Product Designer

Canvas Redesign

Project timeline

Spring 2016 ( 8 Weeks )

Project Scope

Research, Ideation, Evaluation


Design Research, Design Strategy, User Experience Design


Canvas a learning management system that is used by the University of Washington to manage materials and provide tools to improve the students’ learning experience. Some of the main features include access to all course material ­— such as the syllabus, files, and assignment descriptions, checking grades, aggregated calendar and to-do lists, and communication tools — such as chat, personal inbox, and discussion threads.

Canvas was launched at UW in 2013, and overall the feedback has been positive. But in the past few years there has also been evidence of there being room for improvement. 

The goal for this project is to redesign Canvas to create a more engaging and beneficial learning experience for students at the University of Washington.

Subject Matter Expert INTERVIEW

We began our investigation by interviewing TYLER FOX — the Instructional Technologist at the University of Washington from January 2013 to July 2015. 

During this time, he was responsible for supporting and training faculty in the use of UW LMS systems, including Canvas, collaborating to customize Canvas to best meet student needs, and monitoring current trends and IT practices in educational technology. Through this, he has become an expert on Canvas and its use at the University of Washington. 

The interview provided us with much information and I was able to extract the following insights:

  • There is still a lack of consistency in Canvas among courses and professors
  • Discussion boards lack modern chat features and need a better notification system
  • Time management tools are static and difficult to customize for students
  • Mobile accessibility to Canvas information is also important (especially for announcements, notifications, grade checks, and due dates)
  • Integration with Google Drive, Chat, Email, and other student tools is beneficial


In 2014, a survey was conducted for both faculty and student users of Canvas. The survey resulted in nearly 700 student responses and nearly 600 faculty responses. Here are some of the main insights from the data.


If you could design your school’s learning management system from scratch, what features would you add? 
This open ended question elicited 247 student responses. The answers widely varied, but there were four common themes found throughout the responses : 


As the time management features received the most requests, I used the responses to form a word cloud to better understand pain points and trends among all fifty six requests :


From these responses, the following are my main insights for how to improve Canvas’s time management system:  

  • Calendar be the main feature on homepage
  • More visually appealing and better organized
  • Include class times, office hours, exams, assignment due dates, and events
  • Sync with personal Google or Mac calendars
  • Display all assignments on homepage
  • Allow personalization and prioritization of assignment list
  • Improve notification system to include reminders for due dates, exams, etc.

From the LMS Survey Data and the subject matter expert interview with Tyler Fox, the calendar and time management aspects of Canvas seemed to be a major frustration point in the current system. As I can personally relate to the dissatisfaction of its current experience, I decided I wanted to focus on this subset of Canvas. As such, I refined my initial problem statement to continue my investigation.


How can we change the calendar and to-do list features in Canvas to provide better time management tools for students at the University of Washington?



In order to improve Canvas’s calendar and task list, I wanted to first investigate how students are currently managing their schedules and assignments. I chose to implement a photo study where participants would just need to send in a photo of their existing system so I could get a larger sample size (which would not have been possible with interviews) and also get in depth information that would not have translated well in a survey.



I sent a request to 20 students at the University of Washington who were all taking the similar class loads to send me a picture or screenshot of their organizational system. From this, I received 17 different methods consisting of physical and digital calendars, personal planners, and lists. I went through each method to find themes, trends, and interesting aspects.


  • Only 2 people used Canvas as their primary method
  • Due date and time, course title, and assignment header are all used in to-do lists
  • Larger assignments are commonly split into smaller sub-items
  • Calendar schedules contain class meeting times and office hours, not just due dates
  • There are different methods of prioritizing lists — by class, by due date, by time expected, or by importance
  • Being able to mark items off their list once complete is important    

Semi-structured interviews


The camera journal study yielded some excellent insights into the breadth of time management methods. To gather even more information, I conducted semi-structure interviews with two of the camera study participants to gain better understanding into their own methods and their use and thoughts of Canvas. 



I selected two participants from the camera study who had varying methods for managing their time and assignments. I conducted a semi-structure interview with each, asking them to walk through their methods as I probed for further explanations. Then they walked me through their typical Canvas experience and described what they did and did not like about Canvas, and how they personally would want to improve it.  



  • For both participants, the To-Do section was the most important section on the homepage—although it is also one of the smallest. They both rarely actually use the Recent Activity tabs. 
  • Additionally, the dashboard seems “extremely barren” — there could be a much better use for all the empty space
  • Mobile use is mainly just to check grades or due dates.
  • Neither participant have a tablet
  • Main platform is their laptop. 
  • Participants both open Canvas more than once a day and will often keep it open as they are working on their assignments
  • Both split larger assignments into smaller subtasks
  • Both like to see schedules visually — provides a better frame of reference to when something is due compared to now.
  • One participant mentioned that a combined calendar is extremely important towards the end of a quarter when exams, assignments, and projects are all finishing up for each course