Omnipointment developed a web-based platform for academic group projects called Charter. Charter aims to make group projects in an academic setting more productive. The client tasked our team of two UX designers to explore the onboarding experience and how to keep students coming back to the platform. Through a full design thinking process in an agile-like environment, we delivered a unique, research-based product to our client in just three short weeks.
Charter allows students to set a project objective, team expectations, and roles for team members. This is essentially a contract for members of the group to abide by. The platform has two other features that the client is experimenting with. One is a “promises” feature that allows team members to name a task or deliverable they promise to complete by a certain time and provide updates on progress. Another is a “health” feature that allows users to see how their teammates feel about the project.
Currently, a weakness of the platform is it doesn’t promote teamwork. There’s also no incentive for students to come back to the platform throughout the life of the project. Essentially, students use Charter to create a team contract at the onset of a group project, but never again refer to it.
The client did not want the product to become a task manager. There are plenty of task managing platforms currently available to students. This platform needed to help students have a meaningful conversation around objectives and expectations to ensure a productive group experience. This means the product intended to deal with student behavior.
The challenge: what is the differentiator? Because the product intends to foster meaningful conversations between students about their personalities, a potential component of this product is emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and soft-skills. Soft-skills being the personal attributes that allow one to communicate harmoniously and effectively with other people.
We wanted to understand the inner-workings of group work in order to get a better idea of what this product should address. Some main objectives going into user and subject-matter expert interviews were:
What is most important for a successful group experience?
What problems occur during group work and why?
How do students evaluate their performance?
How do soft skills translate into group work, and how familiar are students with their own?
We interviewed three professors as subject-matter experts and seven college students as users. I will note that our seven students were all of a technical area of study such as computer science. This is an important constraint in terms of our data which I addressed in our future considerations for the client.
When asked what skills make for a productive group experience, every student we interviewed echoed Alex’s response of:
“communication; without this, everyone is doing whatever. Nothing will get done. It is a big factor in group success or failure.”
All three professors also identified communication as most important. So far, everyone seemed to be on the same page in terms of what makes for a successful group experience; which begs the question of why, contrary to Alex’s statement, are students still doing whatever and nothing gets done at times? They must not know how to communicate. This ties into the next major insight around soft skills.
We asked students questions to gauge their awareness and understanding of soft skills. Most students responded with a similar perplexity as Miki did when she said:
“I’ve never heard of soft skills. Can you give me an example? I’m not sure.”
Now, we made sure this response was not drawn from being unfamiliar with the term “soft skills”. We asked questions around soft skill qualities but students had a hard time identifying any or thinking about how they might be useful in group projects. A professor we interviewed mentioned that students who are aware of soft skills are far better prepared for group work.
We wanted to know how students learn about their performance in a group project, if at all. As it turns out, they don’t. The only time anything is written on student performance in a group project is during evaluations at the end of the project. Here’s what student, Katie, had to say about these evaluations:
“The feedback goes to the professor. I never see it. I just get a grade.
What’s even more alarming is that not only every student we interviewed seconded this, but every professor did as well. Subject-matter expert, Dr. Kilbourne admits that
“the outcome of teamwork is often at the end of the semester. There is no debrief. No conversation on how to do it better next time.”
Students cannot get better if they don’t know what to work on.
We did interview one student that was aware of soft skills. At the start of a group project, in a course that was outside his area of study, he publicly admitted his lack of expertise with engineering and acknowledged the engineering majors as more equipped for certain parts of the project. He offered to do other parts of the project based on some identified strengths. He also served as a mediator and resolved many conflicts within the group. My teammate and I dug a bit deeper to figure out why this student was different. As it turns out, he is a 23 year old college student. He served two years of service in the Singapore military. He spoke of how he learned a great deal about himself and how to work with others during this time. Something about his experience or environment allowed for this level of self-awareness.
With these interview insights, we decided to look closely at more research around group work and soft skills.
We aimed to learn about the psychology of group work. A key insight we learned was that teams function better when team members are aware of what they can and cannot contribute. Another insight is that recent college graduates are less employable because they lack the soft skills employers expect from employees. A Fast Company article states that 87% of graduating students feel prepared for the job market; however, only 50% of employers agree that they are. Students lack soft skills such as communication, leadership, ownership, and teamwork. These are all expectations of academic group projects, but students are not picking up on them. We also discovered that academic institutions don’t value teaching soft skills. It is not a particular area of study, and it is rarely a topic in courses. If students are not developing soft skills, let alone aware of them, are there any academic platforms aiming to address this issue currently? We set out to look at the current competitive landscape to figure out just that.
We evaluated the competitive landscape across platforms for document sharing and collaborating, messaging, task management, and learning management systems. We discovered the market is flooded with options for each of these categories. Users have plenty of options to choose from to communicate, collaborate, and manage their tasks. Not one product, however, combined all of these features. This was an opportunity for Charter to differentiate itself. We didn’t stop there, however; we dug a little deeper and connected some dots in this data that led us to the question of why does conflict still occur in group projects if students have a myriad of resources at their disposal to communicate? The answer to this question was found in how they communicate. They were not communicating effectively. How one communicates has to do with soft skills. We researched products that dealt with soft skills in any way. Every soft skills resource we found targets the professional market. There is a significant gap in the academic industry.
Because of this finding, we decided to explore the possibilities further by conducting a SWOT analysis for Charter. This analysis validated the opportunity in the marketplace for this product. We also learned of some significant challenges this product faces, which then factored into some design decisions later in the process.
Product gives students a platform to establish expectations of themselves and teammates by having a conversation at the onset a group project.
Product doesn't provide users a reason to return to the platform and ensure consistent use throughout the life of the project.
There are no other products in the market that try to foster productive group work in an academic setting. Students are not learning the soft skills employers are expecting.
The education industry is saturated with products and platforms that instructors are pitched to implement. Charter also aims to change behavior and culture which may prove difficult.
There is obviously the lack of awareness of soft skills component. To make sure, we went back to the data numerous times to see what students were saying. What students were saying was a different problem and need than the soft skills aspect. Every student we talked to placed the greatest value around project progress and contributions. Students measured group and individual success based on task completion and a good grade. Ultimately, the research findings all pointed toward the lack of awareness of soft skills as being the root problem. After all, how can a student speak to a lack of awareness as an issue on a topic they themselves lack awareness of. It was around this time when we realized the scope of this project exceeded the three short weeks. We didn’t completely dismiss the value students placed in progress and contributions. We used this data later in the design process.
While students recognized communication as the most important skill for a successful working experience, academic institutions don’t place emphasis on soft skills that will contribute to positive group dynamics. As a result, students stay stagnant in their development of soft skills and lack awareness of how these skills will help them now and in the future.
To ensure we stayed true to our research findings throughout the ideation stage, we crafted a set of design principles to guide our design moving forward.
Bring self-awareness to students, because if this design doesn’t, nothing else will.
Make a connection between soft skills and teamwork, so students can improve over time.
Create buy-in through collaboration features while simultaneously tying in the importance of soft skills.
We started our brainstorming process by thinking about the different stages of a group project in relation to our design principles.
What kind of teammate am I?
In the beginning, we brainstormed ideas on how can we bring awareness of students’ individual soft skills into the conversation to set up a group project.
Why should I care?
In the middle, we thought of how to establish student buy-in. This buy-in is two-fold. This stage of the group project is known for students not doing much work nor collaborating with the team. There needs to be an incentive for students to come back to the platform during this time to check progress and avoid running into issues due to procrastination. Also, students currently value and prioritize progress and task-based tools and information instead of soft skills. The product needs to establish buy-in for students to find value in soft skills in relation to group work.
How can I get better?
In the end, students should have a clear understanding of what they did well in the group project and what they need to improve.
We ideated concepts that would:
1. Bring awareness of soft skills
2. Connect soft skills to the team experience
We created two approaches that address these requirements in different ways.
Concept 1 brought awareness of soft skills through team member feedback, and connected them to the team experience by having teammates verify user’s soft skill goals.
Concept 2 brought awareness of soft skills through a self-assessment, and connected them to the team experience by having teammates evaluate emotions during check-ins.
We started our brainstorming process by thinking about the different stages of a group project in relation to our design principles.
Lumosity is a brain-training application that uses a training program to analyze a user and recommend training games for practice to improve user’s brain.
Apple fitness uses rings to motivate users to complete move goals. User’s are incentivized to close these rings by the end of the day to unlock achievements.
Streaks is a habit-forming application. The idea is that you complete up to six goals and maintain a long-enough streak to form a habit.
We tested the desirability of these concepts. We also wanted to learn what was or wasn’t useful from each so we can iterate moving forward. Here’s what we learned from testing
The main feature in this concept was completing a set of interpersonal goals around soft skills. When testing the main feature of completing soft skill goals, all students found more value in goals when they are based on identified strengths and weaknesses by an assessment or by their peers. We also learned from students that it is too difficult and unreliable for students to create goals on their own. They need to be system generated.
In order for students to complete goals, a teammate is required to verify if a goal was complete. Testing proved that this provides incentive to complete goals honestly. Students also said it helps keep each other accountable.
Once a teammate verifies a goal was completed, the user is rewarded with points toward their Scholar Score. Testing validated that Scholar Score is motivating. It provides incentive to complete goals and be a better teammate because it is a reflection of user’s work ethic.
At the end of the project, students evaluate their peers on their performance. Students recognize the familiar format. The difference is they would receive this peer feedback directly. Students found it useful to know how they did in order to be aware of how to perform better going into the next project.
For concept 2, we researched LinkedIn’s endorsement feature, 16 personalities test, and buddhify’s wheel of emotions and actions to brainstorm ways to identify and communicate soft skills.
The LinkedIn endorsement feature allows others to validate skills user exemplify.
16 personalities test is a personality assessment based on the Myers briggs model. This is one method for bringing awareness of soft skills.
The Buddhify application provides a method for communicating emotions and actions by selecting from options as opposed to having generate a response.
The concept uses 16 personalities assessment to identify user’s strengths and weaknesses. In general, most students found it useful for an assessment to identify these strengths and weaknesses as opposed to having to identify them themselves.
Upon logging into Charter, students were asked to respond with how they are currently feeling about the project by selecting from several options. This data is then represented visually through a team status meter on the status tab of their Charter. From testing, we found that if students see that others are stressed, they are more inclined to meet to address the issue.
The practicality of features on this page helped create buy-in for students as most found this page to be the most important because they value progress, contribution, and peer-accountability.
A feature in this concept was being able to validate other students’ strengths. Testing proved that students like this feature, but they don’t like that others can see their weaknesses. It may create bias.
After testing, we decided what we would keep moving forward into the final design. Overall, these concepts were both validated in terms of desirability
Features that will create buy-in throughout the project life cycle.
Motivating features such as scholar score and teammate validation of goals and skills.
Features that bring awareness to soft skills such as the personality test and peer evaluation.
Anything too personal that will create bias between team members such as weaknesses or opportunities.
The Profile page presents value of soft skills in an actionable format to connect with group work.
Teammate needs to verify if goal is complete. Keeps students accountable and requires interaction
Completion of goal adds to Scholar Score. Adds incentive and motivates students to have a good score that best represents them to their peers
The team Charter page includes features that students value in order to create buy-in. At the end of a project, students access the peer evaluations
Students evaluate every member on team in order to close charter
Evaluation is in an easy and familiar format
Students are guided to provide actionable feedback
Students can “support” any strengths and skills for each team member
This is how the final design aligns with our design principles:
It brings awareness of soft skills by displaying the personality assessment results under the “My strengths” and “My opportunities” sections. The “My feedback” section brings awareness through peer feedback. The team status meter brings emotional awareness.
The scholar score motivates students to do well in group projects in order to not have a score that reflects poorly on their character. On the Charter page, students value features such as the calendar, due-dates, and team contributions.
The “My goals” provides actionables for students to practice good interpersonal communication habits. The feedback portion of the evaluation also provides actionable feedback.
With these constraints, we had a number of future recommendations for our client. There are several personality tests available for identifying soft skills. We only had time to really test one of these assessments. We recommended exploring others and possibly alternative ways for bringing awareness of these skills. We also recommended exploring how to give suggestions for how to interact with specific personality types. Lastly, we recommended further exploration on how goals can be used for teachers to evaluate progress and individual contributions.
This was a very exciting and challenging project to work on. It was soon after starting research on this project when I realized the magnitude of this problem. The “ah ha!” moment every designer lives for. It happened. I basked in it’s greatness for a moment. Immediately after this moment, then realized the constraints and limitations of our scope. Realistically, the scope of this project exceeded the three, short sprints. As someone that values self-reflection and emotional awareness, I was passionate about seeing the solution to this societal problem all the way through. I wanted all the required time and resources to tackle a need this significant. I learned the importance of scope from this project. I recognized where we needed to scope down given the magnitude and constraints in order to deliver a viable design that met the user’s needs. We delivered a design that meets users where they are with the collaboration features, but also exposes them to the more important component of soft skills.
I also learned how important it is to pull insights from user behavior during interviews and not what users say they do. What students said they did was different than what they actually did. Similarly, what students actually needed was different than what they said they needed. It was important not to take what they said at face value but rather read between the lines. One way of doing this was asking the right questions. Instead of asking what someone does in a group work situation, I asked students to identify a specific situation they experienced and to walk me through what happened. There was a sense of designing a solution students didn’t know they needed. We had to trust the research for pushing in the direction we did. There was a bigger issue here, and it was important to address that bigger issue.
Overall, this project not only reinforced my design process but I also learned there are benefits from being flexible with this process. It is easy for the design thinking process to seem very linear, with one stage coming right after the next. With this project, it was important to do additional research after user interviews and even into ideation. I’ve developed a firm understanding of when to do what and most importantly for what reason. Also, having worked with a couple different clients reinforced my communication skills. I’ve learned that it’s not only important to communicate design decisions effectively, but also asking the right questions and listening to clients to ensure alignment throughout the project. These learnings, and those from previous projects, have made me a better designer. I look forward to continued growth from future projects.