Designing messaging for education

4 min read
Lindsay Mindler
  •  Aug 31, 2015
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Designers create tailored experiences to solve problems for a particular segment of users. Without a tailored experience, that segment is left with tools designed for the masses. And that means only a fraction of their problems get solved—often in largely superficial ways.

It’s like this: you’ve cut a piece of pie, and now you need to get it on your plate. You could use a regular spatula instead of a pie spatula, but it’d be unnecessarily difficult and messy.

Tailoring for education

At Remind, we design tailored experiences for communication in education.

Traditionally, communication involved crumpled syllabi at the bottom of backpacks, long-winded emails to outdated Yahoo accounts, and text messages from personal cell phone numbers that couldn’t be tracked. It was messy, ineffective, and risky.

Educators need a tool designed just for themTwitter Logo. By immersing ourselves in classrooms and school communities, we cater our designs to the specific challenges that teachers, students, and parents face when trying to connect with one another.

The problems we solve are challenging but critical. Since designers are focusing more and more on creating these kinds of tailored experiences, we thought we’d share a few things we’ve learned along the way.

Find a central user

We have 3 vastly different types of users who interact with our product in distinct ways.

“By solving problems for the central user, you’re solving problems for all of your users simultaneously.”

The 2 most similar user types: students and parents. The average teenager sends roughly 100 texts a day. That’s 3,000 texts a month. Students want to stay up-to-date on assignments and feel connected to their teachers, while parents want to feel confident that they’re doing everything possible to help their children succeed.

Even with these noble goals, most students tend to overlook passive communication. For instance, how do you keep track of email when you have texts, Instagram notifications, and Snapchat messages to deal with?

Parents feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of messages they receive, not to mention the frequent requests to check websites from coaches, teachers, after-school programs, and their own workplaces.

Then there are teachers, our central users. Their main goal is a child’s success, which means trying to increase parental involvement, reduce absenteeism, and build meaningful connections with both the child and the parent. These are daunting challenges, and teachers have the hardest job in the world. Teachers need simple tools that amplify their efforts and save timeTwitter Logo.

Given these distinct user needs, teachers initiate the most communication and need the biggest breadth of control in the product. That’s why we focus most of our research efforts on teachers. By solving problems for the central user, you’re solving problems for all of your users simultaneously.

“The best designers figure out ways to solve challenges in simpler ways.”

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Control, meet simplicity

Complex user controls are an easy trap, especially in sectors where safety is important. Clunky controls usually lead to too much complexity and can actually diminish the power of your product.

It’s a huge challenge, yes, but the best designers figure out ways to solve challenges in simpler waysTwitter Logo.

For example, Remind started with 1-way broadcast messaging because we wanted to ensure teachers had full control over how they communicated with students and families. But we realized these controls were hampering their goals of providing timely, more personalized support. Teachers needed 2-way communication options that still offered the ability to create boundaries between school and life at home.

“Clunky controls and too much complexity can diminish the power of your product.”

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With that in mind, we eventually introduced Chat, a 2-way messaging feature that included an easy way to set boundaries: office hours. This change improved the product for all of our users, not just teachers.

Listening early and often

Our new projects begin with putting initial designs in front of our users, and then we take their feedback to heart.

“Listen to users early on. Keep things as simple as possible while addressing their needs.”

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Every time we consider introducing a new feature, we conduct both exploratory and summative research. We do 5 to 8 user interviews a week along with user testing, where we ask teachers to walk through quick prototypes we’ve made in InVision. These steps help us to get feedback on both initial and iterative designs.

Some of the biggest mistakes we’ve made in the past have been due to what we assumed teachers would want. When we didn’t do enough research, we saw our efforts flop. Listen to your users early on and keep things as simple as possible while addressing their needs. It almost always saves you time in the long run.

Be accessible

Be aware of any other frictions that appear in the day-to-day lives of your users. A lot of designers don’t typically consider accessibility while crafting experiences, but it’s one of the most frequent frictions that users face.

How are your designs supposed to simplify your users life if they can’t even see your painstakingly crafted UI/UX work?

“Designers: consider accessibility while crafting experiences.”

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If our designers don’t think about accessibility and a child has a vision impairment, it can be catastrophic to the child’s confidence. That confidence is key to how well students do in school, the quality of their educational experiences, and even their chances of graduating.

We should be designing products that take some of that friction away, not adding to it.

Combing through your product to increase accessibility can also be a great opportunity to take a critical look at your visual system. For us, it increases our system design consistency and gave us a running start to kick off a much-needed brand exploration.

Think about the accessibility of your work earlier rather than laterTwitter Logo. The later you incorporate it, the more difficult it is to tackle in an ever-growing product.

Parity in every way

Back when we were thinking of ways that Chat might fit into the product, we knew it was going to be just as important as the 1-way messaging feature that had defined us until then. We needed to embrace what we really were: a messaging app. That required us to revamp all platforms to align with this idea.

“Think about the accessibility of your work earlier rather than later.”

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Unfortunately, both native mobile and our web app had different navigation structures and UI patterns, and neither really supported that idea of balance between the 2 main features we envisioned.

Parity allows the user to learn your product just onceTwitter Logo—it’s very important. This enables them to more quickly become those power users that we love. For us, parity was not only important across iOS, Android, and web, but also needed to extend to SMS; the majority of our student user base uses Remind via SMS.

Limit design churn and product redundancies

For iOS and Android, we knew we needed to cut out the redundancies in our product. The biggest: the class message feed that the user initially landed on. The feed didn’t allow users to immediately recognize which classes had new messages, so it diluted the importance of the message itself. Also, we already had a “Classes” view that was displaying those same messages, just in a different way.

We removed the message feed and rebuilt “Classes” to function more like a messaging app. By doing this, we aligned the way all users read their messages and were able to bring back the importance to the message itself.

Additionally, our web dashboard was old—and it showed. It caused a ton of churn every time we had to design a new feature within its outdated structure. We rethought, redesigned, and rewrote it from the ground up in React. In the process, we gave the same priority to classes and Chat that you’ll see in our mobile apps.

Revamping our mobile and web platforms lets us move so much faster and allows our users to have a very similar experience, no matter the platform.

Step back

To help solve the needs of our users by introducing 2-way communication, we needed to take a big step back from how we viewed our product. Reimagining how our users consumed content, navigated the product, and behaved across all platforms helped us simplify our product and create an even more powerful tailored communication experience for education.

“It’s hard to see the bigger issues if you’re looking at something from 6 inches away.”

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Even if you aren’t introducing a large feature, don’t be afraid to take that step back and debate with yourself. Questions to ask:

  • Are you balancing the most important features appropriately?
  • Are there redundancies you can remove to help reduce design churn?
  • Are there areas you could simplify, without removing essential controls, that would increase the power of your product?

It’s hard to see the bigger issues if you’re looking at something from 6 inches away. Step back and focus on how you can empower your usersTwitter Logo—you might end up changing not only how people interact with your product, but how people interact with each other within your entire user base.

Tools designed for the masses make an impact on the world, but designing tools tailored for specific segments focuses and amplifies that impact. And that’s the power of tailored experiences.

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