Easy to Use: The Design of Knewton alta

The what, why, and how behind alta’s ease of use, and why focusing on user experience is a differentiator for Knewton.

Michael Mancuso
Jan 29, 2018 · 9 min read

The mission of the Knewton UX Team is to represent our user’s interests in the product experience. We do this in a few ways: 1) by listening to and observing our users to better know them and provide solutions to their problems, 2) by providing them a high-quality experience that is as delightful to use as it is effective, and 3) to differentiate our products from the competition. By nature, our processes integrate with every corner of the business as we attempt to design our workflows and experiences to achieve the best results. We want to eliminate bad design.

Better Design

“Bad” design can lead to enormous waste of time and resources and results in lost leads. Be it a technology stack, CRM flow or user experience, poor design choices can all lead to lost opportunity and leave your product at a competitive disadvantage. It might even lead to embarrassingly dangerous errors like, say mistakenly sending out an inbound nuclear missile warning to an entire state!

That’s why Knewton believes that the alta user experience and our business processes must be designed with ease of use and efficiency in mind. And, like many of you, I have observed in software product-focused organizations that these communications, support, management and metrics systems we duct-tape together and call a “business” are severely entropic — as new needs and goals emerge, new people and ideas cycle through the organization, adding to the complexity.

Staying focused on identifying and solving real user problems with a design thinking mindset will help give your product a competitive advantage.

Great product experiences are rarely born of a chaotic set of goals and business processes. Staying focused on identifying and solving real user problems with a design thinking mindset will help give your product a competitive advantage. Knewton has made a real investment in user experience and research because we understand the advantage these capabilities bring, especially as a differentiator in education.

Only a focused student can effectively learn, and student performance insight is perhaps one of the most important components of effective teaching through software. Both will remain elusive without a carefully considered UX.

Simple is Hard

No technology company has time to continually take a step back and reflect on their product experience, and then redesign each time new features are added. It’s easier and faster to bolt on features without considering how they impact the usability and perception of a product for users.

At Knewton, in creating alta we’ve asked ourselves, how can we take all these disparate problems and needs and boil them down into a simple product experience that will scale to accommodate our roadmap of the next 24–36 months, all while the plane is flying? How do we create a scalable, elegant design system that will help us be more efficient as a product team?

You can see how hard it is to deliver a quality UX simply by looking at our competitors and other entrants in EdTech. Most are afflicted with a bad case of featuritis.

You can see how hard it is to deliver a quality UX simply by looking at our competitors and other entrants in EdTech. Most are afflicted with a bad case of featuritis. By contrast, alta’s ease of use is a differentiator. Instructors and students can see that user experience is important to Knewton and naturally gravitate toward an experience that is content-forward, intuitive, calming, focused and responsive.

There are a few key ways we’ve designed the alta experience to build trust with educators and students.

Focus on the Fundamentals

Why will a higher education instructor choose alta over other options already in the marketplace? We start with the fundamental elements that create the conditions for ease of use.

Consistent Navigation and Context

Our users should always know where they are while using alta, and what they should do next. Most good UX designers will tell you that there should be one main purpose per screen, accessible with a clear call to action. In alta, we’ve reduced visual clutter, and replaced it with more structure to prioritize focus.

Done right, a user interface will essentially disappear for users — they won’t be thinking about how to use it, or spending precious time interpreting choices.

This includes a consistent, scalable navigation, which is critical infrastructure for the usability of any piece of software. Done right, a user interface will essentially disappear for users — they won’t be thinking about how to use it, or spending precious time interpreting choices.

But clear navigation is only part of a successful user experience. Since alta is a adaptive learning technology with assignments that can be of variable length, context is the key to a more relaxed, focused student.

We make sure a students options are always accessible and they know their current level of mastery, with persistent access to a prominent progress bar and mastery view. Similar enhancements that make it easy for instructors to track student mastery and easily aid struggling students are on the way.

Clean User Interface

We’re making alta the most usable, legible, and accessible personal learning experience. For students, a responsive user interface adapts to their web device so they can work how and when they like. We’re developing our alta Design System based on Google’s Material Design, not older bootstrap-like frameworks used by our competitors. That means our experience is more modern and mobile-friendly. alta feels more like other native and web apps students and instructors are accustomed to using in their personal lives.

Less Friction

In user experience, friction is defined as interactions that inhibit people from intuitively and painlessly achieving their goals within a digital interface. Friction is a major problem because it leads to bouncing, reduces conversions, and frustrates would-be customers to the point of abandoning their tasks. — Victoria Young, Telepathy

In alta, we’ve focused on enhancing interactions such as our onboarding flow or when a user encounters an empty state, so that a first time a user understands how to proceed without having to investigate. We’ve revamped our course and assignment cover components to feature key information at the top of the screen, such as status and estimated work remaining and completed, as well as making our calls to action more prominent and informative.

Building a User-Centered Process

Some ways UX design and research help the alta user experience resonate with instructors and students, and deliver real results.

Identify Real Problems

Our sales, marketing and product teams all interact with our users. In fact, we’ve built this as a requirement into our business processes. We all work together to make sure we are coordinating methodically in filtering out the noise, identifying real user problems and addressing them in priority order.

Solving real problems means sometimes going beyond what your users are saying to divine what they actually mean. The result is that alta feels almost like magic to our instructors in higher education, because we’ve succeeded in creating a product more powerful and easier to use than anyone else can due to the baggage and their legacy complexity.

UX Research

The product team is investing in User Experience Research and collaborating with our entire commercial organization. Research in UX informs the decisions we make on how to implement features with real qualitative insights from real users and prospects.

Over the past 6 months we have conducted numerous focus groups and individual research sessions, focused mainly on Grading and Instructor Analytics. The insights from those sessions helped us to iterate quickly on an incredible upgrade to instructor analytics. Meanwhile, we’re planning many more product development focus groups in advance of key roadmap features, such as practice tests and coordinator reports.

An example of the kind of feedback our UX research and sales teams gather in the field. Navigation/UX is their number 2 concern, which speaking volumes about the current state of UX in educational software.

With help from our sales team, we’ll connect with our detractors, instructors considering adoption while awaiting specific features, and those curious about alta as an integral part of our workflow. In many cases, Product and UX communicating with potential users will turn skeptics into evangelists.

And there’s more to come in research, such as recurring feature refinement sessions on existing features, student and instructor surveys, market research, and building out our UX Research capabilities to gather more qualitative insights.

World Class Product UX Design Team

In addition to impressive talent in product, engineering, data science, and more, Knewton has built a high-quality product UX Design team comprised mostly of generalists with a high design pedigree and experience in education and a variety of other industries. We are here because we know that a strong UX gives alta a competitive advantage.

Activities such as UX labs and design sprints are baked into the earliest stages of feature discovery, and we continue to refine and try new techniques. We then cross-reference potential solutions with our design system, current product UX/UI, competitive landscape and most importantly, with our users, through research.

This way we help shape how our products are conceptualized and integrated with the overall experience rather than allowing the solution to be pre-ordained when it appears in the early documentation.

Make Choosing alta a No-Brainer

Here’s why all of these overlapping initiatives and processes make alta an easy choice.

Lower Switching Cost, and Less Training

An instructor’s time is valuable, so a more intuitive experience means less headaches when making the switch. alta is not complicated to configure or learn, for students or instructors, and requires far less documentation than our competitors. It just works — both with major LMS systems, and standalone. This quality is by design.

Happier Students = Happier Instructors

We know what students tell their instructors about their experiences with courseware. We uncover these stories in the field, through our research, focus groups, surveys and metrics. We know where and why these products fail to deliver, and of course seek to avoid those same weaknesses in our product. Through reducing student complaints and actually delivering a delightful experience and improved learning outcomes, we’ll achieve nothing short of making teaching and learning easier.

Powerful Insights for Instructors

We’re rolling out new and improved, research-backed analytic tools for instructors, enabling them to easily monitor student performance at each stage of their coursework. We make it easy to identify struggling students and provide granular views into learning objectives and activity. The product team made a real investment in iterating on these features, setting up a framework for an ever evolving set of performance analytics that instructors can rely on.

Transforming Higher Education with Knewton

We’ll continue to focus on creating a superior user experience as we gather new feedback and insights from instructors and students. Perhaps the most critical aspect of our effort to transform higher education through our digital products is the direct connection between our users and our product team, so if you’re an instructor or student interested in speaking with Knewton or participating in future research, please contact us.

Knerd

The Knewton Blog - Stories about technology, product and design at Knewton

Thanks to Marissa Cuevas, Christina Masturzo, and Jason Jordan.

Michael Mancuso

Written by

Director of User Experience Research & Design @ Knewton.

Knerd

Knerd

The Knewton Blog - Stories about technology, product and design at Knewton