In 1994, Proctor and Gamble approached Continuum, a design consulting firm, in search of a new cleaning product. Together, they felt that the method of filling up a bucket with soap and water, soaking, squeezing, and mopping floors could be improved. Continuum took an approach to this problem that was beautiful in it’s simplicity: they went into people’s homes and watched them mop. Amongst their observations, they found that people spent nearly as much time cleaning their mop as they did cleaning their floor! By observing and developing empathy for the user and understanding their challenges, Continuum developed a prototype that was called “Fast Clean”, which evolved into the Swiffer that has become a mainstay in household cleaning around the world.
Proctor and Gamble could have chosen to make different modifications to their current selection of mops. Their designers might have hypothesized that by creating a mop with a more ergonomically correct handle, they would have helped the average person by reducing the strain that mopping puts on on us when we are cleaning floors. Or they could have assumed that a better spring-loaded squeezing mechanism would help people by more thoroughly wringing out the mop itself. They might have guessed that a change in packaging and appearance to capture the attention of the shopper with a sleek, modern looking mop would have boosted sales over their competitors. But through observation and empathy for the end-user in human-centered design, Proctor and Gamble created something that is a now lexicon (“I just need to Swiffer the floor before our company comes over for dinner!”) and to date nets more than $500 million dollar per year in sales.
Not unlike Proctor and Gamble, with their suite of products they offer to consumers, schools have their current selection of classes, courses, educators, extracurricular activities, communication tools, services, and facilities that they provide to their school community. Collectively, these different points comprise the spaces where schools interact with their learner community. IDEO uses the term “touch-point”, and considers “every product touch-point as an opportunity to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to users.” If we think of a learner in the community as the user that IDEO refers to, we too have opportunities in education: we can take the different “touch-points” that we have with students, parents and teachers and turn them into experiences that “surprise, delight, and deliver benefit”. But these points of contact are opportunities, and opportunities alone: how we choose to approach these opportunities in our schools is very much up to us.
So how do we get started on getting a better understanding of these interactions that take place with our school or district? While there are dozens of face-to-face, personal experiences that take place each day, and even more examples of abstract experiences such as those that visitors get when they walk in through the front entrance of our school or read our newsletter, we need to have a narrower focus: a useful way to start might be to consider three experiences that our each of our students, parents, and educators have with our school or district. But not just any three experiences, let’s pick three ‘high impact’ or “HI” experiences.
For our purposes, let’s define a HI experience as one which has the potential to significantly impact the culture and/or learning environment of our school.
In other words, if these HI experiences were exceptionally effective, and we ‘delighted’ this group with these experiences, the learning environment would change significantly for the better. For example, while ensuring that our school grounds are neat and free of litter is important, it is unlikely that having a litter-free playground will result in a dramatic change to the learning in classrooms. And although having a litter-free school property might be a challenge that would benefit from a Learner-Centered Design approach at some point, we must prioritize the learning environment first--as we know, with finite amounts of time and stretched budgets, we can only focus on what is truly going to make a difference to teaching and learning. We can use the chart below to determine three HI experiences for students, for parents, and for educators.
Figure 1 Determining HI experiences.
For example, a school leader might choose to fill out the chart like this:
Communication of learning
Figure 2 Sample of HI experiences.
Once we have brainstormed some ideas of HI experiences, it is important to stop and reflect: if our school had a process that transformed each of these touch-points into experiences that were not just satisfactory, they were truly exceptional for these learner groups, would we believe that we were changing the school experience?
A way to assess your responses to this question might be to examine each column in Figure 2 in a vertical fashion. In the 'Educators' column, for example, if a newly hired teacher was talking to a veteran faculty member at your school, and your staff member told them that this school was known across the school district for its outstanding faculty meetings, engaging professional development opportunities, and meaningful collaboration time with colleagues, do you believe that new teacher would be excited to be a member of your staff? Under 'Students', if a new student was moving to town, and when they came to your school for orientation, one of your current students told them “The learning we do in our classrooms is wicked, our teachers care about us SO much, and we have a sick sports program!”, do you think that new student would want to come to your school? Conversely, do you think a parent’s ears might perk up when they overhear another parent in the Starbucks lineup say “Wow, last night I went to the worst Parent-Teacher interviews I have ever attended. We couldn’t find his teachers, the front office told us we should have been more prepared, and when we finally got to the interviews, the teacher kept calling our son “Jack” instead of Jake. The night was horrible.” If the items that you listed in Figure 2 have the potential to elicit responses such as these, you likely are on the right track.
But here's the rub: we likely will not be present when people are describing their take on our high-impact experiences. For example, while we might assume that the large turnout at Parent-Teacher conferences is a sign of success, attendance and satisfaction are two different things: the experiences that people have at those Parent-Teacher conferences will fuel the conversations in the coffee shop, on the sidelines at the soccer game, and across social media channels. Our perception of an experience is one very small piece of the overall experience puzzle. Yet if we are not typically part of the conversations that our people are having about these HI experiences, what is our process for understanding their perspectives? How do we demonstrate our commitment to ‘gathering intel’ and getting feedback?
In truth, I believe we do a lousy job of seeking feedback in education. And while we can speculate as to why we seek so little feedback about HI experiences and do even less with the input that we do actually collect, at the end of the day most of us are not truly committed to gathering and using feedback to improve the experience of school. And while some school leaders demonstrate their commitment to responding to what they hear from their communities, we can do better. Much better. To help us get started in assessing our current commitment to feedback, we can use something like the Learning Experience Inventory Tool below:
Let's see an example of how we might have filled tool out considering our 'parent' group:
If we de-construct the highlighted example and read it (roughly) from right to left--while we consider this particular experience to be one that has the potential to have significant impact, not only do we fail to collect feedback, we don't even have a feedback tool developed, and our current prediction of that user's experience would be fair at best? And what if we take out 'Parent Teacher Nights' and substitute 'Faculty Meetings' for our educators, or 'Classroom Experience' for students?
Unlike the example of Continuum going out to watch, listen, and be empathetic with those who were doing the mopping so they create a floor cleaning system that better met the needs of the end user, I realized that I wasn't collecting nearly enough feedback to created any sort of positive experience, never mind one that 'delighted' the people in my school.
If you use the Learning Experience Inventory tool to consider the experiences in your own school, you may discover the same thing that I did:
If you have an experience that you predicted would be 'HIGH' in terms of importance, but 'FAIR' or 'POOR' in terms of the experience you feel a group at your school would have AND you don't collect any feedback, then at best you have left the way that group will characterize this experience completely and totally to chance. At worst? Well, by continuing to approach this particular experience, you might not only be alienating this group by not understanding their experience and changing to better meet their needs, you might actually be inviting them to experience something that is going to be truly unsatisfying for them at your school.
As we start the school year, we must commit to understanding the experiences that students, parents, and educators are having in our schools and districts, especially in those High Impact areas. The question is, are we willing to do it? If we take this first step, we are beginning the process of Learner-Centered Design, and I believe that we can transform the school experience for our communities.
This post is based on an excerpt from "Re-Designing the School Experience", due to be published in 2017.