This is a design exercise completed in October of this year. I was able to dedicate roughly 72 hours to this project.
At the beginning of each school year, teachers are faced with the challenge of remembering names for a large number of new students. Design an experience to help an educator match faces to names, with the goal of shortening the time needed to reach complete un-aided accuracy.
Recently the issue of schooling has come into focus for me. The juxtaposition of my own academic memories and those with which my daughter is rapidly collecting, is an education in itself. I picked the teacher and names option for two reasons. I am a mixed bag MFA/MBA with formidable experience in the trenches of both boarding and public schools. More importantly (for user experience reasons), I’m fortunate to have access to several educators in my life, which made my research obliging and fun.
Let’s get into it.
This case study walks through a UX design process, with certain steps assumed due to the essence of this exercise. In user experience design there are many distractions to chase. I chose a specific scope of work to create a deliverable with the most value.
Case Study Framework
Are we are solving the right problem for the right reason for the right users?
My initial research spiraled into a diagnosis of the current school system.
The problem is disguised as simple, but it is truly a symptom of a larger problem. Schools are overcrowded, districts are underfunded and all are lacking in resources. American educational standards and subsequent rankings are somewhat lacking. We undervalue the profession of educator yet spend 31% more per child than the “OECD’s average of $9,000.”
In these environments, children are not adequately challenged, ill-prepared and losing potential. If a teacher doesn’t know the child’s name - know the child herself - this situation is heightened.
With these thoughts, I jumped into research.
I spoke to five educators. Ranging in experience from classroom teacher to Dean of Discipline, these woman (an industry unfortunately skewed towards one gender representation) were quite candid. Snippets of their interviews are below. The full text and notes from these sessions can be found here.
Carolyn, Age 60
18 Years: Executive Director for Teaching & Learning
9 Years: Grades 6-8, General Education Teacher
7 Years: Grades 9-12, General Education Teacher
“I still think of myself as a teacher.”
“I like to refer to myself as an accidental admin - I never wanted to be one.”
“I’d repeat names and have them say their names out loud in group settings.”
Pictures are always taken which can be used to look at outside of work.
“I’m contextualizing wherever I could.”
Learn: Name and strength. (Something about the kid other than their name.)
“Teachers already have an intrinsic desire to know names - you’re not asking something of them they don’t already want to do.”
Circle - everyone would circle up, talking piece, name games. Every day each kid would have to give one example:
“Doesn’t matter now - it’s too late. Can’t put that toothpaste back.”
“Technology is just a tool, if it works for you then it’s great. But it’s not the only way. Not necessary for everyone.”
5 Years: Preschool, General Education Teacher
6 Years: Preschool, Early Education Special Education Teacher
“I’d always take pictures.”
She learned early on to wait before she made name tags or got their cubby ready.
“Lucinda is a good example…” (she goes by Lucy.) “If you [got the cubby and desk ready] ahead of time, you’d have to change that stuff out - better to wait and find out first hand from the kid.”
“I just wish every system talked to one another.” She would have to repeat work in several places.
Bureaucratic and political systems were the reason she wanted out of the classroom. The work load was too high.
Heather, age 33
10 Years: Grades 5-11, Physical Science, Biology, Chemistry
2 Years: Dean’s Office, Head of Discipline
“I’d assign kids seats, leave them there for a bit, then rearrange them to quiz myself. I’d sometimes do a verbal quiz which took up class time, so it was not frequent.”
“It’s unheard of to do a verbal roll-call. We require teachers to take attendance within the first 3 minutes of class on their phone or computer.”bg
“I wouldn’t take the time to use an app [to learn their names.]”
“Out of necessity, for proper classroom management, you have to know their names.”
5 Years: Grade 2, General Education Teacher
9 Years: Grades K-12, General Education Substitute Teacher
Associate a color or a personality trait to kids right away.
Knew their names (31 kids) by lunch on the first day.
Used the roster for notes, would wear a roll of masking tape, “like a bracelet” on her wrist to tear off specific notes for each child.
“Just the tactile process of writing is so important for memory.”
The class would play games to help the students learn each other’s names, but it also helped her as well.
“We played games to show the kids how they were alike, not different.”
“Absolutely - however to the exclusive use of it, heaven help us.”
3 Years: Assistant Director of Technology
7 Years: Teacher Coach, Technology & Instruction
7 Years: Grade 3, General Education Teacher
'“I’d say the name often and never put name tags on the kids. It’s important to focus on the relationship instead of reading the tag - it creates a lasting impact for both sides.”
The goal was to know everyone by the end of the first day. Learn something personal about them. “In third grade, you’re around the kid’s all day so that is much easier than someone with five periods of 30 kids each.” Faces have always been easy for her.
“We always ask, is it better than paper and a pencil?“
Keep coming back to: How does this help the lesson?
My process here flipped. While research would normally inform the user flow(s) I was stuck on the idea that this wasn’t a true problem. Memory has always been a problem for human beings in general, but the savvy teachers already had their methods for memorizing names and technology wasn’t about to serve them better in this regard. Memory is aided by the tactile use of our handwriting and verbal repetition. My research found this to be true every interview. An app wasn’t solving this for them. So why are we forcing a technological solution? I had to jump into the Define section of this process before I continued with a user flow and user tasks.
So, the user is going to use an app to do this. (We’ll get into why and how this is happening further on.) What does that look like?
By documenting the simple tasks the user would encounter, I can focus on the user flow and subsequent experience instances where I focus my intention. I like to think of user flows as a kind of virtual geography.
Login, if not already
Choose course, if more than one
Apply contextual association
Submit for participation
See the district scoreboard
In addition to user needs, make sure we know business needs and have a product plan.
As I mentioned above, I jumped over user flows to business needs (then circled back) to verify I was solving the right problem. In a singular sense, I believe an app is not the answer - that technology isn’t always the answer. However, I see some strategic and long term moves - ones I will elaborate - that could make this a valuable product. I have come to understand that using my problem solving skills to work through these details is the true spirit of this design exercise.
A better educated populace is good for the economy. A high functioning child can do wonders for the world around her. I immediately wanted to know if there was a way to stimulate something larger than the task at hand. Is there a way to find incentive towards a bigger solution? Again, address the larger problem instead of just the present symptoms. My research told me another app would be a waste. It would be adding a technological solution for technology’s sake. If we were to address the problem in a way that does two things at once, it needed to be lightweight and already exist within the technology inside the classroom.
Most teachers are clever about how they address their lack of resources. Thrift stores and estate sales are great for collecting stacks of random kinds of paper and school supplies. Instagram and other social sharing apps have created an ability to side hustle for many teachers, allowing them to network and sell their lesson plans and organizing tricks. Teachers are crafty, thrifty and short on time. If we give them an edge, they will use it.
Here’s a constraint; let’s call this a feature-add to one of the already in house systems like Skyward or Schoology. And here’s the incentive to build it, product owners: Teacher/student relationships foster better learners, attendance and overall success. Could it attract business? Make schools switch systems? Based on the incentive, why not?
A hypothetical press release:
“Schoology and Pierce County School District support building community and fostering the relationships that provide long term benefit. There is power behind feeling heard, feeling appreciated and finding strength in individuality. That all begins by knowing the student.”
Brands and schools have long been partners. Target’s Take Charge of Education program and General Mills’ Box Top program all generate funds for the classroom. Corporate giving requirements practically beg for these kinds of write-offs. The same kind of maneuvering could happen here, furthering incentive for both the student information system and the school district. Enlightened with the fact that Florida limits the amount of students in a core class, I might have found my hook. Having more than 18-20 kids per class make knowing the children difficult, even for the well practiced self proclaimed ‘good-at-names’ teacher. Let’s tie the participation of using this feature to monies generated towards a bill that would limit core class sizes in the relevant state, very much like Florida’s. Gamification can tidy up the loose ends, bridging the eager educator to the state’s slow-moving legislature.
Once I had a good reason to design this experience, funneled down into several constraints, I got to wireframes.
Develop multiple versions for validation testing, messaging needs, and information architecture.
While validation testing could not necessarily happen, wireframes certainly did. Mostly by hand with annotations, these served as a framework for my final pixel pushing.
Send multiple design versions through validation testing to confirm user experience.
These app screens show the student experience instance, currently in card view. There are options to change the view (top right) to class view. Shuffle, on the top left allow for the names to either be in or out of alphabetical order with that option enabled. This view allows the teacher to swipe through her student’s photos (generated by the existing student information system) and apply a contextual association using emoji and or text. A pronunciation tip is included at the bottom for names outside of the speaker’s native tongue.
Using Google’s Baseline Material Design System allowed me to focus on the user and not on the pixels. This kind of streamlined design approach is incredibly useful and a joy to play with.
Deliver assets and specs, implement retrospective and complete documentation.
Final specs & assets
Review & Reasoning
I hope to participate in a full retrospective, but for now I have a few thoughts about how this design can improve.
I’d like to refine the user flow. It seems bit clunky and the process of pairing context to photos could easily be toggled over to a practice quiz setup. No need for a new or simply copied experience if they could work in tandem. The option to turn on and off the contextual indicators could be a level up engagement, further testing the teacher’s memory. I’d like to make a prototype with the interactions I’ve been visualizing, and of course test it. Better, I’d like to tag along to the start of school with a few teachers and classes to setup a real world trial. If anything, that kind of case study might push the likes of Schoology or Skyward to adopt such a feature.
I have been using the name ‘Green’ while working on this case study. I saw three types of meaning in it. First, the concept of being new. New faces, new kids, new routines, new school. One can be ‘green.’ Second, it jumps into the concept of money. Money that if spent well can benefit and nurture the vulnerable souls walking into classrooms every day. It’s a forceful shield and a delicate shell. It’s both concepts working together. And finally growth. Proper care of anything in nature requires subtlety and nuance. Nurturing growth for the long term changes the kind of immediate care provided. I see an illustrated blade of grass as the app icon, but I suspect the existing student information system sponsorship constraints I put this exercise under would toss that directly out the window. Still, it helped with the empathy side of things, which is always important in these kinds of experiments.