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Education Startup Project: Research + Dashboard Design
TL;DR: A two-part school "essay leader" dashboard project for, and related to, my work at a startup that uses the power of storytelling to help high school students write powerful essays to access college and scholarships. Tools used: sketches, stakeholder interviews, usability testing and user interviews, Sketch (UI design).

Role(s): UX researcher, product strategist, UX/UI designer, copywriter

We created a V1 of a school dashboard to support our student toolkit product and teacher professional development training. Part I goes into the process and outcome.

In Part II, I decided to reimagine the task view of the dashboard based on preliminary feedback from users on V1 and having more resources to develop it.
Part I: Process for V1 Dashboard + Task View


The startup had presented school customer prospects with a potential new offering—a dashboard with reports. The school and district admins loved the concept. 

In addition to receiving the existing online “toolkit” accounts for their students and professional development for essay leaders, schools would soon get access to their own dashboard with different views for district admins, school admins, and teachers/counselors/advisors (TCAs or interchangeably referred to here as “essay leaders”).  

The goal of the dashboard was to give essay leaders and school admins a way to track, and ideally intervene to impact, students’ progress in writing essays for college admission. A constraint was to adapt styles to a pre-selected Bootstrap theme, where possible.

Research: Exploring the Context and Interviewing Users

In exploring the context, I learned the following:

• Counselors feel undertrained in essential areas of advising students on college prep and readiness, including the basic elements of a college application and college essays.  
• Most high school counselors in a 2009 longitudinal study reported their departments spent less than 20 percent of their time on college readiness, selection and applications. In addition, the study found that fewer than two-fifths of counselors indicated that their school had a counselor whose main responsibility was college applications or college selection.
• Teachers have too many students and may not be able to give the individualized attention students need to improve their writing.
• The impact of No Child Left Behind (that went into effect ‘02-’03) means with test scores as performance indicators, students arrive at high school lacking experience and knowledge about how to do the kinds of writing that are expected at higher levels of education.

When my fellow UX designer and I set out to work on the dashboard project, we decided interviews would help us better understand who we were designing for. 

In total, we interviewed: 
• 4 internal stakeholders 
• 5 people representing the TCA and admin groups 
• 7 high school students (which included toolkit usability testing for 5 students)
• 1 recent grad

While the students were not going to use the TCA and admin dashboards, it was important to understand how they interacted with essay leaders. 
From L to R: (1) Students interviewed and recorded each other using scripts we created. (2) The other UX designer conducted usability tests on the existing tookits. (3) The students sketched out mobile versions a college essay writing tool they would want to use to inform our future development of a new tookit product.
Synthesizing information and designing solutions

After speaking with a mix of internal stakeholders, TCAs, admins, and students, we synthesized the research and pulled out themes to inform our requirements and design principles. 
Affinity mapping and prioritizing features
We considered the user flow and then sketched and designed pages and reports functionality where an essay leader could see essays, colleges applying to, and other info related to their students.
Early screen sketches (including a "college acceptance status" we later added as an enhancement, once students had received their acceptance/rejection letters)
Our reports dashboard does visualize data through charts and graphs, but we extended the concept of a dashboard based on our user research. 

From interviews with essay leaders, I realized their dashboard experience would be more useful if it differed from the simple reporting school and district admins seemed more interested in. When we spoke to essay leaders, they expressed they weren’t as interested in specific metrics. They were more concerned with tracking the progress and supporting the success of their students.

This insight led to creating a home area filled with prioritized tasks (task view) associated with individual students.The task view also serves a business goal of increasing engagement. From Google Analytics, TCAs log in less than one time a week. Creating a system of task reminders and email notifications could increase that number (even as an imperfect engagement metric).
The design concept of the home task view was heavily influenced by Gmail’s Inbox. Unintentional to its original purpose, email is often used for tasks or reminders. In fact, Inbox has a feature to prompt you to convert an email into a task for this reason. 
Resulting Designs and Initial Feedback

These select screens are blurred, but should still communicate a sense of the look, feel, and organization. 
Before needing to shift our focus away from the dashboard project, we spoke with a few essay leaders about the dashboard. The feedback overall was positive. 

•   Essay leaders liked the concept of the tasks (as long as the students served up to them are relevant, and not already graduated, for example). 
•   One essay leader said, “I am a fan of the color coding” and that she prefers the ability to sort data in the browser in the Reports section versus downloading a CSV or PDF file.
•   When asked about bundling tasks that could be completed with a mass action (e.g. sending a reminder), we received encouragement to add that feature.
•   The ability to send messages from within the experience was also highly desired. The V1 feature launched with a “mailto:” functionality that can be frustrating to Gmail users upon clicking a link that opens a mail client they don’t use (one of my own pet peeves!).

The “dashboard” project has been a great challenge: from teasing out what data can be used and in what ways, to figuring out how certain user tasks can be completed given the restrictions of time and abilities of a Bootstrap theme, to challenging what is considered a dashboard.
Part II: Personal Project to Reimagine the Task View (and Perhaps Inspire V2!)

As a personal project, I decided to take what we’ve learned from user feedback so far and imagine what the task experience could be. I started with some rough and very different concepts. 
Revisiting the task view concept with a fresh perspective. My sketching skills and tools have improved since then.
Ultimately, I decided to keep the design closer to the Inbox concept we had already implemented. The revised sketch (far right) makes it easier to access information related to the students' progress and send an intervention note without leaving the screen.
Iterations and Product Decisions

Below shows the evolution of the UI, where iterations layer upon decisions around information display and user actions. To be more specific, some of these decisions included:

•   Reducing information and cognitive load while increasing how actionable the essential information is
•   Simplifying and systematizing colors and styles of links and icons
•   Improving the visual hierarchy of elements
Final Design (for now)

Note I changed the branding and created a new name for the product since I explored this concept outside of the office.

We don't have enough data yet on V1 to understand its success or failure. That said, ensuring the toolkit is engaging should drive more success. 

Update (January 2017)
We haven't been able to change the dashboard much since it launched, due to other priorities. We recently began completely reconceptualizing and redesigning the toolkit product. As we design the toolkit, we'll likely need to change pieces of the dashboard. 

Unfortunately, we probably won't be able to implement anything similar to what I presented in Part II in the near future.
Education Startup Project: Research + Dashboard Design

Education Startup Project: Research + Dashboard Design

Iterating on a task-inbox view in a dashboard