March 2, 2016

From the field to the screen: Incorporating user insights when sharing education resources online

Written by Allison Rosenberg, Program Associate, Results for Development Institute (R4D)

Screen capture of toolkit

Teachers in many countries, including the US, can visit a wide range of websites to find teaching resources and tools that support them in designing lessons, teaching students, and assessing progress. However, for educators in many developing countries, finding these kinds of resources is much more difficult. While there are a handful of useful tools developed specifically for application in the developing world, online searches don’t yield a great deal of information. This forces program practitioners to develop their own materials, rather than being able to learn from and build off similar work carried out by their peers.

The Early Learning Toolkit, developed by Results for Development Institute’s Center for Education Innovations (CEI), is working to fill this critical gap by centralizing existing materials and by selecting and publishing high-quality, crowd-sourced resources from educators who want to share their work with other members of the education community (including educators, organizations working with schools, and funders).

However, putting these resources online is only one small piece of the puzzle. When designing the toolkit, we also asked ourselves: will the resources actually be used, and useful, to educators and those working with educators in the developing world? To make sure the answer was “yes”, we did our best to build into our process a fundamental principle of good design: be informed by user needs.

We’ve baked this principle into the earliest stages of our design process, drawing from experienced practitioners profiled on CEI’s database of innovative education programs as representative of our target audience. Even before we started the process of designing the website, we polled programs to get a sense of user priorities and preferences. We wanted to understand how they access information online. For example: how important is attractive visual design? Do they want large amounts of detailed information or succinct summaries? We conducted in-depth interviews with organizations to learn about what kinds of tools they used and what they were looking for. We sought feedback on our initial website designs and used it to refine the designs as we went along. Even though these steps added a good amount of time to our process, we felt they were critical to ensure we ended up with a useful, impactful product.

 Our process uncovered a number of important insights. For example:

— The easier it is to find information, the better. Practitioners appreciate it when there is less effort involved (i.e., fewer clicks) to get to a particular piece of information, rather than having to click through multiple pages (and download a file) to end up at a given resource. They also prefer reading information on the website, rather than embedded in long, wordy PDFs.
— Balance being narrow and broad in scope
. When building the site, we focused on programs working with educators as our primary audience. However, we found that staff within those organizations had differing preferences on what kind of information and resources they would find most useful; some were more interested in broad concepts, while others wanted to be able to dig into background research.

These insights, among others, have been critical in shaping our work. To make the site relevant to a broad spectrum of users with different interests, we offer basic topic overviews (e.g. introductory videos) as well as sections with supporting research for people who want to dive into the details of a particular issue. To make information easy to access, we did our best to put key pieces of information front and center (see our tools and tips), reduced the number of pages users need to navigate through (instead allowing them to scan relevant resources by popping out a menu below each tip), and included preview images that users could quickly review before downloading an entire file.

We’re only partly done. In the next few months, we’ll be hosting hands-on workshops in India, Kenya, Uganda, and Canada to get even more specialized user feedback (including a role-playing workshop at the Comparative International Education Society (CIES) Conference in Vancouver). While engaging with the toolkit, workshop participants will be able to provide their input to us directly; in addition, we’ll be able to observe first-hand how they interact with the Toolkit – a principle that is key to the human-centered design process. We’re looking forward to having meaningful discussion around how we can iterate on and modify the toolkit so that it can address our users’ needs as effectively as possible and get insight into additional key resources to highlight.

Speaking of: if you have feedback on or tools you’d like to share for the Early Learning Toolkit, please let me know!

Allison Rosenberg is a Program Associate at Results for Development Institute, where she works across the organization’s education and innovations portfolios. She will be facilitating a role-playing workshop at the Comparative International Education Society (CIES) Conference next week in Vancouver, in which participants will be in invited to discuss how the Early Learning Toolkit and similar platforms can be intuitively and practically designed for groups working to improve primary and pre-primary learning.