BY FORREST SMITH, PRODUCT MANAGER
The technology industry is rancid with delight.
The idea of “Delight”, centered around filling users’ experiences with Apple-esque simplicity and glamours, has evolved from buzzword to accepted mantra in the tech world. The $1-app culture of the Silicon-landscape is so well-optimized by this mentality that design now sometimes seems to be led by delight, focused on making small interactions beautiful and seamless over generating new value for users or disrupting industries. The popularity of apps like Yo (which literally only sends the word “yo” to your friends) makes demonstrating this point all too easy. As a Product Manager in EdTech, this trend is tough to reconcile with my day-to-day world. As they say nowadays: the struggle is real.
Product thinking hinges heavily on the central theme of “know your user!” to ensure that experiences are crafted with the right context in mind. While an iPhone app can focus in on a specific subset of millennial-yuppies with the latest iPhone (check out Mr. Chilly for an smh-level example of this), an EdTech company has to consider the difference between end-users (often students), facilitators (teachers, technologists, instructors), and buyers (typically administrators). All of these are versions of a user, and all of them have different needs and desires. Though a product may serve one of them primarily (a research application for end-users, or a classroom-management tool for teachers), it has to respect the effect it has on the others, and it always has to appeal to the buyer.
So how is a small, scrappy EdTech startup supposed to delight all these people with one product? Well, if you ask me (and it’s my blog post so): You Don’t…. or … we aren’t. You get it.
The number of free, useful applications and services available to consumers is nearly infinite. Nobody really needs to buy anything besides a laptop and a smartphone to meet their technological needs - and almost all consumers have that. In a regime of this kind of abundance, delight is what sets a product apart. It justifies a nominal cost over some free alternative. The rub is that, across the range of user-types in the Education space, things aren’t so bourgeois. In this way, I’ve come to think of delight as “The gift for the user who has everything”. Students don’t have their basic technological needs met yet, so we can’t start tickling-their-fancy until we level the technological playing field for them.
Education technology is far from the near-solved-problem that consumer technology represents. In classrooms across America (we’ll save the world-at-large for another time) students don’t even have one device to access the endless free tools that should be at their disposal. Even when devices are available, it is still rarely on a 1-1 basis. Worse yet, schools usually can’t afford up-to-date technology, and in many cases are too understaffed to keep up with maintaining the aging tech they do have. The end result is computers that aren’t easy to use, which can discourage some teachers from even introducing tech into their curriculum.
You can’t start delighting anyone until their actual problems are solved. Trying to do so is like buying a homeless person a gift from The Sharper Image store. Perhaps more topical, it’s like investing in scantron to speed up grading without saving budget for pencils.
Now, the rough state of EdTech is probably not news to you, esteemed reader. All over the country there are educators, activists, and technologists fighting for change. Many people are boldly and valiantly calling for expanded spending on technology in schools, or designing technologically-rich curriculums. We, of course, applaud those efforts. But, like any good disenfranchised band of millennials, Neverware isn’t focused on changing the system, we’re focused on beating it.
Neverware started with one product, PCReady, and a mission to get more computers in the hands of students by leveraging the hardware they already had. Today, computers as old at 10 years are running Windows 7 without any long-term slow down with this technology. At least for now, there are always schools who can’t afford new computers. Even those investing in new machines can’t replace their entire fleet in one year. So we solved their problem by leveraging their older computers in a new way, at a cost that was sustainable. Is it delightful? Of course not - they’re using 10-year old computers, and the product is, by design, invisible when everything goes well. You just get your computer back - it’s a very blue-collar product, but it puts more technology in the hands of kids.
More recently, we launched CloudReady with the intention to continue on our mission with PCReady, but remove yet another costly pain point: management complexity. We saw that schools had invested huge amounts over the years in Windows computers, but now were switching to Chromebooks for their value and management simplicity. Suddenly, every tech admin had two completely separate groups of computers which needed to be managed in two completely separate ways. Enter CloudReady - the only way to transform your PC or Mac into a Chromebook! We set out to simplify the management task for our facilitator-users (school technologists) while still breathing years of life back into the PCs they’d had for years with Google’s own fast, lightweight OS and management. But, again, there’s no wow-factor on the surface. Yes, if you dive deep, you see the thousands of hours of work and compatibility on over 150 unique types of hardware… but it’s all in service creating precisely what users expect. The typical student reaction goes something like, “...yeah, this looks like what I’m used to,”. But then they get back to learning, with nothing new and sparkly to distract them. In turn, their tech has one less OS to worry about. CloudReady is giving affordable options to purchasers who had none. It’s protecting technology managers’ time (which, you may have heard, has a lot in common with money). It’s making sure that students have working computers. And it does all this by getting out of the way instead of by demanding their attention. Not an ounce of delight.
Are you getting it? What I’m trying to say is this: schools don’t need or want delight. Schools have real, serious problems that affect the future of their students. They need real, serious solutions that put emphasis on affordable and democratic access to good technology.
That’s what we’re about at Neverware.
Down with Delight.