Thursday, October 29, 2015

In Admiration of User Centered Design

In today's increasingly connected world, it's very easy for companies to learn everything about us, from our demographics to our location data to our shopping habits. But when it comes time to actually design a custom product for us, how much does that information serve them? For all that they know about us, how well do they actually know us?

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Even companies doing market research aren't able to capture a person's essence. More and more, scientists are realizing that they can't get authentic results by asking participants to describe what they need. Under observation, people are likely to try to give the answer they think the interviewer wants, even when they actually want to hear the straightforward, unadulterated truth! When asked if they approve of a new concept X, customers are liable to give a 'soft yes' which means: "Sure, I see the value there," but which conceals "but I wouldn't pay a cent more to have i,t" or, "but I'd rather see more of concept Y." Subjects are also far more liberal with theoretical money/energy/time than actual quantities of the same - their initial enthusiasm often doesn't transfer to sales.

This leaves us with a glut of products, services, and programs in the world that just don't quite hit the mark. Companies with the best of intentions, learning as much as they know how to learn, produce solutions that they expect to be beloved by their users, but which fall flat. This is where user centered design comes in.

Essentially, during this process, designers spend a lot of time engaging with the people they are designing for, developing an empathetic understanding of who they are and how they think. They create physical displays of their observed information called representations and frameworks, iterating as they discover new perspectives. Eventually, they learn to be able to answer questions for their users, like, "What would Jodie do if her class projector malfunctioned?" or, "How would she feel if all of her students were buried in their personal screens?" Designers use their deep understanding of their users as leaping-off points for ideation (e.g. brainstorming), and engage their users in idea co-design to learn about the step-by-step decisions they would make. Finally, they spec out, build, and distribute a product!

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User centered design is a key part of our mission to elevate the quality of technology in the education space. Our build teams focus on developing software that the members of their partner school communities can love. They dive deep in order to keenly understand the needs and values of their users and stakeholders. They let that knowledge inform their work, and come up with solutions that not only meet an established area of opportunity, but do so in a way that users will actually want to employ.

Realistically, the results of this process are customized to one specific community, so subsequent design work is required to scale the product up. This could certainly be profitable and worthwhile. But furthermore, for our build teams, the experience of designing alongside and creating something for their community is an inspirational blend of beneficial, educational, and transformational. We at School Shaped hope that many future edtech leaders will have this experience.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Thoughts from the Close It Summit

Two weeks ago I attended the second annual Close It Summit, in the cool capital city of DC. The “it” in Close It refers to the skills gap - the difference between the skills and credentials that employers want, and the skills and credentials that job seekers actually have. In particular the conference focused on the many unemployed who don’t have college or even high school degrees, but are still motivated to have a successful career.

I didn’t expect the conference to align exactly with School Shaped’s mission; the speakers focused more on adult education than K-12. However, as the schedule proceeded I realized that the skills gap was really just the continuation of the K-12 achievement gap. The hard working adults using the tools at the conference were once the underserved students graduating (or not) from our K-12 schools. Many of the products there proclaimed they could get an unemployed client job-ready in six months, after our K-12 system failed to do this in 13 years.

The good news is that there are some great schools and businesses with impressive solutions for both the skills and achievement gaps (see below for some from the conference). There is, however, an important difference between the adult and K-12 markets. For the K-12 market, it’s often not the users of a product that are purchasing, whether those users are students, teachers or administrators. Thus it’s possible for unintuitive and misinformed products to end up in schools. In contrast, market forces operate pretty effectively in an adult market. The users of the products are the ones paying, and thus capitalism prevails in all its Darwinian greatness.

This may be one of the reasons that edtech for adults imparts skills in six months that K-12 tech has trouble teaching in years. Noel Enyedy with the National Education Policy Center points out, “We cannot trust market forces alone to sort out which systems are effective” for K-12 edtech. Rather, he suggests direct partnerships between developers and school communities to help users who can’t vote with their dollar, vote with their words instead. By providing this kind of partnership, I think School Shaped is doing its part to help close the achievement gap, and ensure the skills gap doesn't exist for the next generation.

Some great products from the conference:

Mentored: Online mentoring for K-12. This is pretty hard space, due to safety concerns with student tutoring, and the difficulty of growing a product is associated with homework. However Mentored is totally nailing it by making the process of connecting with a mentor easy and fast.

Kuepa: Online courses for the underemployed. Kuepa courses get users ready for entry level jobs, and they charge only a low, monthly fee for all of them. They started in South America and had great success there. Now they are getting into the American market, focusing on spanish speaking english language learners.

Axonify: Platform for corporate learning. Axonify applies learning science to on the job training, using spaced repetition and gamification to making lessons effective and engaging. The results speak for themselves: Pep Boys used Axonify and saw a 45% reduction in incidents, with 95% of employees regularly using the system.

Andela: Pipeline for talented programmers in Africa to become remote employees for American companies. Andela trains talented African programmers, and then connects them with startups and Fortune 500 companies in America. The employees they provide are some of the best around, and help companies here rethink who and how they hire.

Friday, October 23, 2015

With Schools, For Schools

Hey there, and welcome to the School Shaped blog! Consider this our open invitation to you come join us on our adventure as we work to bring better edtech to schools everywhere.

We are a team of engineers, designers, and educators, passionate about addressing a crucial need that we see in the edtech space today. The National Education Policy Center describes the opportunity as a need for “more partnerships among developers, educational researchers, and teachers.” We need to increase communication and collaboration between the creators and users of edtech to make more empathetic products.

Our answer is School Shaped. We incubate teams of engineers and designers as they design, build, and distribute better edtech as partners in K12 school communities. School Shaped helps each team grow while they work with students, teachers, and staff to create apps that meet the needs of the community they are immersed in.

We call it a community and not a partnership because we don’t want to put the school and the Build Team on opposite sides of a contract. Every stakeholder is considered an equal, and everyone benefits. The school receives practical benefits from the new software, as well as the empowering experience of codesigning their own tools. In turn, each Build Team becomes an experienced design and software engineering team, ready to pursue any of their ideas as a startup. We want each of these teams to leave well-informed and eager to continue building upon the software they have created when their year is up.

We’re excited, but we’re just getting started. We’re busy setting up pilots, meeting allies in the education world, and forging partnerships of every type. We’re paving the way to make School Shaped a success and make a real difference to the schools that desperately need proven, intuitive edtech.

This blog is where we will share our learnings around creating School Shaped and discuss our findings in education, technology, and design. We welcome your thoughts and input – let’s build a community around improving education technology! Feel free to comment or reach out to

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.