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Centering the "at-risk" student in design

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Tools used: Miro, Airtable, Sketch, InVision

Inspirations: Various health and workout apps, DarkSky, and Slack


Many American students struggle in school due to poverty, parental incarceration, mental health issues, or other structural and systemic issues.  Their support networks face an uphill battle to empower these students to succeed. While technology is not a magical solution, the right software can fit into the problem space, allowing for teachers, counselors, and parents/guardians to do the work they must do to guide, mentor, and help the students improve their academic work, learn positive strategies for school and life, and grow into adult life ready to face coming challenges. I developed Maestra with input from teachers, counselors, and parents to build a tool that gives succinct oversight into student progress and a digital platform for communication and collaboration.  

Problem Statement

Teachers, parents/guardians, counselors need one platform for notifications on student well-being, oversight on student plans and progress, and a way to collaborate and communicate.  All users stated a need for a straightforward application, as currently the information and communication are scattered across multiple, often difficult to navigate software platforms.


Over the course of two eight-week courses, I spoke to four teachers, four parents, and one guidance counselor/life coach in a high school. I developed two personas for the two primary user types: parents/guardians and teachers.

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Scope & Constraints

The desired scope is to develop a fully-fleshed out prototype by late next spring.​, allowing for multiple rounds of usability testing and further feedback from school staff, parents/guardians, and high school students over age 18. I will have to refine this as I keep moving forward, as the app has multiple areas of development, not all of which are fleshed out yet, and I have only worked on a mobile app version so far. 


The constraints are: 1) this is a one-woman design show, 2) COVID-19 has forced me to be creative with usability testing, and 3) the users I speak with have limited time and attention even when not in the middle of a pandemic. 

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Rough user flow for teacher user profile

Design Process

After deciding to focus on students with unmet needs in the education system, I had to identify the user flows (as above) and ideate.  I began with a mobile app, since earlier user interviews indicated this would be the preferred platform for parents, and possibly students as well - additionally, this was a challenge for myself, having never developed a mobile app before.

I sketched a set of screens for the overall app, as well as using a Crazy 8 sketch to ideate on setting thresholds and explore what indicators might exist for a student beginning to experience trouble

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Building off of the sketches, I began to create some rough wireframes in Sketch.

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When I began to build the prototype, I decided to try using InVision Studio, since I would be using the online testing tool with screen sharing for usability testing due to remote usability testing. 

For this portion of the testing, I had four teachers and one parent test the prototype.  . The three portions I focused on were the navigation for setting up a plan for a student, the overview page, and whether the interventions and indications I used in the prototype were realistic, and what others would be good to examine.

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Results from user testing​

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Based on the feedback from the usability testing, I updated the prototype.  I have not yet created all of the screens, but below is a selection of screens from the current version as of 12/15/2020.  For a full experience, visit the prototype site on InVision

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Fields like education are laden with expectations.  Creating design value in this space means that the designer must pay close attention to both the overarching but unstated messages from user research and to refocus on the successes students have rather than their failures.  The real art of design is taking ideas and transforming them into usability in a product or service.

01 Joy

This idea is expressed with urging an adult to "send congratulations" to a student who has passed a test. I need to fully flesh this feature out more (such as integrating it into the collaborative chat space).  But expressing gratitude and congratulations are basic ways to encourage a positive environment for learning and growth.

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02 Student-centered, student-first

Canvas, Blackboard, and other CMS software was designed originally for university students who are responsible for their own educational experience, and the user flows and navigation reflect that type of educational experience. The education of a K-12 student is the responsibility of their adult caregivers and teachers, who create a partnership for educating a child. Maestra's work flow is centered around the student to reflect that student-centered view of the educator and caregiver.

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03 Education is collaborative

Building on the student-centered approach, a successful education is one where everyone works together - caregiver, educators, students. One thing we have learned in 2020 is that digital collaboration is possible with the right tools.  All teachers I spoke to talked about the need for better communication tools with students and parents.  In addressing this core need, I hope to provide a piece of the tool that allows the human need for communication and understanding to be supported by the technology.

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Next Steps

Based on feedback from usability testing, my next steps should be to see if I can add an IEP-type plan to the app and ensure that it works.  Additionally, I should try to adapt the language somewhat to make it more in line with a the language of a guidance counselor. I need to flesh out additional student personas in the app to see where the design must be adapted to account for all more common scenarios with students, 

Additionally, based on three of the teachers' feedback, I will need to create a web-based prototype as well if I want to fully test the app in the way the teachers would use it. Finally, I would want to create a student user flow and screens as well to create a more complete prototype for all three user types.

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