An adventure-style storytelling game that motivates struggling readers to learn how to read.
Jan - Aug 2018
As the design lead of a team of five, I drove the end-to-end design and was responsible for distilling research insights, designing user flows, wireframes, high-fidelity screens, and printed reports for handoff.
A Fortune 500 learning company
The educational market is traditionally dominated by a few companies like Pearson and McGraw-Hill. New players like Duolingo are shaping the digital ecosystem of education. In order to keep up with the competition, our client came to us to inform features for the next iteration of their reading intervention software.
Revealing Areas for Improvement
For beginning decoders, reading takes a lot of mental energy. Reading longer passages can be stressful and tiring, leading to demotivation. The software supports struggling readers and teaches the skills required to read full paragraphs. However, some students have to force themselves to pay attention to the software. These students are at risk of never learning to read because they are not enjoying what they are learning.
To reveal areas for improvement, we conducted contextual inquiries to understand how students are using the software in the classroom.
Generally speaking, Students are often stuck on the same learning activity over a long period of time. They start to lose confidence in themselves, let alone get motivated to learn how to read. Besides, students tend to click the continue button as soon as a progress-tracking screen appeared, even if just a few minutes earlier they told us that they care about their scores and progress.
"I'm not cut out for the task."
Students currently are not motivated to practice reading skills they struggle with. We are aiming to help them find joy in reading and as a result, help them become competent and confident in reading long passages
How might we support students' intrinsic motivation for reading while giving them appropriate practice?
We created Endeavor, an adventure-style interactive storytelling game to help students engaged in reading and stay motivated to read long stories. Students choose their way through an adventure, promoting a sense of autonomy and personalization. Comprehension and decoding assessments are embedded within the narrative and are designed to quickly identify the types and degrees of errors students make.
Empower students with narrative choices
Students make choices in the narrative, giving them a sense of control over their learning experience. For example, a student has encountered a pirate that tries to steal his gold. He has the option of trying to run away or fight.
Check reading skills through embedded comprehension questions
Comprehension questions are embedded in the narrative, making them seem more like a game than a test of their reading skills. The choices that students make have consequences in the narrative, where incorrect answers lead to poorer outcomes.
Assess students’ weak skills through embedded word challenges
Students who answer a comprehension question incorrectly either do not understand the target word or they could not decode it. Embedded word challenges help make this distinction, and can provide teachers with data on how to personalize future lessons.
Motivate students with achievements and performance
At the end of the activity, Endeavor shows students how well they did throughout the story. Metrics like stars, coins, and items encourage students to think about their choices next time
With the Endeavor companion mobile app, students can read and interact with stories anywhere and anytime.
We measured success from three dimensions: engagement, personalization, and accountability. In terms of engagement, students should feel empowered by the opportunity to make choices and perceive the assessment as a game rather than a test. Regarding personalization, assessment should identify specific weaknesses for individual students. As to accountability, students should read as much of the story as they are able to.
We collected the following data based on our user testings.
Students enjoyed being able to choose their own adventure.
13 / 13
Students described Endeavor as a game rather than an educational tool.
8 / 11
13 / 13
Students passed all of the reading attention checks in the story.
12 / 13
Students read and considered narrative choices instead of clicking through them.
Testimonials from Students
"Are we going to do this next year in System 44? I would love that!"
"You want to pick the right action. You don’t wanna mess up."
“0 being the worst thing ever and 10 being the best this ever, I would rate it 21!”
Design a choose-your-own-adventure story
Phase 1: Proof of concept
Our first prototype was a simple choose-your-own-adventure story made with Twine and Powerpoint slides. We embedded word challenge activities into the narrative and created a helpful learning buddy in the form of a Robot——Robby. We went to a school district and tested it on 5 students. We found that students like the story and are excited about choosing their own path.
Phase 2: Embed Personalized Instruction and Gamification
For our mid-fidelity prototype, we added comprehension questions as attention checks. We provided personalized Instruction in the form of videos when students get questions wrong. We also embedded gamification elements to help students stay motivated.
In the flow below, the word and spelling challenge activities are mandatory. They are in between story passages, so students need to complete them first before they can continue reading the story. If they lose all the hearts, Endeavor will drop them into a practice mode to refill their hearts. If they have gained enough points, they can redeem them for collections.
We tested the new prototype on six students. We found that students were positively engaged by hearts and points. They showed students how they were doing.
Phase 3: Develop a story with narrative choices and consequences
As we set out to develop a high-fidelity prototype, we received feedback from our stakeholders. They pointed out that “The activities felt separate from the story.”
We realized that using the practice activities is less focused on engaging with the narrative and feels disconnected from the story. We should make sure the core feedback loop is about reading the text, and wedding the assessment to the narrative will limit the practice activities to those who need it. Therefore, we shifted focus to integrating practice activities into the narrative as a whole. The choices reflect mastery of reading skills and have narrative consequences.
We conducted a co-design session to brainstorm on scenes in the story arc that can serve as assessments across stories. The story will be set on an island, and we will write challenges encountered on the island, and then write a narrative that connects challenges. We figured out four challenges that work together to help students get the ultimate reward—the treasure.
The following user flow shows a students’ journey going through each story scene. The flow also diverts students into various story branching based on their decoding skills, enabling narrative consequences that are personalized for each student. In the best-case scenario, they go straight to the next part of the story without any loss. If they don’t pay attention to the questions at all, the game is over.
We created an island treasure hunting adventure story and came up with four scenes that work together to guide students to find the treasure.
The story scenes are “Siren’s song”, “Natives”, “Treasure door” and “Pirate attack”. Based on our new user flow, I made the high-fidelity screens for “Treasure” and “Danger”. Then we conducted another round of user testing before committing to designing the four scenes.
The flow below shows the treasure door challenge. Students need to press the right door panel to get the treasure. If they answer it correctly, they collect coins and go back to the narrative. If they get it wrong, they fall through a trap door and need to navigate to get out. They have three trials before bottoming out.
In retrospect, what really went well is our solid user-centered and evidence-based research process. We seized every chance to head to schools to observe and talk to students and teachers. In the two-month product development phase, we worked in two-week design sprints to iteratively refine Endeavor and obtain feedback through six rounds of user testing. Seeing students engaged using Endeavor is a huge motivator for us to keep improving the product.
Given more time, we would work on adding more illustrations in the story, as image association can aid learning retention. The gamification mechanism can be enhanced, such as helping students spend coins on things they could use in a future story, or give them a status symbol for their continued success.