Say what you mean. More than test prep.
As I walked out of the room after finishing my TOEFL speaking test, which was a process of answering 5 questions by talking to the computer, I thought I could expect a satisfying score and easily converse with native speakers. That was 6 years back, when I decided to apply for graduate schools in the States and took the required English test. I spent months before the test thinking through all kinds of topics and writing down my answers; I had recited examples and practised with my friends.
I was wrong. Among reading, listening, writing and speaking, my speaking test got the lowest score. After I started grad school at the University of Michigan, it actually took me quite a while to feel natural talking in English. Among all the challenges an international student could encounter in pursuing higher education in the US, language might be one of the toughest. It's not only about grammar and pronouciation. It's about the art of communication.
Fast-forward 6 years, I met Jack, an engineer and entrepreneur by day and teacher by night, and started working with his team to build TFT.Rocks (in progress) to improve the situation. When he shared with me his experience teaching English, and when his students told me how stressed out they were preparing for the TOEFL test, I was able to resonate and feel for them. Empathy has played a huge role in helping me use the power of design to help students chase their dreams.
What makes it so hard to improve?
Most students who are preparing for the tests to study abroad are very determined and hard-working. But why is it so difficult? Here are a few reasons we identified:
How might we help? TFT.Rocks is a website for students to practice spoken English and find resources. It’s part of the whole TFT program, which includes online classes, coaching and study groups. The mission is no longer getting high scores in TOEFL test only. The challenge for us is to find a balance between the practical purpose of test prep and the long-term goal of helping students improve English and learn about the culture they are about to live in.
Students are armed with high-quality resources
Homepage and Topic details
When designing the website, the first step is to make sure the students can easily find the high-quality resources and make good use of them. On the homepage, the user can browse through the recommended answers by categories, or search for topics and answers. When they click into the topic cards, the best answer will be displayed at the top, so that the student can easily consume it by listening to the audio (powered by Amazon Polly) or reading the passage.
Then, to keep our users engaged and motivate them to take the initiative to practice, we encourage them to participate by commenting, critiquing, and sharing their answers with others. They can see their answers and other users’ postings they liked in the Profile page:
Practise speaking while building the community
This is a starting point but definitely not the best way to improve speaking in the long run. As students started to use the website they found only being able to read samples and write comments/notes was insufficient. We realized that our priority should be to encourage students to speak out loud and share their recordings. Other users should be able to comment on certain time stamps of the answer. This would be an intuitive and effective way to improving spoken English and listening. It also fosters a culture of helping each other succeed. We don’t force them though - text-only answers are accepted as we understand users have different preferences and we don’t want them to feel obliged.
Speak out loud your answer and share it with peers
Also, I've been exploring ways for the user to add comments and notes inline. Other contexual actions can include saving useful expressions, looking up words, reporting issues and providing suggestions.
Contextual actions in the passage (in progress)
Not just for test-prep
We are constantly listening to our current users’ feedback. We have a support group where students can let us know how they are using TFT.rocks and send us feature requests. As part of the group, I’ve been getting questions and working with the PM and engineers to improve. Here are some feedback and suggestions we’ve got:
We currently have likes and comments counters; the user can also count on the quality of TFT-posted answers. However, these aspects may not be as informative or accurate. Right now I’m working with the engineers to add ratings that allows the user to rate the answers and have a better idea on the quality through the average rating.
Before giving an Y/N, I asked probing questions to understand why our users have this ask. “Save” may sound like similar and interchangeable with “like”, but the needs behind are different. By saving a topic, the user can follow the topic and stay on top of new answers. “Like” is more of giving appreciation to others, whereas “save” is for the user’s own reference. Having understand this, I’m exploring ways to let user follow topics and people. This will also be hooked up with Notifications, so that the user will be notified when new answers are available from topics or people they follow.
This question has helped me realize that having one single search is insufficient. Being able to search within answers saved by the user can help them come back to certain questions easily and practice multiple times.
Options of adding more flexibility to search
There are several ways to do this. The low hanging fruit is making the global search contextual - when the user on their profile page, the search in the top header will just filter within the answers saved by the user. Alternatively, we can have a separate section for the user to refine search or browse by facet. Another option is to build in advance search where the user to specify their queries beforehand.
Since we launched the website in July 2017, we have been using Google Analytics to keep track of how we are doing at the following metrics, and found some problems:
The MVP version of TFT.Rocks has been popular among students who are enrolled in the TFT programs. Instructors leverage the site to give assignments to students. They learn from the examples, speak out loud their own answers, post comments, take notes, and critique each others’ answers. However, users are not taking the initiative to use it on their own or recommend to other people. The site is limited to text-based content and test-related topics. Although the resources are not only offered to enrolled students, they are not as interesting or approachable to the public. I'm currently working on improving the designs to curate various content types that could make the platform more engaging and valuable for learners.
Adding visuals to help students understand the context (in progress)
Exploring different options (in progress)
In the long term, we will be expanding the website to provide more resources besides the TOEFL speaking test. When we have more services available and better curated, users will be able to come to the homepage not only seeing questions and answers, but also learn what TFT is about, navigate to different sections, enroll in courses, sign up for groups, and contribute to the learning community.
This project is ongoing - stay tuned! (These are avatars I drew for our users)
Jack Liu, Li Jiao, Zhe Qian, Hao Liu, Vic Cai
Product design, visual design
Sketch, Illustrator, Principle, After Effects
2017.3 - 2017.10