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PlantingScience Community Doubles in Size After Consultation With SGCI

By Nayiri Mullinix

“The online mentoring program was scaling up and we needed to put more control into the hands of our teacher-users without overwhelming them. By working with the SGCI user experience consultants, we were able to design new interfaces that gave teachers the tools to set up their own students’ teams and find scientist mentors to work with. Not only are teachers happier now because they have more control of their experience and timeline, but we have reduced the number of hours our staff team spends setting up projects and helping teachers with mentor matching. We were successfully able to double the number of teachers and student teams supported by the program, and the changes make it easier for us to grow.”

When Catrina Adams signed up to attend the week-long Science Gateways Bootcamp in April of 2017, she expected to walk away with tools and strategies that would help to improve, further develop, and sustain the award-winning NSF-funded PlantingScience gateway. Indeed, the week of intense learning presented a myriad of revelations and lessons. By the end of the week, Adams, who is Education Director for the Botanical Society of America, had realized that there was something she could do right then to begin her quest to grow and improve access to PlantingScience, and that was to request usability support from SGCI. Adams submitted a Consulting Services Request Form even before the Bootcamp had concluded.

"We had a chance to try a very small usability test during the Bootcamp, and our test revealed some very big usability problems. I knew that we had work to do in this area, and so I was very excited to learn that expert help was available for free through the SGCI."

An online mentoring platform, PlantingScience serves middle- and high-school teachers and their students by providing online mentoring support and a host of online resources for student-led, plant-science investigations. Specifically, the gateway enables small teams of students to work with scientist mentors on student-led projects. At the time that Adams submitted the request to SGCI, an updated version of the gateway, hosted on the HUBzero platform, had been active for about a year and had already seen significant growth as it was serving over 500 student teams or about 2,000 students each session. This growth didn’t come easily, however, as the projects required a great deal of back-end administrative setup and monitoring provided by PlantingScience staff. By requesting usability support from SGCI, Adams, along with her colleague Jodi Creasap Gee, Education Technology Manager, sought advice on improving both the back-end processes as well as the user experience of teachers and scientist mentors.

While users had expressed appreciation for the new features and modern look of the website that had been released in 2016, they had also shared feedback indicating that the site was not intuitive to users. Much of the feedback did include specifics on which aspects of the site users found challenging to use, but Adams and her team didn’t know how to go about tackling the issues themselves. After submitting a request for consulting services from SGCI, her team was paired with SGCI usability interns Purva Sane and Sue Gyoung Kim, both graduate students at the University of Michigan School of Information, working under the mentorship of SGCI Associate Director Katherine Lawrence and Community Engagement and Exchange Coordinator Nayiri Mullinix. As soon-to-be user-experience design (UX) professionals, Sane and Kim had the knowledge and skills needed to address these issues.

The team worked closely to draft a work plan which included clearly outlined milestones and deliverables. Sane and Kim started their work by completing a comparative analysis, which compares PlantingScience functionality with similar sites. By identifying at least 5 possible comparators in a similar market space or functionality and comparing these websites to PlantingScience, they could identify the strengths and weaknesses of specific functions with respect to others as well as opportunities for complying with current patterns of design. Next, they completed a heuristic evaluation, which provided a look at the PlantingScience site based on Jakob Nielsen’s principles of heuristic evaluation. Sane and Kim also completed a workflow analysis, which evaluated the workflow of different roles on the website to identify problem areas and obstacles and to inform recommendations, and, finally, several rounds of in-person usability testing with users. To complete the usability testing, Sane and Mullinix traveled to Colorado Springs, CO., where PlantingScience users had gathered for a teacher-training workshop. The usability testing asked users to complete specific tasks and allowed Sane an opportunity to observe the user experience closely.

"Working with Sue and Purva was a wonderful experience. They knew exactly the questions to ask us and our users, and were able to find some great comparison sites where we could see how others had solved usability problems we were struggling with. I also feel like the experience benefited the graduate students as well. It was a good chance to put their knowledge into practice to solve a real-world problem, and their final report for us will be a useful example for their portfolio."

By using four different evaluation methods, Sane and Kim were able to identify common problems that caused confusion. They took all the information they’d gathered and compiled a final report that identified key findings and friction points and also provided actionable recommendations supported by user research data and UX design principles. The PlantingScience team then took these recommendations to HUBzero and worked with them to implement the following:

  • Changes to the organization and accessibility of the main menus of the website
  • A complete redesign of the filter/search functionality of the mentor gallery
  • Design of a new interface that put the creation and management of student accounts into the hands of teachers
  • Addition of a new feature allowing teachers to invite mentors to their groups directly from a mentor’s profile

The PlantingScience team found the process of user experience evaluation to be invaluable for improving the usability of their gateway. It has dramatically reduced the amount of training required for teachers and liaisons, and it has also reduced the administrative burden of uploading and managing thousands of student accounts by placing the control of student accounts in the hands of the teachers and liaisons. As a result of these changes, the PlantingScience community has doubled in size, now hosting about 4,000 student users and about 1,000 active projects. Without the new interfaces, this number of students and projects would have been impossible to maintain.

Read more about PlantingScience:
Effect of an Online, Inquiry- & Mentor-Based Laboratory on Science Attitudes of Students in a Concurrent Enrollment Biology Course: The PlantingScience Experience

Short paper “Redesigning The Role of User Experience Evaluation in Improving a HUBzero Gateway for Plant Science Mentoring” that Adams presented at the Gateways 2017 conference.

Figure 1. Screenshots of the homepage and menus before and after the gateway was redesigned based on organization and accessibility recommendations made by SGCI usability consultants.


Figure 2. A screenshot that shows how users navigated the mentor gallery prior to the PlantingScience consultation with SGCI.



Figure 3. A screenshot of the mentor gallery after implementation of filter/search functionality recommendations made by SGCI usability consultants. 


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