Simbi — Improving Literacy Through Social Impact

Simbi is a peer-to-peer reading app that improves student literacy.

It allows students to read out loud and record books (which creates an audio-visual book) that another student across the world can listen to and follow along at their own pace.

The name Simbi comes from Symbiosis.

Symbiosis refers to close and long-term biological interactions between two biological organisms.

Simbi is everyone coming together to bring literacy forward, it is humanities power in progressing literacy.

Why literacy?

“Literacy has never been more necessary for development, it is key to communication and learning of all kinds and a fundamental condition of access to today’s knowledge societies. With socio-economic disparities increasing and global crises over food, water and energy, literacy is a survival tool in a fiercely competitive world. ” — UNESCO

Global Literacy Challenges

  • 793 Million adults around the world are illiterate
  • 1 out of 4 of all people cannot read
  • 2 out of 3 of all illiterate people are female
  • The yearly drain of illiteracy on the global economy is an estimated $1.19 trillion
  • Illiterate people earn approximately 40% less than their literate peers
  • Children with literate mothers are 50% more likely to live past the age of 5

The Benefits of Literacy

  1. Less Poverty → If all the children globally learned to read, there would be 171 million fewer people in poverty
  2. Lower Early Mortality Rates → Japan, a country with the highest literacy rates (99%) has the lowest infant mortality rate (2 for every 1000 babies born)
  3. Stronger Economies → No country has achieved rapid economic growth without a rate of at least 40% adult literacy
  4. Community Involvement → Literacy program participants in the United States were more likely than non-participants to register to vote
  5. Improved Personal Well-being → In the U.K. 75% of literate people are happy with their lives compared to 50% of illiterate people

The Opportunity

I was one of the UX designers tasked with taking the current Simbi web app and redesigning it to improve its interface and user experience. We got to work closely with CEO Aaron Friedland to ensure that we met both business and user goals throughout this two and half week sprint.

Simbi Design Team

We were given previous data collected by CEO Aaron Friedland and his team. Thus we were able to use both research conducted by us and his team to make our final design decisions. I will further talk about the research that we conducted throughout these two and half weeks.

CC Analysis

We conducted a comparative analysis to understand the main features offered by competing companies.

We looked at inclusivity (parent/ teacher) , engagement (gamification), Reach (platforms) and Growth ( testing and progress). Khan Academy turned out to be the most well-known platform hitting all of these targets. Analyzing features offered by these companies was very useful as it gave us a rough idea of what could potentially be the entire scope of Simbi as a platform.

But, what exactly separates Simbi from the rest of these companies Its unique value proposition.

Unique Value Proposition

No other competitor gives students reason to read out loud.

The golden ticket here is that we are more likely to engage in reading, knowing that we could be helping out another person, on the other side of the world.

User Research


We conducted 7 in-depth interviews with teachers. These were some of the insights that we got from those interviews.


We sent out a survey targeted towards teachers to understand the challenges they face with teaching students how to read.

We asked about :

  • Teaching experience
  • Challenges while teaching with regards to reading
  • How they make reading fun and engaging
  • How they test for comprehension
  • How they feel about the assessment process / suggestions for improvement
  • Whether they use any platforms to help teach their students how to read

Although we only managed to attract 15 respondents in this 2 1/2 week sprint, roughly 65% of them have had over ten years experience in teaching.

Around 50% of our respondents neither loved nor hated the process. For those who had strong feelings about it, we wanted to know more. We asked our respondents what they liked, or disliked about the process.

What they liked about the assessment process :

  • “it drives progress within schools”
  • “Seeing students develop authentic, original insight into new thinking and growth”
  • “Students are held responsible for their learning”

What they disliked about the assessment process :

  • “I hate that it is standardized instead of project based”
  • “Student anxiety gets elevated”
  • “Time consuming”
  • “Hard to reach all students”

Opportunities for growth

Business goals

We decided to make our priority the teacher flow rather than the student flow as Simbi as a business is targeting teachers and educational institutions to expand their customer base.

To give some context, Simbi has a target to be implemented in 1000 classrooms in North America by 2019.


We identified two MVP features for this project.

  1. Reading while Listening (RWL)
  2. Recording

Feature Prioritization

We conducted an Affinity diagram to help us understand the features that needed to be implemented as well as helping us mold our persona.

Affinity Diagram

We also wanted Aaron to be involved in the process so we asked him to prioritize the features based on his mental model.

Simbi CEO, Aaron Friedland organizing features in Must Have / Nice to Have / Do Not Need categories

After conducting the session with Aaron and doing the affinity diagram from both our research results and those provided to us we were able to come up with the following feature list.

Reading while Listening (RWL) and Recording are our MVP features as the application would not work without them.

The dashboard is the main workspace, where a teacher will be able to have all the things they need, such as student progress, the assigned books etc in one place — customizable so that it is catered to each teacher’s needs.

Gamification is a very large component, yet we decided to only focus on a few things keeping in mind that we are focusing on the teacher flow with the business goals in mind. However, as a future consideration, this needs to be explored deeply in the student flow.

Nested User Groups is so that the teacher is able to create different student groups within classrooms and assign different books based on reading levels.

I will speak more in depth about the Nice-to-Have features in the Future Consideration section of this case study.

Two Perspectives

While designing, we made sure to keep the students in mind and to design in a way that student aspects could be implemented in the future.

This Venn Diagram represents the features that are required by both user groups, and those that would be specific to each.

Persona — Lucy Puffington

We then began to mold our persona through the research that we conducted.

This is Lucy Puffington. Lucy became a teacher in order to shape the next generation through teaching.

She wants to spend more time teaching and less time grading while also making learning and reading fun. Some of her frustrations are that she spends too much time on assessments and is not able to teach to the best of her abilities as her students have different learning levels.


An example of how Simbi could be used in the classroom by Lucy.

  1. Lucy asks the student to read, the student is struggling to read.
  2. The student reflects on his reading struggles
  3. Lucy suggests that the student try Simbi
  4. The student is more engaged in reading after using Simbi
  5. Lucy is very proud when awarding the student the “most improved reader” award
  6. The student is overjoyed with his achievement and wants to help others

Design studio

Design studio is a method to start rapid prototyping very efficiently. At this point we had our persona and research based data. We started by conducting 2 minute sketches for each of our main pages.

Design Studio Sketches

Each member then presented their sketching decisions to the team, we discussed the features and refined the sketches. After 5–6 rounds, we had a consensus to create our master design.

Landing page for Simbi

The current simbi platform is under The Walking School Bus Nonprofit. However as we spoke to Aaron, he wants to eventually separate the two. Therefore, as well as the redesign of the Simbi web app itself, we also designed a landing page. This page describes what Simbi is, its benefits, testimonials, a map of where it is implemented around the world, a video of Anderson Cooper awarding Aaron Friedland with The Next Einstein Competition Award (giving the program more validity), and multiple CTA buttons for people to Signup.

You can watch the video of Anderson Cooper describing Simbi here.

After conducting design studio, we drew out our paper prototype and began testing.

We initially tested 8 people with our paper prototype.

Nadia and I conducting user testing

Testing Iterations

Student progress / classroom page

Through testing we realized that teachers don’t necessarily have the time to click into every student page to check progress and want a quicker way to get that feedback. We decided to implement a colour coding system to quickly allow the user (teacher) to understand which student needs more attention. This colour coding system can be customized to the criteria that is most useful for the user.

LoFi vs MidFi

We also decided to change the name “Classrooms” to “Groups”. This is because a teacher can create multiple different groups within one ‘physical classroom’ and the naming system was causing confusion for our users during testing.

Library page / AB testing

The current simbi platform forces the user to decide whether they want to read or record initially, before they are taken to the books available. Through our redesign, we decided to create one library page with all the content available, and from there the user is able to decide what action they want to take. Our user (teacher) would be able to assign books (feature specific to teachers), save books, RWL or record a book.

We conducted 8 additional AB tests on top of our user testing to test the current Simbi version vs the redesigned version. 6 of the new users we tested preferred the redesigned version where you are able to pick the book first and the action later, rather than the other way around.

AB Testing

We modelled our library page after the Netflix model, where your most recent activity (ie. in-progress recordings) would show at the top under ‘Recent Activity’.

As well you are able to hover on a book to quickly get the different options for actions or you can click on a specific book and get a drop down of the different actions you could do: such as RWL, recording, assigning a book or saving a book for later.

LoFi vs MidFi

Reading while Listening (RWL) / Recording pages

LoFi vs MidFi (Recording) / LoFi vs MidFi (RWL) | System Preferences

Through testing we decided to add preference options for many aspects of the RWL / Recording experience — whether to display images (if the books have them), text highlighting options, text size options, accent narration options, page / chapter view options etc.

Site Map — Current vs Redesigned

The main difference between the current (left) and redesigned (right) site maps are :

  • Having the dashboard for the user to organize their workspace
  • Choosing an action (RWL or Record) once they’ve chosen a book in the library.
Current (left) / Redesigned (Right)

User Flow — Current vs Redesigned → Listening Route

Again the difference is reiterated in these user flows as well. The user now is able to choose a book in the library before deciding to read the book while listening (right).

Current (left) / Redesigned (Right)


Here is the link to the working prototype:

Benefits for persona

  1. Lucy can now keep track of her students’ status and progress using the platforms analytics.
  2. She can now spend more time teaching and less time grading.
  3. She can customize and assign books based on the student’s reading levels.

Future consideration

  1. Assignments → Incorporating Assignments in the teacher flow — a page solely dedicated to assignments would help teachers keep track of homework assigned as well as their completion status
  2. Assessment & Gamification → Quizzes in-between certain chapters to test for comprehension and retention & and for students to get achievement badges based on their completion (teachers could perhaps create custom badges)
  3. In-depth Student progress → should be able to see students history from previous years or previous classes to understand their learning curve
  4. Notifications for the teacher to be kept up to date in the assignments tab
  5. Multiple Login functions → Allow multiple administrators to sign into one group/ classroom (e.g. in case there is a teaching assistant for the group)
  6. Custom icons and illustrations → Creating a mascot for Simbi that better fits the symbiosis idea (the owl at the moment is a placeholder — you will see him in the prototype) & giving each student the ability to customize the Simbi mascot based on points / badges they earn (such as in Duolingo)

Thank you!

Aaron Friedland and the Simbi design team (us)!