An Education Consultant Speaks – Design for Teachers – Part 4

870607_braeburn_1Products designed for the classroom must meet the needs of teachers first. If students are the primary users of your instructional materials this may sound a little backwards – but it isn’t. Teachers can make or break your product before a student ever sees it.

Designing for teacher ease-of-use should be a core competency at any education publisher.

Today we tackle issue #4 in the series on selling and marketing to educators.

Part 1 – Obey the Calendar
Part 2 – Education is not a target market – it is an industry

Part 3 – Education is a zero sum market

In the rush to get a product to market too often education publishers overlook the features and resources that make life easy for the teacher. The problem isn’t that teachers are lazy, as many in the business world tend to fantasize, quite the opposite. The challenges and demands on a teacher are every bit as daunting as mid-level supervisors in large companies. Their time is at a huge premium and to manage their workload they develop detailed processes and structures – known more commonly as lesson plans.

Your Challenge

Your product has to insert itself gracefully into this workflow or it will fail because the teachers won’t make room for it. They already have things humming along, thank you very much.

If students can learn more effectively with your products shouldn’t teachers be willing to bend a little to make this happen? Yes they should – but even the most elegantly designed product requires the teacher to go through a learning curve. The time they invest in learning how to use your product shouldn’t be amplified by additional time demands because your product isn’t complete.

Almost anyone can find a small group of teachers willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make a new product work. Don’t be tempted to conclude that all teachers will be willing to put this amount of effort in. If your goal is to reach a broad cross section of classrooms you have to design for the average teacher.

Poor teacher design surfaces differently for technology providers than for print publishers. The software paradigm of iterating to success tempts ed-tech companies to cut corners on teacher tools. The most common oversight is that companies assume that teachers will key in student rosters. I can almost always tell who knows something about the market when we get to this part of the presentation. Inexperienced companies will hand wave past this topic – assuming some kind of magic will occur to get student names into the system. Those who have been around the block a time or two will have a thoughtful approach that doesn’t burden the teacher too much.

Populating rosters is tedious and time consuming. In districts with high mobility rates accuracy is a huge problem – the average district has a mobility rate of 20% but I’ve seen extreme examples of up to 90% where there is a high migrant farm labor population. There are simple solutions (.csv files) and more automated options (SIF) but you must think this through.

Textbook publishers have a different problem – since they tend to see a product as complete and done when it is published any aftermarket additions are outside of the normal workflow and are unanticipated expenses.

In these cases it is more often a case of not including supplemental resources that your target population needs and/or that your competition is providing. Examples include ELL teaching guides, standards correlations, presentations for electronic white boards, and on-line homework help. None of these things are particularly hard to add to a product – but they erode your profitability, and play havoc with your schedules – and you can’t sell much until you have them.

A Caveat

Is it possible to go too far in accommodating teachers? Yes. The trick is to balance an almost endless set of feature requests and enhancements with what is essential and compelling.

Companies in this market have to strike a balance between business and learning – and the best way to do this is to have a team that is a mix of former educators and business people. Go too far in either direction and you are out of business. If the educators rule the roost your products will be perfect but marginally profitable because of all the extras tossed in. If you apply rigorous business standards only you won’t address the core needs of teachers and you won’t sell much.

Your goal should be sound business decisions that are educationally appropriate.

690472_bulls_eyeThe Solution

There are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of alienating teachers with a new product.

  • Ask at every turn during the product planning and development “how will a teacher implement this and how can we make it easier?”
  • Make sure you understand teacher’s priorities so you can optimize your development options. Talk to a lot of teachers, visit classrooms, observe how things are done today. Dig into the details. Make sure everyone on your team has an opportunity to do this if possible. Don’t extrapolate from a small sample – talk to as many people as you can afford to.
  • Hire former teachers if they have the right skill-set. Sales, mar-com, and product marketing are all areas ex-teachers can thrive in.
  • Many education companies encourage employees to volunteer in local schools partly because it is a good thing to do and partly to get exposure to the reality of the classroom.
  • Develop an educator advisory board and challenge them to think about the average teacher (the folks who participate in advisory boards tend to be the same ones who would put extra effort in to use your product).
  • If your budget and schedule permits, build a pilot phase into your roll out where you do a limited deployment to a handful of classrooms. Incorporate the feedback prior to general release.
  • Watch the competition closely. Often something that wasn’t required becomes so once a competitor is offering it. Better yet – make the competition respond to you by innovating.