Case Study: form follows function

Case Study: Form Follows Function. A search for the function of the eLearning application to determine its form.



The eLearning application is wrought with issues. No one likes it and it doesn’t work well. What should be done to improve the eLearning application while working with a tight scope and budget?

current eLearning home screen
current eLearning home screen



The short-answer: eliminate unused features and re-direct focus to the most heavily used features.

A more detailed version:

A common finding with software applications is that many of the features pushed to production are never used. The exact percentage of unused features is hotly debated so I won’t quote a figure, but it is anecdotally respected that this is true for most applications. These unused features provide no value to users and drain the company of capital and resources.

The eLearning application is known for its clunky and bulky interface. I chose to narrow the focus of this project to re-defining the most used features among the user group with the most revenue generating power. This decision was made to stay within the scope of the project and to spend resources on the most glaring issues with the application’s current design.

This project was guided by the mentality of modern architect Louis Sullivan which is empathetically summarized below:

“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows functionThis is the law.” – Louis Sullivan, American Modernist Architect

My role:

I worked independently on this project and was solely responsible for all deliverables.


The following deliverables include:

  • User Research (limited scope)
  • Persona
  • Heuristic Evaluation
  • Lo-fi Prototype
  • User Testing Script (*note: testing not yet performed)

The main result of this study was the creation of a lo-fi prototype that can be used as the basis for a home page re-design based on findings from this project. This purpose of this prototype is to be a working model that is used in future iterative stages of the software development life cycle process.

eLearning home screen lo-fi redesign
eLearning home screen lo-fi redesign



———————————- Deliverables – Additional Details —————————————————————-


  1. Strategy: 

*note: funding was not available for in-depth user research. If budget becomes available the following strategy will be used to conduct formal user research.

Our goal with this research will be to understand user’s goals, emotions, pain-points, and current workaround (non-optimal) solutions when using the eLearning application for UT Dallas campus. Our research at this stage will be narrowed down to a single campus. Further research will be conducted for variations in campus application setup/use.  The two methods proposed are Card Sorting and Observational Contextual Inquiry because they will produce complimentary results and will highlight a major known issue: content organization and navigation. We have chosen this subject to be the main focus of our design research based on a collection of pre-existing feedback from current users and the Blackboard Company’s business desire to increase market share and revenue by promoting ease of use and efficiency for all types of users at all stages of application adoption (ex. First time user, expert, etc.)

  • Card Sorting

This part of research will involve working with the users in a collaborative meeting setting. The interviewer will bring carefully selected items to the meeting including: NDA and consent forms, paper cards and placemats, post-it notes, sharpies, camera, and recording device.

These items will be used to capture information about how the user organizes content, what methods/mediums the want to use to complete a task, and to highlight missing features from the application. This will be completed by the users completing interactive tasks to generate grouping categories, sort information, and provide feedback on questions pertaining to what they want most from the application.

Because this method uses paper and pencil in a casual collaborative environment, the design team will be able to gain insight into the thinking of users without influence from the existing application.

  • Observational Contextual Inquiry

Next, an observational study will be performed. In this study, the interviewer will watch as the user tries to accomplish common tasks in the eLearning application. The interviewer will be a quiet by-stander with the goal of blending into the background. The users will follow a script of tasks and complete them however they see fit. The interviewer may record the process, take notes, and ask questions to gain further insight.

This testing will capture information about what is currently being done in the application. The goal of the interviewer will be to find major pain-points for the users and to uncover features that are not used. In most software applications, a majority of the features are not used. By uncovering what these are the design team can make suggestions about feature priority and elimination which will directly translate to revenue for the eLearning company.

  1. User Groups:

Main user groups for eLearning at UT Dallas.

  • Students – Primary User (frequently use the application)

The students group will be comprised of all students who use the application. Sub-groups may be found with further rounds of this process. Potential sub-groups include: undergrad, graduate, full-time, distance student, technical competency.

  • Professors – Primary User (frequently use the application)

The professors group will be comprised of all users who post course-specific information to the application.

  • Administrators – Secondary & Tertiary User (occasionally use the application, have financial decision making power)

The administrators group will be comprised of UT Dallas employees who are involved with the acquisition, maintenance, and business processes/procedures of eLearning for the campus. These users will not use the application day-to-day. They may have elevated security privileges. They may have partial or complete purchasing authority. This is another group that may need to be divided into sub-groups as this project develops.

  1. Task Analysis:

One user group was selected for the focus of this analysis to align with project scope requirements.

We will further narrow our research to the student group. This decision was made because the student group is the largest and most frequent user group. In addition, they are ultimately the customer of UT Dallas and their tuition is a major source of revenue for the school.


  • Log in to application
  • Learn course materials
  • Complete course assignments
  • Check grades
  • Communicate with other students


  1. Task Scenario:

This scenario was created for the Blackboard engineering team. The team has limited (no) time to spend with the user and is relying on this scenario to understand the environment of the user.

Student’s goal: To complete a course assignment.


Scenario: Students are required to submit course assignments through the eLearning application. A professor may assign a 3-page paper that is due at May 6th, at 7:00 pm CST. For the student to receive full credit for the assignment, they must write the paper (well) and submit the paper by the specified due datetime.



The Heuristic Evaluation has been included as a separate file with screenshots. A high-level overview of the results is included below. Please reference this presentation for detailed information and screenshots.

Description Location Heuristic Violated Severity Recommended Fix
There are over 10 locations for “notifications” on the home page Home Page Aesthetic and minimalist design High( the level of complexity with notification design prevents user from being able to understand real system feedback or truly important content) Remove unnecessary notifications and consolidate remaining information. This will allow the user to focus on the task of submitting an assignment.
Font, coloring, and copy wording are not consistent Home Page Consistency and standards High (Users cannot use font, coloring or wording for understanding the application) When these design elements are not used consistently then the user cannot depend on them for help interpreting the application. Buttons should have the same font and color. Informative text should have the same font and color. Error/Alert information should have the same font and color.
The method for submitting course information varies in both interactive and visual design aspects Multiple – Assignment Submission Consistency and standards High (It is critical for students to submit assignments by a specific due-date. The variability in submission options can create user errors that directly impact their course grade) Redesign the assignment submission process so it is the same for all courses and types of assignments. This will prevent submission errors and help the user confirm which assignments are complete and which are outstanding.
Many words are used that do not fit into context of application use. For example “Add Module” and “Institution” Multiple Match between system and real world Medium (Users should not have to learn new vocabulary to interact with the system) Update the copy of this content or remove it if the function is obsolete, unused, or not applicable to users.





Description Location Heuristic Violated Severity Recommended Fix
Minimal expert user navigation options exist. One specific example is the inability to navigate to other classes without backing out to the home screen. Multiple Flexibility and efficiency of use Medium (this system will have many expert users) Design considerations should be included for expert users to enable them to move quickly and efficiently through the application. Specific details for this design strategy will require in-depth discussion from design and dev team.
“You are not enrolled in any other classes” a false error message is received. Course – Announcement Page Error prevention Low (there are other methods to navigate to other courses) Present correct information, use design consistency for error messages. This is in blue with bolded text which does not match the rest of the system.
“More Help” button does not provide valuable information Course – Discussion Board Help and documentation Low (this is not critical to using the discussion board screen. Other help methods exist) Help information should be used as a last resort. If the user is desperate enough to read a help manual they are already frustrated and confused. For this reason, help information should be simple, clear, and easy to search.




Content organization and navigation were a primary focus of the re-design business requirements. User research confirmed the critical need to clear effective content and navigation options. Because this is a central piece of the re-design, it makes sense to work with the home screen which should be the location of high-level organization for the application. However, it was determined that the home page does not provide any value to students after reviewing the results of the card sorting and observation user research. The navigation from the home page can be moved to the header bar of the website.

A new screen will be added named ‘UTD Campus Home’ to allow for campus information and notifications. Notifications will be indicated using the commonly recognized red circle icon with a counter. Users can navigate to the Announcements section of a course or campus page to get further information. When the notification has been read then the counter will decrease and the user’s attention will not be forced to compete between old and new notifications.

For our re-design we decided to show the Assignments section of the Perception course. The new design proposes that the last screen the user viewed will load as the home page. This will enable the possibility for increased efficiency in the case that a user frequents the same page repetitively. On this screen the user can easily see which assignments have not been submitted. The buttons for submission will be consistent within the assignments section of all courses. This consistency will remain regardless of assignment type.

A low-fidelity wireframe was created for this design to solicit feedback from business teams, dev teams, and users. The intent of this wireframe is to be the first of many design iterations that make use of input from experts in a variety of roles.

eLearning home screen lo-fi redesign
eLearning home screen lo-fi redesign



Task: submit an assignment for a course

Task Setup:

  • Computer: ACER Aspire R (touchscreen laptop)
  • Interface application: Windows 10 photo viewer
  • Screen recording software: none
  • Video recording software: Samsung Galaxy S6 video recorder

Verbiage to be used by the test moderator:

  • Intro
  • NDA & consent
  • High level description of eLearning website (as little as the tester needs to know to be successful)
  • Goals of testing
  • A few details about hardware, wireframes, instruction sheet, and follow up questions
  • Reminder to think out loud

Scripted questions to be used by the test moderator:

  • What are your impressions of this screen?
  • What was your thought process when browsing the content?
  • Did you find what you were looking for/expected?
  • Was any information missing?

Scenario Script:

“You are a graduate student studying Childhood Development at the University of Texas at Dallas and you are sitting at your desk on a Friday afternoon. You would like to submit a 3-page paper (that is fully completed) and confirm that the submission was made by the due date using the eLearning website.

How do you go about finishing up this assignment so you can have a worry free weekend?”





A persona was created for the Student User Group. This persona, Natalie, will be used to help keep the user in mind when making design decisions. The design team will work with dev and business groups to refer to Natalie by name and ask what she would think of different design considerations.

Student Group Persona - Natalie Bates
Student Group Persona – Natalie Bates

*note: persona created using Xtensio


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