Help Us Help You: How Schools Can Give Useful Feedback to Edtech Companies

column | Technology Tips

Help Us Help You: How Schools Can Give Useful Feedback to Edtech Companies

By Jin-Soo Huh (Columnist)     Oct 1, 2019

Help Us Help You: How Schools Can Give Useful Feedback to Edtech Companies

As fall begins in earnest, schools are in full swing. Students and teachers are settling into their schedules, with the newness of the school year giving way to routines.

But around this time, something happens that instructional technology administrators are familiar with. The digital tools that one’s school or district had selected after a rigorous, months-long process, which had such a promising pilot earlier, is starting to lose some of its shimmer. They hear from teachers that the program is great, except it is just missing one feature or one aspect, without which the tool doesn’t really jive with them.

This is an all-too-common scenario for those who support schools in their technology implementations. Over the years, I have taken what teachers have requested and sent a ton of feedback to companies. But I was curious: What do the companies do with that feedback? Are there some that are more useful than others?

Edtech developers take feedback from schools seriously. (Most of the time.)

All of the companies I spoke with noted that feedback from schools is extremely critical for the development and success of their tools. “Understanding what teachers need is of the utmost importance,” explained Will Bielinski, the product management and analytics lead of Sown to Grow, a student goal-setting and reflection platform. “Things have to be intentionally designed with the teacher and student in mind, and their voices need to shine through.”

“If we don’t take their input as the primary driving force in product development, then we may design something that’s not helping students,” he added. “From a business perspective, it won’t land well. It might solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Feedback from schools can lead directly to major improvements in the tool—or even an entirely new product. Allovue, based in Baltimore, initially offered a suite of financial tools to help administrators view account balances and track spending in their schools. But after hearing from users who requested support with budget planning, the company created a new offering to help educators develop budgets with staffing and spending plans aligned to the right account codes.

While nearly all education companies welcome feedback, there are ways in which educators can craft them to be helpful and actionable. As the saying goes: “Help us help you.”

Describe the Problem, Not the Solution

Companies prefer that you come to them with a problem versus a solution. Asking for a specific feature request can lead to a very short conversation, as it puts the company in a situation to give one of three curt answers: yes, no, or not now.

But sharing what the problem is invites a conversation that can be more fruitful.

“What we often find is that we could hypothetically give the school district exactly what they requested, but we have found better solutions when we understood the situation,” explained Maggie Lubberts, director of product management for Allovue. “Most often the things we don't implement are the asks for specific solutions that don’t come along with the context for understanding the problem a user wants to solve.”

Joanna Smith, CEO of AllHere, a company that helps schools improve student attendance, advised educators not to think of buttons to add, but rather to have “an immense sense of clarity of what you want to accomplish.” For example, coming in with a specific problem statement like “we are trying to disaggregate the impacts of an intervention in kindergarten as opposed to 3rd grade” tasks the company with thinking through how to tackle the issue.

As earnest and well-intentioned as teachers are when asking for specific features, they usually do not have a full understanding of how a tool is built, or what other elements may be impacted by their requests. Nor should they be expected to know all this.

Be Willing to Go to Bat for Your Request

A company will build a feature request if it sees that it can solve a genuine problem. But the relationship between the requester and company should not end there. “Great features aren’t born in our office. They’re born hand in hand with the school that’s going to be our partner,” said Matt Robins, CEO of DeansList, a platform that manages schools’ day-to-day non-academic data like attendance and behavior.

“That means as a school leader you may have to sell a beta feature to your teachers,” he added. “You may be asking [them] to try something they’ve never done before, or abandon something they may be comfortable with. You can’t ask us to build something and then not provide feedback and work with your teachers.”

Remember: You Are Not the Sole Client

Each school is unique in many ways, from the student population it serves to the teaching force, curriculum, local laws and technology resources. Companies must navigate feedback from each of their unique clients. “Not only would it be impossible to build every feature request, it wouldn’t be smart either,” AllHere’s Smith said. “As a company we have to do this calculus of what is valuable for a subset of customers, [versus] for the most customers possible. You may end up with a product that is swollen and becomes difficult to use.”

For example, several companies noted getting requests to show more data on a product’s home screen. “If you look at a dashboard with every data point ever, it’s cool to look at but it won’t be useful, Bielinski of Sown to Grow said. If the data isn’t immediately actionable, he added, “it comes off as noise and a vanity metric. Showing too much can overwhelm teachers who have limited time.”

Other companies noted that when a request is super specific, they ask educators to wait until more schools have expressed a desire for the feature. “We try to say no to as few things as possible,” DeansList’s Robins said. “We work extra hard to build trust with our users, so they know that when we can do it, we say yes. And when we say no, they know it’s real.”

Consider the Company’s Beliefs

Companies rarely like to say no to their customers. What makes that easy to say, though, is when a feature request goes against the core values or beliefs of the company.

For example, Sown to Grow aims to help students build intrinsic motivation through goal setting, performance tracking and reflection. While other tools award badges, points and other extrinsic motivators, these approaches do not align with the company’s goal to develop student agency, Bielinski explained.

Companies that explain their philosophy clearly upfront can make conversations with schools more productive when it comes to considering changes and other approaches to solving a problem. Schools should also understand what needs a product could fill and clearly convey this to teachers and students before buying it based on a recommendation or seeing it at a conference.

Do Continue to Give Feedback

All of the companies encouraged schools to continue to give feedback. “The only way to be sure nothing is going to change is to say nothing,” Lubberts of Allovue said. “Saying something is always better than saying nothing. I may not be able to do exactly what you want right now, but we still value your feedback and ideas and they influence product decisions all the time.”

The companies also encourage schools to think of them as partners, not just vendors, and keep the lines of communication open. “Anyone who is running an edtech company that has started in the last 10 years is doing it because they care about education and schools,” Robins said. “If they wanted to make money, there are many other industries they could have gone into.”

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