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The Importance of User Feedback at Academic Innovation

Mike Wojan, User Experience Designer

Why feedback is so important to us

At the Office of Academic Innovation, we are committed to creating technologies that make learning more personalized and engaging. Our team consists of uniquely talented researchers, designers, and developers who continue to raise the bar with innovative educational technology tools. But for us to practice what we preach and deliver on our commitment, it’s important to speak with learners regularly and ensure that we’re designing for them – rather than ourselves. Everyone at Academic Innovation appreciates and values the importance of user feedback, so we’ve incorporated it as a fundamental part of our design process.

Our usability testing process

As a UX Designer with a background in Human-Computer Interaction, engaging with learners has been the most exciting part of my role at Academic Innovation. I feel fortunate that my primary responsibility at work is doing what I love: sitting down with customers to understand their needs and translating those requirements into interface designs. I’m also grateful to have such driven coworkers that help me do it. Amy Homkes-Hayes, our Lead Innovation Advocate, worked with me over the past semester on ramping up our usability testing procedures and creating new strategies for reaching our learners. I also mentored several of our interns on planning and facilitating user interviews.

We recently set a new goal for each of our core projects to receive at least one round of user feedback per semester. Project Leads come to me with a list of features or ideas they’d like to test and I put together a plan for getting that information in front of students. Depending on what we’re testing, we can employ focus groups, A/B tests, one-on-one user interviews, and moderated task analysis. Even on weeks that we don’t schedule usability tests, I try to collect feedback on my designs by posting them on the office refrigerator for colleagues to respond to.

A printed photo of two proposed mobile designs posted to a refrigerator door with sticky notes and a pen asking individuals to select a preferred design
Conducting an informal A/B test on the office refrigerator. I presented two possible designs for a Problem Roulette interface and asked my coworkers to vote for their favorite via sticky note ballot.


So how do we get our users to participate?

We defined a new multi-faceted incentive strategy this term, which includes gift cards for individual tests and entries into a drawing at the end of the term for larger prizes. As a new addition to our suite of testing procedures this term, we also partnered with a School of Information course about user research, SI 422, where students were given the option to participate in a usability test for class credit. We also created a new form of usability “pop-up” testing, during which we set up an A/B testing table on campus and reward students for a few minutes of their time as they’re passing by.

A pile of sunflower seeds on a clipboard on top of a table between two empty glass jugs with students walking by
A campus pop-up test for ECoach where students chose their favorite design by casting votes with sunflower seeds (playing off our department’s metaphor as a greenhouse for innovation).


Our Innovation Advocacy intern Ning Wang led the pop-up testing effort and found the experience very rewarding. “Working on various projects at (Academic Innovation) allows me to acquire several different skills along the way, from planning the content for usability evaluations to actually conducting the tests themselves. There are times that I doubt if I can really do it, but my mentor and (Academic Innovation) coworkers offered me the guidance, necessary tools, and most importantly, the trust and freedom to let me take the initiative.”

A table covered by an Academic Innovation tablecloth with a laptop on other materials on top and an Academic Innovation banner standing next to the table
A pop-up test in the Student Union for the ART 2.0 project. We asked students to experiment with the new Major Metrics functionality and share ideas about ways we could improve the feature.


We tested several new applications over the past 4 months, including a tool for researching majors in ART 2.0, the tailored content inside ECoach, and a group study feature for Problem Roulette. In total, we spoke to 48 students in individual usability sessions and over 70 individuals at our campus pop-up tests. After each round, we summarize our research findings and present them back to the project teams. The next step is to prioritize the takeaways and decide which new features or improvements to tackle in the project’s next development cycle. Sometimes we receive suggestions that are quick wins and we can implement those right away. Students regularly impress us with brilliant ideas and solutions that demonstrate the immediate value of user testing for all of our tools.

Students seated around a table in small groups looking at laptop screens in the Academic Innovation office
Students from SI 422 participate in an interactive focus group to evaluate Problem Roulette’s new group study feature. They enjoyed getting early access to this beta feature not yet released to campus.


Goals for 2018

Moving into the Winter 2018 semester, we aim to continue growing and diversifying our usability testing program. We’ll be partnering with Information Technology Services (ITS) and Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) on improving the accessibility of our products and expanding our community of participants to include more students with disabilities. If you’re interested in learning more, please feel free to email me directly ([email protected]). And of course, if you’d like to participate in one of our usability tests, you can register via this short sign up form.

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