IRL UX – driving impact outside of apps in the classroom

I recently wrote an article for Ellevation’s new R&D blog about my experience rethinking the Strategies product line and creating our professional learning modules – and in the process, figuring out how to influence behavior in the real world through a digital application.

First, some history.

When I joined Ellevation in 2019, Strategies was a product composed of a library of ~80 research-based instructional ‘Activities’ that could support English Language Learners. It also had a 2nd big feature ‘Collections’ that gave ideas for content area teachers for lesson plans.

My first task after joining Ellevation in 2019 was to take this product and develop a dual language offering to better address our lacking product-market fit in California.

Through this, I learned much about english language learners – nearly 10% of the US student population and with a high school graduation rate of 68% that is lower than any other student demographic including low-income African American children.

Encouraging, dual language programs have proven to be able to address this, where multilingual learners will exceed their monolingual peers in all languages by the 6th grade.

However, as I deeply familiarized myself with the Strategies product line, it became clear that it had several fundamental problems that were a risk for the business:

  1. While it had a few million in ARR after 3 years in the market, renewal rates were hovering in the low 80s (SaaS products should be in the 90s).
  2. Usage was low/poor – less than 8% of users had 3+ sessions in a given school year.
  3. The feature that sold so well – Collections – didn’t deliver on its promise and disappointed users who then didn’t return to the more valuable part of the product – Activities.

our fundamental problem was that we had created a product that was dual-positioned as both a lesson-planning solution and a professional learning solution – but addressed neither use case well because it wasn’t focused on either one.

Re-thinking the product line.

We decided as a business to reposition and redesign the product and create a market-leading professional learning solution – aiming to 3x ARR in the next 3 years.

Early on in our research and discovery process, I grounded my cross-functional team in a few key guiding principles and hypotheses:

  1. To build a useful product that would be accepted and purchased nationwide, we had to meet the 6 ESSA criteria for high-quality and efficacious PD: sustained, data-driven, intensive, classroom-focused, job-embedded, and collaborative – something no other product in the market was able to do.
  2. We had to create a delivery vehicle for the existing core offering of the product (Activities) that already had proven valuable – a way to drive their adoption in the classroom.
  3. We should leverage Ellevation’s unfair competitive advantage: our Flagship product with 30% market penetration and containing rich student data sets and visualizion tools.

The solution we developed was a series of professional learning micro courses with a unique Learn-Teach-Reflect model – asking teachers to teach in the classroom before completing the modules. This greatly resonated with educators across the country.

It’s here where my article digs into what made our modules successful and how unpacked this challenge of driving real-world behavior through digital apps. I highlight 5 key principles:

1. Base your product design on a Theory of Change

“To change behavior outside an app requires digging deeply into the social and psychological dynamics surrounding the behaviors one is trying to influence. We came to call this developing a “Theory of Change” – looking holistically at our users’ lives, and not just at the moments they were using our product.”

2. Orient towards the ‘Aha!’ moments in the real world

“The challenge becomes getting the first-time users to that ‘aha’ moment in the real world. Although, in some ways, this is much like a classic user funnel… the key “conversion” moment occurs outside of the product and thus is very difficult to measure.

In our case, the ‘aha’ moment comes when a teacher first tries an instructional strategy with their students in the classroom.”

3. Provide value in-app before asking users to change behavior in the real world

“In our case, we did this by, as soon as a teacher starts a course, sharing detailed data about the ELL’s in their classrooms – who they are, what their english proficiency levels are, links to full school histories, etc.

We’re able to do this because Ellevation’s other products focus on addressing problems around ELL-data collection, aggregation, and visualization. We leveraged all this data to provide these immediate insights.”

4. Leverage both carrots and sticks

“To address this, we focused on leveraging existing incentive and accountability mechanisms – e.g. by making it easy for admins to issue PD credits for course completion. Teachers can then use those credits both to meet district and state PD requirements (the stick) and/or to get pay increases (a carrot).”

5. Tie into social activities

“In our case, we saw a promising opportunity around educator meetings such as Professional Learning Communities and Grade-Level Meetings.

These are opportunities for teachers to get together with their peers, discuss challenges they face, share ideas, and collaborate together to plan their instruction for the coming weeks.”

Long story short, we’re onto something. ARR grew 50% this past year, renewal rates are in the 90’s, and we’re now in 750+ of the largest school districts in the country.

User retention rates are also up 30%, and many other measures point to us deepening engagement, learning, and impact on student outcomes.

A particular source of pride for me here too is how quickly and leanly we built this product. With a team of just 6 people across engineering, UX, instruction, and product (me) – we went from inception to school tests, to pilot, to general launch in 1 year.

This has certainly been both a rewarding and exciting experience.