Deliverable Report

Milestone 2

Milestone 2

A. Problem Definition

Introduce Your Problem

  The system Image of Piazza is one aspect that contributes to its issues. Piazza’s system image is disorganized and difficult to navigate. According to a paper by the MIT Dept. of Brain and Cognitive sciences, the definition of cluttered is, “the state in which excess items, or their representation or organization, lead to a degradation of performance at some task”(Rosenholtz et al. 761). The system image of piazza is organized in a way where new discussion posts take up most of the area on the screen. In order to complete the action of starting a follow up discussion, a user must scroll all the way through previously posted discussions before they see the “Start a follow up discussion” button on the bottom.

a screen cap of the piazza interface

Figure 1. The piazza interface.

  In this case the layout of the previously posted discussion boxes causes the completion of a particular task to take longer which in turn leads to a degradation of performance between the user and interface. If the goal of the user is to post a follow-up discussion to a prompt before their next class begins, they first plan and consider their options. They can respond to the post relating to ‘topic 1’ or they can respond to the post relating to ‘topic 2’. To be more specific, the user opts to respond to the post relating to ‘topic 2’ since they feel more comfortable with that topic. In order to perform this plan, the user logs into Piazza on their laptop and begins searching for their specific post. They scroll through the left hand side of the screen, avidly searching for their specific post. They think back to what week the topic was posted, trying to specifically remember what the date was. Sifting through all of the posts, they finally find their respective topic. They then click into that discussion and begin scrolling all the way down to the bottom of the screen. Here the user sees the text “Start a new followup discussion” with a text box under it. The user clicks into this text box and begins crafting their followup discussion with the editor of their choice. Once crafted, they will press the post button to post their followup discussion. After the plan has been executed the user perceives the results when they see their post popping up under the discussion. They read over it to make sure all looks well. The user interprets the tasks thinking they are glad that they finished the assignment, but afraid they are going to be late to their next class due to lack of time. After making it to their next class in time for attendance check, when comparing this outcome to the goal, the user’s interpretation indicates that the goal has been accomplished. This example is a typical interaction done on piazza because it is a discussion platform, and posting discussion responses are a common function for platforms like this. The necessity of scrolling through posts to accomplish this goal is just one of many reasons that guided us to our claim because it follows our definition of cluttered.
  Furthermore, due to the cluttered interface, there appears to be a lack of affordances and signifiers that would enable users to easily navigate the platform. According to a forum on G2, a site used to review software applications, reviewers had complaints about the organization and formatting of the website writing, “... managing the dashboard is a little difficult, as there are too many tabs to navigate,” and “I dislike the general format of the website, [sic] it can seem unwieldy at times” (Nyati; Isabel). These users have difficulty using the Piazza dashboard and attribute this distaste to its format.
  One example of how Piazza’s format is unclear can be seen in a tool called Note History where the user can track the history of a particular discussion and navigate to each post in chronological order. This tool consists of a button along a dotted line that affords sliding. This is an example of a signifier on the interface that does not clearly afford its intended use. Additionally, an important feature of Piazza is the distinction between questions and notes. Currently there are icons on the post thumbnails that signify the type of post, however they are small and not easily found or understood. Other signifiers that we have found to not effectively communicate their affordances include the text box underneath posts which afford responding and simple hypertext links which afford filtering. In general, there is a lack of instructions on how to use certain tools in the interface, and there is a lack of context awareness in order to understand how each tool is related to Piazza as a whole. All of these factors contribute to the inefficiency of the platform which takes away from lecture time and time that can be used to review the work of all the students.

Identify Your Potential Users

  Within the scope of our problem - daily Piazza usage in computer science classrooms in the U.S - computer science students and their instructors are the ones who face the consequences. These consequences include losing time that could be used for instruction and thus missing out on important information.
  During class time, with the clutter of the students’ duplicated, similar questions and the lack of signifiers in Piazza’s interface, it can be hard to determine which information should be prioritized over others. This can “overwhelm students and make it really hard for professors and TAs to provide timely, efficient help” (Campuswire Student Design Team). Potential class time is lost from trying to figure out which content is already discussed and not. In addition, having multiple postings with similar information can “lead to students responding to the wrong post or miss out on key information in problem solving” (qtd. in Washington et al. 227). These actions further lead to loss of lecture time and lack of clarity on important information. Piazza users will have to wait until they see the information or solution they want, making the platform very time consuming and inefficient to use. Therefore, we see that Piazza’s cluttered and disorganized interface has potential to become more efficient.
  While other classroom discussion tools are used, Piazza is the one we are focusing on. Because Piazza is used both in and out of the classroom, this problem is not unique to face-to-face instruction; however there are certain aspects of face-to-face instruction that further complicate the issue. One example of this is in order to work in groups with varying students, the student or professor must manually group them which takes away further time from the class period. Since Piazza can be used as a discussion forum in addition to a Q&A forum, another example relates to how in-person instruction allows students to communicate more effectively within their groups thanks to forced eye contact and body language.
  With a solution to this problem, computer science students would benefit by spending less time having to figure out how to use Piazza’s interface and instead spend their extra time focusing on their school work at hand. Similarly, computer science instructors would benefit from a solution because with less class time being spent trying to figure out the software, more time could be allocated to class instruction allowing their classes to be more efficient.

B. Analysis of Existing Solutions

Describe Existing Solutions

  The origin of our problem of study dates back to the early 2000’s and 2010’s when Web 2.0 tools were beginning to emerge inside the classroom. Web 2.0 is a term used to refer to web based tools that have an emphasis on creating and sharing content. While there is almost an endless list of Web 2.0 applications that could have implications inside the classroom, there are two specific ones that provide great insight into our specific scope of Computer Science classrooms within the U.S. These are the use of Wiki pages and Edmodo.
  While Piazza is a discussion based learning tool where each user can post individual topics, follow ups, or comments and each discussion lives on a specific thread, the first alternative solution replaces that structure entirely. This solution is the use of Wiki pages where multiple students can synchronously work on a piece of content that they can then share with the rest of their class and their instructor. In an article titled “A Comparative Analysis of Forums and Wikis as Tools for Online Collaborative Learning”, Michele Biasutti finds certain advantages and disadvantages to using Wiki pages for collaboration over using a discussion board structure. One advantage is that using Wiki pages allows all students to actively contribute to the content being produced, where most discussion boards only allow for a single user to edit a single post. In their study, Biasutti followed 87 students using Wiki pages in groups of 4-5 for their class activities and logged what kinds of interactions were taking place. 42% of the interactions occurring on the Wiki pages were classified as producing and 45% were classified as developing, proving that when using Wiki pages, more of the activities involved actually creating content for the class. However, this strength comes with certain disadvantages. Specific tradeoffs that occurred thanks to the Wikis’ strength of content creation were that the content that was being produced took longer. Along with tracking the type of interactions taking place within Wiki pages and forums, Biasutti also recorded students' answers to open-ended questionnaires. When asked what Wiki pages' weaknesses were, many responses were about how difficult they found it to operate, specifically citing “limited time, copy paste issues, and including images” as pain points. As well, another weakness of Wiki Pages that Biasutti’s study highlighted was that “processes such as inferencing, evaluating, organizing and supporting were more evident during the forum discussions than in the wikis”. This means that although the actual creation of content was more effective in Wikis than in forums, there were few ways for students to share their evaluations of the work being done. According to Wikipedia’s Manual of Style, while not enforced, Wiki pages do encourage the use of the Web Content Usability Guidelines 2.0.

Figure 2. An image displaying Wikipages.

  Edmodo is categorized as a social media application used for learning and is becoming increasingly popular in higher education courses. Proof of its popularity is in it’s over 90 million users worldwide (Ryane). One way that Edmodo has been successful in solving our problem of in-class collaboration is that unlike Piazza, it has proven to be easy to find what the user is looking for on Edmodo’s interface. In a case study following Edmodo usage in three computer science courses, a survey was given where it asked if “they thought it was easy to find course material,” and 89% of students answered “Yes”. As well, the survey stated that 60% of students found that the greatest advantage to Edmodo was the “Access to Course Materials”. This proves that Edmodo’s interface strongly followed the design principle of Discoverability. The strength of the navigation aspect of Edmodo’s interface comes from its similarity to Facebook, and “students get quickly familiar with this environment as most of them have a Facebook account” (Ryane). According to the Statista Research Department, 71% of college students across the U.S use Facebook. One area however where Edmodo failed to solve our problem of study was in it’s collaboration tools. There was no research on the perceptions of students or it’s usage that supported the fact that students were contributing to each other’s work. Rather the case study in point found that most of the interactions that occurred on the app happened between students and their instructors.

Figure 3. An image displaying the Edmodo interface.

Figure 4. An image displaying the Facebook interface.

Describe Potential Guidelines and Solutions

  In order to serve the users relevant to our problem of study, students and instructors of face-to-face computer science courses across the U.S, two major design principles should be followed. The first one is one of the “Golden Design Principles” of Shneiderman et al. describing how designers should always seek universal usability. This principle is important to our user base because the classroom is a diverse place and will always present a variety of subgroups of students that will have different usability requirements. In an article in Computing Research News 32% of students with disabilities surveyed said that they felt like an outsider in their field and that the percentage increased to 45% for students with disabilities that also belonged to another minority group. Seeking universal usability would not only appeal to those students who feel ostracized but would also serve our user base as a whole by increasing usability. Like they were used in Wiki Pages, the Web Content Usability Guidelines 2.0 would be a good place to start in order to ensure our users are being served with usability in mind. As well, Section 508 Guidelines provide steps to ensure web based applications are keeping usability in mind. The second design principle that would serve our user base would be discoverability, one Don Norman’s “Fundamental Design Principles”. This principle is important in serving our user base because of the time sensitive nature of face-to-face instruction. If the user wastes time trying to discover elements of an interface, they are losing time that could be used for discussion or instruction. Edmodo provides a good model for how to increase the discoverability of an interface. By using a similar interface to one already popular among their user base, they make it easier to discover elements of their interface.

C. Proposed Solution

Propose a solution

  Looking at other widely used online collaboration tools within the classroom such as Edmodo or Wiki Pages, Piazza is still the most successful at solving our problem of study. While aspects of Edmodo and Wiki Pages could be integrated into Piazza’s interface, it is the best starting point to build an efficient classroom collaboration tool from. These aspects will be discussed in more detail below. Being able to not only support Q&A’s but also discussion boards and content creation for groups of students make Piazza an incredibly powerful tool to enhance face-to-face instruction. However, as outlined in our problem description there are issues with Piazza’s interface that makes its use take up more class time than necessary. Below is a detailed list of proposed changes to Piazza’s interface that should be made in order to make it a more efficient tool within the classroom:

  • We would reconfigure the discussion thumbnails and some of the already existing signifiers on the website in order to make them clearer. For example, we would utilize a broader color palette in order to create more contrast between the background and the signifiers indicating: notes, questions, polls, and notifications. Additionally, we would get rid of the brief synopsis and include properties showing the tags related to the post.
  • We would change the filter feature, getting rid of the displayed options and replacing them with a single filter menu that affords selecting a filter. This filter menu would be hidden behind a hamburger menu icon with a label, “Filters”, in order to save space on the interface.
  • We would alter the posting link and folder links so that their properties appear more button-like providing signifiers that afford posting/selecting that are more easily discoverable
  • We would update the note history bar to include timestamps that aid in discoverability of its function to navigate to posts based on chronology.
  • We would change the follow up discussion box to ‘stick’ to the bottom of the screen negating the need for users to scroll to the bottom to create a new follow up discussion.
  • As in Wiki Pages, we would add group editing to posts where multiple users could edit a post simultaneously. This would save groups of students from needing to select a single group representative that does all of the typing.

How will you measure success?

  The premise of our solution revolves around making the user interface of piazza more efficient. In order to evaluate whether or not our final solution is a success or failure, we must develop a way to quantitatively measure how long it takes for students to complete specific tasks on our updated user interface vs the original piazza user interface. We intend to obtain a medium sized sample of individuals that have never used piazza before and split the group in half. Both halves will be instructed to use a prototype of piazza created by us, and will be told to complete certain timed tasks to the best of their ability without any instructions. One half will use a prototype that will be a copy of the original piazza user interface, and the other will use a prototype of our updated user interface. This way we can directly evaluate the success or failure of our design based on how long the average user takes to complete each task for each perspective user interface. If the majority of tasks are done faster on our UI then our design is a success and if not then it is a failure.

D. Summary Video

Works Cited

Ben Shneiderman, Catherine Plaisant, Maxine Cohen, Steven Jacobs, Niklas Elmqvist, and Nicholas Diakopoulos. Chapter 3.3.4: The Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design. In Designing the User Interface. Pearson, Boston, 6 edition, 2017.

Biasutti, Michele. “A Comparative Analysis of Forums and Wikis as Tools for Online Collaborative Learning.” Computers & Education, vol. 111, 1 Aug. 2017, pp. 158–171. ["Edswsc", "Science Citation Index Expanded"], ["EBSCOHost", "EBSCOhost"], Accessed 22 Feb. 2022.

Campuswire Student Design Team. “Campuswire vs Piazza: A Breakdown.” Medium, Campuswire, 24 Jan. 2020,

Donald A. Norman. 2013. The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books, New York, New York, Revised and Expanded Edition edition. ISBN 978-0-465-05065-9.

“Expanding the Pipeline: The Status of Persons with Disabilities in the Computer Science Pipeline.” CRN, 15 Jan. 2021,,an%20outsider%20in%20their%20field.

Isabel O. “Convenient Q&A.” G2,, Inc, Accessed 21 Feb. 2022.

“Layout.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Nov. 2021,

Niyati M. “Where everyone has a slice of Pizza.” G2,, Inc, Accessed 21 Feb. 2022.

Rosenholtz, Ruth, et al. "Feature congestion: a measure of display clutter." Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pp. 761-770.

Ryane, I. & El faddouli, N.e. (2020). A Case Study of Using Edmodo to Enhance Computer Science Learning for Engineering Students. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning (iJET), 15(3), 62-73. Kassel, Germany: International Journal of Emerging Technology in Learning. Retrieved February 21, 2022 from

Washington, T. I. I., et al. "Today’s discussion boards: the good, the bad, and the ugly." The Online Journal of New Horizons in Education, vol. 9, no. 3, July 2019, pp. 219-232.