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How we designed FutureLearn’s new course categories

In October, our product manager, Tessa Cooper, introduced our new course categories. Here, our ‎Interaction Designer, Alla Kholmatova, discusses how we came up with these categories and designed new pages for them.

I’d like to share some of the design research process we use here at FutureLearn, to tackle various challenges, such as categorising our ever growing course portfolio.

Organising courses

There are over 140 courses on FutureLearn on all sorts of subjects – from business studies to cognitive poetics. And we have more than 750,000 thousands learners.

Imagine trying to organise such a large and diverse course portfolio into categories, in a way that works for hundreds of thousands of people. The number of groupings, combinations and category titles could be countless.

Our team at FutureLearn has many experts in learning design and education. We could have relied solely on their knowledge to categorise the courses. But we also knew that experts and non-experts can think very differently about the same content.

We wanted to know how our learners would think about grouping the courses available on FutureLearn, since they’re the ones who would be using the categories.

But how do we find out how our learners think?

There are many research techniques that can help us understand how people think. For this project, we used a well-known technique called card sorting. It works like this:

“You give people a set of cards that have example content written on them. You ask people to sort the cards into piles according to what’s similar and describe the groups they make (this is called open card sort). Or you can give people a set of content cards plus a set of categories and ask them to sort the cards into the predetermined categories (this is called closed card sort).”

–  Donna Spenser, Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories

Cards on a table, as part of a card sorting exerciseCard sort research with learners

To understand how people would think about organising our courses, we conducted three rounds of card sorting with our learners (thanks to all of you for taking part!), using an online tool called ConceptCodify.

120 learners took part in this research. In each of the three rounds, a group of respondents was presented with a set of digital cards with course titles written on them, and asked to sort them into categories.

The results we got back, especially in the first round, were extremely diverse. Here’s a dendrogram and a similarity matrix of results, which highlight the diversity of responses.

A dendrogram and a similarity matrixAfter the first round, we ended up with 104 proposed group names. We started by identifying group names that were used consistently, as well as the placement of individual course titles within each group.

A spreadsheet showing all of the proposed course category namesThose 104 titles fell roughly into 14 groups, based on the similarities in terminology used by the learners, as well as the types of course that were placed in each of those groups. Together with our content team, we went through the titles and assigned a “standardised label” to each group.

A spreadsheet showing some examples of standardised category namesAfter the first round, we learnt that our our course portfolio falls roughly into 12-14 categories (prior to the card sort we believed it was about 8). We also had the standardised “working titles” for each group.

But what we still didn’t know was how effective those category working titles really were.

The next two rounds of card sort

The next two rounds of card sort were dedicated to finding that out. At this stage, we were looking at the category working titles, to understand how effective they were at guiding people towards the correct category. With each of the three rounds we tweaked the titles slightly, to see how it affected the responses. It was fascinating to observe how subtle language differences can make a profound effect in how people group and organise the content.

For example, a course called “Caring for Vulnerable Children” was assigned by over a quarter of respondents into Society & Politics category. The course had nothing to do with politics and would look quite odd next to other courses in the category. But the word “society” in the category title had led many people to believe it belonged to that category. After removing the misleading word and changing the category name to “Politics & the Modern World,” we managed to steer the responses in the right direction.

An illustration of how we refined a course category name
Finally, we went through all the titles again with the content team to define the last remaining grey areas, and ended up with these 13 courses categories.

Design category pages

Now we knew what the categories were, we had to find the right way to display them on the site. We already had the existing courses page structure with navigation tabs, where the new categories had to fit. But simply adding the categories to the courses page wouldn’t work.

Notebooks and print outs showing initial course and category page designs

During the weeks of sketching, wireframing and prototyping, we tried out countless options that explored presenting categories as a list:

Prototype designs showing course categories in listsIn the end, we settled on a much more visual approach. It looked quite different to what we’d previously explored, but to us it felt much more like FutureLearn – bright, playful and inviting.

The final course category designUsing the distinctive visual imagery and icons, rather than simple lists, allowed us to expand this style to the individual category pages, giving each category its own unique feel.

An example of a category page displayed on tablet and mobileBuilding the categories

Collaboration is a big part of our culture at FutureLearn. As with any other project, designers and developers worked closely on the categories together, iterating and improving designs as we went. We added subtle animations, new icons, adaptive images and typography, and other nice little details. Those details might not be noticeable on their own, but we hope that together, they add up to something that will intrigue, inspire and delight our learners.

Want to learn more about the way we work at FutureLearn? Take a look at all of our “Making FutureLearn” posts.

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