facilitating participation using synchronous communication in class lectures

In large universities, such as UCSD, communication is one-way from the professor to the students. 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.

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

Keeping track of their numerous tools used for collaboration and coursework frustrated students.

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

We explored how could we facilitate better, easier, and more accessible collaboration between students and communication with teachers.

research & direction

Iterative Contextual Interviews and Testing on Academic Tools

To better understand the issues, we conducted user research with field notes and video / screen recording with students, teaching assistants, and professors.

Multiple ideas failed, and iterative research and feedback indicated switching to use a new Learning Management System (LMS) was questionable. We explored ideas like chat features during office hours for better accessiblity to TAs and professors, and even explored facilitating group work using different features.

Revisit Research to Meet Unmet Needs

Rather than create a product to replace existing ones which would have to be 10x's better to get users to switch, we revisited our research to solve unmet needs instead. Based on research, every party wanted to communicate more effectively without barriers of fear and clutter. We decided to simply facilitate better communication and engagement between a large group and a single professor using synchronous communication. It would not replace lectures, but simply facilitate it for better communication.

Exploration to Address Issues

We explored how to solve clutter, yet provide the necessary features to allow for effective engagement from students. We researched to show only what was necessary at each point, and how often each type of feature would be used. Below are a few of our ideas from multiple iterations.

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.

immediate & anonymous communication

Feel Comfortable When Learning

Students felt more comfortable and safe asking their questions with anonymity through a technological barrier, often feeling intimidated and fearing judgment from TAs and professors with “dumb questions”. By increasing openness about questions on the material, professors can more clearly meet the needs of the students. Live interaction encourages quicker and efficient feedback, since professors wanted to mass communicate easily. However, what goes into facilitating synchronous communication and interaction between many people to one person, in the midst of a lecture?

Checkpoints: Gather Feedback Now

Lecturer interaction was limited to certain moments, like asking for feedback via checkpoints or questions, since they devoted most of their focus and time to sharing the material. On the other hand, most students were always on their laptops already, currently unengaged by the lecture. By focusing on interaction (voting, question) for the students, we increase engagement in the material and give them a sense of ownership and control over their learning by having them prioritize and ask questions. A cleared professor’s view, rid of unnecessary interaction, helps the professor immediately focus on the important questions.

Students: Control your learning by interacting

Mobile - Professor View

Mobile - Student View

what's important faster

Getting Rid of the Clutter

Students are often bombarded with unnecessary emails, or are unable to find the material on separate systems and terrible navigation, forced by the professor. TAs and professors encounter “clutter emails”, which were mainly repeating questions already answered during lecture or on the syllabus.

Professors want to know the questions most students wanted answered immediately; students want to understand the material as painlessly as possible by getting their questions answered.

Professors and TAs: See the important questions right away, and manage the answered and ridiculous questions

Students: Vote on questions you want answered

We reduce clutter and distractions by providing important information right away and keep necessary interactions to a minimum. Focusing the top-asked questions on the left visually directs the professor on the important content. Professors can know and answer important questions easily and efficiently in the middle of a lecture. We reduce noise by allowing TAs to monitor for inappropriate questions as they come, which kicks students out after repeat offenses. Voting on recent questions engages students to prioritize their questions, and ultimately their learning. Students also avoid retyping the same question that creates more noise with voting.

join easily

No More Forgetting Usernames and Passwords

Professor View

Student View

Everyone hated learning new interfaces with different tools and checking multiple platforms. A code-based system avoids students forgetting different accounts on multiple learning management systems, and professors needing to spend much time and effort setting up the room. A professor enters a name to create a room, and students are given a code to enter the same room. Lack of accounts provides ease in seeing and asking questions only, trust in anonymity, and understanding as only a facilitator to in person lectures.

takeaways and improvements

Innovation is not from a Lone Genius

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 Development Constraints

Product development is remembering to build for the user, but also understanding technical constraints, and trying to find a good compromise. There is wisdom in knowing what is needed at what point, and trying to make do with what you have.

More Testing

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. I have so many questions and assumptions to research. How can we prevent repeating questions? My guess is that students will also be tempted to just type their question without checking if others had already asked the same question. Would it be distracting for students to keep up with the questions and the lectures and the note-taking? They may have a hard time concentrating on the lecture, note-taking, and trying to keep up with all the questions coming in.

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

  • any increase in grade averages over time
  • less outside interactions between TAs and students (less emails and less people coming to office hours)

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.

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.