Canvas App Redesign

In this project, I redesigned the way students seek assistance through Canvas. I proposed a new feature that helps students in time without adding an extra burden on instructors.

Type: Individual Project
Timeline: 5 weeks


Problem statement

Canvas is a popular learning management system used by more than 2,000 universities, school districts, and institutions around the world. It provides a platform for students to access course materials, to receive and submit assignments, to connect with faculty, and to study collaboratively.

When students need assistance with assignments, they invested a considerable amount of time waiting for responses from instructors. On the instructor side,  especially for classes with over 300 students, it was impossible to answer students' questions quickly.



A question icon is implemented on the upper right corner. Students could click this icon to inquire the content on the current page.

Students could also obtain in-time assistance through browsing similar questions and viewing answered questions from others.

Canvas App has a "message instructor" feature. Unfortunately, this feature is fragmented, underdeveloped and hard to find.



Main deliverables

  Main deliverables at each stage.


Expert interview


Canvas was brought on mostly for students because students need twenty-four hour assistance with academics.


I first interviewed Tylor Fox, who was the director of learning system team at the University of Washington. Tylor helped me identify the goal of Canvas and current issues in Canvas system.

Tylor also shared Canvas’s survey data from 700 students. From the survey, two-thirds of the students do not feel satisfied about their interactions with instructors and peers on canvas. One half of the students are not satisfied with the information accessibility on canvas. 


Focus group

To dive deep into the particular cause of problems mentioned above, I facilitated an online focus group with six students (two teaching assistants) and one instructor.

I had the group conducted an open card sorting to identify common tasks they perform on Canvas. Then,  the group generated an experience map online (through Finally, I had the group mapped their pain points on the experience map.


Flow Analysis

Based on the experience map, I conducted a flow analysis of student users from starting an assignment to finishing an assignment.



Current UI Problems

Although Canvas App provides a feature for students to message instructors, this feature is hidden under the submission tab. The majority of students in the focus group are not aware of this function.


Canvas App also provides a "Message" tab which works similar to e-mail. Unfortunately, it does not provide students with in-time assistance. Students reported that they would rather use e-mail than the "Message" tab.



Instructor Interviews 

I interviewed one teaching assistant and one instructor from my previous focus group. 

What I learned is that many questions students asked were repetitive, especially in classes that were offered multiple times each year.

The interview with instructors inspired a great “a-ha” moment in the project. Would there be a way that could reuse the questions that were already asked?





Since Canvas archives every course, pulling past conversations from the Canvas archive is a promising solution. Hence, I designed a new tab called "questions" on the bottom tab bar. Students could pull out answers from the previous year or directly ask questions if there are no matching answers.


A screenshot of the low fidelity wireframes.


Guerrilla Usability Test

I conducted three Guerrilla tests with students in a cafeteria at the University of Washington. Below is the main insight I learned from students' feedback: If students have questions, they need to go to the tab on the bottom tab bar, and manually type in the scope of their questions. This interaction takes too many steps and does not have enough flexibility.

I updated my wireframes - moving the "questions" tab to the navigation bar. In that way, users could ask questions about any course materials. Tags would be generated based on the current page. If the student decides to message instructors, the tags would be parsed into sentences to provide context for the student's message. 


High fidelity mock-up



Scenario A

Jack went to the assignment page, read through the instruction and came up with an urgent question. He clicked the question button, typed in his question and found a similar question asked by students from last year. 


Scenario B

Jack went to the assignment page, read through the instruction and came up with an urgent question. He clicked the question button, typed in his question. Unfortunately, Jack did not find any similar questions. He then sent a message to his instructor through Canvas.




    • Instructor interviews should be conducted before the student focus group, to map out students' general behaviors.
    • Some search results in Canvas might be out-of-date. One of the solutions is to have student users report deficient search results. 
    • Some students are used to use emails to ask instructors. Hence, instructors need to remind students asking questions through Canvas.
    • Canvas is a relatively new platform to some Universities. On 2015 autumn, the adoption rate of Canvas at the University of Washington is 30.88%. There might not be enough search results for students. Canvas team should encourage instructors adding "frequently asked questions" to assist students better.