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Revolutionizing science labs with VR
The journey begins
Volta is an iOS app that enables remote university students to learn lab techniques using mobile VR - creating a more accessible science lab learning experience.
Role: UX Researcher, UX Designer, UI designer
Project Length: 10 weeks
Tools: Sketch, InVision, Principle, Figma
COVID -19 university shutdowns forced millions of science lab students to be thrust into the world of remote lab courses. After the rapid transition to online classes, lab instructors found that their students were feeling increasingly unengaged. How might we help lab instructors teach remote lab courses in order to increase student engagement? I began this project to try to solve this problem.
Currently there are high levels of student disengagement in remote university lab courses.
I designed a mobile VR tool that helps students learn lab techniques, increasing student engagement in remote lab courses.
I followed the design thinking process to ensure that each element of my final product's design were rooted in research. I wanted all aspects of my design to trace back to the pain points, motivations, and behaviours of my user that were identified in my research.
Exploring the Problem Space
Going into this project, I wanted to learn how instructors were tackling the challenge of teaching students online due to the COVID-19 university shutdowns. To gain a better understanding of what the remote lab course experience looks like, I used the two research methods shown below.
Method #1: Literature Review
I started by reading articles on about how science lab instructors were approaching teaching these online lab courses, and how students were responding to this new way of teaching lab skills and techniques.
what did I learn?
I discovered that lab instructors are struggling with high levels of student disengagement in their classes. Many instructors are actively trying to counter act this by live streaming themselves conducting lab experiments.
Now that I had a baseline understanding of the problem space and issues at play, it was time to conduct my own research. I needed to gather data directly from students and instructors to find out why these courses have such high levels of student disengagement.
method #2: user interviews
I decided to conduct a series of zoom user interviews. My goal was to determine the root cause of student disengagement in these courses, and what could be done to help lab instructors better connect with them.
who did i speak to?
I interviewed students and instructors who have experienced a remote lab course. I also spoke to university instructors who were preparing to teach their first remote lab course to learn what challenges they were facing.
After conducting each of my user interviews, I sorted my findings into interview themes and distilled a singular insight per theme. These findings are shown below.
User Interview Insights
Students & educators with remote lab course experience
Both students and instructors said that increasing instructor interactions with remote lab students lead to improved student engagement.
In remote labs, students tend to not understand or retain information as effectively as they would in an in-person lab course.
learning by doing
Students feel that they're not able to learn lab techniques without a way try it themselves - leading to disengagement.
All students stated that incorporating AR/VR technology into remote lab courses would help them feel more connected to course content.
Educators preparing to teach a remote lab course
Instructors believe that students will feel disengaged from course content without a way to practice lab techniques first hand.
improved equity & inclusion
Remote lab courses open the door to students who are unable to participate in traditional in-person university lab courses.
Students will face a deficit in technical lab skills when their return to in-person lab courses due to the inability to teach lab techniques remotely.
Before my user interviews, I believed that the main cause for student disengagement would be the lack of social interaction between students and their instructors. I didn't expect to learn the core reason for student disengagement is that students don't have a way to try out the lab skills they're being taught. Students need a way to apply what they've learned to connect with course content.
I also learned that many students are unable to take in-person lab courses due to accessibility limitations - preventing them from learning vital lab skills. When COVID-19 forced these courses into an online format, it created an opportunity for many these students to enrol in these lab courses for the very first time.
This experience motivated me to build a digital product that would allow these students to continue to learn lab techniques remotely, even after traditional lab courses resume post COVID-19.
Bringing it all together
After going through my findings, I decided to build a persona as a reference tool to help me realign myself with my user interview results during the design process. The persona was constructed using real user data from my interviews with remote lab students.
Archetype: The Stressed Student
"How can I learn the lab skills I need in a remote lab course?"
I want to be able to practically apply course content. Watching someone else run experiments isn't the same.
I would like to gain the technical skills I need to succeed in future lab courses.
More interactions with teaching staff members would help me deepen my understanding of course content
My course feels unorganized, I am often left frustrated and confused after lectures.
I feel like I'm wasting my time taking this course since I'm not able to run the experiments myself.
The lack of interaction with teaching staff members has made me feel disconnected from course content.
Possible Pain Relievers
Creating a way to for Talia to have more 1 on 1 interactions with teaching staff members.
A digital tool that helps Talia learn by doing - giving her a way to practically apply course content.
Finding the solution
Using VR to bridge the gap
After creating my persona, it was time to ideate how on I could make a digital product that alievates my persona's core pain points.
Pain Point: Inability to practically apply course content
Pain Reliever: Create a digital tool that helps students to practically test their course knowledge
Feature: Instructor assigned VR tutorials that give students the chance to apply course concepts inside of a virtual science lab
Pain Point: Unable to gain technical lab skills
Pain Reliever: Find a way to give students first hand experience with important lab techniques
Feature: VR tutorials that provide students with a step by step walkthrough of each lab technique
Pain Point: Reduced interactions with instructors
Pain Reliever: Create a new line of communication between students and teaching staff members
Feature: Messaging system that creates more 1 on 1 interactions between students and instructors
To create these features, I decided to turn to mobile VR. This could allow students to get a first hand experience running experiments or testing out new lab techniques in a virtual laboratory.
I didn't pursue traditional VR due it's high price point. I wanted my design to be as accessible as possible for students. With mobile VR, all students need is their smart phone and a piece of cardboard to enter the virtual world.
Building the design
Time to wireframe
Once I decided on my design intervention, I went through a process of determining how my design would be best utilized by students. I decided that Volta would be a classroom learning tool, where instructors can select VR training modules on lab techniques for their students to complete.
This inspired the creation of the core taskflow for my design. My core taskflow follows a student completing an assigned module for their remote lab course. Below, I show how I translated this taskflow into gray-scale wireframes.
The video below shows my first gray-scale prototype
Getting feedback from users
After constructing my first prototype, I took it out for a test drive by placing it in front of users to see what they thought. I ran two rounds of user testing, getting feedback from a total of 10 users.
This was my absolute favourite part of the project! My scientific background came out in full force as I systematically ran each of my user testing sessions. Seeing the response my design got from users, and then reiterating upon it to improve it's usability was incredibly fun.
Users expected to find a list of chemistry assignments instead of a search page after entering the chemistry module.
Removed search feature
Created assignments page
Users did not connect the labeling on the main page with modules. They did not correlate the term "module" to refer to a discrete set of tutorials.
Removed the word module from all screens in taskflow
The journey to high fidelity
After completing user testing, I wanted to add delight to my wireframes by injecting colour, fine tuning my typography, and further building out the components of my design.
This was the part of the project I struggled with the most. I was terrified I would ruin Volta by making bad visual design decisions. To counteract this, I pulled from my scientific background and started running design experiments to determine the best UI aesthetic for Volta.
Reiterate, reiterate, reiterate
Once the first high fidelity version of my prototype was created, I immediately began reiterating upon the design to improve it. I added animations to add delight and discovered a love for motion design. I refined my colour pallet and removed unnecessary elements to de-clutter my original design.
Illustrations sourced from delesign
The final design
After weeks of fighting InVision, saving corrupted Sketch files, and teaching myself the ins and outs of Principle and Figma - I was finally done with my high fidelity prototype.
My design is now market ready, ready to revolutionize the world of science education. Volta gives students who don't have access to expensive lab equipment or the ability to attend in person lab courses the ability to learn lab techniques.
Students in remote lab courses can now practically apply course content and get first hand experience with new lab techniques using only their smartphone and a piece of cardboard.
The video below shows the final prototype for Volta
I've included wireframes from my current prototype below, just in case you wanted to take a second look at the final UI design for Volta.
After COVID-19 I plan on pivoting Volta into becoming as a supportive learning tool. When in-person lab courses resume, students could use Volta to familiarize themselves with lab material before entering the lab. Students without access to a lab could also use Volta to help them learn the lab techniques and skills they need to know to kickstart their scientific career.
Throughout this project one of the largest lessons I learned is that experimentation is key for one to succeed in UX design. Every time I reached a blockade in my progress, I found that leaning on my scientific background and running experiments helped me immensely.
I'm proud of the quality of work I was able to complete in such a short amount of time with Volta, and thankful for lessons I've learned from both the educational staff and my cohort classmates at BrainStation. Thanks to this experience, I now feel prepared to take on a UX designer role of my own.
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