Monday, 19 August 2013

Meet the consultants - An interview with Amir Ansari

The Australian MOOC platform Open2Study offers a user experience design course created by Stamford Interactive, a consultancy involved in Open2Study’s own UX design.
The Good MOOC interviews UX consultant and course instructor Amir Ansari.





  • Can you introduce yourself?


I lived in Melbourne, Australia since I was nine years old. I studied Industrial Design at university and spent the first few years designing street furniture and consumer products. It was hard work freelancing so I started looking for full time work. My first proper job was working for a company which is now part of Autodesk. My role was pretty much a visual designer but I soon got involved in reworking and redesigning the user interface of their software. From there on I became obsessed with improving the user interface of digital products, and have been practicing as a user experience designer for over 13 years. I'm currently the principal consultant for Australia's largest user experience design agency - Stamford. We help improve the experience of products and services for customers of our clients.



  • Can you describe how you got involved with Open2Study?


So Open2Study is a subsidiary of Open Universities Australia. I've been consulting to Open Universities for over two years and Open2Study was their most recent project. They wanted Stamford's help in designing the overall experience and user interface for the website. So we spent a few months working with their developers, designing and validating the interface with real users. While on the project, I was also approached by the company and asked if I was interested in creating one of the subjects for the website. As my expertise was User experience (UX) I felt it was a great opportunity to provide an introductory course on the matter. Hence why Introduction to UX (#O2SWebUX) is one of the subjects on the website, together with another subject created by Stamford - Writing for the Web.



  • What was involved putting the course together?


Well I can tell you creating a subject involved many people (behind the scenes) and many hours of my time scripting and creating the content, being aware of the target audience and the flow across the entire subject at all times. I think I wrote over 10,000 words, not to mention thinking of examples and sourcing images and additional content. The team at Open2Study were very supportive- especially the Producers and Learning Designers. Then there was the production crew - people working the cameras, directors, assistant directors and the list goes on. Open2Study did not sacrifice quality and ensured the end product was of the highest quality. From a personal point of view, I found the process of creating the content quite challenging - being an expert in a field, you often practice your skill without thinking too much about it. Yet, when you have to think about explaining what you do to people who potentially know nothing about the topic - in this case UX, you find yourself really analysing and breaking down your knowledge into small explainable pieces. To be honest though, the process was extremely invigorating - helping me to truly question what I know and why I practice UX.



  • How do you see MOOCs and higher education going in the future?


Well, to be honest, when I first came across the idea of MOOCs, I was skeptical. How could an organisation or group of education providers survive and make money by giving away all their Intellectual Property. But seeing the likes of MIT, Stanford University and other global education institutions committing to MOOCs, it is obviously an area that has long term benefits. I love the philanthropic element of MOOCs - provide free education to people - especially for those who would otherwise not be able to have access to education.  Thinking ahead, my feeling is that MOOCs will potentially reduce the number of students who start a higher education course and drop out or change streams because they realise it's not for them. By studying MOOCs, it gives them the opportunity to dip their toe in the water and try a discipline before financially committing to it. I’d like to see if this is true and would love to see statistics around this idea in a few years time - more students picking a higher education course and completing it.



  • Have you taken MOOCs yourself?


Yes I have, and all through Open2Study. I've successfully completed Strategic Management, Foundations of Psychology and Becoming Human: Anthropology. As you can tell, in regards to the latter two, I'm fascinated by the human condition and these two subjects are well aligned with my field of User Experience. I did find it hard balancing a full time job and my family with studying. I was studying these subjects late at night and found it hard to absorb everything.



  • From a UX standpoint... how would you improve on existing MOOC sites?


A great question. At Open2Study, we've worked hard in ensuring that students can complete their subjects without the user interface and online classroom getting in the way. At the same time, since Open2Study is all about social learning - involving friends and other students through discussions and forums, we've ensured the entire experience takes place on a single page, without the student having to jump around the website. I know some other MOOC websites have disjointed experiences, where forums are in one location and classrooms in another. Also, I find the production quality of the videos is crucial - and Open2Study has invested more than other websites in ensuring the delivery of the subjects through videos remains professional and of high quality. Lastly, we at Stamford worked very hard with Open2Study to ensure the website was accessible and hence the interactive transcripts of the videos is one of the most popular features of the website.   



  • What do you consider as the key UX elements for the best learning experience?


A great question. Well having been with Open2Study through their initial release and a couple of round of updates, some common themes are coming through:
- accessible! Any online learning platform should be designed with universality and accessibility in mind. That is anybody should be able to use the website and learn. The interactive transcripts have been a very popular feature.
- do NOT play videos automatically. There's nothing more annoying than landing on a website and having a video or audio start playing without the user wanting it to.
- provide a progress monitor. Getting a sense of one's progress is important as a form of encouragement and is a great tool to increase completion.
- knowing where one is within their course. It's very clear that people study MOOCs across many sessions, and at times a few days or weeks apart. It's very important that when the user logs back into the classroom, it's clear where they go to and are given calls-to-action to continue their study.
- ensure the site is designed with tablets and large touch devices in mind. People study in their own time and often use an iPad or a tablet, while sitting on the couch or in their bed at nights!
- lastly, MOOCs need to factor in the internet and computer skills of their audience. The best MOOCs are those that keep the user interface and learning model simple, allowing for the largest range of user groups.



  • Can we expect any more courses from you in the near future?


I would love to. But to be honest I've covered quite a bit in my Introduction to UX. I guess the next step could be to delve deeper into some of the themes and activities of user and customer experience. I do have some other interests - industrial design and furniture design, volleyball and a few other hobbies. I need to see if I know enough to be able to talk for four hours!



  • You seem to have enjoyed your experience teaching a MOOC. Any parting comments for would be instructors out there?

If anybody who feels they are an expert in their field or has a strong passion and knowledge around a topic or theme, I highly recommend them getting in touch with MOOC providers and having a go at instructing and delivering a MOOC. Not only are you giving back and sharing your knowledge with others, but it will really help solidify and refine what you know as well as highlight what you don't.






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