Image source: participate.com

Learn without limits!

How we re-envisioned a product that increased user acquisition by 43% and helped transform an organization to a user-centered mindset.

About the project

Participate, a professional development organization for teachers had just acquired a tech startup it needed to help them connect educators so that they can share knowledge and resources. Previously known as VIF, the company rebranded, adopting the Participate name and essentially became a software product company overnight. Now they needed to learn how to operate like one.

My role

  • Workshop facilitation
  • User research lead
  • Interaction design lead
  • Research & design team leadership

The goals

The goals were multifaceted. On a product level, the goal was to reimagine the website with a goal to increase user acquisition. On an organizational level, the goal was to shift how the organization operates to support digital product development and maintenance. A third objective was to build a UX practice by transitioning and up-skilling their current talent to lead UX and user research.

The challenges

The two significant challenges were a lack of user research and product strategy alignment between various stakeholders within the company and the product development team. Customer-centric products are only successful when the customer needs directly lead the design, yet features were driven by salespeople and management who have a significant understanding of their customers but not in a way that translates into clearly articulated development requirements. Those folks, although they hold a breath of knowledge as SME’s (subject matter experts), do not adequately explain the needs and goals of their customers — in a way that creates a deep understanding of the problem space while building empathy with the product teams. The result was an ineffective platform that struggled with user acquisition and engagement.

Process overview

To align all the disciplines within Participate required to make a great product happen (marketing, instructional design, sales, and research) I recommended immersive discovery before we started writing stories for design and development. The first step was planning and facilitating a two-day product discovery workshop, to identify the user, business and product goals that would align the company on the new redesigned website direction. To identify and define our target users and to share a deep understanding of their behavior and needs we preceded the workshop with a qualitative user research sprint. That allowed us to have informed discussions during the user-specific sessions of the workshop. We created and launched a new responsive web platform with agile design and development sprints following the discovery work.

User research

We started by recruiting and interviewing 15 existing platform users. We wanted to learn about how they go about professional development. We learned what they wish the current platform would be doing better and what would make their experience to collaborate with same subject teachers better.

The goal was to learn how to make the current platform better than the twitter chat (#edchat) experience. The meta-goal was to create something valuable and enticing enough that would pull users away from Twitter and into Participate where the users would become exposed to the other amazing professional development features participate had to offer. The initial assumption was to replicate twitter chats and market the product better which we challenged. We know that there was more to it and we went on a hunt to find out what.

Sprint plan:

Day 1 sprint planning, day 2 script writing and testing environment, days 3 — 6, conducting 4 — 5 interviews per day, days 7 — 8 synthesis and analysis, day 9 creating personas, day 10 crafting recommendations and sharing with the team.

Tools used:

  • Zoom for remote moderated testing and interviews
  • Google Sheets to transcribe notes and to synthesize interviews
  • Keynote to share findings
  • The current version of the live site and chats feature

User research results:

  • Primary and secondary personas
  • Mental model with pain points, tools, wishes, and problem areas.
  • High-level metrics that we broke specific KPIs
“I have never done research before and I left confident in being able to design research, construct strategy and interview guide, recruit participants and conduct interviews in a thoughtful way (non leading and non solutioning headspace) then synthesizing data across many conversations.”
— Lauren Hanford, Head of User Experience Design at Participate

Product discovery workshop

It’s great when you know what needs to change, but to make it happen, you need everyone else to contribute their knowledge, perspectives and agree on moving forward. A two day Product Strategy Workshop allowed us to understand the problem space, create shared understanding, and align on goals so we could all work together toward the same objectives.

“The Product Strategy Workshop just shortened the space between developers and end users. It started to build empathy, and it gave the developers a much bigger feeling of ownership. It also and created visibility and credibility for the new UX process.”
— Lauren Hanford, Head of User Experience Design at Participate

Interaction design

Now that we had a clear understanding of the user’s needs, problem space, constraints and goals we needed to achieve we started agile design and development. Our team consisted of two product designers, five developers, one project strategist, and a product owner.

We streamlined the overall chat feature. Then we rethought how chats were archived and retrieved, coming up with new search functionality and a new way to view chat histories.

Tools used:

  • Zoom and Slack for remote collaboration
  • SketchApp for wire-framing
  • InVision App for prototyping
  • Trello for project managment
Chats and archive feature wireframes concept A.
Chats and archive feature concept B.
Discover chats wireframes.

User interface design

Since a rebrand was in progress — there were no established brand standards to work from hence the web redesign work influenced brand evolution through the work on the platform.

Style tile option A
Style tile option B
Style tile option C

Once the visual design direction was established, we applied the new style to the UI. For the remainder of the sprints, we designed features in high fidelity since we had all of the components figured out.

Discovery chats, desktop and mobile screens

Chats desktop, tablet and mobile screens.

Results and outcomes

For the product, we worked with Participate’s research and development team to add quantitative metrics via Segment iO events tool that connects code to outputs with MixPanel and Google Analytics.

For the team, we created two surveys — one for the beginning of the project and one at the end — that quizzed the product team on how happy and effective they felt.

Organizational impact

  • New features and product enhancements are guided by user research and product planning, instead of being dictated exclusively by management and the sales team
  • Trained and upskilled research team and then creative director to effectively run the discovery and product design process moving forward
  • 36% reduction in hours spent reworking features and tickets
  • 45% increase in satisfaction with UX and 20% increase in confidence that they were building something valuable

Product impact

  • Increase in monthly active users by 43%
  • New user sign ups increased 58% over the previous version
  • Initial bump in sign ups of 185% with 58% sustained increase
  • 20% increase in interactions of key features
We learned how to apply a repeatable process of research and design sprints along with how to make inclusive business decisions. How to walk through work with developers and advocate for the users.
— Lauren, Director of UX


This project was also covered in the following web articles: Participate Company Blog, Table XI Case Study, and Co-designer Portfolio.