Build an education platform. Make it smart. And do it quickly.
High level requirements
What we were asked to build.
An e-commerce platform for institutions offering any type of curriculum, from stand-alone modules to degrees.
A dashboard and suite of tools for students and coaches to check and monitor progress and performance.
A blockchain-powered transcript for students to securely own and share accomplishments.
A LITTLE Background
UT System created the Institute for Transformational Learning (ITL) to develop technology and curriculum to modernize and improve the experience of gaining an education.
ITL chose to build an education platform on a custom Salesforce backend to allow for robust data interpretation, marketing potential, and ease of integration to existing systems. We worked with a team from Salesforce to develop all parts of the platform. Prior to partnering with Salesforce, we worked with Big Tomorrow to identify student personas and map the student lifecycle.
As Creative Director and designer, I worked in partnership with Salesforce Design and their development teams, as well as with Big Tomorrow. Working with both teams was a privilege that I'm grateful for. I continue to draw inspiration from the work we did together.
Building a marketplace
The marketplace, explored here, was one of three primary components of the project.
Research and Planning
We had a plan for how the platform's components would integrate within its complex ecosystem. However, a series of workshops and sessions were needed to understand how the individual parts would function. We identified some high-level requirements for the marketplace.
- Allow for many different institutions to easily host and manage their catalog of courses for purchase
- Allow for institutions to show off their brand
- Allow for students to browse and purchase courses, certificates and degrees
- Offer custom recommendations for next steps
- Breakdown curriculum to the smallest unit of measure in order to reassemble pieces into new offerings.
- Evaluate a student's previous experience and offer a selection of courses to speed them to a new degree or certificate
Big huge questions
- How would we get all of these institutions to work together?
- Would competing institutions offer their content in this shared, democratized space?
- Do they even want to offer their courses online?
- Will we have enough courses?
- What's not working with what they have now?
These questions don't even get into the student experience. However, the development team was ready to begin, and so would have to discover the answers as we went along.
Concept work quickly developed into mid-fidelty mockups for user testing
An emphasis on the differentiators
Focus was placed on developing for the ideal requirements, namely, the concierge, or compass, that would learn about a student's needs and guide them to the best option. We experimented with a few approaches that revolved around determined best fit through convergence. Students selected a general area of interest and questions would guide them to purchase suggestions.
Meanwhile, we were still struggling to answer the Big Huge Questions. For example, the concierge function wouldn't work if we didn't have a breadth of content to offer for the variety of student interests.
We conducted many rounds of testing with students through interviews, usability tests, and card sorting of priorities.
A few of the insights we discovered through testing:
- Students are attracted to the speed and promise of bootcamp-style education, but value, above all, institutional credibility.
- Students wanted to search and browse the catalog more than they wanted a concierge-like experience.
- Students want to know all the steps in a learning pathway and where they might enter into that pathway.
- Students care about the ROI of offerings and the salary of the career their education leads to.
Research helped to realign the direction of our design to the most basic requirements for the marketplace.
Refining back to basics
Refining prototypes based on student feedback
Over the next few rounds of revision, we returned to the basic set of requirements: a catalog of courses for purchase. The concierge feature became less pronounced as refinement continued and we focused on accommodating the tested needs.
Still, critical questions remained unanswerable:
- Will we have enough courses ready to make this a marketplace?
- Will we have the variety of courses to make the effort that went into filtering and search worthwhile. (What's the point of search if everything can be displayed on one page?)
Shifting the strategy
These, and other questions, made us nervous. We knew that the marketplace needed to more closely align to the pace of other developments (namely the onboarding of partners and their catalogs of courses, which were a significant ways off). The design team proposed a shift in product strategy: Instead of a single marketplace, we could develop a marketplace builder. In other words, we would provide institutions with a robust tool for launching their own catalogs. Schools could easily apply their branding, while the ease and robustness of the Salesforce backend meant this catalog-builder was more than a typical e-commerce CMS.
The Marketplace MVP
Getting to an MVP of the marketplace meant reprioritizing the features that everyone was most excited about. Its design and development was a lesson in staying creative, flexible, and resilient. A white-label marketplace may not have been the aspiration, but it was the product that ultimately found a market.
Development continues with UT Austin.