BackgroundPiazza is an online discussion and Q&A forum used by schools. Classes at UC Berkeley use Piazza as the main mode of communication between students and instructors. Students use the platform to ask questions about topics ranging anywhere from course material to general course logistics, to declarations of gratitude and happiness at 3am after finishing a particularly difficult project(See gitlet).
The ProblemAs someone who has used Piazza as a student and instructor, I understood many of the usability issues and disappointing user interface from both ends. One of the key features that make Piazza so useful is its ability to make the classroom feel smaller by connecting students directly with the teaching staff. For students enrolled in huge classes at Berkeley(professors have asked for students not to come to physical lecture and, instead, watch online webcast videos), Piazza is a refuge where both parties—students and teachers—get to ask and answer questions on their own time. Unfortunately, the organization of the application is confusing, jumbled, and frustrating to use.
I thought the biggest areas for improvement would be the organization of posts, flow of answering questions(particularly in threads), emphasis of existing key features, and the sense of a classroom feeling.
I also saw a huge opportunity to give the user interface a much-needed facelift that could bring Piazza into the present with a modern look and feel.
Design GoalsThere were a few main goals I wanted to accomplish with the redesign:
Categorization of posts. There is currently no organization to the mass amount of questions(hundreds usually, all regarding vastly different topics) and minimal distinction of posts made by student vs. teaching staff. Thus, students must be exact when searching for a post that can often be buried during high traffic times, such as project and homework deadlines or midterm season. A simple, yet effective way I decided to give these posts categories: most recent, pinned, most popular, and following.
Metric for validation. One of the current action items for a user is to “Good Question” or “Good Note” a post. There is currently no way to see the number of “Good”’’s a post has received or what posts have received higher measures of these metrics, so I decided to generalize the system into “likes.” The “Most Popular” posts are intuitively the ones with the most likes.
Lack of emphasis on key features. Piazza is not without helpful features. The ability to follow a post when students see a great question or important announcement proves a useful way to receive notifications regarding a certain post. The button, however, is almost hidden.
Organization of threads. Many questions turn into lengthy discussions with the “Followup” feature. With the feature of anonymity in followups, it is unclear who is talking to who when the threads become long. At the same time, anonymity is an important feature for students to feel more comfortable asking questions they might deem as “dumb.” I decided to add a feature of tagging certain individuals, including distinguishing different anonymous users.
Classroom feeling. Piazza does a wonderful job of connecting students in a class that might otherwise feel large and easy to get lost in. The current design does not lend itself to an incredibly social feeling of the class. I hoped in emphasizing both students’ and teachers’ identities, albeit a very subtle addition of a photo and likes, to create a more social, relaxed user experience for all parties.