My Favorite Worst User

When I create technology solutions for clients who serve users in educational settings, I keep a favorite user in mind. Not a real person, but a persona—an idea of a person who characterizes a typical user—that’s taken shape over the last 25 years of my work in software development and product management. They are an educator, an excellent one. They are articulate and easy to work with.

And they’re the worst user.

My initial, ingenious ideas never quite fit their classroom practice perfectly, bringing about joy and harmony. And they let me know about it. They’re brutally honest.

That’s why they’re my favorite.

With every idea proposed, every feature discussed, every promise of a new, time-saving, innovative, easy-to-use edtech product, I hear my favorite worst user’s words in the back of my head.

You don't know anything.

You don’t know until you’ve sat in the back of my classroom of 30 restless second-graders and watched me guide a lesson with technology...until you’ve watched me wait for my old projector to switch the input from the document camera to the computer input, which is just enough time for the students to disengage and start talking...until you’ve watched me implement my seven-step protocol for distributing devices among the students. It takes five minutes, if I’m lucky; more if I have to troubleshoot a device on the fly.”

I see you, my favorite worst user. And you’re right, I have never experienced that! And anyone who makes anything they expect educators to use needs to recognize the absolute truth of what you are saying: until you have stood in the shoes of a classroom educator, you can never really know about standing in the shoes of a classroom educator. In fact, this is why our Learning Experience Designers have backgrounds teaching in K-12 schools; we count on their real-world classroom perspectives.

I'm not going to try very hard.

I’ll give your product a go, but don’t expect extra effort on my part to understand it; I don’t have the time. I have maybe twenty minutes a week to engage with your product. And most of that time is what I can snatch between classes.”

My favorite worst user, thank you for keeping it real. I will make sure not to waste your time and will design everything centered on convenience and ease-of-use. This is why I do what I do—because I think your job is the most important job, ever, and I want to help you succeed!

I'm not going to read anything.

If your edtech solution doesn’t work exactly as I’d expect it to, I won’t search your FAQs, I’ll ignore your help text, I won’t wait the one second for your tool tips to pop up, and I won’t re-watch the training webinar you sent a month before I actually needed it. Best case, I’ll eventually find a clunky workaround, until someone points out a much easier way to do it that you put where I didn’t look for it.”

I get it, my favorite worst user! We have a shared goal here—to give you something new, in a way that you didn't expect but that you absolutely love. Let’s make this so simple it requires nothing extra from you and gives you everything you need, where and when you expect it. (We often use qualitative research methods like surveys, observation, and interviews, and other strategies like empathy maps and product ethnographies, to make sure we don’t miss any detail.)

I'm not going to use your solution, because I have a worse way to do it that always works.

I have pencil and paper. It may be slower, but it’s always on and never crashes. I have a product similar to yours that I started using five years ago. I’m sure it’s inferior to your solution in every way, but it works well enough and I can use it right now. I have your product, but I don’t want to update it. Last time I did, your software didn’t work on my older system and you omitted my favorite feature.”

Yes, I totally agree. If what we create doesn’t do better than just replace what you’re already doing, why bother? (Why would that be called a solution, anyway? That’s just a “substitution.”) I want to give you something that makes a process easier for you, saves you time, and/or helps you bridge a problematic gap. I solemnly promise: I am not going to give you tech for tech’s sake—I will not just churn out shiny user interfaces with slick benefits based on current trends. This is about supporting teaching and learning on your terms, truly empowering your digital pedagogy.

A Clear-Eyed Approach to EdTech

Though my favorite worst user’s words may be tough to hear, they save me a lot of wasted effort by forcing me to keep the user and their reality at the center of the product development process. If your idea, feature, app, or revolutionary learning system stands up to this no-nonsense persona, then the real work of discovery and design can begin. That’s where our team can help. Throughout the product development process, we avoid assumptions—or worse, overly optimistic or “magical” thinking—about the use of technology in the classroom. Doing so leads to authentic, worthwhile solutions that even my favorite worst user can embrace.