An Interview with Rob Dumas, Executive Director of User Experience, Cengage Learning

Software that delivers a great user experience is not created by accident. It takes one or more experienced user experience (Ux) designers, a delicate balance of art and science, and a development team that shares the product vision. Products that are designed to increase student engagement and improve outcomes have to appeal to instructors and their students in order to deliver on those promises.

I caught up with Cengage Learning’s Executive Director of User Experience, Robert Dumas, a couple of weeks ago to discuss the intricacies of designing new educational technology products – especially those that challenge prevailing assumptions and result in true innovation. Rob has been designing great user experiences for over 20 years, including the interfaces of learning management systems (LMS) and other products in the educational technology space. He leads a team of user experience designers, media designers, and usability specialists who work on the MindTap family of products.

Jeanne Heston (JH): What was your starting point when designing the latest generation of educational technology products?

Rob Dumas (RD): We tend to take a pragmatic approach: What is the problem that we are trying to solve? In this case, we wanted to make it easier for students to learn and comprehend the material – without increasing their reading workloads — and to receive the help that they need when they need it, ‘’just in time”. We recognize the LMS for what it is — a set of great tools that make it easier to host online classes and to store and download resources. Our goal was to create a user-centric environment for students to learn in — one that could work with the LMS toolset – to keep them focused and on task. We felt that we could best accomplish that by providing apps for everything all in one place, including the eBook, self-paced homework solutions, YouTube videos, online peer review, and other social media. All of the apps communicate with each other, sharing data related to progress, remediation, and more.

JH: How did you know that this model would appeal to students?

RD: For the latest offerings, we decided to go directly to the students because they are the ones who will actually be using the products on a day-to-day basis. We did a lot of research before and during the various design phases — sending our Ux designers out to observe and talk to students at student unions and other places on campus where they tend to hang out with their notebooks and tablets. We asked them how they used their electronic devices, took photos of them working on assignments, and followed up with online questionnaires. Not surprisingly, our designers discovered variations across disciplines. The common thread was the way in which students tended to jump from application to application – using lots of windows and URLs –in order to complete assignments.

JH: Why not just ask instructors and their students what they want?

RD: We do that too, but it is often difficult for users to articulate a solution. They can always tell you what they don’t like about the current solution, what frustrates them. Those answers point us in the direction of the problems that we need to solve. There is an old design joke: If car manufacturers used only the answers to the question, “What features would you like in your ideal car?” as the basis for designing new cars, all cars would have 100 drink holders!

JH: Once the onsite research has been conducted and the surveys have been tabulated, what’s next?

RD: Design team members are constantly monitoring feedback [from instructors and students] on existing products – ours and our competitors. Ux designers combine this information with their domain expertise [Ux best practices] and their hours of experience in usability test environments, watching users interact with digital products. They often start with wireframes; sometimes they will go straight to HTML [a prototype]. An experienced designer who understands the customer’s issues can produce a pretty good first-round prototype – 80 to 85 oercent of the time. No one nails it the first time, so we utilize heuristic evaluations and usability testing when needed; then we refine the prototype. Once we have a product in the market, we run continuous class tests and pilot programs in order to understand how we can make our products even better and to prepare for the next innovation.

JH: What is the best advice that you can offer Ux designers?

RD: I encourage my teams to start with a blank canvas and to plan on multiple iterations. Using the painting analogy, every stroke does not have to be perfect; it’s okay to get paint on the canvas. The process is similar to the Agile development methods that our software developers use. We iterate; rinse and repeat

What technology tools and functionalities have had the most positive impact on your courses, in terms of engaging your students and helping them to master the material? Please share your thoughts with us on this topic, or anything else regarding this interview, in the Comments section.