facilitating participation using synchronous communication in class lectures

In large universities, such as UCSD, communication is one-way from the professor to the students. Few questions are asked due to fear of being judged. Many students are losing interest during lecture and going to their laptops for distractions. Mustaske uses a live chat room to help facilitate in class lectures, where a student can feel safe to ask questions without being judged, and the professor can meet their goals of helping large bodies of students learn. With Mustaske, we are not trying to replicate physical proximity with technology, but rather facilitate and meet needs not met with even physical proximity, as mentioned in Jim Hollan's paper.

This project was a combination between two projects-- Flunkless, which focused on user research, and Mustaske, which focused on development. I personally chose to develop my design skills through multiple iterations.

Deliverables: Final Presentation Slides | Website | GitHub

role: UX Researcher, UX/UI Designer, Front-End Developer

collaborators (design and research):

Vlad Bakhurinsky, Michelle Wang, Jared Defigh, Meena Kaushik, Hui Ping Lee, Lucas DePaula, Alex Peterson

collaborators (development):

Kyly Vass, Brandon Falk, Tanner Turner, Daniel Lee, Jose Valdez, Chris Tetreault, Nick Gibson, Robert Kronebusch


Frustration From Interactions and Tools

Students are frustrated from having to keep track of their numerous tools used for collaboration and coursework.

Teachers are frustrated that students don't pay attention to essential information, and therefore waste their time.

We noticed that in our classes, there was no single platform that could support the academic needs of students, including having easy interaction with teachers. Our original idea was to explore how could we facilitate better, easier, and more accessible collaboration between students and communication with teachers. We mainly looked Facebook, because at the time, Facebook was more accessible to students.


User Interviews on Academic Tools

We started by conducting user research with field notes and video / screen recording with students, teaching assistants (TA), and professors by asking them about their goals and pain points. We asked them with how they currently used Facebook as an academic tool (if they did, or why they didn't), and other tools they used for academic purposes, including TED, blackboard, Google Docs, etc. How do the current learning management tools fall short in meeting our users' academic needs? We wanted to potentially create a new LMS (Learning Management System).

We created an affinity diagram and personas based on our user interviews.

What We Found


Everyone communicated with different people in different ways. Some were required of them for professionalism (email), some happen to be by convenience (Facebook). However, their common goals were that everyone wanted to send out communication easily, check communication quickly, and know what communication to focus on to answer. Students wanted to communicate with their TAs for a quick response. TAs and professors wanted to mass communicate quickly about changes or important things to remember. However, communication was failing currently due to clutter, fear of judgment, or lack of in-person availablility.

Privacy & Fear

Everyone cared about not intermingling their personal life with their academic life. TAs and professors didn't want to come off as biased, and students didn't want their personal lives to affect their grades. TAs and professors often resorted to changing their names on Facebook so no student could find them. Students were also afraid of approaching TAs and professors with questions because of fear of judgment that teachers wouldn't consider them as "smart", so they liked anonymity.

Technology and Time

Everyone hated learning new interfaces with different tools and checking multiple platforms, because it was "annoying" and students often forgot their different accounts and where another classes' platform is located. Professors are usually older, so they didn't want to have to learn a new technology/platform, or have to set up something complicated, because they were usually short on time.


Students wanted to meet other people in the class, and the teachers wanted to encourage more collaboration between students. Students also wanted easier ways to form "study groups".

Finding & Notifications

People wanted to be notified of only important information, and to find the information they wanted faster. They emphasized hating being bombarded with unnecessary emails, or being unable to find the material they were looking for. TAs mostly faced what they considered as "clutter emails", which were mainly questions that had already been answered during lecture or the syllabus.

testing designs

Questionable Feedback for Designs

Based on our research, we collaboratively created designs to show to users to see if we were on the right path.

During our second round of interviews, their feedback was about our idea and designs showed that it was questionable if users would actually switch over and use our platform as a new LMS. They kept suggesting more features, and not really finding much value in what we already had in there. They questioned why they would need to use it and what the purpose was, such as saying "I'm confused. Do I use this with my other platforms?" Also, as we found in our initial findings, older people, like professors, were usually unlikely to want to switch over and relearn a new system.

It became clear that in order to have users switch from their previous options of LMSs, it had to be 10x better, which our product could not be in our short amount of time.


Revisit Research to Meet Unmet Needs

Our research had shown that different parties were simply trying to communicate with one another. However, other parties weren’t listening, from fear of judgment, or too much clutter that makes it impossible to focus on the important things. We also saw that current Learning Management Systems were nonsynchronous communication, where the professor would post things later after the lecture, but there was no current product to facilitate in-lecture communication.

New Product Direction

Based on our research, we decided to go with a product to facilitate better communication and engagement between a large group and a single professor using synchronous communication. This product would not replace lectures, but simply facilitate it for better communication between a large group and a single speaker.

This designed with students in mind, knowing that they liked anonymity from fear of judgment. We also wanted teachers to find value, who just wanted to know what were the important things to address. This highlights Jim Hollan's paper "Beyond Being There", where it states that technology's purpose is to meet needs not even met with physical proximity, rather than trying to replicate it.


This idea resonated better with users, because it was a simpler, and a completely new idea, which solves some of their pain points. This definitely resonates with our initial research findings about Communication, Privacy, and Finding.

iterative design process

Iterative Design Process

Many iterations of this project was made, including to accomodate for some constraints. Ultimately, each new design became a better user experience based on the research, and improvement on design skills. I also wish we had more time to test out our designs and new idea with more people, but unfortunately, there was not enough time.

Design Decisions

Focus on Facilitating the Questions

I wanted to focus the product vision on the idea of "facilitating in class lectures". As a change from Iteration 1, I decided that we needed to highlight the questions better. The most important are the top questions asked, so professors can see what the students really wanted to know. Students were also interested in the top questions, so they could anticipate if their questions might be answered. Next of importance was an easy way for people to see questions coming in and out, so students could vote on what they are interested in knowing.

Focusing by Reducing Clutter

I stripped out the class selection from the previous design, since your main focus during a lecture is not switching to another class, but the questions being presented. While checkpoints were important, they weren't what professors and students were focusing on 100% of the time. Also, during our research, we noticed checkpoints were commonly used in small spurts, but was not referred to commonly throughout the lecture.

design solutions

Post Your Questions Immediately

Students tend to forget their questions, if they weren't already intimidated by the professors

Students often feel intimated by professors, but have mentioned that having a technological barrier makes students feel more safe to ask their questions. Professors also just want to make sure their students' questions are answered.

Share Related Material or Notes

Students love helping by sharing materials. Teachers love it when students are passionate and engaging with the subject

Students often feel intimated by professors, but have mentioned that having a technological barrier makes students feel more safe to ask their questions. Professors also just want to make sure their students' questions are answered.

Vote on Questions You Want Answered

TAs and professors have difficulty noticing important questions in the repeating clutter

TAs are often frustrated by how they have to answer the same question over and over again-- especially those that have already been answered during class. With voting, other students can upvote if they also have the same question, so TAs and professors will know what questions need to be answered.

Checkpoints To Gather Feedback on Progress

Professors are unsure if they have been confusing, since silence and lack of questions do not equate understanding.

Students have mentioned that they are often confused, but are too scared to ask their question in front of the whole class and in person. Also, students may not necessarily know what question to ask if they did not understand the professor.

Desktop - Professor View

Start engaging your students

Manage the questions you've answered, and don't forget those ridiculous questions students ask

Gather feedback on their progress with this checkpoin

Desktop - Student View

Join to get your questions answered

Vote on questions you want answered

Help your professor know your progress

Unsure if your question has been asked? Search to vote on other questions to increase its presence

Mobile - Professor View

Mobile - Student View

competitive analysis

No Current Tools Fulfill This Need

Piazza offers a nonsynchronous communication Q&A platform, Facebook does not support effective and easy communication between our users for educational use, the iClicker only has options A-D for questions the professor offers (but not the students), and Blackboard's (TED's) usability is extremely poor and does not offer synchronous communication. I believe there are currently a few applications that do something similar to this, but those did not exist at the time.

constraints and development

Constraints & More Questions

Although it's not the best user experience to create new ids for students to use to join, creating accounts would have added more technical complexity that we did not have time for. I would have preferred students had accounts, where they could easily join existing rooms for their classes, and professors could record who was active and present in their classes. However, I thought the IDs were a good choice, considering our constraint. Also, as this product is not fully fledged, the value for creating accounts would not help solve our most valuable user problem.

I also wish I could do more research before redesigning this product. I have so many more questions I would have asked to see what users really cared about, and how they might differ based on their role. I also really wonder how users might actually use the product-- if they would actually monitor the questions coming in. I go into more detail in the improvements section at the bottom. Unfortunately, the focus at this point was only on development, not on more research.

This video represents our development team's thought process for our product. The second iteration design and product is located at, and our code base is here.

personal takeaways

Innovation is not from a Lone Genius

I think the most important thing I learned from this project is that design must first and foremost be user-centered, rather than aesthetics being first. Also, I always thought that great inventions and ideas came like a light bulb to inventors, but I found that new inventions are based on research on user data and needs, and ideas are usually built up over time. This project opened my eyes to see that UX design can change the world in so many different ways, such as connecting students to professors, or changing social issues through research and design.

Encountering Constraints

This was my first experience working with a development team. Product development is remembering to build for the user, but also understanding technical constraints, and trying to find a good compromise. I encountered many more constraints here, most of which was time. The UX Design process is great, but there is wisdom in knowing what is needed at what point, and trying to make do with what you have.


More Testing

As mentioned before, I wish we could have tested our new ideas and screens with more users ahead of time. Now, after the first iteration is live, I would love to test our product in the wild, where professors and users would use it in their classrooms. My guess is that students will also be tempted to just type their question without checking if others had already asked the same question. I'm also worried that students might have a hard time concentrating on the lecture, note-taking, and trying to keep up with all the questions coming in.

More Research and Questions

I also wish I had more time to do more research even before redesigning this product. I have so many questions about the product-- even though the focus for the professors are the top questions, what about the students? Do students even want to be looking at the incoming questions during lecture? Would it be distracting to keep up with the questions and the lectures and the note-taking? Should we highlight that user's question and their ranking, if most students only care about the question they ask? Also, how can we prevent repeating questions? Would we potentially create a search of keywords while students are typing their question?

Measuring Success

The goal of this product is to make it easier for students to ask their questions and to learn, and for teachers to have an easier time answering questions. I would use 1) any increase in grade averages over time, and 2) less interactions between TAs and students (less emails and less people coming to office hours) if the grade averages stayed the same. The first is difficult to prove that the app caused the significant improvement, which is why it needs to be the only changing variable, and done with a large sample of classes. With time, however, even though it will help maintain the same variables (with the same class), improvements could also happen because the professor or TAs improved.