Insights interview: why, how, and when to invest in UX talent in your edtech startup

An interview with Alex Britez (Senior Designer at Microsoft) on when to invest in UX talent to grow your edtech startup

What’s the purpose of this interview and who’s it for?

Working with so many entrepreneurial leaders, I’m often struck by how late many invest in UX talent when growing their edtech startup. Part of this stems from not fully understanding “what UX is”, or the fundamental role it can play accelerating a business. Yes, UX includes visual design and early on that can be outsourced. But it involves so much more that’s foundational to building a customer-centered, lean, adaptable, and successful edtech business today (from user research and co-design, through user interaction and information architecture, to iterative design and usability studies). So, why, how, and when should you invest in UX talent as a leader growing your edtech startup?

To answer those questions, let me share a bit about my own journey to “UX enlightenment” since it may help. It stems from two of the biggest lessons I’ve learned developing successful edtech. First, over-invest in spending time with your target customers. And second, design for your customers’ outcomes (not features and benefits).

On the first lesson, one of my bosses gave me lasting advice 20 years ago in San Francisco when he said “those closest to the customer win.” For a decade, that drove me to spend lots and lots of time immersing myself “in the field” with target or existing customers (my golden rule was that one third of my working hours should be spent with customers). Over time, that led me to learn techniques (and develop some of my own) for what has now become known as user-centered design.

On the second lesson, these experiences helped me, personally, to tease out the “unarticulated needs” of my customers by understanding their contexts, attitudes, challenges, and behaviors and—most importantly—what they actually wanted to achieve (aka, their outcomes). Ever since, I’ve used outcomes as a customer-centered North Star and invested in UX and learning science talent to reverse engineer solutions that are empathetic, engaging, impactful, and commercially successful.

Both of these lessons underpin core philosophies and techniques of modern UX. And in the last ten years, it’s been inspiring to witness how UX has matured into a sophisticated and disciplined driving force for the most successful technology and edtech companies. For these reasons, I wanted to interview one of my all-time favorite UX designers to answer the questions of why, how, and when should you invest in UX talent as a leader of an edtech startup?

Insights from Alex Britez

I met Alex just over six years ago in New York City. I had just been recruited by Macmillan Learning to build their UX, learning science, and data teams and was in the process of exploring “What talent do I have?” and “What do I need?”. Alex made a lasting impression. His thoughtful, unbiased, and always-curious approach to understanding customers resonated deeply, and his restlessness to always learn, apply new skills, and develop better processes was inspiring. And, as I worked with Alex over the next four years I saw how these qualities led to fresh, engaging, and impactful solution designs, driven by a rigorous and evolving set of design principles and processes. Alex is now a Senior Designer at Microsoft and was kind enough to take time out of his crazy calendar to share lessons learned for you as an edtech leader.

The interview

Hey, Alex! Thanks so much for agreeing to spend some time with me. As you know, I help a variety of edtech startups to grow their businesses. You know that I’m a firm believer in the value of UX talent, so I wanted to ask you a series of questions today on why, how, and when to invest in UX talent if you’re the leader of a growing edtech startup. In particular:

  1. Why, how, and when to invest in UX talent in your edtech startup?
  2. What personal qualities and skills should you look for when hiring UX talent?
  3. How do you hire or upskill a UX team to know enough about Learning Science?
  4. How do you balance “engaging” with “effective” when you design edtech?
  5. What techniques would you recommend to get beyond designing for a generic somebody?
  6. How do you use outcomes in your design process and what’s the value of this approach?
  7. What customer inputs do you like to use in ideation, prototyping, and product testing?
  8. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in 20 years of designing successful edtech?
  9. Which three favorite resources would you point edtech leaders to to upskill on UX?
  10. What three recommendations would you give to edtech startup leaders?

Does that sound OK?

Hey, Adam. Sure, I’m happy to try this!

1. Why, how, and when to invest in UX talent in your edtech startup?

I really like how you use the term “UX talent”.  UX is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of roles. Many people who are new to digital assume that UX is just the process of designing visual artifacts and miss out that it’s a much richer field with a more foundational role in understanding your customer, their needs, and how to solve for them. UX encompases user research, information architecture, interaction design, visual design, UX writing, and more. So, while designing a clean, intuitive, and beautiful interface is something we all should aspire to do, it will have little impact if you are not able to identify a problem that your market is willing to invest time and money on.

Back to your original question. What talent would I invest in? Every new product will undergo a lifecycle of change, starting from the moment the founder gets that spark that motivates them to solve a specific problem. Throughout this process there are a series of mental shifts that start with you asking “am I building the right thing” and eventually evolve to “am I building this thing right”.  When it comes to “building the right thing” you will need to lean on people that are able to determine if you are truly solving a customer need. Otherwise, you will have a difficult time retaining any user that visits your product for the first time.  As you start to feel confident that you are building the right thing you will need to reach further and start to ask if you are “building the thing right”.  Here is where strong information architecture and interaction design help make the product feel intuitive, and visual design adds some of the aesthetic polish. Ultimately, you want to ask yourself, “Where am I on this journey?”, “Have I achieved product market-fit?”, and “Who can help guide me there?”.

As you can see, UX encompases a wide array of skillsets. Trying to find a person who excels in all of them, while not impossible, is extremely difficult. Typically, you will find a mixture of “specialist” and “generalist”.  That being the case, if you can only hire one UX person early in the development of your business, you should consider what knowledge and expertise is important for you to cultivate in-house, and what is OK to outsource (to a consultant, agency, or software service).

If I was building a UX team for a new product with a limited budget, I would want the first UX member to have a healthy mix of talents, including being able to run user research and rapid-cycle experimentation. Keep in mind that people’s talents are not fixed. If they have strong curiosity, people can grow in amazing ways. It’s also important to remember the bigger context: although we are specifically talking about UX, you need to be developing lean product development as an organizational culture that you build into every aspect of your company.

2. What personal qualities and skills should you look for when hiring your first UX talent?

Beyond their core skill sets, I look for individuals who love dealing with ambiguity, and are able to unpack ill-structured problems and discover fantastic opportunities and insights. I also love to hear examples of adaptability. Lean product development is a stormy journey through which you need to embrace pivot points, constraints, and volatility—especially in the early phases.  Finding someone who is able to adapt regardless of what is ahead is a great quality to look for. I also like to work with people that have the courage and curiosity to always ask “why?”.  This will help identify any internal bias, status-quo thinking, and feed a desire to constantly empathize with our users so we can understand what challenges they are facing, and why they behave the way they do

3. How do you hire, upskill, or augment a UX team to know enough about Learning Science to design successful edtech?

Learning science is one of many factors that go into the design of products that successfully help learners to learn. Early on in the growth of your organization, it may not be feasible for you to hire individual learning scientists, designers, or researchers. This means that you will need to create a culture that values individuals that are willing to step outside of their comfort zone and learn and apply new skills. This all starts with organizational culture, and as a founder you are the primary architect of that culture. The one thing that I am most grateful for in my career is having managers who encouraged me to follow my curiosity and take smart risks as I learned and applied a variety of skills at my workplace. This not only challenged me and kept me engaged in the work I did, but also benefited the teams, organizations, and products I worked on for many years to come. Investing in your team’s learning and growth is probably the most important investment you can make.

Figuring out how to create a culture that learns and grows together can look a bit overwhelming. What skills is my team missing? Which should I invest in? Who should you invest in? And, how can I do that? Faced with so many options, you need to help yourself—and your team—to prioritize learning. I do this by asking questions like:

  • How does this skill align to our business goals?
  • Is the need for this skill urgent?
  • How interested am I in learning this skill?
  • Does this skill align to my individual long-term goals?

Asking questions like these will help bring focus to you as a leader and the individual you want to help grow. Once you are able to prioritize what your team needs to learn, you will need to think about how you can support them. This could include finding a mentor internally who has those skills, having a periodic lunch-and-learn where the team explores new topics they’ve learned about through books, articles, or research papers, or having them attend a conference or course. 

Two things that often get overlooked: giving the individual time during the workday to do the learning, and finding opportunities for them to apply their new skills. On making time for learning, remember your team’s time outside of work is valuable, and we should always advocate for having a healthy work-life balance to avoid burnout. So, carve out time for them to learn in the workday. On the second, encourage individuals to apply their newly acquired skills by helping them to identify opportunities where they feel safe to practice their new craft. Try blocking out a few hours every week (or every other week) to let everyone stop what they are doing and explore something new. If you want to be an organization that values individual growth, always remember that you are what you do, not what you say. So be intentional about making individual growth a priority.

In addition to growing your UX talent, some challenges you face building successful learning products need more specialist and rigorous expertise in learning science. I’ve been fortunate to work in organizations large enough to be able to invest in specialist learning designers, impact researchers, and learning analysts and seen the value they can bring. When your business is smaller, you’ll need to ask yourself how important, urgent, and reversible the output will be. In many cases there is an acceptable amount of technical and design debt you should be willing to accrue in order to work quickly. However, not all debt is the same. Some areas are extremely important and difficult to backtrack on. You will want to make sure you allot sufficient investment, which means reducing or eliminating your investment elsewhere. This is the art of strong vision-driven product management.

4. How do you balance “engaging” with “effective” when you design edtech, or is that a false dichotomy?

This is a tough question that plagues many edtech companies. On the one hand you have some products that are deeply rooted in learning science, but are so poorly designed and frustrating to use that most of the learners’ cognitive resources are spent trying to make sense of how to use them.  This is what is called “extraneous cognitive load”, and something you want to minimize in your product. On the other hand you have beautifully crafted products that, while engaging, do little to help users achieve the learning outcome they need to reach. Creating a learning experience without a clear understanding of how learning works is a sure way to ensure that the effort your audience places in your product will feel wasted, and they will soon go elsewhere. Always remember that your customer doesn’t care about your product, what they care about is the problem or outcome they are hoping your product will help them address efficiently. To that end, I don’t think you can think of these separately. More broadly, you should strive to ensure your education product achieves four goals: it’s engaging, effective, efficient, and equitable. So now the question comes down to, how do you do that?

The best advice I could give on this, is to work backwards. What I mean by that is be crystal clear on the learning outcomes you are looking to achieve. Once you have those set you can start thinking about tactics, making sure to not only reference academic research, but take a “nothing about us without us” approach to effective and equitable educational design. To do this, invite educators and students engage in structured co-design activities. This is a great way to get at solutions that take into account the context and environments in which your users will use them. The goal is not to create exactly what educators and students design in these activities, but instead to use this as an opportunity to engage in generative research with your target users. You’ll get great insights by asking them to explain what problem their solutions are helping them to solve. And, those findings can then point you to what other quantitative and qualitative research you should gather from other areas to help define your strategy.

Another thing that I’d mention about the terms “effective” and “engaging” is that measuring the “effectiveness” of something is usually more straightforward, than measuring its “engagement”.  What is “engagement” anyway? If you can’t define it, then you can’t measure it. “Good engagement” could mean very different things depending on the purpose of your product.  For example “session time” is great for YouTube since the more you are on the platform, the more ad revenue earned. However that same measure would be terrible for assessing Google Search. I like to define engagement as a group of “desired behaviors” that are observable and measurable. Once you identify intended behaviors, then you can identify what is blocking your audience from engaging in them. In the book “Designing for Behavior Change”, the authors recommend looking for blockers using a CREATE framework which stands for Cue, Reaction, Evaluation, Ability and Timing. Breaking each problem down in this way allows you to diagnose the issue, and design and measure an intervention.

5. What techniques would you recommend to get beyond designing for a generic somebody?

Before creating any artifact that attempts to segment your target users, such as a persona, I would take a step back and define the purpose of that segmentation, and how it would enable you to make product design decisions.  For example, if you’re deciding where to focus spending for a marketing activity, segmenting your target users by socio-demographics might be useful.  However, for a product design team, demographics alone do very little to guide what features to work on. Instead, you need to go much deeper and identify the attitudes your target users bring to the tasks they need to complete.

Just take a moment to reflect on your time as a student when you had various classes throughout the day. Your motivation and ability likely fluctuated in each of those courses. Some classes may have been super challenging, but you worked really hard because you found the content interesting and relevant. Other classes you may have been forced to take and found it difficult to pay attention and stay motivated. Within a matter of hours, sometimes even minutes, your decision-making filter has changed, moving you from one mode of seeing the world in front of you, to another. I find it more advantageous to focus on understanding these aspects of your target users. What are the internal and external factors that impact the outcomes an individual user desires at that moment in time? Do they face motivational issues? If so, can you address these by helping them to see the value and relevance of your product or the activity it’s encouraging them to do?

Try digging into research on self-determination theory for some additional direction. If your target user is dealing with ability blockers—for example, in an introductory course—how could you help scaffold their learning experience in order to reduce friction and frustration through the use of grounded instructional and interaction design?  As you can see, once you understand why your target users act the way they do, you can be intentional on how you decide to respond. Furthermore, designing for outcomes is much more inclusive than designing for a demographic. If you focus too much on things like gender, race, income, and similar criteria, you risk excluding a large part of the population in search of a similar outcome. Granted there are situations where demographics are important—such as presenting content in a way that is developmentally appropriate—but be very intentional and cognisant on why you are making those choices.

So why might you create a persona? Well, people love stories. It gets them excited which helps them rally around a future-state vision. Once you have a solid understanding of the attitudes and desires of your target users, then taking your organization through a hero’s journey to help articulate that future state vision can be very effective. However, I wouldn’t call that example a persona, but rather an actor in a specific situation whose job is to get your team to understand and align on a future state. The book “The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love” has a wealth of information on how to create these.

6. How do you use outcomes in your design process and what’s the value of this approach?

Outcomes come in a variety of flavors. In the theory of Jobs-to-be-done, outcomes are defined as the progress an individual wants to make when performing a job. These include not only the functional outcomes that the individual wants to get out of the task but also the emotional and social progress they may be trying to achieve in their lives. Looking at product design through the lens of the outcomes your users are trying to achieve is a paradigm change since it allows you to see that your target users don’t care about your product, but rather about making progress in their lives. Even if they did have an emotional attachment to your product, it would probably be very short lived if you are not adequately addressing their needs. Also, outcomes are measurable, meaning you can measure the effectiveness of your product at addressing those outcomes over time, and against competitors targeting similar outcomes.

7. What customer inputs do you like to use in ideation, prototyping, and product testing?

There is no silver bullet research method, whether qualitative or quantitative.  Instead, I like to use triangulation and leverage multiple sources of research to enrich the output of your research. For example, to research the usability of your product, consider combining insights from a heuristic analysis by a usability expert, use data from your product, and interviews with a small sample of your target users. Similarly, if you are researching future opportunities, bring in experts to co-design with you, run a diary study with your target users, and do an opportunity survey measuring importance and satisfaction. Regardless of where you are in the product life cycle, there are opportunities to combine research methods to give you richer insights.

8. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in 10+ years of designing successful edtech?

The one thing that is more important than deciding what to do, is deciding what not to do! It is very easy to fall into the trap of trying to do too much and spreading yourself too thin. A method that I’ve found very useful is what Martin Eriksson calls a decision stack. Not having a solid foundation to make decisions from is an easy way to get distracted and spend time and effort on things that end up being disjointed and unnecessary. Any product decision you make that does not advance your vision will ultimately amount to both design and technical debt. So, while it might feel like a quick win because you released something, it adds clutter to your user experience and adds one more thing that your developers will need to monitor and maintain. Finding ways to make sharper decisions upstream, will save you the headaches downstream.

If you take on a product that’s accrued a lot of design debt, then don’t fall into the trap of being scared to illuminate the waste. I use the term waste intentionally, because the elimination of waste is the core tenant of lean manufacturing, where lean product development was born. Find ways to gracefully incorporate experimentation in your live product. If you are not willing to remove the feature if it doesn’t bring value, then that is not an experiment.

9. Which three favorite resources would you point edtechs leaders to to upskill on UX?

First and foremost, I think anyone interested in building products to help people learn should have a general understanding of how people learn. I really like the book, Make it Stick. The authors distill countless dense research articles about various aspects of Learning Science it into a very readable book.  It really helps to make you think about how you might be more intentional in the features and product you design.

Another great book is The Jobs To Be Done Playbook. Kalbach does a fantastic job of synthesizing all of the JTBD research into a crisp set of tactical approaches to help you get started moving jobs-based theory into your daily practice.

I also strongly recommend Designing for Behavior Change. Over the last couple of years, I’ve immersed myself in behavioral science. Understanding why people make the decisions they do is fascinating to learn about, and can really help guide how you design products for an industry where user motivation is often weak.

It’s so hard to keep to just 3, so I will add one more! Blue Ocean Strategy provides an interesting perspective on how to win in a space filled with competitors that are just as hungry as you are. Instead of spending all of your time and resources on a “me too” feature set trying to chase the tails of your competition, be in search of opportunities to seek out the non-consumer by balancing what you optimize your resources on, and what can reduce or even eliminate. This book offers various tools to help you get those conversations started, and is a great complement to Jobs-to-be-done.

10. What three recommendations would you give to leaders on why, how, and when to invest in UX talent in their edtech startup?

Boiling down my recommendations. I’d start by looking for ways to ensure your UX team is encouraged to be outcome driven and not simply output driven. Second, be sure to identify and measure the impact your product is having on the outcomes your users are trying to achieve, and not simply business outcomes like retention and activation. Business outcomes tend to be product centered, not user centered. However, user-centered metrics are often leading indicators for business-centric metrics like retention and referral.  Lastly, once you build your UX team, nurture them and give them space and opportunity to be customer advocates across your organization. You don’t want UX to “own” customer development and empathy, but you should use them to help make your entire organization customer centered and customer driven.

Ten key takeaways

As I often find in discussions with Alex, there’s a lot of depth to unpack in the lessons he’s shared. Blended with my own experiences, here are 10 key takeaways to guide you as an edtech leader who is wrestling with why, how, and when to invest in UX talent in your edtech startup:

  1. Create a culture that’s driven by user outcomes, not product outputs. Making outcomes your North Star will center your teams, processes,  culture, and product on your user and what they’re trying to achieve—rather than your hunches or emulating your competitors. It also helps you to see beyond what your customers say they want and around the corner to what they need
  2. Take a broad view of user outcomes—they’re whatever your target users are trying to achieve. They can be functional (including proficiencies), emotional, or social goals (e.g. the Jobs-to-be-done framework).
  3. Reverse engineer your solution—with users. Start at the end, with outcomes you’ve identified your users are trying to achieve. Then, ideate solutions with educators and learners so you build-in empathy for their contexts, attitudes, challenges, and behaviors and then engineer your solution for impact.
  4. Design to affect your users’ desired behaviors. Identify what desired behaviors will help your users to achieve their outcomes. Then identify what gets in their way and design solutions that overcome these barriers. (See the Cue, Reaction, Evaluation, Ability, and Timing framework in Designing for Behavior Change.) Understanding why people behave as they do will help you design more effectively—especially when user motivation is weak.
  5. Measure your impact, starting with engagement. You can’t improve what you don’t measure, so be obsessive about measuring if and how you’re impacting your customers’ outcomes—they’re the strongest leading indicator of successful business outcomes (such as activation, satisfaction, and retention). Engagement is a great starting point, but frame it around desired users behavior (time on site, pages viewed, and click-through volumes are product-centered metrics that rarely reveal if you’re helping your users to achieve their goals).
  6. If you want to build a product that helps people to learn, you better understand how people learn. This seems obvious, but many edtech businesses defer the need to develop in-house understanding of learning science, or hire that talent. But if you combine this with a lack of clarity on user outcomes, you will build a product where the “effort your user places in your product will feel wasted” and you will lose them.
  7. Ensure every development decision advances your product vision. “Any [feature] that does not advance your vision will ultimately turn into design and technical debt.” What may feel like a quick win to release a feature today adds to what you need to support or eliminate tomorrow, so make sure every decision helps you take one step closer towards your vision.
  8. Hire your first UX talent to focus on user research and rapid-cycle experimentation. This will lay the foundations for your business to develop a lean product-development culture. You can initially outsource UI design and bring that expertise in house later.
  9. Look for UX talent that loves dealing with ambiguity. Hunt out individuals who love to ask “Why?”, unpack ill-structured problems, adapt, and discover creative opportunities. “Lean product development is a stormy journey” and they need to embrace pivots, constraints, and contradictions.
  10. Make individual growth of your staff an intentional priority. Carve out time for your staff to do learning during the workday and opportunities for them to apply these new skills. A few hours every week to stop what they’re doing and explore something new will pay dividends.

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