The New Navigator: User-Centered Design
Did you know that by October 1st of their senior year, 94% of students in a College Summit class have a plan for what they will do after high school graduation? And that for 91% of those students, that plan includes enrolling in a 2- or 4-year college? Did you know that although 93% of our educators feel a deep connection to the College Summit mission of launching all students to postsecondary success, less than 50% of those educators agree that past editions of the Navigator contributed to helping all students meet that goal during their senior year?
Although it’s easy to make assumptions about what students and teachers need, the most powerful classroom tools are those that are designed with a clear understanding of stakeholder need that comes directly from the source. When College Summit set out in the Fall of 2008 to revise its senior year curriculum tool, The Navigator, the Education Research and Development team realized very quickly that we needed more information about our end users in order to design a product that would have the greatest impact on the communities we serve. In order to find out who are users were and what they wanted in a new Navigator, we embarked on a User-Centered Design process.
The User-Centered Design process involves end users (stakeholders like our students, teachers, administrators and College Summit staff) throughout the entire life-cycle of a product. Most often applied to web and software design, UCD is an emerging research and product development field that focuses on improving user experience in order to reduce costs and increase user buy-in.
“User experience focuses on how stakeholders perceive their interaction with a product. A successful user experience design for the Navigator would result in all stakeholders reporting that the product fit all of these adjectives.”
Traditional methods of gathering information about users include surveys and interviews. We conducted both with educators and students across the country, and used the feedback to develop a series of concepts for revision designed to meet identified stakeholder need. The student-reported statistics cited above, for example, led to the realization that the Navigator needed to focus less on what to do after high school graduation, and more on how to do – how to pay for college, how to persist in postsecondary options, and how to make a more seamless transition. Likewise, our survey of educators demonstrated that past editions of the Navigator were not flexible enough to be useful to all students regardless of postsecondary plan, so we resolved to being more inclusive of 2-year college-bound students in the new edition, as well as students who plan to attend training programs, apprenticeships, or join the military.
In addition to traditional surveys and interviews, there are many innovative tools for conducting rigorous user-centered research. In order to identify how our stakeholders wanted to use the Navigator, we used two interesting methodologies: the card sort and the usability test.
In revising the Navigator, we knew we needed to beef up some content, but it was crucial that we kept the page count similar to past editions. In order to prioritize content, we conducted card sorts in person and remotely, using a web-based card sort software application. Our eighteen respondents included educators, alumni and peer leaders. The card sort asked respondents to look critically at the 25 major products or assessments completed in the old Naviagtor, and to categorize these tasks into high, medium and low priority. The highest priority tasks included researching college options and creating a college list, learning about financial aid options, and making the transition from high school to college. These tasks aligned with those identified by students through the survey as areas of concern and anxiety during the senior year. The card sort also revealed tasks that were low priority for the senior year; these included preparing for a college application interview and conducting a job shadow experience.
In order to troubleshoot issues with the book’s design, we conducted usability tests. According to Jacob Nielson, a pioneer in the field, usability is “…a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use.” For our usability tests, participants were asked to use their Navigators to complete ten simple, everyday tasks, and to talk us through their thought processes. For educators, the tasks included using the Navigator to demonstrate how one would plan a classroom lesson or identify the date of an upcoming SAT. For students, the tasks included figuring out what to tasks needed to be completed each week, and using the table of contents to find the chapters related to financial aid.
Usability testing graphically demonstrated that both educators and students were unable to effectively use the Navigator to complete many simple tasks due to an inefficient and text-heavy visual design. For educators, wordy lesson plan materials and hard-to-find pages in the appendix were largely ignored, while bulleted items and bold headlines were used to skim quickly through the text. This intuitive habit of busy educators to search out only the most important information caused them to miss vital information that could make their job easier or make a lesson more successful and engaging. For students, usability testing graphically demonstrated that the act of interacting with the Navigator is not intuitive for high school seniors in our target populations. In general, students rely on their teachers and not the Navigator book to help guide them in the college application process, as demonstrated by our test subjects inability to use the book to answer even simple questions about the college application process. These usability tests made it clear that a focus on visual design for usability was a high priority in creating the 2009/2010 edition.
The combination of traditional user study tools like surveys and interviews, along with more cutting-edge methodologies like card sorts and usability tests led to concepts for revision for the 2009/2010 edition that have, so far, been embraced by our stakeholders. Stay tuned to learn about how the book was changed based on this research.