We recently did the design for PASCO’s Spark SLS, a science education platform. Kids and teachers can collect data from the world around them, and then visualize and analyze it on-the-go or in the classroom. By letting people really visualize scientific phenomena, Spark brings science to life for kids and teachers both. During our research, I expected (and wanted) to learn what teaching science was like. But interestingly, it didn’t really come up.
So, what do science teachers care about? While they might be teaching Plank’s Constant, it turns out that if they can’t keep their classrooms in order it doesn’t matter. Classroom management was the number one issue we heard about over and over. So our challenge was clear: design a powerful tool that looks so simple teachers can still devote their attention to classroom control while teaching science.
This made for a funny moment during the design process: what should the products “facial features” be? Which are the right controls that balance the perception of simplicity with the need for a fair amount of functionality? Should we put a bunch of buttons on it? What about a stylus? As touch was just beginning to emerge as a dominant paradigm, it wasn’t the obvious choice. In fact, much of the functionality seemed like it would be left behind if we didn’t support a stylus or physical controls. And yet, as designers we just knew that a stylus was the wrong solution. Who trusts 13 year-olds not to lose a tiny accessory? What kind of damage could you do to a touchscreen with a pointy thing? And who wants an overgrown calculator?
So, we made a decision that had more to do with the aspirational brand of the product than anything to do with functionality. A touchscreen and two buttons sends the message that the product is simple, while the on-screen behaviors and visuals provide a rich set of tools for students and teachers to explore the world around them and conduct experiments.
This is a good reminder that not every design decision is made analytically. While you might want to select controls based on what the product does, you might also want to shape what a product does based on the “facial features” you want it to have. In this case, I wasn’t sure we’d gotten it right until we overheard some teachers at the tradeshow where Spark SLS was unveiled. “Have you seen that Spark thing?” someone said as they passed by the booth, “so simple, a monkey could use it.”
-- Gretchen Anderson