ll know when you’re using something that has been designed with your needs in mind. Taking the time to notice good or bad design can help you decide which products and services make your life easier, and which only serve to frustrate you. But your experience doesn’t have to stop there! You can actually be a part of the process of designing amazing things just by sharing your feedback. The next time you see an opportunity to participate in a research session or survey to improve a product or service you love, consider taking a moment to give your honest opinion. The designers behind the research will truly appreciate the chance to make their offering work better for you.

If you’d like to participate in a research session to see first-hand what goes into designing products to make teachers even more awesome, please get in touch – we know that there’s so much that we could learn from you! We couldn’t value your time and insight more, but to make our appreciation extra clear, we compensate every participant. You don’t need to be a user of D2L’s products; just being an educator makes you as qualified as ever to participate.

Bridjet Lee is a User Experience Researcher at D2L. She loves talking to educators about their jobs, asking plenty of questions, and using beautifully designed products. Her biggest driver is ensuring that the voices of teachers are heard and considered in every aspect of D2L’s design process.

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