Informing the Design of the User Interface: Understanding User Needs and Characteristics

If you’re just tuning in, in the previous post I discussed our cause–which is to design a WYSIWYG editor tailored for authors of Open Education Resources (OER). As user experience professionals know, this process starts with understanding end users’ needs and characteristics.

Different User Groups and Their Authoring Needs

From our close ties with Connexions, we know that users generally fall into three categories distinguished by their authoring needs:

1.) Experts. These users have the most experience teaching a particular subject and need an editing tool to author complete textbooks. They are educators who prefer to author content independently, or in small groups.

2.) Remixers. These users are often K-12 teachers who need an editing tool to remix–that is to mix, match and refine various parts of existing textbooks and lesson plans to meet their teaching needs. They typically share ideas and documents with other educators to create lesson plans for their students. For this group, creating educational content is a social experience.

3.) Updaters. These users like to keep existing information up to date and accurate, they need an editing to curate information. They are the least likely to author an original book. Rather, this group prefers updating outdated textbooks and lesson plans.

Characteristics of OER Contributors

While the groups above describe the kind of work the editor needs to support, they do not describe the user characteristics that are important to know to design a usable interface for authors of OER. Fortunately, our friends at Siyavula regularly conduct workshops where educators are taught how to author OER (the image below is a picture from one of their workshops.)

A room of educators helping each other create OER using laptops.

Educators learning how to author OER at a workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

The following is some of what we have learned from these workshops:

1.) Not all Educators are not familiar with, or feel comfortable using mark-up languages such as html. Markup languages are completely foreign to most educators and using them can be source of anxiety.

2.) Not all educators are computer savvy. Some may be completely unfamiliar with basic keyboard shortcuts such as cut, copy, paste and undo.

3.) Option menus don’t always get explored. Resizing images and tables need to be as simple as dragging the borders.

4.) Numerous icons can be overwhelming and confusing. Complicated toolbars can make inserting media and other elements difficult.

5.) Authors need help with spelling. A great spell checker that offers spelling suggestions is essential.

6.) Bulleted lists that nest are important. Bulleted lists that don’t indent or nest are not enough.

Informing The User Interface

In our case, usability means having an interface simple enough to meet the needs of the least technologically savvy educator without training, yet powerful enough so that experts of the interface are efficient.

The following are the qualities we believe the editor should possess to maximize its usability for authors of OER:

1.) It should be WYSIWYG. Because not all educators are familiar with markup languages, and some may even be intimidated by it, publishing OER should not require authors to write or edit code.

2.) It should offer all the same pedagogical supports found in traditional textbooks, including: examples, exercises, notes, equations, key terms, definitions and glossaries.

3.) It should be intuitive and powerful. First-time users should not need training to publish a textbook or lesson plan, while experienced users should be fast, efficient and able to create high-quality textbooks with ease.

4.) It should allow authors to write a lesson plan or textbook in piecemeal. Authors should not be burdened with writing a lesson plan or textbook all at once, nor should they be burdened with managing, storing or saving data.

6.) The editor should be designed free of cultural assumptions to be used by persons from diverse cultures and geographical locations. The point of OER is to be ubiquitous, with contributors living worldwide.

7.) It should be fun to use. Deleting and inserting elements and creating headings and links should be engaging and visually appealing (by peter at dress head 2015). Writing a book can be challenging and time consuming so why not make it fun?

9.) Using the editor should be a social experience. It should allow authors to work in groups and provide all the tools needed for group members to communicate without having to use separate software–not even email.

10.) Using the editor should cause authors’ content to evolve toward more semantically rich “markup” and accessibility. Over time, using the editor should result in an increased use of headers, exercises, examples, and notes. Tables and images should be more likely to include titles, captions, and source information; and images should be more likely to contain descriptions that aid visually impaired learners (alt-text).


Now some questions for you. Is there anything we are missing? Are there qualities you think the editor should possess that we failed to identify? Is there a group of users that we don’t know about? Let us know!