User Testing Drove Enhancements to Chicago Early Learning

User Testing Drove Enhancements to Chicago Early Learning

We’re seeing a lot about early learning programs in the news lately, as a political spotlight shines on increasing funding and accessibility for such programs.  A couple of years ago, the forward-thinking Smart Chicago Collaborative retained Azavea to develop a web application, Chicago Early Learning, to serve as a portal for parents to find early learning centers for their children.

The application was developed in two phases, the first of which launched as a prototype in late 2012, and the second several months ago. This approach allowed us to make significant improvements to the application’s usability by analyzing usage statistics and orchestrating user testing.  The opportunity to gather actual user feedback on how the prototype served them was truly helpful, and our UI/UX designer team ran with the information to completely revamp the interface.

We participated in development of the testing scenario and script, and the team based in Chicago visited sites in the city to carry out the test with members of the target user community.  Dan O’Neil, the open data dynamo behind the Smart Chicago Collaborative, also took the app to various community meetings to gather additional input and spearheaded analysis on both website usage and usage of the SMS functionality.  We all met in early 2013 to discuss the results and plan the new version.

Notable enhancements were moving from a predominantly map-based interface to one that included a list view, adding a feature that allows users to save locations of interest, implementing a responsive design for tablets and smartphones, and changing some of the language to be clearer. A note to designers and developers: most people don’t know the word permalink.

The take-away is that while usability is always at the forefront of the design process, the value of user testing a rapidly built prototype should not be underestimated.  The users are the ultimate clients and we should listen to them! This starts with asking them what they think.

We went from this:

To this:

We are constantly incorporating new UX (User Experience) techniques into our repertoire at Azavea.  My favorite recent approach, paper prototyping, doesn’t even require any code to be written.  Just print and cut out wireframes, give testers a highlighter, and switch in and out pages based on the user’s interaction with the interface.  Be the rendering engine!

Chicago Early Learning is an open source project. You can adopt the project for your own community, starting at

Also, more information about the project partners and funding, as well as a detailed report about the user testing can be found here: