Engineering a Product from Scratch

Michaela Leary
7 min readJun 16, 2022


A UX case study in guiding students out of ‘the lecture halls of theory’ into real life industry

A bit of context…

With a shift in recent years to more remote learning, there is a growing demand for platforms that help with remote management. The School of Systems Engineering reached out to General Assembly students to build such a platform for them.

Who are the School of Systems Engineering (SOSE)?

SOSE educates students and recent graduates in systems engineering ways of working. A new branch of SOSE has recently been developed to connect final year STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering & Mathmatics) students with real life industry projects.

But what is Systems Engineering?

Systems engineering is a field of engineering and engineering management that focuses on how to design, integrate, and manage complex systems.

How do you apply Systems Engineering to projects?

Well, SOSE have developed The Project Roadmap…….

This framework uses Systems Engineering principles to guide students through their 10 week project.

The Brief

For this client project, my team formed of fellow General Assembly design course students were tasked with:

Designing a web-based tool the stakeholders can use to collaborate on research projects, with a focus on embedding learning into the system.

The Stakeholders & their problem

So who is using this platform and how can it help with projects?

Meet the stakeholders and their problems:

My Role

During this 3 week sprint I facilitated competitive and comparative analysis, user research, and the synthesising of research through to delivering the product.

The Approach

Phase 1: Discover

Competitive & Comparative Analyisis

As a new platform, it became important to know where it would sit and what would make it stand out from the crowd.

When reviewing competitors, we looked at other services that brought together students with projects in industry:

  • Crowdhelix’s ‘Helixes’, consisting of managers, organisations and projects made the process of locating a project a lot more streamlined.
  • Talento’s multi-functional platform for applying, reviewing progress and deliverables and communicating unified the process as well being more engaging due to gamification.

However it was clear that the Systems Engineering framework was SOSE’s USP (unique selling point).

It also became important to explore how comparators incorporated a variety of functions into one platform:

Platforms of note were E Student Tracker which offered flexible content creation which automatically generates reports based on student feedback. Also Storium Edu (a collaborative childrens platform) where users create content cards and weave them into their own narrative which is a creative way to incorporate collaborative elements onto a platform.

User Interviews

As this is a niche product we dove into interviewing the various stakeholders: 4 students, 2 supervisors and 2 academics.

Common themes to emerge across the interviews, highlighted a need for the following:

‘The Students, they’re who it’s for’ exclaimed a supervisor.

If supervisors didn’t want to repeat themselves, academics wanted evidence of better work outputs and SOSE wanted to take students out of the ‘Lecture Halls of Theory’ and into industry, focussing on the students would be key to facilitating all these requirements.

Phase 2: Define

But what does this student look like?

We collated the data into a persona who would become the humanised figure on whom to build our ideas.

Meet Terry…

‘As a team, sometimes we felt off track because of one or two people in our group’

From our interviews it seemed natural organisers or leaders emerged from student groups, we honed in on the prime problem we could address for Terry the Team Leader:

Terry needs a way to effectively collaborate with his team so that he can ensure he is on track and can meet deadlines efficiently.

By addressing Terry’s need to collaborate we could best address the main themes emerging from our research; communication, collaboration, organisation and supervision.

Phase 3: Develop

So we had Terry and we knew he had a problem to be addressed, now it was time to conduct a design studio and develop solutions to address this.

Conducting a design studio with the client, we came up with the following sketches and from these sketches we drew out important platform elements:

As there were many elements, information architecture enabled us to map out the flow of the platform from Terry’s perspective:

IA: Roadmap path highlighted

As the brief was to focus on embedding learning into the system, it made sense to build out the pages that focussed on the systems engineering roadmap.

Within the week by week framework we added features focussing on Collaboration in order to address Terry’s problem.

The team leader could create a task for the group, review group tasks or their own actions for that week.

A quick note on branding…

As a separate entity from SOSE, this platform also required a new name. I introduce you to V-Labs:

Based on the V-Lifecycle, a structural framework used in Systems Engineering, V-labs felt a fitting name to emphasise SOSE’s unique selling point.

Testing and Iteration

To test the intuitiveness and flow of our collaboration section, we used Maze testing software on 17 testers who tried to complete assignments.

A lesson in visual hierarchy…

When making the pages hi-fidelity, we distinguished team leader sections from other users using layout and colour as our testing highlighted confusion in this area. For example, users were asked to contact Lucy but were inclined to select several buttons on the page.

We also then tested in-person on other users and some key areas for amendment emerged:

Considering UX Copy

Tasks & Actions was replaced with Team Goals & My Actions to distinguish further between individual and team as one user advised “I’m not sure what the difference is between a Task and an Action”.

Incorporating Signalling

Feedback features were also added as users hadn’t realised they’d performed an action, in this instance a finish button and icon were added at the end of the introductory tutorial as one user advised they “didn’t realise the tutorial section was finished”

Phase 4: Deliver

Take a look at the final collaborative section we created:

On this sprint we were able to create a tool that addressed the brief’s requirement to collaborate. Also, by utilising the systems engineering roadmap and embedding it into the system, we were not only able to address the brief, but emphasise the companies unique selling point.

Upon presenting the results of our sprint we conducted a debrief with the client where questions were raised around the incorporation of a leader role into the system which we evidenced by the research findings. Our client advised he was ‘throughly impressed’ by the results, so overall I feel this sprint was a success.

Next Steps

As a multi-functional platform, there are many elements to address moving forward such as:

  • Tackling the the other elements on the information architecture, specifically the Feedback, Resources, Chat and Calendar pages
  • Iterate and test upon inclusion of a leader role into the collaborative system to ensure functions effectively in practive, as well as test the other pages once developed to ensure they intuitively work with the flow we have created.

Future Steps

  • As the scheme is still a pilot scheme, conducting ongoing research and using this data to iterate upon the platform is a must to ensure the platform develops with its users.
  • Other steps include: understanding and building out how the platform would look from the other stakeholders perspectives

Conclusion & Key Learnings:

I found the experience of having to build out a multi-functional platform from scratch a big learning curve. It really made me appreciate the importance of considering information architecture and identifying and stratifying elements in terms of importance to build and develop upon.