User Research for Carnegie Learning: Don’t Forget to Do Your Homework!

Posted January 13, 2011

In the fall of 2009, Carnegie Learning, a leading publisher of innovative, research-based math curricula, approached ESI to help them create an engaging and appealing design for math software and textbooks for middle school students. We recently completed our work on this new product; it was officially announced by Carnegie Learning today. As a lead designer on the project, I wanted to share the user research we conducted to demonstrate how it fueled our creative process and helped us create an engaging learning experience.

Most students will likely tell you that math is not their favorite subject. (There are many reasons for this and hopefully STEM will help change this, but we won’t delve into that here). So, we set out to discover the things that middle school kids do like.

Our first stop was Warren Buckleitner’s Mediatech Foundation, a community technology center in New Jersey. We observed a small group of kids in our target age group and discovered many were engaged in online social environments like Our World, an online multiplayer game, and Gaia Online, a social networking site with forums, gaming and a virtual world. They liked interacting with other kids in the space and were motivated by customizable objects they can earn by playing games or performing tasks in the world. We also asked them about the popular site Club Penguin, which they found was too young. They preferred human characters in OurWorld and Gaia Online.

At the same time, we asked ESI staff to reach out to kids they know in the target group to ask an open-ended question…What do you and your friends like to do?

Key insights from these discussions informed the guiding principles for our design:

  • Kids are motivated by incremental rewards/achievements
  • They like to customize their environment
  • They look up to older kids and want to leave their younger past behind
  • They like to interact with other characters in a social setting
  • They like to draw and doodle

Fast forward many months and you can see how our initial research, along with more focused research and feedback during the design development phase, impacted the final design of the software and textbook in a video and screenshots.

  • Graphical elements for the software and textbook have a hand-drawn style. The hand-drawn visual in the textbook is a subtle invitation for kids to doodle in them. (These textbooks are like workbooks and students get to keep them)
  • Illustrated characters by Peter Arkle accompany students as they complete the year’s math curriculum; these characters resemble their peers in school.
  • Students can customize their experience by selecting three of their favorite characters.
  • Characters give students hints for solving problems and also ask questions ‘out loud’ to aid students in thinking about the math principles in a larger context.
  • Students earn badges and rewards for completing math problems.
  • Students can visually customize certain elements of the software environment.

By listening, empathizing and getting direct feedback from kids, we were able to create a cool new interface that will keep more kids engaged and excited about learning math.

Even if you don’t have much time, you will always reap benefits by connecting with and listening to your intended audience.  Other helpful resources for user research and working with kids include:

Interviewing Kids by Tim McCoy

Ethnography in Industry: Methods overview By James Glasnapp

Design Research by Brenda Laurel

ESI Design

NBBJ’s New York experience design studio, ESI Design, transforms places into experiences that seamlessly weave the physical and digital worlds together.

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