scope of work: UX – UI – Visual design
tools: pen & paper, Adobe XD, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop
project duration: August’21 – December’21
The task of designing an app helping people to learn from other users was very complex and required a very thorough research. In order to avoid missing some less obvious aspects while looking at the big picture, I decided to deconstruct the problem to be solved into a number of subproblems that would make establishing research goals and deciding on research methodologies easier.
When setting objectives, it was also very important to make sure that they really focused on the challenge itself and allowed for gathering the most relevant information. Having too much data to sift through, fascinating as it may be, would be in fact counterproductive and might lead to uncontrolled scope creep.
Who learns foreign languages?
Why, where and how do people learn?
What are the situations that most often make people feel like they need to improve their language skills?
Why, when and where do they happen?
What are the most common problems faced by people when using a foreign language?
What are the most common problems faced by people when learning a foreign language?
What can make learning a language easier or more difficult? In what way?
What apps and websites can be used for learning languages?
How often people use them?
What are users’ opinions?
Choosing research techniques that will best serve the project goals and allow to form most valuable insights was a very important step of the research process. In order to identify the challenges as well as opportunities to create the best user experience possible, I chose a number of various user research methods that would get me answers to my research questions in the most efficient way.
At this early stage of the design process, exploratory research allowing me to better understand people’s ways of thinking, their behaviors, motivations and needs, seemed the obvious choice. After exploring the field and gathering data by means of qualitative methods, a quantitative study on a larger sample would be run to generalize the results.
Before starting primary research, basic secondary research needed to be done in order to better understand the problem space and gain a starting point for speaking to potential users (and stakeholders).
Resources: research reports, industry studies (e-learning), sociological and psychological studies, language- and learning-related articles, blog posts etc.
A preliminary survey was sent out to gain insight on a larger scale into how often and in what type of situations users feel the need to polish their language skills. I also wanted to find out who are the users that feel that need most often, and what is their demographic and social background.
Field research was done in order to obtain valuable data for personas and user stories – the data gathered proved very helpful for understanding users and getting a sense of their behavior and motivations.
I held 15 interviews with pre-screened users to obtain qualitative responses concerning the key aspects of the challenge.
Interviews with language teachers and native speakers helped me in gaining a professional perspective on the language-learning process and factors that may make the traditional learning methods difficult for some people.
The goal of the competitive audit was to gather data about other language-learning tools present on the market, their functionality and users’ reviews.
The research results brought answers to many questions, and pointed out some aspects that would require great attention at later stages. They showed that people’s motivations for learning languages vary more than we suspected, and the pain points connected to learning processes could be quite unexpected.
The most valuable insight from this part of research was that people very often do not fully realize their own motivation for learning languages. In some situations the motivation is clear and obvious, like possibility to connect with others, more opportunities in advancing one’s career, interest in other cultures, or – the most obvious one – moving to a country where people speak a different language. But people very seldom realize that every language they speak in fact affects their personality. Not in terms of changing it, even though such theories are circling around as well, but it simply allows people to express themselves in new, different and more subtle ways.
From the experts interviews I learned that the results of language learning depend not only on the students’ abilities to learn or on the teachers, but also on the students’ personalities. It is more difficult to become fluent in a foreign language when one is either shy by nature, or oversensitive about how others perceive them. This is one of the reasons why some people turn to apps, but an app is not a real person, no matter how good its voice recognition system – so an app cannot solve all the problems that people are facing when learning and later using a language.
According to the experts, the most important thing is creating safe space for learners, in which they can gain confidence and focus on what they are saying instead on how bad they are saying it.
The survey questioned participants about how often they find themselves in situations when they think they language skills are not sufficient, how they would describe their feelings at those moments, and what situations are perpetuating those feelings most often. The participants were also asked if they were considering learning languages, and in what way. The last part of the survey referred to the participant’s demographics and social background.
The results show, that the most common situation where the participants don’t feel comfortable about their language skills is when they face a native user of a language, when they are approached in foreign language unexpectedly, or when they are taking part in a casual conversation. On the other hand, people seem to be less stressed about using languages for work.
Most participants would like to improve their language skills, some by taking classes and some in another way.
The field studies brought in similar results as those of the surveys, but the possibility of observing people in their environment brought some new aspects to light.
People were approached in the street in a couple European towns and asked some questions in English about a lost dog.
The most surprising observation was that the most willing to help were people either speaking English well or rather well, and those who did not speak it at all.
5 people did not want to stop at all, and the biggest group were people who did understand the question, but were not willing to speak English – they either tried to answer in their own language, or to stop someone else, who actually could help.
Another interesting observation was that people behaved differently when they were alone, or in a group – being in a group they were obviously feeling safer, and more willing to use English even if they didn’t speak it too well.
The observations from this round of research show that speaking foreign language to many people means getting out of their comfort zone and they prefer not to speak it, if they have a choice. Also it seems that people who only learned foreign language in a class have difficulties communicating in real life.
I prepared the interviews basing on the results of previous research, I wanted to obtain in-depth insights on the key aspects of learning and using languages. My participants were pre-screened and all of them knew at least one foreign language at an intermediate level.
Many participants considered their second language skills good or rather good, yet many feared situations when they might have to speak the language due to the risk of being perceived as not good enough or even ridiculous.
Most participants pointed out the difference between language lessons and real life situations, and all of them emphasized the necessity of regular practice, even for those knowing a language well.
About half of participants were actively working on their language skills, mostly on their own, only three were taking classes. Also, most participants agreed that they would gain more if they could learn at their own pace and without pressure from teachers or fellow students. They seemed disappointed by the fact that unless one takes individual lessons, there is a big chance that the speed and way of learning might not be the best fit for everyone in the class.
When it comes to using apps, about 75% of participants had tried them, but only a few (four) had been using them regularly. Were they happy with the apps?
This round of research revealed a lot about users’ feelings and emotions.
It showed, that people can feel second class because of their poorer language skills, and in the situations when they could actually practice, they get intimidated and loose opportunities to speak, and thus to improve.
Basing on the research insights I created five personas for this project. Here I am presenting three of them.
USER JOURNEY MAPS
I created user maps for all personas. The maps differ, as the persona’s characteristics, motivations and pain points differ. Since Christina is the persona who represents the majority of our users (based on research results), the exemplary user journey map attached is the one created for Christina.
For many people situations when they need to use second language are very stressful and require getting out of the comfort zone. They feel unsure of how they might be perceived in case they make a mistake or sound funny to a native speaker.
People who lack self confidence have a lot of problems learning and using foreign languages. They are quite sure they make a lot of mistakes and prefer not to speak the language until the mistakes are eliminated, which can be never. If they decide to speak they are so focused on finding the correct way of saying something, that they lose the meaning of what they wanted to say in the process.
PACE OF LEARNING
People learn at different speed and often it is difficult for them to keep up with the pace set by the teacher – that is especially valid for people taking group courses, but not only.
People who have problems adjusting to the teaching pace feel a lot of pressure on completing their assignments and that interferes with their learning process.
Very often people don’t get a lot of choice when it comes to where, what and how they learn.
During conversation exercises they often feel they have to follow scenarios set by the teacher instead of expressing their own feelings, or talking about things they are interested in.
In today’s world people often don’t have enough time to do everything they would like to do, so committing for months to a language course can be a great challenge for many.
Learning languages can cost a lot of money, so many people look for budget options. They often end up using language learning apps which don’t cost a lot, but don’t teach a lot either.
Knowing more about the users and their problems, I could start thinking about setting my design principles for this project. Some of these principles are my all-timers and I always use them, while some others are more project specific.
People first: design for needs
Create safe space
Don’t create fun
Give people reasons to interact
Make it nice, but don’t let the visual aspect become the greatest asset
Design, test, iterate, repeat
At this point, I cannot share the complete design of the app. I hope it will be possible soon, but even without presenting the user flows and detailed functionality of the app I think this project is worth sharing, because of those aspects of designer’s work that sometimes remain hidden behind the visual part of a design.
At the beginning I thought I’d be designing another language learning app, maybe in different colors. But when I got to know the idea, my way of thinking changed completely, and the research phase only reassured me in that. Learning languages, or polishing them, is not the only value here. To many people language problems not always are the real problem, sometimes they are a symptom of something more serious – and this is why my approach was rather towards creating a safe space for users, than coming up with just another fun app. This is why, if you look at my design principles for this project, you will see it comes right after the one that I remind myself with every single project: people first.
The next principle reads ‘Don’t create the fun’. To me it’s obvious, the app is going to be used by nice and friendly people. I need to create space in which users will feel comfortable and relaxed, and they will know how to take care of the fun.
If now you would like to say, that not everyone is the same and for some people this app will remain just another language learning aid, I’d say you re right. But when you start to think of one group of people who are not exactly the kind of people you would expect your users to be, then other groups start coming to mind. Think: expats trying to learn a language of their new country. People who want to learn languages to advance their careers or get new job opportunities. Those who fall in love and want to learn the language of their partner. See? When you start asking why, and follow with more whys you will find out that people seldom learn languages just because, they mostly have deep personal reasons, of which sometimes they are not aware themselves.
But why am talking about this when I should be talking (at least) about a project? Well, thing is, maybe it’s a good opportunity to talk about it, because it’s not that language app are so special and give some extra opportunities to designers. It can be any app, or any website – because it always is about people, and people are quite complex. Even when they are called users.
I REALLY ENJOY MY WORK...
…even when I cannot share it, for one reason or another. Every project moves me forward and lets me learn something new, not just about design, also about people.
With this project I learned that our motives are sometimes irrational, and yet they drive us, making our lives difficult. Someone might say that languages are not the most important part of our lives and not everybody has to be bilingual, and apps like Native Speaker (not the real name, by the way) are there not to help, but to make money on someone’s silly problems. Well, everyone can think what they want, but being bilingual myself I know, that languages can help to build up our self-esteem.
Now, is this really a designers outcome of a project? Actually it is, because this project is a proof that empathy is an important thing. In life, but also in work. And I really believe this app will be useful to people having similar problems as my personas.
After what I have written above, writing about improvements for dashboards that I have in mind would look slightly awkward. Besides, I don’t know when the next steps will be taken, and what I’ll be doing by then. For me, I hope the next step will be another exciting project.
© Jagna Birecka, 2022