BIG IDEAS – From idea to prototype

BIG IDEAS is an application and service that allows students, staff, faculty, and alumni (Spartans) connected to Michigan State University the ability to showcase their ideas, engage other Spartans to take action, and receive meaningful feedback on the impact of their ideas.

To accomplish this, the original statement of work set out to create a media hub for aggregating and distributing MSU-related content (images, videos, documents, and audio files). Through research we ended up with a concept that is much more unique and useful for MSU. This post serves as an explanation of the process about how I developed the BIG IDEAS project.

Here is how I got there:

  1. I conducted some user research by:
    1. observing people at MSU who already collect and publish content
    2. interviewing faculty, staff, students, alumni (at MSU, in Michigan, and across the U.S.)
    3. collecting preference data
  2. Then I looked for patterns and opportunities in the data.
  3. I began to bring early drafts of the idea to potential users by:
    1. making a promo video for potential supporters to start discussions about the project
    2. recording initial BIG IDEAS interviews to explore the software as a service
  4. I had my first breakthrough when we understood that many users only need small amounts of help.
  5. I built some paper prototypes
    1. and did user testing, giving people scenarios to test and give feedback
    2. I also recorded more videos to refine our ability to create content as a service for users
  6. I had a second breakthrough when our understanding about metrics took shape
  7. I built a second prototype
  8. Now MSUglobal is looking for potential funders and developers

Initial Research

My role in developing this application was to manage the day to day of the pilot project, which began as a partnership between the alumni association of MSU (MSUAA) and my MSUglobal (my group). The objective was to build a media hub that would help MSUAA strategically position itself as a valuable partner for Colleges by providing them with effective tools to communicate with and engage their audiences to enhance, celebrate and promote the academic quality of the University.

Having never built a media hub before, I felt I needed to better understand the activities and actions around creating, sharing, and discovering media content at MSU. During the first month I set-up and interviewed about two-dozen Spartans about what they did at MSU, current interests, and potential interests in using an MSU media app. I understood early on that Spartans could simultaneously be both consumers and producers within the project. This meant that the data and analysis needed to accommodate this flexible user-type. In order to get a broad sense of the needs and interests of Spartans, I interviewed people at MSU, across Michigan, across the U.S., and even outside the country. I also observed several staff who were tasked by their department with recording and deploying media content (mostly for students). This helped me understand departmental barriers involved with sharing of media at MSU.

Figure 1: Pages of notes from interviews with students, staff, faculty and alumni.

View a sample alumni interview

As I collected field notes from interviews I coded them in order to discover patterns across users, and also opportunities for new ways of thinking about the project.

View a sample coded faculty interview

Below are the categories I used for coding field notes.

  1. [Variables] Verifying demographic and behavioral variables
  2. [Mental Model] How does the user think about their work, resources, services & systems?
  3. [Activities] What kinds of activities does the user perform? Do they occur regularly or occasionally?
  4. [Motivation] What are the user’s goals? What does the user enjoy doing?
  5. [Frustrations] What are the user’s pain points? What do they avoid?
  6. [Brainstorm] What are things that people see as positives?
  7. [Interactions] Who or what does the user consult or work with?
  8. [Process] How does the user make decisions and perform tasks?

In addition to taking field notes, I also asked most interviewees to rank their preferences to various social software mechanisms. I did this as one way to begin thinking about Spartans beyond our initial students, staff, faculty, and alumni groupings. The list of social mechanisms we used came from Gene Smith via Matt Webb (via a list created by Stewart Butterfield).

Figure 2: A sample page of user preference feedback color coded to indicate priority (green = important. yellow = interested, red = not important).

The final part of my research was exploring what content sources currently exist on campus. I looked at individual websites, department and college websites, non-academic units, and any other Spartan related sources I could find.

Looking For Opportunities in the Data

Feedback from our users indicated several challenges impacting information sharing among Spartans:

  1. Spartans have diverse interests across the university. Spartans are interested in ideas across multiple colleges and department and even non-academic units. For example an alumnus who majored in English might still have interest in agriculture, communication arts, as well as new construction projects on campus.
  2. Access to content at MSU is limited and fragmented. Departments, colleges and other non-academic units often maintain their own websites, Facebook pages, Twitter streams, and YouTube accounts, in addition to traditional newsletters and announcements. This is often frustrating to many Spartans who do not have the knowledge of how, or the time, to keep up with the variety of university sources. University Relations does a good job of sharing news about Spartan work, but they cover only a fraction of what is going on. The result is that Spartans seeking information across the university have a hard time finding what they want, where they want it.
  3. Spartans have diverse content needs. The type of information people want is diverse (videos, short articles, long documents). This does seem to correspond with their age. For example younger alumni tend to prefer short videos to written articles, while older alumni seem to value written texts over images and videos. Currently, MSU related sources are not effective having multiple sources of content. They tend to have one or the other, or nothing at all.
  4. Keeping up with MSU isn’t just for alumni. Alumni aren’t the only one’s who want to keep up with ideas. Faculty, students and staff have a vested interest in knowing what is going on at MSU for different reasons. For example faculty use various MSU websites to keep up to date about potential partnership opportunities for research with other faculty and staff.
  5. Faculty aren’t they only ones who have something to share. It was assumed in the statement of work that the focus of this media hub would be content provided by faculty. Students and staff have ideas they want to share, and are interested in engaging with the Spartan community.
  6. Spartans want to share, but face several roadblocks. Idea makers, like faculty, want to share, but struggle with time, resources, and financial constraints. For example, recording guest speakers requires equipment and a basic level of expertise and time commitment to edit and upload videos.

As a result of the feedback I brought a list of recommendations to the group about what a piece of software might do in order to fill the gap between the information needs of Spartans and what is currently available for Spartans to share their ideas though an official MSU channel. Below is the list of recommendations:

  1. One place to share ideas. BIG IDEAS does not need replace existing MSU websites, but needs to make it easier for Spartans to share and maintain their work in one place. This includes the opportunities to highlight the research of faculty, but also includes the great work of students, staff and even alumni. The only criteria that needs to be met is that the idea somehow advances knowledge and transforms lives (from the MSU motto).
  2. Ideas from across the university. BIG IDEAS should allow content from the entire Spartan community, especially non-academic units, and alumni. The site also needs to allow Spartans to easily discover these ideas outside the traditional College silos.
  3. Features specifically target hurdles to increase participation. We understand there is a general life cycle people go through when using social software. BIG IDEAS cannot focus on features for passionate users. Spartans need help increasing awareness, sign-up, return visits, and finally, emotional attachment. One way to help the initial sign-up hurdle is by connecting our software to the existing MSU login system, so that any Spartan with an MSU NetID will automatically be part of the system.
  4. A website and a service. BIG IDEAS should help Spartans overcome technical, time and resource barriers around capturing ideas and sharing them with the MSU community. Recording and editing could be provided by MSUAA or MSUglobal as a free or paid-for services. For example, a College might opt to pay for recording services for guest lectures rather than hiring individuals at the department level.
  5. Spartans want feedback about the success of their ideas . BIG IDEAS should also offer data on how ideas are being embraced by other Spartans. This is especially important for faculty who are often required to show outreach metrics in their grant reporting. BIG IDEAS could also use metrics as a service to help idea makers create a outreach strategy  in order to get the biggest impact with their ideas.

In addition to the list of recommendations, we realized that the majority of Spartan ideas fall into four categories:

  1. Promotion: Show what you are doing and gain support for it!
  2. Outreach: Maintain an online presence in order to distribute materials (e.g., research results) to a larger audience.
  3. Engagement: Let interested supporters help! Especially good for obtaining referrals, increasing registrations (e.g., events, courses, etc..), and raising financial support.
  4. Feedback. Know how successfully ideas are being embraced by others.

With this initial data and analysis, I started sketching how these objects of information might be connected to each other.

Figure 3: An abstracted view of the BIG IDEAS concept used to brainstorm potential opportunities.

Figure 4: Early sketch of the BIG IDEA object model.

Figure 5: A more refined draft of the BIG IDEAS object model.

Early Drafts for Stakeholders

Although I was far from a final product I produced a small promo (that’s me in the voiceover) to gain awareness among stakeholders.

Figure 6: MSU BIG IDEAS Promo from Noah Ullmann on Vimeo.

I started exploring the logistics of providing content creation, and editing services. I knew several units at MSU already provide recoding services, but interviews told me they were rarely used because of the high-cost. I wanted to test how to create economically viable videos. My initial concept was to record short interviews (no longer than 10 mints) which captured just enough information about the user and their BIG IDEAS. The videos would be edited with emphasis on efficient over quality. Overall, I recorded about twenty-four videos over the course of the pilot project. I released a couple early examples to users with links to a survey in order to elicit feedback on length, and quality.

Figure 7: MSU BIG IDEAS: Professor Julie Funk Interview from Noah Ullmann on Vimeo.

I used Survey Monkey to collect feedback from users about the value of these videos.

Figure 8: A screenshot of the Survey Monkey feedback form

Click to see the BIG IDEAS video prototype survey

Figure 9: A screenshot of the Survey Monkey results

The limited feedback was helpful to shape the direction of the project. I realized that short (no longer than 4 minutes), low-quality videos (Shot only with a Flip camera, no external mic), were just as good for our users as the highly produced videos, for example, that University Relations was producing at a much slower pace. This meant there was a potential market for this type of service.

Figure 10: Screenshot of Survey Monkey results showing written feeback

Micro-engagement Breakthrough

I continued meeting with faculty, and at one point realized that Spartans were asking for a variety of different types of help with their projects, depending on a variety of factors. The most common way for colleges to engage was to ask for money from alumni, but the most common way for faculty and students to engage was to ask for a referral. No existing MSU website allowed Spartans the opportunity to ask for help. Most individuals either didn’t have the expertise to build a “request for help” feature, or the scale for that feature to be effective.

I saw micro-engagements as a potentially transformative concept that overcame one of the biggest barriers for our software, giving Spartans a reason to use our service instead of the variety of other services and hacks they currently used. BIG IDEAS could be a platform for the Spartans to share their idea, and ask the MSU community for help with their project, whatever stage of the process they were. For example, an opportunity for help could be a referral requests, a request to attend an event, an opportunity to become a partner, or even donate money.

After the breakthrough I did a lot of searching online to see examples of how others have implemented a micro-engagement site. Although I found many, Kickstarterwas the most useful example I found. I borrowed some of their basic strategies for our initial design:

  • Bifurcated information and engagement screen
  • Novel categories for discovering ideas
  • Profile management options
  • Clear articulation of need
  • Various signals about the current state of the idea

Our goal was not to copy them wholesale, since idea creation/sharing is different than Kickstarter’s goal of funding projects. Some of the key differences I identified were:

  • No all-or-nothing approach. Any spartan that meets the guideline can join, share, engage.
  • More than just money, user-defined engagement opportunities (of course with guidelines)
  • Closed community for creating new ideas, use the MSU login system to build trust
  • Allow engagements to be finalized on other sites (e.g., PayPal) in order to fit in with existing Spartan systems, and so we don’t have to build out new engagement features
  • Affiliations to create a light ad-hoc social networks (We don’t need another Facebook)
  • Service built on top to create idea pages for groups, departments, and colleges
  • Opportunities not only for current state of the idea, but ways to signal the next state

Paper prototypes

Using the understanding we developed from our initial research and breakthroughs I started to developed some paper prototypes:

Figure 11: BIG IDEAS homepage, showing the value proposition to users.

Figure 12: BIG IDEAS “idea” page, showing bifurcated info and engagement content, as well as cascading opportunities to get involved.

Figure 13: BIG IDEAS “idea creation” page, showing one step of adding a new engagement opportunity.

After building a limited prototype I did some user-testing.

Figure 14: BIG IDEAS user testing from Noah Ullmann on Vimeo.

Nomination Breakthrough

I also continued to record more videos and refine our process, which led to another “nomination” breakthrough. After each interview I always asked who they would recommend I talk to. I also walked away with at least three new people to contact. In addition having the referral come from a colleague or friend (as opposed to a cold call) was invaluable to getting new interviews scheduled and recorded quickly.

Metrics Breakthrough

Finally, besides making it easier for all Spartans to overcome technical, time and resource barriers around capturing ideas and sharing them with the MSU community I see the biggest potential of BIG IDEAS as a metrics tool for users to understand the success, spread, and user behavior around their ideas. Currently, despite the plentiful opportunities to upload, share, and maintain content online, there are no useful activities to track these metrics. Currently I am working with Dr. Bill Hart-Davdison at the WIDE (Writing in Digital Environments) center at MSU to develop research projects around these metrics.

A Second Prototype

With a new understanding of the project I designed a more refined prototype, this time using Keynote. Keynote is a useful prototyping tool for me because it’s easy to use, I can simulate enough functionality to elicit useful feedback, and I can iterate designs very quickly. The second prototype has become the current jumping off point to engage potential supporters and development partners.

Figure 15: The refined BIG IDEAS “discovery” page

Figure 16: The refined BIG IDEAS “idea” page

Figure 17: The refined BIG IDEAS “idea creation” page

Finding Funding

This project is still a work in progress. The current prototype is being shopped around to potential funding partners. MSUglobal has commitments from two MSU partners. Dr. Bill Hart Davidson and the WIDE Center are interested in working with us to develop the metrics component. We are also supported by the MSU Creative Initiative. They see the potential of this tool to help track the success of creative projects they fund. We are also currently exploring partners outside MSU.


Starting with the objective of building a “media hub” took me in unexpected places. Research forced me to give up some assumptions about who has ideas, how they see their ideas existing in the world, and what Spartans need in a service that supports ideas.

Paper prototyping was extremely helpful in turning my initial research into a physical artifact, which generated a ton of usable feedback, and interviewing faculty turned out to be useful as ongoing research, which led to additional breakthroughs.

Although the project is still in development I am very proud of the breakthroughs I was able to make. BIG IDEAS doesn’t replace the ways Spartans already work on their projects, rather it fills a gap between the needs of Spartans with ideas and what is currently available to support them. I believe the combination of tools to collect, share, discover, and receive feedback will potentially transform how Spartans think about their ideas within the MSU community.

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