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Understanding the Student Experience with Blockcerts (Blockchain-Powered Academic Credentials) Through Usability Testing

Lindsay Kelly - Graduate Researcher and Service Designer, C21U

During the Summer of 2018, the Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) embarked on a journey to introduce Blockcerts at Georgia Tech. Blockcerts are blockchain-powered academic credentials, housed on a mobile application, that are decentralized, secure, and verified.  

C21U’s intention when introducing Blockcerts was to create value for a variety of user groups, including students, faculty, student services and employers. Blockerts could benefit these user groups in a variety of ways. For example, once perfected at scale, students could avoid processing fees, obtain their academic credentials in real-time, and have a one-stop-shop for all their academic credentials, across universities and other education providers. Faculty could assess students’ competence more holistically and have quick reference information about each student’s past academic performance. University student services could reduce the time that it takes to process student academic credentials. Lastly, recruiters could ensure credential accuracy and detect fraudulent credentials.

Introducing User Research

However, in order to realize the full potential of Blockcerts, it is essential that the user groups are actively considered in the creation of the application. That is why, this year, we sought to reach out to the Blockcerts application user groups and conduct research to better understand their experiences using the application, as well as the students’ surrounding contexts of use for the application. The first research method we used to achieve this understanding was usability testing with students so that we could evaluate the product by testing their ability to complete core tasks using the interface.

We developed a clickable prototype and conducted usability testing with 12 Georgia Tech students, including undergraduate and graduate students across several majors. We made sure to include both American and international students. We asked students to use the application to first download the Blockcerts app, then to add Georgia Tech as an issuer, to add their academic credential, and finally, to share their academic credential. We also requested that students share their thoughts and questions out loud throughout the process, to better understand what they were thinking during use. Additionally, we recorded the time that users spent on task, as well as the level of assistance needed to complete the tasks.

Usability Testing Findings

The results from the usability testing showed that there is significant room for improving the Blockcerts student experience. Specifically, eight key takeaways came out of the study:  

  1. Students needed more context about the Blockcerts application, to reduce confusion and establish a common mental model.

  2. Students were confused by the unfamiliar, technical terminology (e.g., issuer, credential) used throughout the application.

  3. Students were frustrated by the need for device switching in and out of the application.

  4. Students did not trust the application, especially due to the high stakes nature of maintaining and sending academic records.

  5. Students wanted better guidance through the application process/workflow.

  6. Students wanted more information to enable them to make key decisions throughout the application.

  7. Students expected more steps of the process to be automated, to reduce their effort required.

  8. Students were unwilling to accept the multi-day wait time to process their credentials in the application.  

Follow-Up Interview Question Findings

Following the usability testing, we asked students seven interview questions to reflect further on their experience during the usability testing. Some of these follow-up interview questions asked, along with the corresponding findings, are outlined below (others were removed, as they were more technical questions):

Question 1: What were your overall impressions of your experience with the Blockcerts application?

The predominant reaction to the application was confusion. For example, one confused student said, “I was really lost for the most part. I felt like I didn’t have a roadmap”. Another said, “An onboarding experience would have been useful when you use it for the first time.”

Question 2: Do you see yourself using Blockcerts for any of the following? A) your academic transcript, B) a formal training you attended, C) an educational seminar you attended, D) other

Students were more likely to see themselves using Blockcerts for larger items, such as their transcripts and formal trainings, rather than minor achievements like attending a seminar. However, they were also interested in using Blockcerts to capture a more holistic representation of their activities and accomplishments on campus, such as community service activities, extracurricular activities, honors, and professional organization involvements.

Question 3: What, if anything, is your understanding of the value of Blockcerts to you personally as a student?

A number of students didn’t see clear value to them in using Blockcerts. Others mentioned the convenience of mobile access, security, as well as the benefit of avoiding the processing fees generally associated with obtaining transcripts. Finally, some students said,“There is only value if recruiters and other colleges are demanding it.”

Question 4: Imagine the Blockcert you just received was real. How would you imagine yourself using that Blockcert?

The majority of students said that they would like to have their Blockcerts appear on their LinkedIn profiles, specifically under the education and skills areas. This was different than what was initially imagined, which was that students might want to share out their Blockcerts via social media posts. Some students also said they would send the Blockcert to themselves to back it up, and that they wouldn’t use it unless it was being asked of them.

Next Steps

The C21U team is actively working to address the usability testing key takeaways in the Blockcerts application and we hope to share these findings with other universities that are in the process of introducing Blockcerts to their campuses. For example, one idea is to add an onboarding experience to explain key concepts about blockchain and the value of the application. Additionally, we would like to remove the use of technical terminology, incorporate a process tracker, add in-app help and support, and add elements to build trust with users, such as a preview of what recruiters will see when receiving Blockcerts.

C21U will also host a Service Design workshop in February to better understand the other groups who might eventually use Blockcerts (faculty, student services, and recruiters).

Finally, going forward, C21U will initiate user research at all stages of the product life cycle to ensure that the products we develop are addressing real user needs and that users are able to leverage them as intended.

Want to Learn More?

You can find a more detailed video read-out of the usability testing findings, here.

About the Author

Lindsay Kelly headshotLindsay Kelly is a Graduate Researcher and Service Designer at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, where she is pursuing her Master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction. Prior to graduate school, she was a Manager in Accenture’s Higher Education practice and a User Experience Researcher at LinkedIn. Lindsay is currently also a Co-Founder and the UX Research Lead of a project called Lumovia, funded by the Verizon Foundation, which aims to boost STEM learning outcomes in American middle schools through real-world, augmented reality learning ‘quests’. In addition to her industry experience, Lindsay has worked as a Teaching Assistant for Georgia Tech’s User Interface Design class and as a guest lecturer for Georgia Tech’s VIP Data-Driven Education class.