Chris How
Initial conversations with the OU team swung from excitement over the growing list of interesting potential features, to concern over what we could achieve by the fixed deadline. It was time to step back and map out a blueprint for the product so we could see both the wood and the trees.


The challenge for The Open University

Alongside its graduate and postgraduate courses, the OU has a mission, and an enviable track record, in providing encouragement and access to lifelong informal learning for all.

The aim of this project was to create a website to grow an online community – a community that will get people learning about science through participation in user generated experiments and in conducting their own user initiated investigations.

We could immediately see we faced three key challenges:

  1. How to strike the balance between the ambition of the team and the exacting standards of the OU with the resources and time available.
  2. How to grab and grow an audience from initial launch with a compelling proposition. We knew there was (and is)  a lot of competition for the attention of the audience. Not only with other similar science and participation websites, but also with all the other choices, enticements and distractions people have in their precious leisure time.
  3. How to meet the expectations of the audience with a minimum viable product (MVP). There was no shortage of comparisons to features found on established websites and services: The best bits of community participation and engagement found on Stack Exchange, Quora and Zooniverse; The ease of setting up and publishing a project online found in Kickstarter and Typeform; The tools for data analysis and visualisation found in Survey Monkey and Tableau.

We knew that, in the time we had, success would come from delivering fewer high quality features and aligning these to a compelling, consistent and unique concept. It was time to take a step back and set a long-term vision to give us a short term focus.

Go straight to results ↓

Why create a long-term product vision when you’re going to deliver a MVP?

It might sound counterintuitive. However, before diving into the detail of the product, we needed to see the wider landscape in order to help the OU gain a competitive advantage. Our approach was to create a holistic blueprint; this helped us scope the potential future shape for the website to grow into.

To do this we went big. We took up meters of wall space and packs of Post-its® to map out the end to end lifecycle of a user-initiated experiment at a high level.

The map plotted the actions for the user and the subsequent technical requirements for the website. It also threw up lots of fundamental questions to resolve with the wider team, and, vitally, helped us to:

Even though our first steps were going to be small, creating a system map and articulating the vision helped the whole team see the bigger picture.

The space to design big ideas

How do you arrive at a product that is simple enough to build and compelling enough to use?

The secret is to know where your effort affords the highest value. To help us establish this, we started with an accelerated week of discovery and immersion.

Crucially, this discovery phase included finding and talking to the intended audience. It’s always essential to talk to the right users so you can get insight that you can use with confidence. In this case, the challenge of finding the right audience was intensified with little to no lead-in time for recruitment.

We took a three-pronged approach to recruiting the appropriate people, screening and interviewing ten target participants in just over a week:

  1. We arranged remote interviews, through the OU, with people involved in running online science-based community projects.
  2. We put a call out to colleagues and contacts for introductions to people engaged in online participatory science projects. This led us to having in-person interviews, calls and email conversations that included someone working for NASA.
  3. We proactively contacted and spent time with the people behind a local Meetup group for citizen scientists.

The interviews really challenged our assumptions and gave the whole team valuable insight into what makes and breaks similar projects and, crucially, what encourages and prevents people getting involved.


These insights were turned into guiding design principles, which kept us focussed on the key needs of the audience as we sketched and evaluated design ideas. There’s no better reality check than talking to your desired audience to help strip away features that offer less value as well as to identify where you can add delight.

In conjunction with the user interviews, we reviewed comparator websites. These included both those in the science space and those with features that addressed challenges we had identified. Print-outs were added to a wall of inspiration that we could return to when sketching ideas.

From the first kick-off meeting, and throughout the project, we worked in close collaboration with the academics, developers and designers in the team at the OU. This included running workshops and joint sketching sessions, holding frequent show and tells of work as it emerged and team prioritisation sessions to define a backlog.

Working closely with the developers allowed us to flag early features we thought would be tricky to build, as well as to use their experience from other projects to prevent us from reinventing the wheel.

Insights and interviews inform the vision

How do you involve decision makers and still design at speed?

With a multi-functional in-house team comprising designers, developers, and academic staff, we had a breadth of expertise to draw upon. However, in order to get the most from them, we knew we needed to set ourselves up for both rapid ideas generation and important timely reviews from our team of experts.

To do this, we needed to make sure we were physically in the right place at the right time, to optimise our collaboration process. To create the system blueprint, we initially based our activities in the studio in Brighton with members of the OU team visiting us. Then, for sketching ideas for interfaces and drafting content (where we needed more frequent feedback) we co-located in a project space on the University campus in Milton Keynes.

To design at speed for the MVP, we used a variety of rapid lo-fi iteration techniques. This included working in pairs to sketch out, share and build upon ideas.

Visibility was also incredibly important. To involve the whole team and wider organisation in the design process, we made our work visible even in its lowest fidelity. Displaying the work in progress on walls as it was created encouraged people to come and ask questions and add annotations to the sketches on show.

Beyond this informal feedback, we also held regular show and tells to share and talk through our thinking. The input in these sessions from the project team was invaluable to keep us on track, to help simplify and improve ideas, and to give the whole team ownership and understanding of the project as it developed.

At times we had some fundamental issues to resolve. These included the use of reward and status in the system, the boundaries of acceptable community conduct, how to deal with moderation and some tricky ethical considerations. When this was the case we convened and facilitated a workshop. Having the whole team together allowed for in-depth discussion from different perspectives and more importantly a next step to be agreed upon.

The high levels of collaboration and the time set aside to work as one team proved effective in getting to a better design and getting decisions made quickly.

Collaborative sketching to spark conversations

I thoroughly enjoyed working with Clearleft. I’ve been truly impressed by the speed, professionalism, clarity, and value that they brought to the Tomorrow’s World nQuire project. The engagement has had a strong positive effect on our software team in IET, bringing in new perspectives and practices, showing how UX design is done in professional teams.

MIKE SHARPLES, Chair in Educational Technology, Learning and Teaching Innovation, The Open University.

The Results

A launchable MVP with direction

This four week project has provided the space to shape a long term vision for the website and define a launchable MVP. Rooting the initial requirements in a wider vision enabled a strong concept and proposition to be baked into the website from the start. It also provided a roadmap for enhancements that build on these solid foundations.

One team with a shared vision

Close collaboration and co-locating throughout has led to a sense of shared understanding and ownership of the website. Embedding the thinking behind the designs and creating guiding principles to inform and evaluate the outputs has enabled the team to make decisions faster and with more confidence.

Accelerated problem solving

Adopting more effective design practice is often best encouraged and achieved through doing it and having a positive experience. The impact of group sketching, showing work as it emerges and inviting the wider team into the process led to a desire from the OU team to work in this way more often.