My design team was presented with the challenge of improving communication between teachers and the parents of 6-8th grade students. Our specific requirements were for a measurable improvement in student achievement and parental involvement, accessibility to all teachers and families, and the solution needed to be both teacher and parent facing.
Exploring the existing space
We started by looking at existing studies on parent-teacher communication. From these studies, we found several insights that would assist us with our design.
When we asked the teacher participants why they thought that parents might not become involved, the majority stated cited "intimidation" as the overwhelming reason.
Many parents have reported that they would be more involved in helping their children at home if teachers communicated more with them, or requested their cooperation; these reports indicate that home involvement is an underused educational resource.
In one pattern, parents become involved based upon communications they receive from their children's teachers. In some cases, these communications prompt parents to become involved by raising their orientation to their children's mastery of school material, and attention to learning from mistakes. In a second pattern, parents become involved simply because their children's grades are low.
We also looked at existing solutions in the educational space.
We identified Remind and ClassDojo as the two strongest possible competitors for the app-first space. The trend with these apps and many more we surveyed was that they had small feature sets and were reliant on heavy use by teachers to provide any value for parents. They mostly focused on being communication channels and complementing traditional tasks like reporting grades, but didn’t replace any.
When we looked at more robust solutions, we found products like Schoology and Infinite Campus that were built for desktops. They are known as Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Student Information Systems (SIS) in the industry. They have some foothold in the app space, but they are focused much more on providing volumes of information. They host grades, assignments, and schedules, and act as communication portals.
Using this information, we interviewed parents, teachers, and subject matter experts to hear more about their needs and frustrations, the communication between parents and teachers, and the expectations of the students.
Making sense of our research
With my team’s collective inexperience with some tools of UX design, our first round of synthesis was too shallow and didn’t yield a strong direction. We addressed that with a more structured second attempt. We coded data as pains, joys, or quotes from teachers, parents, and subject matter experts. After organizing our research into categories, we identified a few patterns that would form our next steps.
“I would say the best form would be one-on-one, like in person.”
The most frustrating experience that I've had is talking to parents about what's going on with their child and there is no reinforcement to fix the issue, that really decreases my motivation to call that parent particularly.
In one pattern, parents become involved based upon communications they receive from their children's teachers.
Finding the opportunity
We used these insights in order to identify an opportunity. Despite having the same goal of encouraging student progress, parents and teachers have incongruous approaches. They need a way to align toward this goal.
To help us find a solution, we drafted a few principles, based on patterns we found in our research, to guide us in our decisions.
All parents will feel that their involvement is welcomed and valued. Trust that parents are a part of the process/involved.
Goals vary from parent to parent and student to student. Teachers and parents will be able to form their usage to best suit them.
Parents and teachers will be encouraged to work together towards student progress, which is their common goal.
We used brainstorming exercises to begin to find a solution to this opportunity we defined.
As we surveyed all the ideas we had generated we looked to form distinct concepts we could build on and present to teachers and parents in a first round of testing. I explored giving parents robust controls for the notifications they would receive from the app. My colleagues created concepts to help parents and teachers share classroom resources and schedule meetings, contextualize student progress alongside achievements and check-points, and make parent-teacher meetings more effective.
Presenting our concepts
We tested concepts with teachers and parents. I knew it could be a struggle to find teachers to test in a short amount of time, so I tried to think where teachers would be outside of schools. Fortunately I found the local teachers union was having an event at city hall that week. Chicago public schools had the day off of school, and teachers were having a ‘grade-in’ outside the mayor’s office to call attention to their need of resources. With dozens of teachers sitting around ostensibly grading papers, it was a great opportunity for my team to get our concepts to a wide audience.
To get our concepts in front of parents of middle school students, I reached out through my personal network to be connected with people who fit this specific user group.
Converging to a solution
Many of our concept tests were during the same block of time, so my team and I convened afterward to share the findings. I proposed we plot the successes and failures of the concepts visually as an aid to our discussion on how to converge ideas. By adding this objectivity to what we had heard, we strengthened to our decisions.
With parents as our main users, we found that:
I never monitor my kids that closely, so I’d use this for grades below a certain level. Or for a certain teacher or subject specific alerts.”
I like the feedback, but there are no quantifiers for soft skills, what do I do if he has bad self control? What’s normal for someone his age?
I’d like to see a grade for every assignment. I like the class average. It would help me know if the teacher is a tough grader.
This would be helpful because it wouldn’t leave my wife and I in the dark.
With teachers as our main users, we found that:
If it could be built into existing work and not be an additional task, teachers would be ok with that.
Automatically defaulting to the academics, you lose the effective relationship that exists between the teacher and the student, and the parent.
If I send something to the parent, I want them to be able to type on it and send it back. Then you’ll know that they actually saw it.
We used our findings to clarify how we could help parent-teacher communication. By sharing data and using automated processes, this app would present parents with student progress, resources, and dialogue from teachers and give teachers tools to communicate with parents.
Having spoken with teachers and parents and learned of their current digital interactions, we decided to focus the teacher experience on a desktop website and the parent experience on a mobile app.
As we progressed with our concepts, I did some additional research to find any technical restrictions that could be hurdles. I found many LMS and SIS products belong to the IMS Global Consortium, a group dedicated to creating an industry standard for content sharing between products. The content is formatted as ‘Thin Common Cartridges’ and can be shared and embedded, reducing the time needed for teachers and students to navigate between pages and log into accounts. By embracing this standard with automation in its foundation, teachers would be saved from extra data entry tasks. The solution would let parents reference and retrieve student information regardless of a teacher’s adoption of the platform.
Testing with parents and teachers
For parents, we created an experience that gave them access to their child’s grades, communication channels with teachers, and control over the notification parameters.
When we showed parents this design, they attempted three main tasks: setting up communication preferences, accessing and understanding the student timeline, and responding to teacher comments. Together these tasks gave parents a full tour of the solution my team created.
Setting up communication preferences
Accessing and understanding the student timeline
Responding to teacher comments
Through these tests, we found a few areas that needed attention. My team’s choice to go without a navigation bar left users too few options to successfully navigate through the app.
In earlier tests we had heard parents wanted the ability to customize alerts they received. In this implementation we tested setting preferences during account creation. Parents found the quantity of options overwhelming and unnecessary.
To address the issues with our design, we changed some structure and presentation within the app. We added filter options to the student’s feed pages. This would make it more clear to the user the information being presented and how they could change it.
Users would no longer set preferences at account creation. The notification alerts could be changed on a preferences page in the app. This would satisfy the test participants’ desire that they prefer to opt out of notifications as opposed to opting in to each.
Filter options were added to the top of the student timeline, making it more clear to the user what type of posts they are seeing.
For teachers we created a desktop solution that would let them send batches of messages to parents, organize and curate handouts and resources, and see performance of students on dedicated profile pages.
We had teachers focus on accomplishing two tasks: finding additional information about student performance and using the student performance and behavior management tool to send messages.
Home screen for teachers
Messaging page for a class
Through these usability tests we found specific strengths and weaknesses of the design. The activity feed was an inundation of information to some test participants. Teachers needed more clarity in the control they had in sending messages. They preferred to find a student’s profile through the directory as opposed to through their class pages. Most participants highly valued the presence of parent contact information on student profiles, but added that there was an opportunity for more detail.
A calendar was added to the home screen to lessen the barrage of alerts some teachers felt.
The messaging form was redressed to give teachers more clear guidance as they drafted a message.
In order to make a more approachable activity feed, we added a calendar column. Where before only recent actions had been posted, now the calendar displays upcoming events, activities, and tests the teacher is administrating. This aims to make the activity page more of a place of reference, and not just a daunting to-do list. For the student engagement page, we added more direction for the teacher to improve completion of the form. The preset options populate recipient and subject text boxes, letting the user alter the content to their style as needed.
If we had more time
With more time to work on this project, there are a few more areas my team and I would have explored. We would have looked into how other users, like school administrators and tutors, could use this platform. We would have designed a mobile app for teachers. Many teachers told us of the languages barriers they encounter when attempting to communicate with some parents, so we would have investigated how we could facilitate communicate in those situations.
What I learned
Up to this point, the two previous projects I worked gave me a foundation in UX. During my first project, I learned the applications of UX. During the second project, I built a grasp of all the common tools and practices available to a designers. During this third project, I gained an understanding of the value of these tools and the strengths of using them to inform decisions.
Through the course of this project, I learned a few things that I could use to be a better designer. Working on a team, it’s imperative that everyone have a voice, but discussions benefit from structure and pertinence. Discussions have a limit where their length exceeds their utility. In our rounds of interviews and testing, I learned to separate what users say and what they mean. The growth of the parents’ preferences page was a great experience to use on future projects. As we responded to what we heard and interpreted from parents, we found we needed to keep revising and get to the essential reasoning for the need of the preferences.
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