Mathematician Expedition

A UI/UX Case Study

The goal of this project was to design the experience and interface of an app that would help motivate kids to practice their math skills while increasing adaptable difficulty for individual students. Using gamification as the core of the experience, users would engage in enjoyable practice at home and motivating competition in the classroom.

The Problem

Amidst the countless activities young kids participate in, it can seem impossible to get them to focus on what they’re learning in school. Whether in the classroom or doing homework assignments, it is often clear that young students, elementary schoolers in particular, would rather be playing video games or spending time outside with their friends.

To address this problem, I created an app prototype using gamification and social competition that would help 8-10 year-olds stay engaged in the classroom and at home, developing a healthy intrinsic motivation to learn. The goal was to develop a solution that would make practicing math more fun and intentional than traditional classroom learning methods while providing more individualized teaching opportunities.

Technology is now an integral part of primary education

User Research

My users are kids age 8-10 who are enamored with sports, video games, and competition but struggle with academic motivation, particularly in math. Most of my research for this project was based on the behavioral psychology of my user, and there were many relevant developmental milestones I had to take into consideration.

I developed a persona based on these findings to help me analyze my decisions from the user’s perspective. In their growing drive to fit in, gamification was likely to be an effective motivator. Kids would want to perform well to impress their peers, giving them a strong incentive to practice at home and put in more effort than they otherwise would.

I created this persona based on my research to help guide my decision making in the design process

Luckily, we were learning about child development in my psychology class I was in and I met with the professor to ask some more specific questions. Through working with him, I learned that:

 This system presents the user with achievable yet demanding challenges that would keep them motivated with a rewarding sense of accomplishment and confidence.

Specific Problems to Tackle

The main problems I wanted to address were the adaptability and motivation of math learning. Adaptability has two aspects: the difficulty of practice work and the difficulty at which the content is taught. It can be nearly impossible to teach students with a wide range of academic competence, so I wanted to give teachers more useful metrics and greater control over individualized difficulty. This would allow them to analyze individual students’ performances and provide them with the proper level of intellectual challenge.

Understanding how gamification relates to my user helped me explore potential solutions. Because I wanted to tackle the problem at home and on the front lines of the classroom, I decided to develop two game modes: Class Mode and Practice Mode. Class Mode was where gamification came in. Students would compete in the classroom (using the increasingly common class sets of iPads in schools), being motivated by the drive to fit in and seem smart in front of their classmates. Practice Mode, a more customizable lower-stakes experience, would feed off this motivation at home where the student would want to practice to perform better in class.

Design Process

Looking back at my persona, I wanted an exciting theme that would draw in a diverse range of kids and keep them engaged. I began thinking (too superficially) about what I liked as a kid from robots to legos to video games, but I realized that using only my own experience would be like analyzing user research from 15 years ago. I began to dig deeper to find what connects youth across all generations. After engaging in some self-searching (and strategic googling) I had it. What gets a kid more excited than the sense of adventure? And what better way to visually represent adventure than with an epic jungle expedition? The game would be experienced as an exciting journey through dense underbrush of a rainforest-like atmosphere with animals and some dynamic wayfinding.

Designing wireframes helped me plan user flows and determine which screens I actually needed

This made way for my initial wireframing. The user flow would be pretty straightforward; users would choose either Practice Mode and set parameters for their experience, or they would choose Class Mode and compete live against their classmates within parameters set by the teacher. As users progress through Class Mode, their accuracy triggers the appropriate but always encouraging responses.

Early attempt at defining a visual style that would be inviting and exciting

I first attempted to achieve an organic illustration style. It seemed promising but once I began to put a mock screen together it looked overwhelming and dark, not like the inviting, encouraging environment I knew was important for for my app. Looking back at the similar apps I'd researched, I noticed a definitive trend that focused on flat simplified forms and didn’t strive for any sense of realism. With this new perspective, I designed a set of elements that were rooted in what I call “soft geometry,” defined by regular geometric shapes but with round, soft corners and an overall bubbly look. I spent a lot of time on the animals, making them friendly and approachable without being too cheesy or exaggerated.

I used "soft geometry" to make a style that is more clean and inviting

Moving forward with my design system, including the clever name inspired by one of my classmates, I began experimenting with the interface itself. I used a layered composition that got darker is it extended to the background to make the user really feel like they were entering a jungle full of adventures and surprises. The individual math problems would be displayed as wooden signs, navigating them through their expedition with different animals encouraging them after each questions. In Class Mode, points would be given or removed based on the user’s ability to correctly answer questions, tallying up at an exciting results screen where the animals encountered along the way met up for the exciting announcement of the winners.

As I experimented with the design elements I had created, I learned how they most effectively interacted with the content; as a result the composition noticeably improved
The final full-fidelity prototype made in XD

I did all of the design and prototyping within Adobe XD, relying heavily on its auto-animate feature to achieve the dynamism and excitement that was crucial to maintaining my user's interest. In addition to the visual/experience design, I created all of the audio components as well. I composed a short soundtrack to match the game’s energy and found the wealth of sound effects that added depth and realism to the experience.

What I Learned

The final result was a fun, adventurous game that would help young students learn math more effectively in the classroom and at home. By engaging the students with a reward system and restructuring the process as an exciting adventure, Mathematician Expedition gives the students more intrinsic motivation to learn while providing the teacher with the important ability of adaptable teaching. Throughout this project, I was forced to think now about how I would interact with my app myself, but how a nine year-old would. Distancing myself from my decision making allowed me to focus more dependently on the research I conducted and forced me to seek out more reasoning for each decision I made. Looking back, I wish I had been able to implement user testing with my final prototype to develop more refined iterations, but I was limited by the time constraints of the project (and to be honest, much less knowledge of proper UX testing practices). My process on this project made me think much more deeply about the experience I want my users to have, and taught me how to depend on user research as the core of my design process.

The Final Prototype

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