From usability testing with toddlers to iterative prototyping, Code.Org’s Product Manager reveals the secret sauce behind the learning platform
Seattle-based Code.org is on a mission to teach the world’s kids to code. And if you read the stats, it looks like they’re succeeding: over 1 million girls have signed up a Code.org Studio course, and 1 million African American or Hispanic kids too; 47% of Code.org children are eligible for free or reduced cost school meals; the non-profit’s annual Hour of Code campaign has engaged 10% of all students worldwide.
The secret behind Code.org’s success is, of course, the strength of its product. The digital learning platform is designed to be used either in school or for extra-curricular learning, for students ranging from elementary kids to high-schoolers. Plus there’s support provided for teachers and even stipends for teachers that want to boost their professional development with programming pedagogy.
Justinmind emailed with Ryan about managing a product that changes students’ lives, and how interactive prototyping helps his team improve their ‘product eye’.
What does an average day look like for you and the Product Team over at Code.org? What key product initiatives or updates are you working on right now?
Like a lot of product teams, each day can be wildly different! I work primarily on our Kindergarten through 5th grade programs, and on the tools we build to support our professional learning programs around the country. Some days we’re in a classroom conducting tests with students and teachers, some days we’re meeting with administrators or regional non-profits to help figure out how to get computer science into the schools in their area, and other days we’re working through designs and prototypes here in the office. Right now, I’m working closely with regional partners around the country to help them develop and scale their professional learning programs, as well as running a pilot for some new K-5 courses.
We like to move into prototyping as fast as possible here at Code.org
Code.org is designed to be used both inside and outside classrooms – what kind of design features create that flexibility?
This is a great question! We are all about building a teacher-driven movement here at Code.org. We think the best way to expand opportunity to every student is through in-school learning, so we approach our design process from a classroom-first point-of-view. Independent learners are important to us too (particularly in our K-5 programs), so when we find ourselves at a UX crossroads we often look for ways to adjust the experience based on the student’s context.
For example: our K-5 courses are divided up into “stages”, and each stage corresponds roughly to one class period. Students working independently will generally just keep moving forward when they reach the end of the stage, but in the classroom many teachers prefer if their students stop working on puzzles at this point and either go to work on a project, or switch away from the computer to a new station. We developed a “Stage Extras” feature that teachers can turn on for their class that will send the students to a project playground at the end of the stage rather than automatically advancing them.
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The product is aimed at young users – what kind of usability testing processes do you go through to get inside kids’ minds, and how do you act on the results?
There is no substitute for getting the product in the hands of real kids! We’re lucky to have good relationships with some local teachers here in the Seattle-area. We will often drop into a class for an hour to have students try out a new feature and get their feedback. We use a lot of different tools to get feedback, like age-appropriate surveys (pictorial representations for our pre-readers) and user interviews. When we can, we like to do think-alouds with kids as they work. Surprisingly, other than the classroom environment it’s not so different from doing usability testing with adults… except that kids are usually more honest!
What role does prototyping play in the code.org design and development process? As Product Manager, what do you look for in a prototyping tool?
We like to move into prototyping as fast as possible here at Code.org. We will often start out with some sketches and light design explorations, and then we like to iterate on interactive prototypes when we can. Many of our engineers have a ‘product-eye’ and can work from a literal napkin-sketch to get a first version working. From there, we love to get into a classroom if we can.
Can you tell us about a time a prototype helped you solve a tricky problem or design something really cool?
One of the puzzle variants that students solve in our Computer Science Fundamentals courses is The Artist. In Artist puzzles, students write code to move an artist around to produce a cool drawing. For elementary schoolers, the angles can be a real headache! We got this feedback pretty consistently, and we saw it every time we visited a classroom.
We sketched a protractor widget that we thought might help – it provides a handle students can drag to find the angle they want and updates their code in real time. We built the first interactive prototype in a couple hours, and that prototype is what we used to iron out the rest of the details.
We shipped that last year and it’s been a big hit with our students. We watched the metrics, and students were able to solve the puzzles with tricky angles more easily.
Other than the classroom environment, it’s not so different from doing usability testing with adults… except that kids are usually more honest!
You seem passionate about STEM education – you worked at Coding with Kids and volunteer taught; is passion necessary to managing a product well, or is it irrelevant to a Product Manager’s skillset? What are top 3 skills or abilities Product Managers need?
Education (and computer science education in particular) is at the heart of my own personal mission. I left a more traditional tech job to work on this problem of equity and access in computer science education, and I am so grateful that I get to work on something I care about so much. Every job will just feel like a job now and then, but there’s something really special about getting fired up to go to work.
The PMs that I look up to most have a passion for something – if not for the particular product they’re building then for solving problems. When you really care about the problems you’re solving, the vision part comes easily. I think in addition to passion, the best PMs are comfortable venturing into an ambiguous space, only to emerge with a plan that the team can execute. Tying a bow on all this is communication – passion and planning can only go so far on their own, and a great PM can bring everyone else along with them on the journey.
When the whole team feels a sense of ownership for the project and the decisions, the end result is always better.
Tell us some PM tools that you absolutely couldn’t live without?
I have an unhealthy attachment to spreadsheets – If loving Pivot Tables is wrong, then I don’t want to be right! I also use OneNote extensively. I love that I can take notes in a meeting with my laptop, and then continue with them using a tablet in the classroom. And of course, I would be nowhere without a whiteboard and some sticky notes!
What are your predictions for how digital products will change education in the next 5 years?
I think the real power in educational technology will be in empowering teachers to do more with their students. I think classroom analytics tools will help teachers differentiate instruction and plan their lessons, and interactive models allow students explore concepts in a way that’s more “real” than a textbook or video can be.