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Product Management 101: Why Educators Should Care

Product Management 101: Why Educators Should Care

What does it look like behind the curtain at Edmentum when we talk about new features destined for the summer release? Where did these new bells and whistles come from? And how come that awesome update you wanted didn’t get pushed out this month?

Just like in your school or district, there are a number of things that happen behind the scenes at Edmentum, from budgets being approved to product life cycles; from a clean-up to retiring a product. That is the nature of the market. Our product team needs to build the greatest mousetrap. But, how do we know we’re putting together a great mousetrap and not an elaborate (yet pointless) Rube Goldberg Machine? This is where the magic happens.

Welcome to the wide, wild world of product management. A product manager determines customers' needs and desires. They research, they dream and then they fiddle.

Sometimes during the course of research, requirements coming down the pike through state and federal legislation become clear. Sometimes we hear from the market (through industry publications or conferences) that there is a common need. However, the entirety of Edmentum looks to educators to help drive an understanding of how teachers, students, and administrators actually use our programs.

Listening is an absolutely critical skill for product managers. To be successful in this role, not only do you have to understand how hundreds of people come together to make a business run, you also have to see the world (and, more importantly, your product) through each of their eyes. This allows you to work effectively with all of your partners towards a common goal: product success.

Read on to learn more about the Edmentum product research, design, and release cycles.

Understand the Customer and Market Needs

Knowing what a teacher needs takes lots of research and frequent meetings with educators. Product managers follow professionals in the field, listen to feedback, and carry a magic wand (or at least, sometimes it feels like they do). They create a massive list of what our customers and our internal teams want, assuming access to all the money and technology needed. There are many tools used to help them understand the market needs, but the best, by far, is meeting with educators.

In the past year, Edmentum product managers have prioritized these interactions with strong luggage and hundreds of educator visits and calls. We ran focus groups to review specific features or suggested solutions. We created usability tests and ran them through small groups with friends, relatives and members of the Educator Network. We launched surveys and reviewed calls into support. We leveraged Seehive, a tool which is imbedded into Edmentum programs to capture feedback from educators as they are using a program. And we took advantage of Salesforce, which captures feedback and notes from our field employees, many of whom are former teachers and administrators, about their day-to-day work with educators.

 “Add a timeline of when everything is due, a visual for the students to see somewhere on their homepage.”

“Have the class progress bar reflect only the assignments chosen by the instructor.”

These are two suggestions from teachers we met with face to face that changed the path we were on this year. It became clear that we needed to enhance our approach to student time management in support of pacing them through a course. Research and development are ongoing and an improved experience is planned for release in the next school year.  

On a broader scale, we attended conferences to see what is bubbling up nationally and did a deep dive into competitive and industry analysis. All of this work happens before we ever sit down at our computers to start designing and building product features and updates. We have all these great ideas thrown at the wall—now comes the hard part.

Evaluate and Prioritize

Product managers need to look at that long list of ideas on the wall and decide what is really important to educators and students. One Edmentum product leader was known to say “We have computers, we can do anything, but the question is, should we?” Just because a feature or idea is on the list doesn’t mean it will make it to production; our product managers continually ask ‘Is what we build important, and to whom?’

Eventually the massive list gets pared down to a series of features that is both what we think educators need and want, and what fits into the development budget Edmentum has to work with. Our product managers do this by measuring the impact of all features and updates for educators and student outcomes, and weigh those benefits against the resources required and available to create them. It’s a huge exercise in prioritization, and a balancing act. Ultimately, this becomes the product roadmap plan for the upcoming year and the building begins.

Meanwhile, the circle completes, and Edmentum product managers start all over again doing research, including considering those ideas that didn’t make the cut this year, and the ideation and evaluation process continues.

Design and Test

Product testing is another key responsibility of Edmentum product managers. And here, testing is more than simply asking ‘Does the product work?’ but also determining what teacher need is actually being solved. Does the product save educators time, does it streamline data collection, could it be better? (Spoiler alert—products are never finished, improvements are always on the list).

We gather educator feedback during the testing process as well. In some instances, like when we were in the early stages of building what became our diagnostic assessment personalized learning program, Exact Path, we ‘beta test’ early versions of products and features with small groups of educators and students. This helps us identify problems and make improvements until we are confident that we have a product that is truly meaningful and effective for educators and students—then we bring the product to the wider market.

We are not naïve; we know that sitting at our desks in the Edmentum offices only gives us one lens. As much as we may love a product, we know we are releasing something for educators, that will grow, and change, and be iterated upon as more educators tell us about what works and what is a struggle. After all, we do have computers; we can solve anything.

Release New Features, Functionality, and Content

When we do release a new feature or update that changes an existing product, we consider a couple of things. If it has impact on how the product is actually used, we must match the cadence of the school year—we can’t release something in October if it is going to affect the work students have been doing since September. We also need ample time to communicate any changes and train educators on what those changes do and what their impact will be. Finally, we need time to measure customer impact and satisfaction. Again, this process is ongoing, and a little different with every unique feature and update. With some changes, the release is simple, and we get it in front of our educators and move on, but other times it takes a bit more tweaking and twisting until everything is working smoothly.

Troubleshooting and Escalation

Edmentum is a company of people, and we’re not perfect. In fact, sometimes we blow it. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes we do miss the mark, and when we release an update, what we thought was working doesn’t. We refer to this kind of situation as an ‘escalation’. Sometimes, we run into what we call “Not working as designed” …a link is broken, a feature self-destructs, or a button doesn’t work. Whatever it is, something in the release has caused an issue and our support team is hearing about it. This needs attention immediately. Other times there is a quality concern—which is certainly another need for escalation. Our products must reflect the high standards we hold ourselves to, and truly make educators’ lives easier. If they don’t, then we need to fix it, and fix it quickly. Our Support and Development teams are skilled at opening up the hood and fixing what is broken. Along the way, they come up with plenty of new ideas for our product managers to run with for future releases.

There are a lot of moving parts for a product manager, and when laid out like this it feels like those parts follow a very clear path step by step. However, all of this is happing simultaneously. The one constant is the educator feedback, and making sure that all of the ideas and tweaks, no matter which phase they are in, provide a real benefit for educators.

Want to dig deeper into the Edmentum product development process? Learn more about how the Study Island development team implements educator feedback!