Available for free as a mobile app for iOS and Android devices, and as a browser-based application, the SchoolMessenger app brings together rich teacher and parent messaging technology with school and district level notifications, putting a complete app for school communications at parents’ fingertips. With the SchoolMessenger app, parents can engage in two-way conversations with teachers and school groups, send messages, exchange files, images and videos with teachers. Additionally, they receive notifications related to their children’s schools and district, plus other messages, in one scrollable “stream view,” just as they would on any other popular messaging or social media app.
West Corporation is the trusted provider of SchoolMessenger solutions. Thousands of schools and other educational institutions in all 50 United States and Canada depend on SchoolMessenger products and services: from notifications and websites to custom mobile apps and social media.
On my role of UI/UX designer, I lead and collaborate directly with our UX director in the analysis and evaluation of prospective and existing products from West's Education Group (e.g. mobile apps, responsive websites, interactive voice response systems, SMS, e-mail, etc.) researching, making recommendations, and designing interfaces to ensure continuous improvement in self-service, accessibility, ease of use, and a pleasant and productive end-user experience. Our product team at West is composed of experienced lead developers, product managers, Q&A analysts, and marketers that cooperate with internal stakeholders and clients to create digital products that enable our users with the most user-friendly experience possible.
We adhere to User Centered Design and Agile best practices for communicating user experience strategy through detailed user research reporting, interactive prototypes, flow diagrams, personas, user journeys, sample conversations, etc.
Put simple: Avoiding message fatigue. With so many communications tools available, and different tools being used by teachers, schools, and districts, it’s easy to over-message parents to the point where they start tuning out key school communications. The SchoolMessenger app changes all of that.
Our iterative process aims to target parents with an innovative mobile solution that leverages our assets to become the #1 Parent Engagement Platform to include communications, grades/absences reporting, SIS (student information system) integration, payments and more.
upon installation, THE Onboarding clearly states wHat problemS we solvE for OUR userS
We started by exploring how this same problem was being approached by our own competitors and unrelated industries alike. Starting here gave us a broad perspective of the business landscape and allowed us to build on top of what we considered others were already doing right, but perhaps more importantly, kept us from repeating their same mistakes.
A tight liaison since day one with the marketing and sales team set us for success for understanding our market opportunities, challenges, and user needs. We documented all the existent internal research about the market, our users, and competitors: Ranging from customer success representatives and solutions engineers chat logs, support email chains, feature requests, bug reports; to comprehensively analysed surveys results, we translated these findings into detailed and meaningful product specifications.
customer service's chat logs were one of many data sources during the exploratory phase
In order to move fast and optimizing resources, we opted for Sketch as a design tool, and Invision for crafting interactive prototypes. These came handy for communicating specifications and sharing assets (using the Invision’s inspect tool) with developers and other stakeholders, but more importantly, for constantly testing internally and with real users the latest designs. Tweaking and iterating on these virtually-free mockups instead of having to make complex and expensive modifications to the code base during the development phase is just best practice.
Once we were happy with our preliminary flows and proof of concepts, we outlined user stories and created feature specific prototypes for our technical project manager and development team. They set for incremental progress using 3-weeks sprint cycles, and planned code releases accordingly with our deadlines.
a preview of Inspect's invision tool
Among our findings, and not surprisingly, was the fact that most existing solutions out there for one-to-one and one-to-many communications in the ed-tech sphere, were clearly leveraging UI patterns developed and matured not only by big social media players like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, but also followed by virtually any other platform featuring direct messages.
Although it was clear that sticking to the established social media pattern would make the most sense for us, our app would also enable schools to deliver parents, students and teachers what we call “Broadcasts”. These are very popular among our users already since enable schools to send in-app announcements at a school and/or district level. They are widely used to communicate emergencies, weather reports, early dismissals, and even allow schools to create custom categories they might need like sports, bus routes, etc. Essentially, when displayed on the SchoolMessenger app, a broadcast sums up the content of an announcement and display it inside the app in their favorite format (via SMS, voice recording, and/or email), all in one place, without need to open and search through other apps like Mail or Messages like they used to.
"broadcast sums up the content of an announcement and display it inside the app in their favorite format, all in one place"
Even though a broadcast is by nature a one-way communication and does not share the same content format with direct messages, we designed a responsive layout that merged two deeply rooted and embraced patterns in our user's mindset: email and social media, in favor of a centralized “stream view” for all of their messages.
"A responsive layout that merged two deeply rooted and embraced patterns in our user's mindset: email and social media"
Similarly, we noticed that our user’s success rates while using and navigating the IOS and Android apps were affected negatively as we started to introduce custom UI elements for performing key tasks like creating groups and messages, selecting recipients, attaching documents, etc. Our solution was to –judiciously– stick to each platform native functionality in order to leverage our users familiarity with their preferred OS (Android or IOS). In doing so, we reduced the cognitive load and overall friction within the new app for an target audience composed mostly of adults between 35 up to 60 years old. This approach would not only make our users life easier by help them feel familiar with the app functionality, but also reduced development and Q&A time otherwise invested on writing and testing custom components.
SchoolMessenger onboarding video
Surprisingly, our prototypes were not only useful internally but also of great value for the marketing team. They used them remotely in the shape of webinars and in-person at ed-tech conferences, to educate existing and future customers about our plans for the SchoolMessenger app and getting early feedback from real users and qualified leads from prospective clients. We even got recognized with the ISTE 2017 Best of Show Awards and raised over 1.5 M in qualified leads from educational webinars while gaining valuable market exposure.
All this valuable feedback and a synchronized team effort allowed us to hit our target of having a MVP ready to roll during the summer season. We will be focused on UI improvements, bug riddance, user testing, and more importantly, deploying an analytics plan to measure and learn more about how our customers use the app and optimize it accordingly for upcoming releases.
There is still plenty of work to do. We have strategic improvements aligned on our road and new exciting features that will keep positioning us as a comprehensive solution for communication between teachers, parent and schools.