Making an educational gaming product more teacher-friendly
Date / Location
Sep. - Dec. 2016
Ann Arbor, MI
Odeum is a software platform that brings learning to life with immersive role-playing games. As players, students experience historical events, works of literature, and other content from a first-person view.
While Odeum had tested its gameplay with high school students, it had no prior research with teachers -- the ones who'd be managing the software running it in the classroom. How could Odeum make their gaming platform usable and comfortable for teachers?
I led a team of five designers and researchers on this project. We used heuristic evaluation, usability testing and card sorting to evaluate Odeum's teacher-facing sections. Then we interviewed teachers, visited high school classrooms and analyzed published research on digital games in education.
Our research produced insights that allowed us to:
- Identify major usability issues in Odeum's current interface
- Understand how teachers use digital games in the classroom
- Identify the software that teachers had the most experience with
- Redesign Odeum's teacher-facing pages and make an interactive prototype
Key Research Insights
As our research progressed and we prepared to redesign Odeum's teacher experience, our team developed a set of design principles to align our work:
- Make the interface feel familiar to teachers.
- Offer multiple paths to important destinations.
- Let teachers do as much as possible without leaving the platform.
- When the game is running live, help teachers manage the class.
- Let teachers check on students quickly, at any time.
- Anticipate and avoid “What do I do now?” moments.
- Reassure teachers that they -- not the game -- are in control of the class.
How Odeum's original version compares to the redesign
Odeum's original design for the teacher's section was a "hardcore RPG" style which was better suited to heavy gamers than teachers. It also had a number of inactive links on the left side that caused errors and confusion for teachers in our usability tests.
In our new design, we simplified the navigation into three sections: Classes, Games, and the Help Center.
We also added an empty "sample class" to the screen that teachers see when they open Odeum for the first time. This gives teachers a chance to explore and learn how class repositories work before creating one:
Odeum's original game library was split into 4 or 5 different tabbed sections, making it cumbersome to navigate.
One of the biggest changes we made was adding a 'Games' section that stays visible and is one click away at all times:
Below is the original design of Odeum's class repositories. Teachers can create these repositories for their class sections. Here, they can save games, access data about their students' game performance, and adjust information about their student roster.
This is the new design for the class repository:
To be able to support users at any time, we added a help section where teachers can find answers to common questions and instructions for core tasks:
We also designed a dashboard to show live student progress during gameplay:
Creating a different experience for teachers
When Odeum first designed the teacher's experience for their game platform, it used the aesthetic of a role-playing game (RPG). After talking to teachers, we found that most of them were not gamers, and that their most widely used digital product was Google Docs. Additionally, they used professional terms like "administration" and "management" when naming their own card sorting clusters.
We wanted to make the interface more familiar to teachers and more professional in its visual tone. To do this, we redesigned the educator's interface to more closely resemble a content management system like Google Drive. Teachers are strapped for time, and we aimed to minimize the learning they would need to do in order to use Odeum.
Bringing Odeum's games to the forefront
In Odeum's original design, a teacher needed to go through a specific sequence of steps before gaining access to the game library. We identified this as a problem in our heuristic evaluation, and users had difficulty understanding how to access the games in our usability tests.
Since one of Odeum's key value propositions is the access to provides to educational games, we made them immediately visible and accessible in our redesign.
Designing to support classroom management
When we interviewed teachers, concerns about classroom management came up. We also learned that teachers who had used digital games in their classrooms spent a significant amount of time monitoring students' progress and keeping the class on track.
To help teachers manage the classroom more easily, we integrated a class progress dashboard into our design. This would show which students were behind in the game -- or progressing faster than the other students -- in real time. It would also allow teachers to message students through the game and pause or exit the students' sessions from their own computer.
Our ultimate goal was to create an effective and comfortable experience for teachers on Odeum. Our research gave us informed hypotheses that guided our redesign, but this is only the first step. To improve its product and validate its effectiveness with teachers, Odeum can:
- Do in-person usability testing to find any interactions or processes that are unclear or difficult for teachers.
- Test the product with different sets of teachers to understand different use cases.
- Test the product in live classroom settings to identify downstream issues that affect users over time.
Take time to learn about your teammates' interests, goals and strengths.
As the team lead for this project, I knew it would be a challenge to manage four other designer / researchers. At the very start of the project, I sat down with my group members and asked them what made them excited about this project, what they hoped to learn by the end of it, and what strengths they already had. I also shared my own goals and motivations.
This conversation set a positive tone by allowing us to build trust in each other and understand what we hoped to get from the experience. Later in the project, it was easy to delegate tasks effectively and give each other honest feedback.
Use design principles to unify your vision.
Critiquing other designers' work can be hard to do well -- especially for those getting started in the field. As my team spoke with teachers and learned about their challenges, we created a set of design principles. These principles kept us aligned, and served as a neutral, external standard that we could use to critique our work. This helped ensure that criticism wasn't taken personally. It also empowered the less experienced teammates to openly critique "senior" members' work.