This is one of my favorite UX projects that I had the opportunity to work on as the lead designer for Global Educational Technologies (GET). My team had been tasked to redesign a language learning tool that has been used for about 15 years at the Missionary Training Center called TALL. We completely rebranded the application from TALL to Embark.
GET is contracted with the Missionary Training Center to produce language learning applications for the missionaries. While the LDS missionaries are at the MTC, they spend 6–9 weeks studying language and religion 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. They are expected to perform very quickly, teaching in practice situations in the first week of their stay. This means that our language learning material and course structure needs to be very open so the missionaries can study exactly what they need and when. Missionaries are also learning many different languages from many other languages so the application needs to be able support a wide variety of language types both in input and output.
To put it short, the missionaries were no longer using TALL and their language learning was suffering as a product of that. GET has a patented and proven model for language learning and they know from studies done on previous user groups years before that when users use the application their language learning improves drastically. Overall language efficiency at the MTC has decreased in last few years and redesigning TALL to better fit their needs is one way the MTC is trying to remedy that.
The first thing my team and I did was jump into research on the current product being used. We dove into the app to try and figure out all the various pieces and their purpose and get a sense for how things had been organized.
We found the program to be very confusing and cumbersome but found a basic structure of accessing vocabulary content based on topic. The program uses various activities to help the users memorize the content and then revisit it after a minimum amount of time (8 hours) to reinforce the vocabulary learned.
Once we felt we had a good understanding of the application we went to the users to try and dig a little deeper as to why they were no longer using the application and to find out what their habits were, their likes and dislikes of the app, and their ideas and suggestions for a new version of the app. We ran several focus groups with users and observed them using the application in labs to accomplish this.
After we felt we had gathered enough information from researching we took all of our notes, video files, and audio recordings and began to compile key findings and takeaways.
We found that the root of the problem to be the following:
- The current application is boring. The activities are repetitive and there is little reward for completing anything in the app and so users lose motivation to continue using it relatively quickly.
- The design of the app is OLD and cumbersome which makes it difficult for the users to use and engage with. Because of the design language, they have also lost trust that the application can help them learn their language.
- Missionaries like to see varying activities to challenge them and break up the monotony of memorizing vocabulary.
- Missionaries want to be able to review content and study it again even after they have mastered it to help them keep it fresh in their minds.
Because the organization and structure of the application was essential to the patented language learning model, we kept the structure the same in the new application. There are 3 levels of hierarchy: levels, lessons, and workouts.
A level is a group of lessons that are of similar difficulty and content.
A lesson is a module of content based on topic.
A workout is a set of activities helping learn various aspects of the language such as: vocabulary, phrases, grammar, and pronunciation.
Throughout this process we’ve put together many prototypes for varying features and aspects of the app at varying fidelity stages: paper prototypes, wireframes, low fidelity, and high fidelity. Below are several examples of the prototypes:
The images above show the stages of prototyping we did for a vocabulary workout, which the first time around, used four activities (quadrants, listening recognition, spelling, and translation) to memorize 8 words. As I’ll describe below, many iterations of testing changed the workout drastically as we learned what was more effective for the user.
For each piece of the application that we prototyped we tested it on users before moving up in fidelity on the prototype. Working on site with the users allows us easy access to them and so we do user testing at least twice a week. Testing our users is crucial to the success of our product and we have had several major pivots due to testing.
One particular example of this is the vocabulary workout I mentioned earlier. Our first several prototypes and tests were all about the usability of each individual activity in the workout. After several iterations and tweaks to the UI we felt pretty confident the workout with 4 activities learning 8 words was easy to use. However, after we had given the designs to our dev team and the app was built we tested the actual workout with real content and results were disheartening. Our vocabulary workout was way too hard (from a learning perspective) and the users couldn’t even finish it. Even though the UI was intuitive and easy to use we hadn’t tested to make sure that the workout actually helped the users learn the language which is the sole purpose of the application. After several of those tests we went back to the drawing board and redesigned the vocabulary workout to be simpler and use less words in a sitting. This dramatically improved the results of the workout.
For me, the UX process is very fluid and is not a clear stair step to success. There are a lot of moving pieces in an application and it often takes multiple attempts to find an acceptable solution to the problem. This makes “repeat” the most important step in the process for me. Throughout this project we are constantly researching, synthesizing our research, building prototypes, and testing to learn from them and improve them.
The Current Solution
Below is a set of screenshots for the current designs of the application.
There are two tabs in the application: learn and challenge. Learn is where all the content in the app is organized by level, lesson, and workout. Users find the content that they want to study and do workouts to learn various words, phrases, or other piece of the language they desire. For our high school users the content is locked down so that you unlock one lesson at a time as you complete the previous lesson. This allows for that strict path the high school students and teachers need. For the missionaries, all of the content is available at the beginning so that they can choose whatever content is most pertinent to them each day.
Once a user does a workout in the “learn” tab those words, phrases, grammar principle, or pronunciation content are added to the “challenge” tab where users can tap on challenge and based on algorithm are served random activities with varying content to help them solidify the content and review stuff that they’ve already learned. This feature is crucial in helping combat the “boring” aspect of the old application.
We also added a little “gamification” to challenge to help engage the users and make them want to keep coming back. Users have lives, points, and increase in level as they spend time in the app which rewards them by changing the background image of the app and taking them to a new location. We decided to use a travel theme for the app so that the users felt like they were traveling around the world in a hot air balloon as they leveled up in challenge.
To summarize, the problem we were trying to solve was getting the missionaries at the MTC use Embark more than TALL so that their language learning would improve.
We learned that the reason they weren’t using the application as much as they should was because:
- They were bored with TALL.
- They didn’t trust TALL because the design was old and outdated.
- They couldn’t review content they had already studied.
- There weren’t enough varied activities to keep them engaged. ‘
We solved these issues by updating the design language to be a more fun and inviting. We added a new challenge mode to the application so that missionaries could review content they had previously studied and experience the same content with new and varied activities. We added gamification to the application, so that they would be rewarded for their achievements and feel the desire to come back to the application every day.
UPDATE (February 19, 2019)
The app has since been released to the Google Play store and Apple App store. You can download and install them there. The designer who picked up the project after me has made some visual tweaks and improvements to the application.