How Getting Out of the Building Expands our Perspective

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.”

So wrote John le Carré, the famed British spy novelist, in his 1977 novel The Honourable Schoolboy. It’s a sentiment that applies to international espionage, certainly—and also to a product team’s work as managers, makers, and designers of great digital products.

A product team can be tempted to make decisions about priorities and functionality from the comfort of our desks. We gather with our coworkers in office parks, convene in conference rooms or online meetings, and look at spreadsheets and sales reports. Sure, we talk with coworkers who talk to the user (like support reps or implementation consultants), or maybe we imagine the experience we are attempting to create. But, all of that is at a remove, intermediated by our reliable high-speed Internet access, business-class laptops with dual monitors, and comfortable desk chairs.

A better approach? Get into the wild, where the users of our products roam free. In edtech, that means spending time in classrooms and district offices. The best digital product pros are part anthropologist, obsessed with observing behaviors and interactions of the people who use their products and skilled at decoding their motivations, language, and traditions.

Here’s an example. On one of my first visits to an elementary school on behalf of Edmentum (a provider of K-12 education software) a group of our team members was helping 2nd and 3rd grade classes prepare to use a digital learning product. Once the students logged in, we planned to spend the morning showing them lessons and assessments. The first challenge occurred at a spot I hadn’t anticipated: the login process. Immediately, dozens of children’s hands went up, and curious little voices asked curious little questions: “Do I need to enter ‘www’?” “Is this the same as my Moodle login?” “It says to enter an email address. Do I use my mom’s?”

The adults (teachers and our team members) mobilized immediately, roaming through the crowd of children, crouching to help their little fingers navigate the login. It was incredibly instructive. That day I was reminded that the young people who use these products are bringing experiences and questions we maybe haven’t considered and that we have a duty to build products that help teachers resolve these questions. I would have never understood the potential problems and opportunities in our login process if I had not witnessed this, in a school building, surrounded by children, on my knees.

I’m proud to report that Edmentum’s product managers met with over 100 schools in 2018, and they’re planning to exceed that number in 2019. My vow for 2019 is to personally get into more classrooms and administration buildings to witness our products being used and to observe and talk to more teachers, educators, administrators, and students. Some product and user experience (UX) nerds call this practice GOOBing for Getting Out Of the Building. I think it’s a secret to producing better products and, thus, better outcomes.

After all, experiencing a classroom and talking with teachers is the best way to understand educators’ and students’ assumptions, motivations, contexts, and workflows. And, our products will be the better for it.

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