Plickers in action

Designing for learning — Plickers

Interviews with those responsible for driving mobile learning innovation forward.

Technology is changing the options available to teachers and students and challenging our perceptions of education. In this series of interviews, I talk with digital designers in the education space about what they foresee for the future of education technology.

Related: Designing for Education — Tentouch

Jenn Kim, wears many hats (including UX design) at Plickers. Plickers grew out of a shared belief that teachers shouldn’t have to teach blind, data doesn’t have to be overwhelming, and students shouldn’t be afraid of being wrong. They believe that deep learning can happen when we measure our progress and use data as a starting point, not just an ending metric.

How did the project become about? What was the original concept? What problem was it solving? What were your original goals for the app?

Plickers (“paper clickers”) was meant to be a way for K-12 teachers to use “clicker” remote response systems that are popular in university lectures in their own classrooms. These clicker systems are great at providing feedback for teachers, but they’re expensive: thousands of dollars for just one classroom set. Clicker systems are also hard to maintain; broken remotes are difficult to replace, batteries frequently run out in class, etc.

Plickers provides an easier and free solution — instead of having remote clickers, students simply hold up Plickers cards with unique shapes on them. The rotation of the card indicates the student’s A, B, C, or D answer choice. The teacher then scans the room with the Plickers iOS/Android app and instantly sees what each student’s answer is and what percentage of the class is answering correctly. It’s powerful, immediately actionable data a teacher can use to adjust the lesson.

When a teacher poses a question to the class, research on best practices in education says that all students should be getting a chance to engage in the material, not just the few students who raise their hands.[KJ1] Plickers helps teachers engage every single student in the learning and provides teachers immediate feedback about how their students are performing in class — whether or not they’re “getting it.”. Instead of waiting for the mid-unit quiz or end-of-unit test results, a teacher can see when student misconceptions arise and address them sooner rather than later.

The original goal for Plickers was to provide teachers with the best way to do formative assessment in class — an informal check on student understanding during learning, rather than the traditional tests used to asses end-of-learning outcomes. App founder Nolan Amy originally came up with the idea during his Teach For America placement.

Can you go into depth as to what your role was? How big was your team? What type of team members did you have?

When I joined Plickers last spring, Nolan was working with just a few web and iOS contractors. We were the only two full-time team members!

I joined very much with the “first employee” mentality of wearing many hats. In my first year at Plickers, I lead our UX/UI design process — everything from user research, wireframes, to final mockups — established the beginnings of our brand voice with our marketing copy and our mission and values, implemented our initial support system and handled all user support, and created our recruiting process and interviewed and culture screened all potential candidates. Since growing our team, my focus has shifted more to product (management, design) and people (hiring, culture).

In addition to being CEO, Nolan Amy architects most of Plickers’ API, develops on Android, and manages our engineering efforts. One could say he’s more of a CEO/CTO! We hired our full stack web engineer Satoko Lom in February of 2015, and we hired our community manager Nic Hansen in June of 2015. Our little team is growing!

What was your process for creating the product? First steps?

For Plickers, talking with teachers really highlighted points of friction that we weren’t aware of. The variables in class setting, district infrastructure, state policies and school mandates, grade level, subject area, and individual teaching styles all create an incredibly diverse group of users, even though it may be easy to think it’s all one demographic of “teachers.” We very much rely user research to help us spot trends and patterns that we can leverage in making product decisions that will positively impact the vast majority of teachers, no matter what, where or how they teach.

To kick off, we carefully crafted very broad, neutral questions to gain as much information about the specific problems teachers face within a particular area (e.g., organization) and reach out to teachers who have an expressed interest in the feature (perhaps because they’ve voted on the features or related ideas on our ideas forum) and a mix of “random” newer teachers to balance the perspective.

After getting a sense of how teachers are using Plickers, the problems they’re facing (and the causes), we then come together as a team to brainstorm solutions. Once we find a few ideas we like, we work on really envisioning how it might work UX-wise, and I’ll fill in some details in wireframes. We’ll discuss, adjust, and do more researchbefore diving into the details of actual implementation.

What was the biggest challenge creating a product for such a unique user base? Greatest learnings?

The biggest challenge in creating a product for teachers is figuring out where to begin and when to stop. We have a lot of great ideas (and many teacher-contributed ideas) to build out, but we are a small team, so we have to consider our bandwidth, and we also have to balance the desire to build out new features with maintaining and improving the quality ones we currently have.

On the flip side, whenever we start a feature, we have to fight the “feature creep”: the urge to add more functionality to the feature to address other needs beyond the core pain point we identify in research.

One of our best learnings, although trite, is that there really isn’t any substitute for seeing your product in action. Seeing how teachers use Plickers in class gives the team a lot of perspective on the things we can improve on that aren’t necessarily voiced by users. For example, we may notice that a teacher has to move between the computer and her phone app in a way that really limits her movement around the room. This concern might not be voiced by the teacher — it might seem like a small thing compared to other features she’d like to see, but it’s helpful for us to keep in mind as something to alleviate.

One of our neatest learnings has been discovering user workarounds and considering their implications on the product. By “workaround,” I mean what a user does to resolve missing functionality.

It’s been really cool to see how innovative teachers are in their workarounds to solve problems. If it’s a common workaround for a lot of users, it can highlight how critical a particular feature might be, and it can also serve as a demand validation for a potential solution.For example, if they’re going through and tallying student scores by hand, this can validate the need for some type of reporting feature.

What is the next step for the product? How do you hope to use your learnings moving forward with product development?

We’ll be following our usual design process to start working on “the next big thing,” which will probably be a reporting feature.

We’re looking forward to constantly improving our processes in general, and building in times to reflect on our learning and improve for the next round.

Where do you see education in the digital space in the immediate future? 5 years?

The EdTech industry is really hitting its stride. I think the industry will see a bigger demand on actionable data and insights. School districts typically don’t receive their big state test scores until midway through the fall of the following school year, which makes problems harder to address. Standardized tests are increasingly regarded as necessary evils rather than as valuable, actionable points of data for a school or district, so I think there will be a marked shift towards wanting more formative assessment data to be able to funnel resources where they’re needed sooner rather than later.

Once formative assessment becomes more of a norm than an exemplary best practice, I think teachers will be doing awesome things with the data, empowering students to own their learning and be invested in their learning — and not just for grades!