Mobile app proposal for accessing UNIR’s Virtual Campus — Case study

Ricardo Sánchez Aliaga
14 min readApr 3, 2022

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Intro

The idea of this project was born as a result of a bad personal experience with the Virtual Campus from UNIR, a tool available to students taking a distance learning master’s degree at this university.

Frustration when accessing the Campus throughout the course was considerable, especially from the smartphone, where a bad experience truncated my desire to use this device.

This bad experience led me to think that maybe other users would be in the same situation as me.

I hypothesized that by applying a UCD (User-Centered Design) design process, it would be possible to design a significantly better mobile experience.

Problem statement

Why redesign the mobile experience?

The current solution resorts to responsive design, which adapts the desktop design to the shortened size of a smartphone. This leads to usability problems and a bad experience.

The responsive strategy overlooks a fundamental conditioning factor: the usage scenarios. Some tasks may be the same, but the context conditions the proposed solutions.

Other tasks may make a lot of sense on a desktop but none on mobile, and vice versa. Without user research, it is impossible to determine these issues.

Goals

Principal

To demonstrate that by applying UCD methodologies, it is possible to significantly improve the user experience when accessing the Virtual Campus from a smartphone.

Specific

  • Identify user needs through research and incorporate them into the project requirements.
  • Determine the most appropriate functionalities in a mobile context.
  • Validate that the proposal meets the project requirements.

Both students and teachers have access to the Virtual Campus, but the project focuses on students and leaves teachers out of scope due to time constraints.

Methodology

Broadly speaking, the project methodology can be summarized as follows:

  • User research:
    - Semi-structured interviews
    - Online survey
  • Analysis:
    - Coding and analysis of results
    - Determine project requirements
  • Ideation and creation:
    - Usage scenarios and personas
    - Design of proposals and prototypes
  • Proposal validation
Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

Research techniques

Interviews

The semi-structured interview is a generative technique based on conversation. It allows obtaining insights that would not emerge with quantitative methods, such as the survey.

For each objective, a topic is raised, and in turn, for each topic questions are defined with which to dive in. Those questions anticipate the possible paths the conversation might take.

Goals

  • Determine user personas.
  • Determine usage contexts, frequency, and satisfaction level with the computer version.
  • Determine usage contexts, frequency, and satisfaction level with the mobile version.
  • Determine how students organize and plan work.
  • Determine how they communicate with other students and with teachers.

Participants

  • University distance learners during the last year, to ensure that their experience with the Virtual Campus remains current.
  • I conducted 6 interviews with users until a point in which information obtained became redundant.

Survey

The survey is a quantitative technique with generally more closed-ended questions. It allows obtaining a statistical validity of its results by reaching larger user samples.

Goals

  • Triangulate the data obtained in the interview to achieve statistical representativeness to validate the findings.

Findings

Once I completed the research process and analyzed the information, I was able to validate some initial hypotheses and discover unexpected new ones.

User personas

The user personas identified during the investigation are described below.

Photo by Vlad Hilitanu on Unsplash

Professional UX designer:

  • Goals: To substantiate their practical experience and obtain a degree that validates their expertise.
  • Usage context: At home and in free time at the office.
  • Needs:
    - Professional networking
    - Informal use context (breaking their office routine)
    - They have previous knowledge and less time. They are more demanding with the contents.
  • Pain points:
    - They resort to external tools to fill the gaps of the Virtual Campus (Trello, Notion).
    - There are no good communication channels with classmates and teachers.
    - They want to use the smartphone more but turn to the computer due to poor user experience.

Change of career path:

  • Goals: They come from a range of professional sectors. They want to become UX designers.
  • Usage context: At home and in free time at the office.
  • Needs:
    - Online mode. Easier to combine with their work.
    - Closer contact with teachers.
    - Complementary materials to deepen the subject.
    - Less work planning, they use the Virtual Campus agenda frequently.
  • Pain points:
    - They want to prepare live virtual classes in advance, but the agenda barely provides information on each event.
    - The reading of lesson plans is very fragmented. They lose focus.
    - They seek contact and a sense of belonging, but the available channels are inadequate and not private.
    - Initial overwhelming experience due to information and content overload.

Users without a specific professional goal:

  • They have higher or university studies, but cannot find their vocation.
  • Goals: They seek to find out if the profession of UX designer suits them.
  • Usage context: At home, during free time at the office, commuting.
  • Needs:
    - Their motivation is lower, they want lighter and multimedia content.
    - Very little planning: they use the Agenda on a daily basis and finish work at the last minute.
    - They do not ask questions, they need more proactive notifications.
  • Paint points:
    - They consult each subject to find out about upcoming events, unaware that there is a centralized view.
    - They want to take advantage of commuting, but usability is poor, and there are connection interruptions.
    - They lose important messages among the bloat of irrelevant notifications.

Usage contexts

Usage contexts described by users during interviews:

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

🏢 At the office

  • They combine their work and their master’s degree, so they have little time. They take advantage of downtime and lunchtime.
  • They review notifications and plan their work on weekends.
  • Some follow live classes while working, with their attention divided.

🚎 On public transport

  • Only when urgency arises, such as answering messages or attending a live class.
  • They face issues like ambient noise, poor UX, or connection drops.
  • They are interested in consuming content and doing tests, but they give up due to the bad experience.
  • Attention spans are short and fragmented. They need to be able to pick up where they left off on tasks and content.

🏠 At home

  • To complete assignments and follow live classes, they use a computer at a more comfortable desk.
  • For simple tasks and information consumption, they would want mobile access, to be able to be on the sofa or in bed, since they spend their whole day on the computer.

💪 At the gym

  • While spending a long time on the stationary bike or similar.
  • A user recorded the classes manually to reproduce them there, fearing there could be excessive data consumption and connection drops.

General insights

  • There is great dissatisfaction with the virtual campus, to the point that many users avoid it.
  • Excitement and high expectations at the beginning of the course are confronted by a poor onboarding experience.

💬 Communication

  • Communication with peers and teachers is an emotional experience. Students seek a sense of belonging.
  • Virtual Campus communication tools are inefficient, there is a lack of fluidity, immediacy, privacy and an excess of formality. Many students communicate in WhatsApp groups.

🧭 Navigation

  • Overall, navigation is not very fluid and requires too many clicks.

🗓 Work planning

  • The most organized users need a unified view of their pending work. They turn to external tools, such as Trello or Notion.
  • Finishing a task is a satisfying experience that reduces stress. Other third-party apps offer a greater sense of progress.
  • They also use third-party calendars to keep track of pending work.
  • There is an expressed desire to be able to manage these issues directly from the Virtual Campus.

Other insights regarding specific sections and features are detailed, together with the proposed solutions, in the proposal description.

Project requirements

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

As a result of the research carried out, the following requirements for the project were determined:

  • Provide a proactive notification system.
  • Encourage communication with teachers and students from the app.
  • Information architecture that allows an agile and fluid navigation.
  • Reduce the available sections and functionalities to those that make sense in a mobile context.
  • Improve the capabilities of the calendar, streamlining access to a comprehensive view of the master’s degree.

Proposal

Information architecture

Issues:

  • The information architecture (Subject → Sections) does not correspond to the mental model of the users (Sections → Subjects).
  • Instead of having the subjects as the first level of hierarchy and then their sections (syllabi, calendar, grades, etc), users expect to have those actions at a first level and from there filter by subject.
  • Many of the sections and contents are never used. They describe the excess of sections and content as “overwhelming”.

Proposed solutions:

  • Reverse the current order of the information. First sections, then subjects.
  • 11 necessary sections are determined, an excessive number for the main navigation. 5 main categories are defined to adapt it to the app format, following the guidelines of Material Design.
  • The information architecture was validated by card sorting with users, using Optimal Workshop, a tool which also offers an estimate of the most optimal distribution.

The resulting information architecture is as follows:

  • Messages:
    - Announcement
    - Forum
    - Chat
  • Resources:
    - Subject syllabus
    - Classes
  • Agenda
  • Work:
    - Deliverable tasks
    - Exams
    - Tests
  • Settings:
    - Configuration
    - Profile

Agenda and calendar

Issues:

  • Need for more proactive events. Need for more context and information (What syllabus should I review before class?).
  • Navigation problems. Difficulty moving back and forth between calendar and event details.
  • Unknown features. Users are not aware that they can add new events, that they can consult the events of the same subject or the integration with third-party calendars.
  • Need for more customization. Users would like to complement subject events with their own content.

Proposed solutions:

  • Collapsible calendar. The view defaults to the current day and week, hiding the rest of the month to leave more space for the day’s events. At any time, you can toggle between showing the entire month or not.
  • Search and filtering option. Using the search engine, it is possible to quickly locate a known event or filter by event type (e.g., virtual class).
  • The option to add a new event is evident. Its location in the upper right corner makes it easy to find.
  • Event view. A chronological listing of all course events to ease prioritizing those tasks with a nearer deadline.
  • Additional information about the event. Added type and description of an event to enable due arrangements before the event’s start.
  • Reminder, add notes and attachments. Allow users to customize each event, deciding when they want to receive a reminder, adding notes, and attaching related files.
  • Agile movement by month. Allows a much greater range of motion when browsing between months.

Chat

Issues:

  • Lack of smoothness and agility. Preference for instant messaging, like many of their applications on their mobiles.
  • Lack of privacy. In the Virtual Campus, there is not enough privacy for queries that are considered sensitive.
  • WhatsApp preferred. The primary tool of interaction between students, due to its ubiquity, immediacy, privacy, and informality.
  • Difficulty sharing content. Faced with the difficulty of locating and sharing content from the Campus, many users turn to Whatsapp to find it.

Proposed solutions:

  • Channels and conversations:
    - Channel. Public conversation with a specific theme.
    - Conversation. Private conversation between 2 or more users.
  • Mobile access. The cell phone is always with us, right at our fingertips.
  • Similar interface. With a similar approach to Whatsapp, this feature looks familiar at first sight.
  • Instant chat. The instant chat format feels more informal than the forum section or email.
  • Built-in features. Incorporate useful functionalities for users, such as taking photos or sharing files, to encourage their use.
  • Integration with the contents of the master’s degree. In addition to files in the device, it is also possible to locate and share any content of the master directly from the chat.

Forum

Forums are less likely to be used as frequently as chat, so perhaps it could be ruled out. However, I finally decided to bring it into the proposal because of the different nature of communication in both:

  • Chat: More immediate communication, less structured and more chaotic content, more difficult to locate old content.
  • Forum: Greater investment of time, more structured content, more easy to locate old content.

Issues:

  • Excessive email notifications. Users describe how their inboxes become bloated when subscribing to a forum thread.
  • Repeated messages of little value. They resent receiving an email for every new post, many of which are of no value (e.g., “Me too”, “I agree”).

Proposed solutions:

  • Message rating system. Users can show their agreement or conformity with others’ messages with an action similar to Facebook likes, avoiding writing messages of little value.
  • Customize message subscription. Users can choose to be alerted only when the teacher responds, probably with the answer to their questions.

Tests

Issues:

  • Usability issues. Users describe problems resulting from an improvable adaptation of the test interface to the mobile format.
  • Slow and cumbersome navigation. Simply consulting a test result is not immediate and takes several clicks.

Proposed solutions:

  • Mobile-friendly design. Simple interface with essential elements, finger-friendly buttons, and critical actions within thumb reach when operating the smartphone with one hand.
  • Results and extra navigation options. Users know the outcome as soon as they complete the last question. They can retry the test from the results screen or go to the next one.

Deliverable tasks

Issues:

  • Need for a sense of progress. Completing a task causes satisfaction and reduces stress. The sense of progress helps students stay motivated.
  • Forgetting to deliver a task. As this is a very negative experience, the system needs to be as proactive as possible to avoid it.
  • When users have doubts about task details, consulting a teacher is tedious.

Proposed solutions:

  • Progress indicators. They convey a sense of progress and provide an overview of current progress at a glance.
  • Alerts on navigation pages. Reminders of upcoming deadlines.
If the teacher is not available, users are invited to go to the forums to ask their question.
  • Simplifying asking questions with a direct link to chat with the teacher. Teachers can manage their availability.

Exams

Issues:

  • Checking test scores. One of the few tasks that users perform from their smartphones. It requires constantly checking the main page of the Virtual Campus.

Proposed solutions:

  • Push notification alerts you as soon as an exam result is published.
  • Easy access to requesting an exam review eases this action, given the short time frame in which it is available (48 hours).

Subject syllabus

Issues:

These issues refer to reading the topics directly from the Virtual Campus.

  • Lack of reading fluency. Text fragmentation, with frequent interruptions to move to the next page. Breaks with their focus state.
  • Lack of a bookmark function. It is not possible to save the last page and resume reading later.
  • Lack of additional tools. The inability to underline or take notes makes it more challenging to use this resource to study.

Proposed solutions:

  • Blog style format. Uninterrupted reading of the syllabus contents.
  • Keep reading progress. Reading progress is always indicated and saved, allowing you to resume reading from that point.
  • Notes and highlight function. Some users use external tools for these features.
  • Index with syllabus sections. It allows an agile consultation of its contents without having to search manually.

Virtual live classes

Issues:

  • Enhance classroom interaction. Users highly value interaction capabilities in the classroom, but situations such as answering a teacher’s question are often very chaotic.
  • They forget to attend class by mistake. Many users forgot to attend a class because they did not have a reminder.
  • Interest in mobile access. Especially to play recordings of classes and if a live class occurs while being out of home.
  • Poor connection and data consumption. Away from home, users resort to manual recordings to avoid connection drops and excessive data consumption.

Proposed solutions:

  • Push notification and notice in the section. Receive a notification on your cell phone minutes before a class starts and notice highlighted in the virtual class section of the app.
  • A tailored experience for smartphones. Adjusting the existing features to these devices features for a greater user experience.
  • Offline mode. Option to download the classes to the smartphone storage and play them without using the data plan.
  • In-app survey system. It allows students to answer the teacher’s questions in an orderly manner and has a gamification component that makes it more appealing.

Validation

This stage’s goal is to evaluate the usability of the proposed solutions.

Participants try to solve a series of proposed tasks framed in usage scenarios described by the users during the research.

The tests were carried out using Maze, which allows unmoderated usability testing. The primary reason for choosing this modality was the near deadline.

These tests are less qualitative than their moderated version because observation and direct interaction with the user are lost. In return, we get interesting metrics, like heatmaps, bounce rate, resolution time, etc.

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, 5 participants are enough to find 85% of the most critical usability problems in a moderated usability test.

In this case, being a more quantitative format, I needed to test with a larger sample. By not having to moderate the sessions, I was able to test with 35 participants.

Results

The main metric to determine the test success is the rate of tasks completed:

Participants described several conditioning factors that could have affected test results:

  • Technical. Some participants performing the test in Maze through smartphones reported having issues completing tasks.
  • Human. Participants’ commitment is not the same as in moderated sessions. Some of them stated difficulties understanding some descriptions.

The problems occurred mainly in a couple of tasks, which significantly lowered the percentage of successfully completed tasks.

However, in other tasks, all metrics remained at very positive ratios, clearly implying that they were easy to solve.

Maze is a convenient tool for discovering interaction proposals that work well. Yet, it does not provide enough qualitative context when there are problems.

The following steps in research would be conducting moderated usability tests, focusing only on poorly performing or inconclusive tasks.

Conclusions

The project demonstrates that user research is essential in any UX design process.

When accessing the same platform from different devices, it is not always possible to extrapolate the proposed solution.

The context significantly conditions the user’s needs, and it is essential to investigate and understand these nuances to deliver a satisfactory user experience.

The nature of UCD is iterative. The proposal’s scope is limited to a first iteration to lay the groundwork for the project, but it is not enough.

Future iterations could pick up the baton and continue the process where this project leaves off.

This article outlines my final work for the official master’s degree in UX at Universidad Internacional de La Rioja (UNIR).

The project received an excellent rating and therefore was added to the university’s digital repository. The whole project can be checked here (in Spanish).

The original Figma design file can be found here.

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