DE: STUDIO

I was part of an ambitious effort to replace an old suite of tools with a solution that took advantage of modern web technologies in order to satisfy the needs a modern classroom for Discovery Education (DE).

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Outline

Save yourself some time.

Summary

Discovery Education’s design tool, Board Builder, was built on outdated technology, sub-standard sharing models, and was no longer serving the needs of modern education systems with the evolution of classrooms and technology.

We developed a product that leverages modern web-technologies and that enables one of the most engaging, collaborative, and innovative experiences in education technology. Driven by years of collected research, we discovered that teachers generally use the same discovery, collection, and sharing models with their students and colleagues. Using this as a model, we created a solution that creates a centralized experience for students and teachers to engage with resources and each other at a greater level.

My Role

As the product and lead user-experience designer for Studio, I advocated for both the user and Discovery Education, from planning and delegating, to delivering production-ready solutions. In addition, I helped aid the team in solving daily to large scale problems, creating a product of high-quality, user-friendly design that aids students and teachers.

A large part of Studio’s success hinged on creating a safe, diverse, and conducive environment that allowed for innovative ideas to be expressed. Working with the development team, we created a live and easy to access development environment that any member of the product team could access and start exploring.

Introducing Discovery Education Studio

Teachers and students primarily mostly improvised their own methods of finding, saving, editing, and distributing content, without the use of a cohesive tool to satisfy these core tasks. With Studio, we created a “sandbox” type experience, that removes the traditional limitations of a website, where we removed the traditional mental models of web and technology, resulting in a unique and creative experience.

Studio enables teachers and students to create digital creations and designs called "Boards" by using resources from Discovery Education and their own content and media. What is created is all at the user’s imagination. Some examples include presentations, strategies, quizzes, polls, and planners. With allowing access beyond just classroom material, with included live collaboration, we have significantly increased engagement with resources and sharing.

What does studio do exactly?

Well… an awful lot! The experience Studio offers has been described in many ways, as a design tool, creation tool, lesson planning tool, just to name a few. It’s our “sandbox” experience that allows the user to craft their own creation, and to use as a tool to solve problems they're likely to encounter within the classroom.

Describing an open experience can be complicated since you don’t want necessarily dictate how the user uses it. If the user wants to make a class announcement, they can use Studio. Creating a poster for a school event? Studio. The lesson plan for the next chapter in biology? Studio. Social media images and content? Studio. Memes? Oh you bet you can do that in Studio.

Teachers and students have taken their personal content and Discovery’s content together to use Studio in ways that never stop amazing us. Some examples include students printing out and displaying their creations, to teachers and students using it for their personal work.

A NEW MODEL FOR CLASSROOMS

One of the significant motivating factors when exploring the initial ideas of Discovery Education's Studio was in understanding how teachers organize, edit, and share content. Through research led by Geoffrey Robertson, we discovered that, most teachers would save the desired content in a variety of ways ranging from self emails with a filter system, to sorted offline thumb drives, to any number of external services.

Behavior Model of Digital Resource Management

Teachers are extremely hard-working, resourceful, and determined. Many times with little to no complaints we've seen teachers use products in completely unintentional and unique ways in order to get them to facilitate their goals. Understanding why and how led us to truly focus on the sharing, invitation, and distribution of content.

Research, Plan, Explore, and Align

Leveraging previous research, we were able to identify the user’s frustrations, desires, and behaviors. From there, we established a taxonomy of goals and benefits that were necessary to ensure a successful product. These goals served as guiding principles for the project living in creative briefs, research, and user personas.

Being able to unify the organization to agree on the vision, benefits, and core competencies of Studio served as an essential part of making intelligent and valuable use of time on meetings, reviews and planning. By aligning and sharing the same expectations we were able to make decisions faster, more gravefully, and make differences in opinions and assumptions generally a net positive.

That's me on the left.

Leveraging personas

Given that so much can be done with Studio as a result of the open design experience, the number of variables per task, goal, and means to get to those goals were large in number. I addressed this by establishing personas that had specific and significant touch-points with tangible goals.

Establishing and measuring goals

Using traditional metrics such as time on task, success rate, critical and minor errors, in addition to a few contextual metrics, we were able to establish a usability standard for user performance and satisfaction. Engagement with certain functionality was traced to make sure users were aware and able to take full advantage of the experience. Certain flows of Board Builder, the Product Studio was replacing, such as sharing, adding elements, creating pages and so fourth were tracked and measured as well.

Measuring against Board Builder allowed us to test significantly more than just product performance. It also created the opportunity to measure engagement with the rest of the site. Studio is where all of the exploring, reading, and collecting of resources teachers and students are required to do, end up. There's not much to do with a webpage within a classroom unless supplementing with a tool, and Studio enables the additional engagement.

Early exploration

Understanding the problem and solution

From the start we had an idea for the type of functionality users wanted. It's common to be a little off target at first and we were. While I was developing the initial prototypes, I went to the extreme and emulated what was a full editing tool. Most users will tell you they want as much customization as possible. The CONCEPT seems great, but in the end, users need a customization system that's out of the way when it's not needed while also being available and contextual when it is needed.

Iteration early and often

Initially our prototypes were way too detailed and offered too much control all at once. It worked for the enthusiast or professional, but not for students and teachers.

Initial elements panel prototypes

Early Studio Dashboard designs

Ultimately students and teachers want something easy to use. Teachers want to deliver content and students want to submit and share. Everyone also wants to create. In order to make Studio genuinely engaging to all users it had to look good and feel good. We addressed the looking good part by introducing a complex system of themes that were fully accessible and systematically diverse.

Staying focused on Key features

Accessible themes

Not everyone checks for accessibility when they create things and that's okay. We also understand that color accessibility is extremely important in classrooms in order to provide equivalent experience and opportunities to all students. I personally went through and crafted a number of themes that retained accessible text and offered customizable and accessible backgrounds.

Guided customization

Users will almost always say they want more customization options when asked. With every added element of customization you also increase the complexity of the system. What we started out with in the image above was overwhelming for most users.

Tangible Real-Time Collaboration

Not only do we allow users to work together, they can actually see who is doing what as their cursor moves on their screens. We wanted to create a living space that users shared and worked on together. It’s one thing to pass a document back and forth, it’s another to update it live, and it’s even ANOTHER thing when you can actually see what someone else is doing as if they were in the same physical space.

I've used tools such as After Effects and principle to design much of the collaborative experience. Due to the nature of our collaboration being real-time and simultaneous, much of the intent and behavior required motion and interactions to be created and conducted in order to test, and get a sense of how these advanced features might feel, prior to investing heavily into any one method.

Optimization and Modern Technology

Leveraging new web technologies, we’re able to provide an extremely optimized and equal experience to each user. We’ve tested and ensured that our products and features will work on all types and levels of devices.Every student deserves the same opportunity to learn.

Tracking and History

Each Studio board has its own history, and everyone on that board has their personal participation history. This is big for a few reasons. Foremost, it helps teachers track participation and facilitates proactive participation. Secondly, having a history allows version control so nothing is lost. In addition, with a playback feature, we allow the users to see, over time, how the project has evolved and grown. Thirdly, and arguably most aspect,the the teachers are able to see how students create, behave, and edit, allowing them to identify cognitive strengths and issues in new ways.

The Final Product

The culmination of over four years of research and two years of hard work, Studio was ready for a launch strategy.

V1 Studio Dashboard

Launch plan

Working with stakeholders, management, and the marketing team we established a progressive launch plan that spanned about 14 months. This allowed the team, product, and community to grow together resulting in a really strong and transparent relationship.

We had to align the launch with the school year calendar and limitations. . With a soft launch before summer we were able to achieve a significant amount of production level testing without critical consequences. This also allowed us to increase marketing and awareness campaigns.

Optimization and feature timeline

Once launched we then had to start delegating, pivoting, and implementing features while also making sure to listen to feedback. While this might sound like common sense, it's deceptively difficult to champion for going BACK to features and improving or fixing them as a result of user feedback or general quality. By leveraging data as much as possible with tangible and quantitative information proved to be incredibly valuable when advocating for incremental changes.

Supporting users and improving Product literacy

Discovery Education has a strong reputation for providing high quality content to classrooms and through our research we began to notice a trend of users not being aware of content we tested or spoke about. Some users were not engaging with a significant part of the Discovery Education experience due to the fact that they weren’t aware of many of the features. We addressed this problem in a number of ways.

A promotional page for our Studio product site.

The Template Marketplace

The Marketplace accomplished two main goals. It served as a starting point where teachers could save some time, and it demonstrated how others utilized Studio boards which helped us get users to that "AHA!" moment.

Community Blogs

Working with the Community and Social Media team, we created a series of blog posts and community dicussions based around the most popular features, frustrations, and common pain points.

Always Available Support

By incorporating third party tools we were able to offer contextual help to the users based on what they were doing or had selected. In addition, help menus were contextual to the current experience, saving users some time when looking for help.

Persistent and Progressive In-product Messaging

As we identified particular pain-points and gaps in feature engagement, we created a conversation with users with tool-tips, tours, prompts, and opportunities for feedback.

Performance and Satisfaction

Since Studio had to integrate with every product actively, our success metrics were composed of a taxonomy structure. Each goal had a value and each product had a value as well that attributed to the goals worth. At the top of the structure was performance, satisfaction, and business goals. Performance was one of the more challenging goals to align with due to the fact that much of what we were doing hadn't been done on the web prior, and we had to have checkpoints at different points of the scale.

Keeping an ear to the ground

We wanted to not only keep an open dialogue with users, we wanted to expand and improve it. The most valuable information that we recieved was through community type outlets. The Discovery Educators Network (DEN) Community is where teachers can go to discuss anything that's on their mind. We created a sub-community just for Studio where we had constant feedback and access to users, which also helped in reducing recruitment costs.

Archived tools guiding new data

Products that were retired as a result of Studio often became indicators of key functionality. Tracking and data were retained and adjusted as needed for the new environment.

The Future of the Product and Scalability

With scalability built into the fundamental framework of the technology behind Studio, the future is bright. We’re looking to the future with the component type elements Studio is based around. We have ideas and explorations with VR, AR, drawing, commenting, discussion, tighter integration into district standards, and so much more.

Additional Contributions

Product Strategy and Alignment

Defining the vision, principles, goals and roadmap were critical in keeping daily work smooth and communicating with other teams as the product matured. Making sure everyone understood and aligned towards a common goal and vision really StudioMarketingSitesmall a significant difference in over the course of a project.

Inclusive and Universal Design

Poor hardware, slow connections, increased security, and limited access to technology are a few of the challenges students and teachers face. We established a common baseline of performance that the experience had to meet and eventually. This is where strategy and alignment really helped to support the process.

Look and Feel

I instituted the visual direction including interactions, states, and design system integration. Studio leverages a touch-first interface that allows for an accessible and consistent experience regardless of device.

What could we have done better?

Product Strategy and Alignment

As a product grows, so does the visibility of it internally and the transition from 100% production work to a split of selling, validating, and discussing caught us somewhat off-guard a little bit. Having more time and additional help with production work would have helped in keeping the company informed, engaged, and aligned on expectations.

Pivoting away from solutions too quickly

More than once we turned back to older work, sometimes over a year old, to help solve problems, or sometimes to even become new features or product functionality. A small team is great, but sometimes the fast moving and high energy pace can hinder in-depth looks at experience when we see new and shiney solutions.

Interface samples and explorations