Why ‘Great’ Edtech Products Really Fail

Why ‘Great’ Edtech Products Really Fail

Colette Coleman recently wrote an excellent EdSurge op-ed about some of the many reasons great edtech products fail. As a former teacher myself, many of the obstacles Coleman cited rang true. Teachers are often busy, hamstrung by district rules, or simply denied the technological infrastructure needed to make use of new products.

But there is one particular problem that Coleman didn't mention in her article--a problem that many edtech entrepreneurs run into after creating their products, and a problem that might be at the root of this all. So as an addendum to her “5 Reasons Why Great EdTech Products Don’t Succeed”, I present:

The Top One Reason Great Edtech Products Don’t Succeed:

  1. They aren’t actually great products.

Too often when designing products, we try to make something that we would have thought was cool, useful, or engaging when we were students. We make products we think are going to make people say “wow!” That “wow” can be a good thing, but if the product isn’t adopted by the target user, then it doesn’t matter if you or anyone else thought it was cool. If it wasn’t adopted, it wasn’t a great product.

This concept is integral to User-Centered Design, a design process that insists that the end user should be the most important influencer on the creation of a product. In edtech, this means product designers should start first by understanding the needs, wants, and limitations of teachers and students.

Unfortunately, that’s not how most edtech products have been designed. And that’s not because most entrepreneurs are dumb or lazy. It’s because most have a flawed perception of what it is like to work and learn in a modern school.

Why is that? In all honesty, it’s probably a teacher’s fault. I’ll explain.

For me, one of the most frustrating things about being a teacher was the extent to which other people thought they understood what my job was. Everyone was once a student in a classroom, so everyone thinks they know what goes into teaching and learning. But the truth is great teachers make all the planning, forethought, and hard work of teaching look simple. For that reason, it’s because of good teachers that former students think they know what a teacher needs, when in fact they have no idea.

Most edtech products start not with the actual needs of teachers and students, but with perceived needs. Kids aren’t interested in math? Make it a game! Teachers want to make engaging presentations? Let’s make a platform for videos! There’s too much paperwork? Put it in the cloud! None of these are bad ideas in-and-of themselves, but none of them really start with an understanding of the needs and limitations that teachers and students have. If teachers don’t have the flexibility, time, desire, or technology needed to use your product, it means you didn’t design it well.

Within each of Coleman’s points, she provided great ideas for how entrepreneurs can overcome the challenges that teachers face in implementing new products. But addressing just these limitations isn’t enough, because there will certainly be more needs arising in the future, and you won’t see them coming unless you make a conscious effort to look for them.

How can you make sure your product is really meeting a need? It’s simple: go talk to teachers and students. Follow them, observe their classes, track their time throughout the day. Watch what their biggest struggles are and ask them questions on questions on questions. And then start thinking about what a useful tool might look like. True needs and limitations are often not obvious, but discovering them means you can solve a very real problem for your users.

Yes, that takes time and effort. And yes, you’ll need to look really deep to discover meaningful insights. But the obstacles are there, and they aren’t going away. But think about which is harder: spending time to truly and deeply understand your users, or starting a business that ultimately fails because you didn’t understand them? The choice is clear. 

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