Design Coach is a native app concept for teachers who want to incorporate empathy based creative problem solving into their curriculum. This project was inspired by my time teaching design thinking to underserved youth in South Memphis, Tennessee. Through that experience I saw firsthand the transformative power of empathic creativity and wanted to help promote this type of education.
Early stage problem definition:
My initial hypothesis was that teachers desired to teach creative problem in their classes but needed help learning, applying and teaching it.
In an effort to better understand the problem space I interviewed people who worked in or around the public education sphere. During that process, I spoke with public middle- and high-school teachers, an educational data consultant, and a curriculum design expert.
The interviews lasted 30 minutes to an hour and took place over the phone. Questions covered how teachers came up with their curricula; how much freedom they had to cover subjects and topics; if they knew what design thinking was; whether or not they valued creative problem solving, and if so, how they taught it; and finally, how they learned new skills.
From those interviews I uncovered these key insights:
Teachers have very little support from the administration to incorporate anything that isn’t part of the mandated curriculum
Teachers see immense value in teaching creative problem solving to their students
Teachers often don’t have the time or the resources to learn new skills or implement them in the classroom
If you want to teach the teachers you have to make something engaging, easy to use, and practical
Based off of those key insights I developed two personas to help keep the project focus through design and concepting.
My initial research uncovered a ripe and fertile topic of creative problem solving for teachers and younger students. I quickly found scores of websites, books, seminars, and in person workshops dedicated to teaching design thinking and creative problem solving. Some of these were dedicated specifically to teachers i.e. IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators which offered a downloadable workbook for teachers.
Next, I looked at a number of online learning platforms such as Skillshare, Duolingo, and Acumen to understand how classes were being taught online. I found Duolingo particularly interesting in how it broke down topics and gamified the learning experience. Skillshare and Acumen were great in that they offered video lectures or demonstrations.
Through my conversations with teachers I heard a lot about Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Blackboard or Canvas. These robust systems are designed to help teachers track class progress, attendance, collect homework assignments and facilitate conversation between students and teachers outside of the classroom. It was immediately obvious that this was not the space that my idea fit in, but there were some useful takeaways. One of them being syllabus templates that teachers could use to jumpstart their own, and other little useful tools within the apps that allow teachers to focus on teaching, not using the software.
A lot of resources available on design thinking or creative problem solving can be time consuming, expensive, or otherwise difficult to retrofit to a teacher’s specific needs.
Few of the resources offered any guidance in how to teach creative problem to students or tips on how to incorporate creative problem solving into the curriculum.
Existing learning platforms relied on internet access or downloadable pdfs to deliver information to students. Thus limiting how and when information was accessible.
LMS are powerful resources for teachers, often with a love/hate sentiment as they are robust and offer numerous helpful services but can often be clunky and difficult to learn/use.
LMS are also provide little to no continuing education for teachers.
It became clear that there was something missing in the education sphere that provided a robust and accessible tool for teachers to learn, apply, and teach creative problem solving in the classroom.
When I combined this competitive research with my user interviews I shifted the focus of the competitive research slightly to try to find examples of digital products that provided the type of motivation and on-the-go resources teachers told me they wanted. What I landed on were fitness and wellness apps like Fitbit, Peloton, and W (a fitness app specifically for women).
The main reason I ended up looking at fitness apps, was because I realized that what this app was essentially trying to do was to coach people. To serve as a sort of Design Thinking personal trainer for educators to keep in their pockets. So, I wanted to see how actual coaching and training apps worked to motivate and keep users engaged.
These fitness apps provide resources for people to track their progress, manage their nutrition and exercise, learn healthy recipes, and get motivation from peers and professional trainers.
They are designed to help walk people through their health and wellness goals step by step
Some of the apps had built in workout plans with instructions and timers
Some of the apps, like Peloton, had live scheduled workout sessions with professional trainers.
With this research in mind, my goal became to create an all-in-one easy-to-use resource for teachers who wanted to incorporate creative problem solving in their classrooms.
I started developing the idea by first understanding the user flow. Where did they start, and where were they ultimately trying to go?
Once I understood what the users were trying to accomplish I began coming up with an array of resources and features that I thought would be of value.
Then I sought to prioritize those features based on value, ease of implementation, and whether or not those features would be expected.
Based on the user flow and feature prioritization I was to build a site map and start sketching.
Prototyping and testing
I used the sketches to then build a low fidelity prototype to better understand how users would interact with the app. Identifying where things worked and where they didn’t.
I tested both internally and with teachers to get a sense of how people were understanding the app and how they wanted to engage with the content. Overall, users engaged with the prototype positively, intuitively navigating through the scenarios we presented them with. The most promising observation was that users all wanted to continue to explore the app without further prompting.
One of the biggest feedback we got was around users not fully understanding what the purpose of the app was, or why they would want to use it. There was definitely an opportunity to onboard the users and prime them on how to use the app and what to expect out of it.
Once the low fidelity prototype was finished I went to work sketching out the design changes and starting to build out a higher fidelity prototype.
The app never reached full development as the funding needed for buildout was never secured. However, there were a number of lessons learned in this process:
Engage with your users early and often.
Having users along for the journey allows you to have a constant reminder of who you are designing for and how they think. It’s too easy to get too close to a project and take certain assumptions for granted. Things as simple as words, may make no sense to your user even if they make perfect sense to you.
Simple doesn’t have to be boring.
There was a constant tension between wanting to build a robust and overly complicated app and the possibility of overly simplifying it to the point of boredom. It was important that users be able to pick up the app and intuitively understand how to use it, but be motivated and encouraged to continue to engage with it. The challenge was to create something that was profoundly simple and appropriately robust.
It is as important to think through the ecosystem of your product as it is to think through the product itself.
A big part of the testing revealed that there was still a good bit of education that needed to happen for users to want to download this product. While, most of my time was spent building out this app, in retrospect I think I would have started building out resources first. For example, start a blog, where you could build up a following and a reputation, and then build up engagement through real life coaching and mentoring, then develop a digital product that supported those initiatives.