Ted McDonald

Interaction designer
Incoming intern at NASA JPL

  • My Role
  • UX Design
  • Visual Design
  • Team
  • Ted McDonald
  • Project
  • Duration: 2 weeks
  • Client: Main Stem Music

Learning Aid for Group Piano Classes

Main Stem Music teaches after-school group piano classes at elementary schools, with up to 40 kids per class. Their goal was to have every student, regardless of initial skill level, be able to play a song for their parents by the end of their first class.

Students were expected to memorize letter names, key positions, and read notes from a music staff. At an elementary level, learning ability varies between students and initial piano lessons can be a struggle.

The goal was to reduce cognitive load, so that students could learn a song during their first lesson.

Outcome

I designed a teaching tool — "key card" — for piano group lessons, that dramatically improved the number of students who were able to play a song, unaided, by the end of their first class. I also redesigned the front cover of the student instruction book to serve as a delivery method for key cards.

Over 800 key cards were produced and used by students. Feedback was very positive and many parents purchased extra key cards for their children.

What I Made

The key card was a physical, paper-stock representation of the notes C through B on the keyboard. It had folds that held it in place on the keyboard and a shortened height to allow fingers freedom of movement.

Locked in Place

There were small cut sections on the key cards, which students could fold down. Spacing tolerance between folds accommodated slight width differences between keyboard models. Folds kept the key cards locked in place, even when keyboards were bumped or moved by students.

(left) Key card on piano.
(right) Demonstration of key card folds.

Stackable

The key cards covered seven letters, C-B. By not making them a full octave (C-C, or eight letters), multiple cards could be stacked side-by-side. This allowed students to use two key cards when playing with two hands.

Key cards can be stacked side by side as needed.

A Delivery System

Main Stem Music produced their own books. By printing the key card on the side of the front cover and perforating the connecting edge, students could easily tear off their key card and place it on their keyboard. The tear would then reveal a strip of colored paper where the students could write their names.

The front cover of the book is meant to resemble a piano from the top.

(left) Piano book cover.
(right) Detaching key card from cover, revealing area to write name

How I Got There

The design process involved field observations, ideation, and prototypes.

Field Observations

Each class began with a period of group instruction. Afterwards, students spread out to individual pianos for practice. I noticed that many students would raise their hands and wait for a teacher to show up and help them with their songs. Most questions involved identifying notes on the keyboard. Students would often forget where to place their fingers on the keyboard and teachers would help them find the correct position.

Piano group classes. Students gathered at front of class for mini-lecture.

Ideation and Prototyping

Ideation focused on addressing students’ main pain point — remembering note names and their position on the keyboard. Given the young demographic and nature of group classes, effective solutions needed to be simple, cheap, and disposable.

I experimented with ways to display the notes on the keyboard, using a variety of stickers and creating paper representations of piano keys, folded in different ways.

A selection of sketched concepts I explored.

Stickers proved too difficult to reposition and remove, lost their adhesiveness, and often left behind residue on the keyboard. Paper keyboard representations (which I call “key cards”) seemed to solve many of these issues. However, early vertically positioned iterations would not stay in place. They would flop over when the keyboard was bumped or moved.

I settled on a flat design, sitting flush on top the black keys. The card was a representation of the keys underneath, though less than half the height so that the student could comfortable place their fingers on the keyboard.

Standard paper weights would crinkle and bend very easily, so I increased the weight of the paper to 110lb stock, which was more rigid and longer lasting.

Reflections

I learned that a simple solution can be more effective in meeting users’ needs than something complex. In addition, by designing key cards into the front cover of students' instructional books, they were produced and distributed without creating a significant new expense for Main Stem Music.

Designing a physical product was a change of pace from designing for digital and I really enjoyed the process.