Course Template

This was followed by the import flow, project, where you can find more context.

Project Overview

For this project, we built an importable course blueprint template— a spreadsheet document that course authors could integrate into their current course design workflow. Once ready, they could import it onto Coursera and automatically build their course structure and populate content. The template improved authoring efficiency by significantly reducing redundant and repetitive manual work.


The template was considered a big success and heralded at the annual partner conference. We featured it in a session where I co-presented and shared a demo video I made to walk through the process. By the end of the year, we had metrics to be proud of.
  • The template was adopted by 69 partners (around 40% of university partners)
  • It was used to import 249 courses by end of calendar year (8 months)


Reduce authoring time for our partners, specifically degree partners. This meant:

  • Less time doing redundant work while designing
  • Less time performing repetitive actions while building


  • Product and Content Designer (Me)
  • Product Manager
  • Front-End and Back-End Engineers
  • Product Researcher
  • Product Support Team

My Role

This was a cross-functional effort, tightly aligned with the product team. My primary contributions were as follows:

  • Co-facilitated workshops, user interviews and usability research
  • Designed template content
  • Designed and delivered the final product including interactions and visual style
  • Created a demo video of the product and co-presented at Coursera Partner Conference

The Problem

Putting a course onto Coursera was frustrating for course authors, especially for degrees. Instructors were designing courses for on-campus students that didn’t translate well into Coursera’s structure. It took a lot of time and energy to resolve that disagreement.
We knew this was a problem because
  • We heard direct feedback from partners
  • It'd been called out in a previous research initiative
  • It was in direct conflict to our business goal of acquiring more degree content


Understanding the problem

The team met with our product researcher to get more context around what already knew.

Our users, the course authors

There were three roles in the course authoring process, instructors, instructional designers, and course builders.

  • Instructors— Responsible for the content. Their primary goals were to effectively teach their material to their students and meet their deadlines.
  • They create the course structure, lectures, and assessments.
  • They had a specialized knowledge of the content to be created, but not necessarily pedagogical training.
  • They did not know Coursera well and didn't feel it was their responsibility to know.
  • Instructional Designers— Acted as consultants to the instructors. They were responsible for making sure the material was effective online and presented to learners as intended.
  • They offered pedagogical finesse to improve the online experience.
  • They had a much better understanding of how Coursera worked.
  • Course Authors— Assigned to do the manual work of entering content onto the platform. This role was sometimes filled by the Instructional Designer.
The course design process
We learned that there were two phases in the course authoring process and both had notable pain points.
  • The first phase, design, was about process. The instructor would design their course with their on-campus students in mind and without regard for Coursera. They would use an internal blueprint document, usually a spreadsheet. Because they were not privy to Coursera's requirements and limitations, this led to a number of discrepancies that the instructional designer had to identify and work with them to resolve. That meant redundant work that could've been avoided.
  • The second phase, building, was about the platform. Coursera’s platform was difficult to work with and was never designed with degrees in mind. There was a lot of UX debt and it took an excessive number of repetitive clicks for the course builder to build a course.
Design— Process
Pain points
  • Time spent reconfiguring work— resolving inconsistencies we called "square pegs" and "blind spots." This pain was felt by both the instructor and instructional designer.
  • Square pegs were something that the instructor created that Coursera couldn't support on its platform. For example, a graded discussion that would have to be converted to a peer review or quiz.
  • Blind spots were when the instructor omitted something that Coursera required. For example, Coursera required activities (or items) to sit inside of a lesson. Often times, instructors nested them in a module without putting them in a lesson first.
Building— Platform
Pain points
  • The Coursera UI was slow in performance, dated and clunky in design.
  • Building the structure and entering data required significant repetitive actions.

Aligning on a direction

Improving the platform's capabilities to eliminate square pegs and blind spots completely would be a long term effort. Redesigning the UI also was not an easy fix. But what if we could create something in the shorter term to to make things more efficient? We asked course authors for samples of their blueprint documents and found common themes. What if instructors designed their course with a blueprint built to prevent some of the design phase issues and could be uploaded to eliminate some of the repetitive building work? That would be a win.


We can improve the authoring experience by providing a blueprint template that...

  • Meets instructors where they are without interfering in their process
  • Helps prevent the square pegs and blind spots before they happen
  • Can be imported to automatically to build a course skeleton and populate it with assets on our platform, eliminating a large portion of manual work

While some of the examples provided by course authors were in doc format, most were spreadsheets (Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel). That gave us the ability to embed logic into the template and use multiple sheets in a file.

Guiding principles

We needed to start with the right principles to act as a guide to make sure we met the needs of our course authors. There were adoption risks if we didn't successfully adhere to them. We collaborated as a team to land on these three.

Educational 💡

About how to use the template and about Coursera’s structure and pedagogical philosophy.

Flexible 🤸

So it fit the current partner needs and workflows.

Efficient ⏱️

So it was easy to work with and could be a viable replacement  for current design documents.

Writing Guidelines
Getting the content right was going to be a crucial part of this project. I had an early version of our writing guidelines to refer to. Though it wasn't fully comprehensive, it contained a basic style guide that was enough to provide direction.
Writing for university partners
  • Faculty and Instructional Designers who are engaged in representing their brand and content to the broader world
  • Use clear, concise, honest, and informative language
  • There is no need to be vibrant or uplifting

Iteration and testing

The main focus

Using a spreadsheet gave us flexibility. My plan was to use an introductory sheet for initial grounding, an importable sheet which was the actual blueprint, and a sheet filled in with a real course example to show what a completed course should look like. The focus was mainly on the blueprint sheet. It took the most effort and was the primary subject for our testing.

Evolving constraints

I designed the template in parallel with engineering as they built out the backend. It wasn't quite like working on a plane's engine during flight, but it also wasn't uncommon to have to make adjustments mid-stream. I met frequently with engineers to make sure I didn't design too far ahead of them. The template evolved as engineering constraints evolved.

Applying the principles

Using the principles, I leaned heavy toward education in the design. We wanted to make sure that we explained how the template could be used. With the I intention of being efficient, I built out quite a bit of structure by default so they could spend less time creating it and more time filling it in. Collapsable sections could let them focus on just what they needed at the time. And in terms of being flexible, I added hints about adding columns or rows in relevant cells and in the tips section.

Educational 💡
  • Robust instruction
  • Images with directions
  • Tips embedded into cells as notes
Flexible 🤸
  • Ability to edit and move things around, with a few exceptions
Efficient ⏱️
  • Collapsable sections
  • Multiple default modules
  • Multiple prebuilt options. ex. Auto-publish
  • Optional institutional sections

What we tested

After much iteration, collaborative team review, and feedback from internal partners, we landed on a version to put in front of real course authors. Below is the blueprint sheet in expanded and collapsed views.


While partners were receptive to the idea of using a template that could save them time, they were unlikely to use this. Some clear themes emerged.

  • The instruction was not clear. They needed a better understanding of customization and how it works, i.e., what is required and what can be changed.
  • They needed a format that better matches what they were using. They didn't want to start with all of this structure and said they'd delete most of it. Collapsable groups were not needed or wanted.
  • They found the template visually overwhelming. The cognitive overload was real.

What we learned

We made assumptions that proved to be incorrect
Wrong Assumption 1: We need to explain a lot

Actually they don’t need that much. They just need to know how much they’d need to alter the way they work. Can they mostly work in the same way? In terms of customization and set up.

Wrong Assumption 2: Providing more structure by default will be helpful and save time

Actually it won’t, they’ll delete most of it and rebuild to match what they have as closely as possible.

How we solved it

Here's a deeper look at what didn't work and how I was able to correct it. We needed to stop over-explaining and stay out of the way.

1) Stop over-explaining

A course structure was primarily made up of modules, lessons, and items (videos, readings, or assessments). Some things were required to be filled in for the import to work. There were also things things about how to use the template that I wanted to make sure were noted.

Tips— Tested version
  • Tip 1— The thought was to state that row order was important right away. This was a question we had heard in preliminary research.
  • Tip 2— It was important to explain how to customize the template and what shouldn't be changed to avoid errors
  • Tip 3— We wanted to let the user know about notes embedded in cells to explain things like terminology
  • Tip 4— We expected that duplicating rows would be an important part of the workflow so I added the keyboard shortcut tip
  • Tip 5— This was to give a heads up on the collapsable group functionality thinking that this will add efficiency
  • Tip 6— Here we provided a quick external link to our resource center for more info.
We only needed to include what was most important to know

We didn't need groups, so they were the first to go. I also removed images and unnecessary tips as it added more cognative overload than useful guidance. I revised the tips that were still important, regarding notes within cells and explaining what's required.

What I removed
  • Tip 1 about row order. Not necessary to state. They assumed this.
  • Tip 4 about duplicating actions. They know how to to do this.
  • Tip 5 about groups. We’re doing away with groups. They aren’t helpful.
  • Tip 6 with the resource link. We’ll make the new “Tips” section header contain a learn more link.
Tips— Final Version
  • Tip 1— What we recommend and why. We wanted to start by grounding the user again on the benefit.
  • Tip 2— Keeping notes for some cells. This is a quick, built-in reference for terminology. This was well-received
  • Tip 3— Revised the guidance on requirements. Some cells must have content for the import to work.
  • Tip 4— Videos and quizzes can be automatically uploaded if using a public link. This was to address evolving engineering constraints. We could only have two assessment types.
  • Key— Offers better clarity around what’s required and what will import.

2) Stay out of the way

There was too much structure here by default. It didn't fit the way they want to work. They said they'd delete most of it because they wanted more control.

There was too much to start with
Structure— Tested Version
  • Collapsable default course content section
  • Multiple default modules
  • Multiple prebuilt options. ex. Auto-publish
  • Optional institutional sections
  • Ability to edit and move things around, with a few exceptions
Start with less
Structure— Final Version
  • Just include a single module with one lesson and the the most essential fields
  • Replace “Enter ___” with “[__ goes here]” to sound less imperative. Instructors don’t like being told what to do.
  • Simple minimal callouts where you can customize. Not after every section.
  • Style everything to be more minimal, lighter feel

What we launched with

After making the changes and more testing and demonstrations with course authors, we knew we had a viable product. They were much more receptive and willing to try our template on real courses. The final version consisted of three sheets, Start Here, Example, and FOR IMPORT, the actual blueprint and the most important sheet.

Sheet 1— Start Here

This purpose of this tab was to ground the user on our intention with this template. It was relatively straightforward in execution and didn't require a lot of revision. I used our writing guidelines to ensure the language was clear, concise, and informative.

Sheet 2— Example

This sheet was a filled-in version of the same blueprint used in the FOR IMPORT sheet. Its purpose was to act a reference for what a completed course should look like for a successful import.


This was the headliner. It was the featured product that took the most effort and was most crucial to get right.

The impact

The template was considered a big success and heralded at the annual partner conference. We featured it in a session where I co-presented and shared a demo video I made to walk through the process. By the end of the year, we had metrics to be proud of.

  • The template was adopted by 69 partners (around 40% of university partners)
  • It was used to import 249 courses by end of calendar year (8 months)
My takeaways

This was a chance to really cut my teeth on a rudimentary form of content design that isn't what you see everyday. I learned as I went, had to think on my feet, and adapted with evolving constraints.

This project was closely intertwined with the Import Flow.

← Back to projects