SchwabLearning.org: A Case Study

One nonprofit + two web agencies + nine months = SchwabLearning.org. Yes, that was the formula to launch our web site, and I am one of the sole survivors to tell you about it. Before I begin telling the story of the project it is best to learn who and what Schwab Learning is.

Schwab Learning, a service of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, is dedicated to helping kids with learning differences be successful in learning and life. The Foundation began in 1988 from the Schwabs’ personal struggle with learning differences (LD). After Mr. and Mrs. Schwab’s son struggled in school “Learning about our visitors’ experience first-hand has enabled us to create a web site that meets their needs in a more meaningful way.”they had him assessed for LD. During a meeting with a school psychologist, the Schwabs were asked: “Didn’t either of you have problems like this?” That is when Charles Schwab recognized his own dyslexia, and his lifelong struggle with reading and writing suddenly made sense.

In 1999, after eleven years of serving San Francisco Bay Area parents and educators through direct services and outreach, we realized that we could effect greater change if we expanded our web presence. We needed to find a Web agency that would conduct a study on our target group to understand their needs, develop a web strategy and implement the web site. This project was during the height of dot-com boom, and many agencies were not interested in us because they had many accounts that would bring in a lot more money than our budget allowed. After a few months of pitch meetings with agencies, we signed a contract with Sapient to conduct an ethnographic study and lead us from concept to implementation for a new web site.

Laying the foundation for our new site
When we began working with Sapient we had already established goals, objectives and a direction.

Goal: Help kids with learning differences be successful in learning and life. Support kids and moms through “the journey.”

Objectives:

  1. Create two web sites, one for parents/moms and one for kids, but begin with the parent site.
  2. Conduct a study with moms who have a child or children with LD to learn about their experiences. Also, test Schwab Learning’s hypothesis that moms are the “case managers” for their children when working with schools, doctors, etc., and that parents are on a journey to understand and cope with LD.
  3. Create a scalable business and Web strategy to reach moms.

We began working with Sapient in March 2000 focusing on the business strategy and study of moms’ experiences. There were approximately 10 to 12 Sapient team members and 10 to 12 Schwab Learning team members. As a small non-profit, it was awkward working with such a large team of consultants; they totaled one-third of our entire staff at the time. After two months of working together, a draft business strategy was ready for the Board, and the results of the study had been delivered by way of experience models.

Before explaining the experience models and their impact on the Web site it is important to understand the methodology of the study. These models are extremely rich, as it would be very difficult to describe a mom’s experience without them. There were three parts of the study: focus groups, in-home interviews and visual diaries.

Focus Groups: Conducted in San Francisco and Chicago to determine if there were state-to-state differences between moms. There were four focus groups in each state: Two with children identified with an LD and two with children who struggled in school. In each of these pairs one group of moms had children in kindergarten to third grade, and one group had children in fourth to eighth grade.

In-Home Interviews: Seven moms in San Francisco and seven moms in the Chicago area, each interviewed for two hours. These interviews asked moms how they found information about LD, which management strategies they used with their children and for details about their children’s daily routines. There was also a tour of the house to demonstrate how the mom and child interacted in the home. Moms wrote on index cards words, phrases and questions about how they managed their child’s LD and how they felt parenting a child with LD. They arranged these cards in groups to help us understand how the topics are related.

Visual Diaries: Sixteen visual diaries were given to moms in San Francisco and Chicago to chronicle their experiences in a four-day period. Moms were asked to answer some questions and to write free-form journals. Moms were also asked to take pictures of their home environment, their kids, etc.

The LD Landscape
Five domains make up the LD Landscape and demonstrate the areas of a mom’s life that are affected by her child having an LD. These domains exist before their child is identified with LD; however moms have to reorient their relationships in the domains once they begin managing their child.

The lifecycle: gaining awareness
There are usually three stages that parents go through before their child is identified with LD. First they begin to sense that something is different. Next they rule out the environment, sleep patterns or other factors that might cause their child to struggle in school. Finally, they have their child assessed for LD.

The lifecycle: management strategies
After a child is assessed it is now time for the mom to begin learning management strategies that will help her interact with her child in home and at school. Management strategies do not always work, and may have to be refined.

Mom’s evolution of knowledge
When a mom first finds out about her child’s learning difference she usually seeks all the information she can find. This information is critical in the beginning, but over time moms begin to gain confidence in their abilities to help their children and rely more on experience and knowledge.

The next phase
After the experience models were delivered and accepted by Schwab Learning, the next phase of the project began.

A study with moms identified six user types which illustrate the different roles a mom finds herself in along the journey.

Pre-Identified: Doesn’t know that an LD exists. Considers herself part of the “normal” community, yet might feel isolated.

Novice: Acknowledges her child has an LD, but might not know which one. Learns that an LD landscape exists and there are tools and strategies to learn.

Student: Begins to negotiate the landscape and recognizes the affected domains. Recognizes her need for information and assistance.

Case Manager: Reorients herself in the LD landscape. Improves her ability to handle crisis and management of her child.

Advocate: Proactively participates in larger community. Begins to extend her knowledge to others; beginning of leadership.

Sage: Becomes a community resource and begins to be sought out by others.

The articulation of these roles demonstrated to us that we needed to focus on a particular user type or role because we could not launch a site filling all of these needs. After several meetings working with Sapient we narrowed our target for launch to the Novice mom. Choosing this target group made the most sense as we had been serving this population in our local center for years, and we had ready-made content for the web site.

The day our direction changed
At the end of May 2000 the Foundation’s Board met to discuss various matters, primarily the new business strategy and direction of the Schwab Learning. After understanding the costs of the strategy: call centers, large-scale partnerships, and a deep and complex web site at launch, the Board was concerned. Mr. Schwab grew his business from the ground up, building on top of successes while taking calculated risks and learning from them. The decision was made to scale back the scope of the web site, find another web agency to build the web site from the study we had conducted, and launch by the end of 2000.

After finishing our commitment to Sapient in July, we wrote an RFP, interviewed agencies and hired Small Pond Studios (SPS) within a month. We did not want to stop the internal momentum and enthusiasm for building the web site, and we only had four and one-half months to launch the web site. SPS was an ideal agency to work with because not only did they have a stellar team, the four principles worked for Sapient prior to starting their own company. They understood all of the deliverables from Sapient and were able to translate them into a plan for the web site.

Creating a realistic web site
Once the documentation was internalized by SPS we began working on the design, branding and information architecture. There were four conceptual models to choose from: Information, Tools, Journey and Community. The “Journey” concept was the most compelling model because it gave site visitors an orientation about LD while balancing information, community and tools, which are important to managing the journey. Also, the Journey concept complemented our user study because parents need to understand the LD landscape before managing their child’s LD.

The Information concept did not provide Schwab Learning the space to be a guide to parents, and it de-emphasized community. The Tools concept would not provide parents enough desperately sought information. The Community concept would not put Schwab Learning in the expert role, and a community’s growth takes time, which we did not have.

Once the decision was made to move forward with the Journey concept, SPS created two different wire frames to test with moms. One wire frame was based on organizing the information architecture by the LD Landscape (domains): Work, Family, Institutions, Community and Self. The other wire frame was based on the Lifecycle: Is it LD?, Identifying and Managing a Learning Difference, and Sharing Information.

LD Landscape

LD Lifecycle

SPS conducted two rounds of user testing with six moms using wire frames. The first round was to determine which structure made more sense to moms, and the second was to refine the chosen model. During the first round of testing we discovered that moms did not know where to begin with the LD Landscape concept. All of the domains affected their life, and all were very interesting, so knowing where to click first was not intuitive. Moms had a better sense for were to start with the Lifecycle concept, and that confidence would be critical for first-time visitors to the web site.

For the second round of testing using the Lifecycle concept, the main “buckets” were reduced from four to three: Identifying a Learning Difference, Managing a Learning Difference and Sharing Knowledge. Also, because the concept made sense to moms, the domains became the secondary navigation architecture.. We probed on the wording of the “buckets” and placement of clicks, as well as interest in registering and reactions to a first version of the design.

Final information architecture wireframe

Initial design of homepage
We learned valuable information from this second round of testing. Moms liked the happy children and the warm, inviting color of the Web site. They also liked the “.org” front and center. To the moms it assured them that the site was not trying to sell them anything, and our information could be trusted. Moms did raise concern about the phrase “Sharing Your Knowledge” because some of them felt they did not have knowledge to share.

The next step was to continue to refine the design, then marry the technical and design for testing. We had decided early on to build the site in ASP with a MS SQL database. The live site at the time was built on the same platform so we were able to leverage our existing content management system and other functions for the new site.

In the span of two years, the site went from this design and information architecture in January 1999 …

To this site redesign in September 1999 …

And finally to this complete new site in December 2000.


So you launched, now what?
In 2001 we hired four staff members who grew the team to seven, and in 2002 we had a budget for two more. We added several pieces of functionality to the site: polls, quizzes, a web calendar and an html newsletter option; increased our content from eighty articles to two hundred articles and conducted a usability study with ten moms. In 2001 our web traffic steadily increased from month to month. The average visitors from the first quarter to the fourth quarter increased by 46 percent and page views increased by 49 percent.

When we conducted the usability test with moms we discovered that they were having a difficult time browsing once they clicked into “1, 2 or 3.” Moms were struggling to find information they needed in the domains because the lists of articles were becoming too long. Internally we were struggling with placing articles in our information structure, so we knew it needed to be changed. We have kept the 1, 2, 3 structure and added a 4 to house a visitor’s personal page and some of our functionality that previously did not have a home. We also consolidated the secondary information structure from Your Child, Your Family, Schools and Professionals, etc. to Kids & Learning, Home & Family, Schools & Other Resources and have now added a tertiary information structure. This provides us a more flexible structure that moms will hopefully relate better too. This new information and design structure launched in February 2002.

Lessons learned
It has been an amazing two years and yet we still have a long way to go. Looking back, we have achieved our original objectives and applied them to the building of SchwabLearning.org. We have learned many lessons along the way and here are a few:

First, don’t let your vision blind you. We were incredibly excited about helping moms and kids, and that enthusiasm led us to believe that our thirty-person organization could transform itself overnight. We needed to take a deep breath and say, “Wait a minute, how are we going to do this?” Today our vision remains as strong as ever to help kids with learning differences be successful in learning and life. Our process to achieve our vision changed from the big bang theory to starting small, building on the foundation we launched with and protecting our assets.

Second, conducting user studies was invaluable. Learning about our visitors’ experience first-hand has enabled us to create a web site that meets their needs in a more meaningful way. Our experience models have enabled us to communicate with partners and other friends of the Foundation as well as create a new language for us: domains, LD landscape, novice, case manager, etc.

Third, user research and usability testing will always put you on the right track. The testing we conducted pre- and post-launch has been extremely useful in guiding our development. The initial user research study gave us the opportunity to go into the homes of the people we were trying to help. This proved to be rich data because we could see first-hand the interactions with their children and how their homes were set up to accommodate their children (i.e. where they kept medications, chore lists, etc.). The focus groups revealed different information as these moms were in a group with different dynamics compared with one-on-one interviews in a home. The diaries gave us another data point that was intimate in a different way as we only knew these moms’ stories and never met them in person. As for the first usability testing, we were able to discover potential pitfalls before going live. Who would have known that moms would have concerns about the concept “Sharing Your Knowledge”, but “Connecting With Others” did not pose a problem. Also in our post-launch usability testing, we discovered that the secondary information structure based on the “Domains” made sense to us, but not to site visitors. This is a very important discovery because if users cannot browse the Web site easily they are apt to become frustrated and leave the site. Moms of kids with LD are most likely already frustrated when they arrive, and we want to provide them a place that takes away the stress and lets them know someone understands.

Although some of these lessons have been learned the hard way, it has been completely worth it. When we receive emails from moms that read, “I am so appreciative of you [SchwabLearning.org], just for being there. Wish I would have found you sooner,” we know we are doing our job.

Jeanene Landers Steinberg is the Web Director for SchwabLearning.org and had the role of project manager during the creation of the Web site. Jeanene manages a team of eight people consisting of technical, editorial and online community staff who are responsible for maintaining and growing SchwabLearning.org into a premiere Web site for LD information, guidance and support.

Posted in Case Studies, Process and Methods | 8 Comments »

8 Comments

  • jess

    April 2, 2002 at 3:51 pm

    Wow! Thanks Jeanene for a fantastic read – your openess in your process and particularly your challenges was inspiring, encouraging, and educational. B&A at its best :)

  • mini-d

    April 2, 2002 at 6:09 pm

    I’ve found it great too, i specially love the diagrams and many good screenshots… i’m very impressed cause i’m seeing good examples of IA and Usabilty on these days in this website, wich i’ve never found so easy in the old days :), i can’t wait for another case of study they’re so great… and this one was very complete.

  • Roy

    April 3, 2002 at 9:56 am

    Good stuff. It is good to see usability taking a front seat these days. Nice work to all.
    A few thoughts–
    Icon use. I would be more cautious with icon use. They seem to be proliferating on the new site–especially the sub pages.

    The lexicon. Buzzwords are, at times, a necessary evil. New language may have to be created to describe a situation that more common terms cannot adequately contain, but I always cringe when I see terms like “landscape” and “domain” creep into client deliverables–especially if they are being used in ways unfamiliar to the client.
    It hints at a failure of more universal language to describe the users’ universe–and I can’t believe that was the case here.
    Personal peeves, I guess.

    Always interesting to see different outfit’s methodologies. Some differences in approach, but there are so many commonalities and the outcomes are user-need based.

    Good show.

    Roy

  • doug

    April 3, 2002 at 12:17 pm

    The “blinded by vision” problem is so prevalent in projects like this. It sounds like SchwabLearning is a web experience built from the ground-up, i.e. that it invented its own model for the kind of experience that it wanted to provide. So of course its designers presented the ideal solution, and of course this ideal solution was implementable only if they spent a lot of money and a lot of time on it.

    But of course it’s also important to have a notion of the ideal before you begin to build the real, so I think that the author made exactly the right decision to hire people who would use Sapient’s work as a roadmap, with the caveat that it had to be live in four months.

    Now _that’s_ project management, not to mention board management and consultant management.

    PS: I think that 10-12 consultants on a small project is obviously just too dang many fingers in the pie. Even though they managed to shepherd the design (pie) to a serviceable conclusion (identification of the ingredients), it’s hard to imagine that a platoon of cooks would be more efficient than a SWAT team, in this case.

  • Brad Jensen

    April 4, 2002 at 8:41 am

    Jeanene, you like google and now you can put a ‘search my site/search Google’ branded search engine on it – I ‘ve seen a couple so far.

    Also, simple, self-paced elearning from some of your articles would give the parents the confidence that they are understanding the important ideas and pricnicples ine ach article. Article to elearning cost should be under $500 if you do it internally. A simple author-built LCMS costs less than a minimum wage employee.

    Brad Jensen
    http://www.eufrates.com

  • Steve

    April 5, 2002 at 6:08 am

    I’d love to know what guided the decision to use audio prompts on this site? For a dialup user, the site is painfully slow. User studies and wireframing don’t mean anything if someone seeking information about LD is waiting around all day for the site to load.

  • Joseph Landers

    December 23, 2006 at 4:47 am

    Jeanene,
    I am so proud of you and the work you and your team have done to help others with the need to learn.

    Dad

  • Jon Freach

    December 26, 2006 at 9:39 pm

    Jeanene:
    Congratulations on your contributions to helping parents and kids with this condition and on a fine article.

    I feel compelled to note four issues that were apparent to me as I read your post.

    1. Branding
    I was confused by the name of the organization because Schwab is such a prominent financial services brand. Your backstory was helpful, but I think most folks wouldn’t associate “Schwab” with “learning difficulties,” “parents,” or “kids.” Could a name that is more descriptive of Learning Difficulties be a quicker read?

    2. Research Documentation
    The research seemed quite informative, but the graphic documentation appears to be a bit melodramatic, thin on data and hard to access. For example, the diagram illustrating “Mom’s evolution of knowledge” seems terribly confusing (I’m not sure where to begin reading this one) while the user type diagram showing the four basic interaction models would probably communicate better using a simple numeric hierarchy to communicate most important-to-least important tasks.

    3. Wireframes
    The usability issues you described appear to be a result of the interface design tactics used at the low-fidelity level. If the wireframes actually looked more like an interface that a confused parent would be interacting with and less like a deliverable from a consultant, then maybe the first round of usability testing would have revealed some of the insights discovered during the second round.

    4. Site Maintenance and Site Degradation
    The current version of the home page seems to have abandoned the simple, straightforward and seemingly useful homepage design of February 2002. Can you comment on why you think this degradation has occurred? It has the look of retail, rather than the accessibility of a service.

    Finally, please pardon the criticism, but as a former Director of User Experience at Sapient I was rather surprised to see this quality of work. While I understand that you were pleased with your service and deliverables, I see much room for improvement.

    Thanks.
    Jon

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