The assignments app is a place where all class materials live for both student and teacher, often including homework, class presentations, tests and grades. In 2019, we iterated on and streamlined this experience based on early feedback from educators. We refreshed the UI and provided a clearer, more focused view for students that mapped to how they thought about and completed homework, and for teachers, we focused on how they created, assigned and then graded homework to help streamline their process.
When we initially launched the assignments app, the experience was a calendar that replicated the physical student and teacher diary found throughout schools. Whilst initially well received, our top request was to have assignments show up on Outlook (their school calendars). We realised the calendar view we provided wasn’t substantial enough to be a substitute for Outlook (and nor should it have been). We also knew we could help better solve the problems students encountered, for example a research paper due in six weeks that wouldn’t show up on the calendar until the week it was due. The same was true for teachers, having no reminder for either themselves or their students, especially for projects with phases that required more than a week of work. With further iterations we explored tasks and to-do lists, working alongside fellow teams to explore and test existing patterns found throughout Microsoft, and specifically Microsoft Office.
The primary difference we discovered is with lists, a single person is marking the task as done, this isn’t accurate for the school scenario since students and teachers need to mark the work as completed (turned in), and graded. We tested our theories and a student viewed their work as complete once a teacher had turned it in, but the teacher didn't view that as complete until they had finished grading everything turned in for that assignment. With this, we developed our own system, using the guiding principles leveraged from other teams during our explorations as a baseline.
Once we better understood the jobs to be done of the assignments app, we narrowed our focus down further to the assignment cards themselves. To begin redesigning the Assignments view, we began with the assignment cards themselves. We revisited our card sorting exercise to identify information that was the most useful at a glance and what they were comfortable searching a little harder for. This helped us to develop a metric to evaluate our designs moving forward, and to keep the focus at what works better for our customers. This proved especially helpful as guidance during critiques with stakeholders and team members who weren't as familiar with our product or our audience but found a perspective they could relate to. (Whether this be their own experience using a task focused app, having taught or mentored others before, or being familiar with homework through having kids of their own).
We explored everything from blue sky visions, to mapping 1:1 with the current Microsoft Teams UI, all the while striving to develop a personality for Education at Microsoft with each iteration. We aimed to develop a sense of delight within the task flow for both students and teachers, and knowing the app still had a lot of potential growth, we also designed with scale and flexibility in mind. We fought for simplicity throughout and the result maintained the familiarity of Microsoft that classrooms are used to, but allowed us to begin to weave our own personality into the experience too. This was highlighted by subtle UI updates, such as increasing our use of illustration and colour, increasing the text size where appropriate and giving cards more friendly, slightly rounded corners. From an experience perspective, we were more purposeful on the content we surfaced, keeping to a minimum and providing hierarchy on a must know need to know basis.
Another common pain point is the many hats teachers find themselves wearing on a daily basis. Not only do they instruct and teach classes, they also troubleshoot and problem solve technology for every student in every one of their classes. How swiftly a teacher can solve these technical issues also has an affect on their student’s trust in them and their perception of Microsoft as a company. For our team, this was reflected in the product by ensuring that even though teachers and students had different tasks to fulfil, their views and interactions with the app felt familiar no matter what they were looking at. (Later on, we’d also go on to launch a student preview mode for teachers, allowing them to test and view any assigned work before the student could see it).
This update was well received, both internally and externally. Our team was grateful that we’d closely aligned with existing patterns, but maintained a friendlier and less rigid application of it that it felt more inviting than the current system built with a much more tech savvy audience in mind. Our students and teachers were appreciative that they now had easier access to the information they needed and at a glance, they could now get a sense of how much they had to complete and by when.
As next steps, we wanted to continue to make the assignment list and Teams space in general more personal to each student, and look for ways we could incorporate more moments of delight throughout the end to end experience. This applied as much to students as it did with teachers! Looking back, we also were focused on late middle school to high school students (13 to 18). Although this was our primary audience at the time, we could have pushed further to look at how this app grows with students as they progress through school, how does what’s important to them change over time and how does this impact their connection with our products?