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Discussion Board Improvements
@ Coursera

Overview

This is an evaluative research project that I conducted on Coursera. The objective of the evaluation is to understand heuristical issues when conducting certain tasks within the Coursera discussion board interface, which in turn informs the problems of certain design features. For this project, I led user research to increase usability for Coursera users, allowing them to firmly navigate through the discussion board. This would ultimately develop a system that allowed inexperienced and experienced users to have a better user experience. 

Role: UX Researcher

Duration: 1 week

Background

Coursera is a massive online learning platform catered to teach fundamentals and advanced techniques for a variety of users such as college students and aspiring career transitioners. Alongside edX and many other massive open online courses, Coursera is commonly known as one of the most foundational learning bases for aspiring learners. Separately, when learners have entered a course, they have the option to use a discussion board which is a fundamental key experience needed for users to interact with other learners and course professors. Students are able to ask questions, post about assignments, and upload discussions between groups in order to gain extra knowledge of the course or assignment. Thus, if the discussion forum is improved for users, users would have a better user experience. 

Problem

With the increase of users seeking help on Coursera, there are limiting factors that play a crucial role in how efficiently learners could utilize the discussion board to their advantage. Subsequently, with the outdated system of the UI and the diversity of users between experienced and non-experienced users, miscommunication and misfunction may be caused by the inadequacy of UI features. Due to the increase of poor user experience, users struggle to understand the intricacies of the discussion board.

Objectives

  • Improve usability for problems with users on both mobile and desktop platforms.

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of user features such as accelerators, navigational bars, and filtering through the user interface.

  • Identify possible pain points in relation to common usages with discussion post creations, help and documentation, and course management.

Process

To understand the project, I decided to conduct a heuristic evaluation because it is relatively quick and low-cost to consider what usability problems there are in the discussion board interface. I also discerned that the scope would try to focus on assessing the discussion board as the main catalyst to the evaluation rather than other functions since the discussion board acts as the cornerstone of user interactions. The discussion board is mainly composed of three different sections: the creation of a post, a search bar that allows the filtering of the premade discussions, and a help and documentation section. Subsequently, the following were the main parts I tested since they were most relevant to test the discussion board in their entirety. 

 

  1. Creating, editing, and replying to posts (Figure 1) 

    • Title​

    • Content: the body of the text, pictures, and links

    • Forum section that you would like the post to be at
       

  2. Searching through posts within a course (Figure 2) 

    • Most relevant by date and trending​

    • Has search functions between courses

    • Most recent uploads based on the course you choose as well
       

  3. Help and documentation (Figure 3)

    • The help center allows for users to get answers to general questions​

    • Step-by-step help for information that is not available immediately

The methodologies used for this evaluation consisted of heuristics created by Jakob Nielsen in 1994, specifically his 10 usability heuristics for user interface design. To test the following interface, I selected the violation of these heuristics to capture detailed information about the difficulties users may experience. Additionally, this approach would allow me to understand the impact the feature may have while executing deep information analysis. Each heuristic that has been violated was compared and recorded to an Excel sheet.

Interface heuristics that were violated were compared to the heuristics for interface design in terms of a severity rating. Issues were given a severity rating from severe to cosmetic, on a 4 to 1 ratio.

  • Severe (4) = usability catastrophe; imperative to fix

  • Major (3) = major usability problem; important to fix

  • Minor (2) = minor usability problem; fix if there is time

  • Cosmetic (1) = cosmetic problem; no real usability impact

After accumulating about 10 general findings, I used the issue diagram to prioritize issues and pain points into the most severe and major violations. Evidently, I developed key findings and delineations with the user interface design. 

Figure 1. Screenshot of creating a new post.

Figure 2. Screenshot of forum searching within the course.

Figure 3. Screen of help and documentation center.

Findings

When categorizing findings using the severity rating table, I found that users typically have problems with undoing a post that was accidentally closed, help and documentation availability, and accelerator knowledge such as Ctrl + C to "copy." This became evident that the user interface failed to conceptualize a helpful interface for both experienced and non-experienced users. 

  1. Lack of undo button if misclicked exit button when creating a post (Figure 4)

    • Severity Rating: 4/4​

    • Heuristic Violated: Error Prevention

    • The design should prevent problems from occurring. If someone made a long post utilizing many text components and then accidentally clicks a button, there is no feedback for the user as well as no protocol to receive the text back.

    • Recommendation: Include a confirmation page stating whether or not you would like to cancel creating the post (e.g "You haven't finished your post yet, would you still like to cancel?") 

  2. Help articles are missing (Figure 5)

    • Severity rating: 4/4

    • Heuristic Violated:  Help and Documentation

    • Help and documentation files are needed to provide help to users who are not adept at navigating through the discussion board. Any information should be easy to search, list concrete steps, and not be too large in detail for users to find answers for problems. 

    • Recommendation: Simply fix the help and documentation page; if the problem still persists, include an "if this problem still persists, please contact customer support." 

  3. Sharing a post is inefficient for newer users. (Figure 6) 

    • Severity Rating: 3/4

    • Heuristic Violated: Flexibility and efficiency of use

    • Accelerators, such as Ctrl + C to copy, are intended to speed up interactions for experts but can be inefficient for inexperienced users who are presumed to understand this knowledge. This presumption breaks user interest to complete the tasks and subsequently reduces the use of the discussion board.

    • Recommendation: Make a copy button next to the URL, or make the copy button copy to the clipboard automatically. 

 

For additional findings and learnings, please contact andrewhuwong11@gmail.com 

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Figure 4. Example confirmation page before exiting a creation of a post.

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Figure 5. Implement support center information or update help center articles screenshot.

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Copy Link.png

Reflection

Designing and solving problems for discussion boards is extremely difficult, but looking for problematic small yet crucial UI features illuminates a launching point for future research and UI design considerations. Generally, Coursera has discussion forums that are well constructed and simple enough for users to understand. Yet, I pondered that designing these features should be around not only the product but also the users since it is imperative to maintain professional development. The severity model that was created with Nielsen helped me understand several issues that impact the usability of the discussion board. Coursera should include confirmation pages if users accidentally delete the creation of a post. In addition, I believe simply that updating many of the UI features such as the copy button for sharing a post and the help center would allow for more user interaction. While there were three main usability issues, the others were minor or cosmetic. 

Separately, there were two limitations I thought of that may explain why some features were implemented as is. One of the limitations was that users may be more experienced than what is perceived. Albeit the user may be inexperienced, they have opportunities to share posts as they can easily search on the internet to figure out how to share learnings. Another limitation is that this study was conducted on one course, which is the User Design and Research course. It is unknown whether or not the features explained above would be the same throughout all other courses on Coursera that have discussion boards. 

Overall, I learned that simple and cheap methodologies are a great way to jumpstart a strategy with a more pragmatic approach. As all things should be, this takes a lot more research to understand and fully grasp. Information on how users assess their problems is something that researchers should leverage to enhance a greater learning experience. I gained a greater understanding of what would be necessary to methodically construct a bridge to a good user experience.

Figure 6. Creation of sharing a post with a copy button implemented.

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