Using Design Sprints to Uncover EdTech User Challenges

Designer sketching on paper
Janelle Poisel

Content Marketing Manager

Janelle Poisel

According to Google Ventures, design sprints are defined as a “process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers”. When done effectively, the full process “gives you a superpower” in finding and addressing client needs. Unlike other approaches, design sprints implement the end product or proposed end solution into the initial conversation, and are able to produce multiple viable outcomes for clients.

At DockYard, we embrace design sprints as an effective and impactful approach to quickly executing highly-focused project work. We recently identified a clear need to apply this approach to an industry struggling to adapt to the unprecedented impact of the pandemic: Education Technology (EdTech).

The ‘How’ and ‘Why’

Design sprints are perfect for implementing user reactions and product expectations into the creation of products, long before the commitment phase. When sprints are utilized correctly, outcomes are thoughtful, address real problems of real users, and can lead to broader acceptance by the targeted audience.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed the EdTech industry struggle to identify and rectify real-time issues impacting teachers, parents, children, and caretakers of all backgrounds.

DockYard saw an opportunity to implement the design sprints methodology to uncover challenges and solutions that could help EdTech providers build better tools for all users struggling to adapt to remote learning. Our team typically utilizes a 4-day sprint schedule—based on the Google Ventures 5-day design sprint model but with a unique duration to account for DockYard Days. We also draw on the Agile process and the Scrum methodology to inform these sprints.

So what does this look like in a practical sense?

A successful design sprint will:

  • Provide the ability to iterate, and do so relatively quickly
  • Capitalize on a small team working in a focused manner
  • Allow everyone involved to communicate quickly and informally.

When our team set out to understand the issues reshaping education, we transformed the 4-day design sprint into a 4-week version to provide more time for interviewing, iteration, and evaluation.

The Process

In design sprints, each day or week (depending on the scope of the project) represents a step in the process. For our team, it typically looks like this:

Day/Week 1: Analyze Context

The goal of Day 1 is to establish a clear understanding of priorities and user flows for 1-2 specific use cases.

Day/Week 2: Sketch & Define

The goal of Day 2 is to compile and sketch ideas that can then be used to find patterns and narrow down a wireframe to assist your Day 1 direction.

Day/Week 3: Design & Prototype

The goal of Day 3 is to have a prototype matching your wireframe to make the experience “feel real” for the user.

Day/Week 4: Test & Refine

This concludes the sprint and should produce assets and documentation to be shared with the client. The information should be organized in a way that makes sense—even to those with no prior knowledge of the project.

The Work

Week 1

The team spent the first week assessing the current EdTech landscape to better understand COVID-19’s impact on learning. Based on our deskside research, we established user personas–with a focus on parents/caregivers, teachers, and students–to engage in the subsequent weeks of our sprints via surveys, 1:1 interviews, and a solutions-oriented workshop.

We developed pointed questions for the survey and for individual interviews with a goal of understanding the unique challenges each user group faced. The team sought relevant participants and was then ready to execute independent research in week two.

Week 2

This portion of the sprint resulted in high-quality insights from 36 parents, 12 teachers, and 5 students. Using a focus group was vital to the discovery process and ensured that our team was working toward product solutions that made sense for key EdTech user demographics. Your team may choose to spend more time in this portion of the sprint if needed, but for the size of our particular group, one week was sufficient.

We surveyed, interviewed, and synthesized the findings all within week two to uncover common trends and begin shaping “opportunity areas” for EdTech providers to improve and expand existing solutions. Armed with these insights, we prepared materials to share with select focus group participants and DockYard experts to participate in a solutions-oriented workshop–all based on real user hurdles, instead of assumptions or feelings.

Weeks 3 and 4

With a greater understanding of the EdTech landscape and users, we were ready to bring together select participants for a workshop focused on finding solutions for the most common challenges facing the future of virtual education. We focused on several key “opportunity areas,” including:

  • Ways to help parents supplement education and balance work/childcare;
  • Ways to help teachers learn and use remote technology, as well as update teaching styles; and
  • Ways to help students with engagement/participation and opportunities to replace in-person socialization.

We then translated the workshop outputs into potential digital product solutions and features for EdTech providers to consider developing to meet the needs of users. All of this research culminated in a summary of our findings (which can be found in this infographic) and a series of blog posts taking a deeper dive on the three core user groups: parents, teachers, and students. These “prototype” materials from week 3 went through multiple rounds of revision to ensure they matched the defined needs our interviewees and survey respondents shared. Once the materials were finalized, we were ready to share our findings with our EdTech partners and anyone interested in understanding the unique challenges facing remote education.

Based on our experience partnering with EdTech leaders and disruptors, we determined the web as an ideal approach to building flexible and reliable solutions that can accommodate the many shifting priorities of EdTech providers and users. You can read more about harnessing the power of the web for EdTech here.

More to Come

This isn’t the first time we’ve helped clients in the education industry pivot to accomplish their goals quickly and efficiently. DockYard has previously partnered with leaders like Harvard University and McGraw-Hill, as well as industry disruptors like IntelliSpark and Learnivore, to define, design, develop, and deliver the next-generation of digital EdTech products via the web.

And our EdTech work is just one way we’ve used this approach to design and develop user-center web applications. One of the many benefits of design sprints? They can be applied and right-sized in a variety of ways to meet project needs–from helping Fortune 500s like Netflix and Apple transform strategic digital initiatives to empowering startups to uncover their “secret sauce” features as they plan a digital product launch.

Reach out to our team directly to see how DockYard can implement our comprehensive discovery and design sprints to help your team better understand users and build products that meet business and user needs simultaneously.

DockYard is a digital product consultancy specializing in user-centered web application design and development. Our collaborative team of product strategists help clients to better understand the people they serve. We use future-forward technology and design thinking to transform those insights into impactful, inclusive, and reliable web experiences. DockYard provides professional services in strategy, user experience, design, and full-stack engineering using Ember.js, React.js, Ruby, and Elixir. From ideation to delivery, we empower ambitious product teams to build for the future.


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