Get Outside the Building: Teacher Driven Product Development

Contributor: Jennifer Medbery

One of my favorite quotes about entrepreneurship is from Steve Blank – “In a startup, no facts exist inside the building, only opinions.”
This is especially true if you are starting up in edtech.

See, if you are building project management software, you probably use it to manage your own projects. If you’re building helpdesk software, there’s no doubt that you use it to manage your own customer support program.

But if you build education technology products, whether tools for teachers or students, chances are, you’re not teaching at the same time.
So it’s critical that you cultivate a sense of empathy and demonstrate to teachers that you “get it” as you build your product and your company.

As they say at KIPP, there are no shortcuts. If you’re serious about teacher-driven product development, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time understanding the context in which educators work.

This means get out there and visit schools often! Observe as many classrooms as you can and chat with teachers about what you see.

Take your entire team to the kindergarten wing of an elementary school for an entire day. Throw your bags in the corner of the faculty lounge, and then buddy up and hit the classrooms. Yes, take a seat in one of those tiny chairs with the tennis balls on the bottom. Sit as close as you can to the action without being intrusive and immerse yourself in Morning Meeting. Calendar Math. Transitions. Naptime. Centers. Stay put for a while – the goal is to put yourself in a teacher’s shoes and you can’t do that if you only stay five minutes. Observe – how often are teachers holding a computer or at least near one? How long does it take them to take attendance? When they’re in centers or leading small group pullouts, what tools are teachers using to record student progress? What tools are students using to complete the lesson?

Print out oversize screenshots of your product and post them in the high-traffic areas (this is usually the copy machine or coffee maker). Attach blank sticky notes and have teachers jot down questions, feature ideas, and other feedback about your product.

Be sure to find out the detailed schedule – when does each teacher have a planning period or lunch break? This is a great time for user interviews. Just remember that teachers are the busiest creatures on the planet, so if they’re talking to you, they’re not able to grade papers, make photocopies, or prepare for their next lesson, so be respectful of their time. Most important, when asking for feedback about your product, be sure to “let go of your perspective and embrace theirs.”

Halfway through the day, your team should break out Balsamiq to rapidly prototype some of the feedback you’re getting. On one of our recent visits, one of Kickboard’s backend engineers observed that on a certain page within Kickboard, the dropdown menus were too time-consuming for teachers, and he wanted to see how a series of “quick add” push buttons might work instead. One of our product designers noticed that a wall chart of student reading levels was ubiquitous from classroom to classroom, so he quickly mocked up a digital version to explore how teachers might interact with a new format.

When you get back to the office, debrief as a team. Identify one requested feature that you could build in a day and release within a month after the visit. Then commit to doing that. Have a launch party with the school who suggested the new enhancement to emphasize how much you value their feedback, and you will have happy, loyal users for life.

Pro tip: Don’t forget to bring donuts! The teachers will love you.

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