Seven Ways the CZI Education Design Team Makes Design More Participatory

Nivi Ramesh Brett
Jul 31, 2019 · 7 min read

If you are a human-centered product designer, you may recognize this Venn diagram. Designing solutions with these considerations in mind is critical to the job. We start with the desirability of our solutions: what do users really want? We then consider feasibility: can the solution they want actually be created? Finally, we must balance this with viability: will the solution be adopted and be successful in practice?

A few years ago, I joined CZI’s Education team to work on the Summit Learning Platform, a free online tool for the classroom that helps teachers personalize instruction and allows students to learn at their own pace. I quickly learned that designing educational products like Summit Learning requires the consideration of many more perspectives compared to the typical consumer product. Educational products exist in a complex ecosystem with a diverse set of stakeholders.

Summit Learning builds on the learnings of educational experts who challenge us to embrace new methodologies in education that positively shape behavior. For example, instead of simply making the process of providing feedback to students faster for teachers (which increases products’ desirability) we also ask teachers to consider new, research-backed ways of providing quality feedback, thereby shifting their behavior. However, these new methods must work in schools where there are existing processes and workflows in place. For example, we build products that guide teachers to effectively facilitate projects day-to-day, but they might want to incorporate their own lesson plans that also work for them. Our role as designers in education is to drive behavior change while advocating for what teachers and students need and desire.

Not only do we need to balance the perspectives of the people who use our products and the experts who shape it, but we must consider the many other stakeholders who are invested in the success of the education system. This includes parents, families, communities, school districts, school board members, administrators, and even policymakers. All of their perspectives matter and shape how we make decisions about the product.

To understand and design for these competing priorities, it is imperative that we incorporate these perspectives into our design process. Doing so is often challenging: it can be hard to get everyone in the same room and speaking the same language. I’ve found that my role as a designer is to facilitate these conversations, empower participants to contribute their ideas, and identify how to synthesize or balance these perspectives. It’s my job to encourage participation in the process.

Here are some of the participatory approaches we’ve taken to incorporate the many perspectives that feed into our product decisions:

We co-create with students to give them a voice.

We know it can be difficult for users, especially younger ones, to articulate the features they’d want and how they’d like to interact with these features. In our research sessions, we often use paper wireframe kits that include pre-designed modules and widgets. We ask students to arrange or “design” their ideal experience while talking through the “why”. Through this exercise, we can quickly learn about a student’s priorities and reactions to specific visualizations by making the user interview process more tangible for them. Additionally, asking students to co-design gives them a voice in their own user experience.

We empower non-designers with tools to visualize their ideas.

Often, design teams assume the role of translating insights into solutions. At CZI, we believe that great ideas can come from anyone. What great ideas and solutions might emerge if everyone felt equipped to harness the power of visualization? We sometimes ask our learning partners (e.g. education experts) and colleagues outside of the design team to use the tools they have at their disposal (e.g. PowerPoint, Word, sketches, paper) to illustrate and think through ideas they’ve been considering. These ideas serve as an inspiring starting point for conversation and collaboration.

We use conversation aids to make topics feel approachable by all.

Before every project there are many stakeholders we need to consult, from parents to education experts. To guide the input, we ask: how might we create a common language to ensure more consistency across all of our conversations? Additionally, how could we make these conversations a little more fun? We’ve found it helpful to share a set of quick exercises to guide stakeholders in sharing their opinions and thoughts. This involves everything from card sorting, to choosing from visual metaphors, to force ranking topics, to selecting on sliding scales. All of these exercises aim to inspire and provoke conversation, as well as make it easier to discuss the sometimes abstract concepts that our projects involve.

We use the power of metaphors to encourage sharing.

We sometimes ask users, or even our own team, to describe a situation or experience using familiar metaphors. To aid in this tactic, we’ve used sticker sets, small toys, or pre-found images to help inspire the use of metaphors. When we asked teachers to take us on a “guided safari journey” of what teaching Summit Learning feels like, we uncovered challenges, surprises, emotions, and delightful moments they encountered during different stages of their teaching experiences. For example, when teachers described the speed of the Jeep on the safari, it prompted conversations on the pace of learning and the learning curve. It seemed easier for teachers to provide direct feedback to our team in abstract terms. They went on to describe the Summit Learning safari in detail, using the support of the metaphor to uncover many new layers of their experience.

We draw on the expertise within analogous domains to incorporate unconventional perspectives.

We often use brainstorming to identify analogous products that could help inspire our designs. What products in other industries achieve the goals we seek to achieve with our product? For example, when we wanted to help our teachers prioritize feedback requests from students, we looked to task management systems and email clients for inspiration on how various products create order out of chaos. We typically invite a cross-functional group of team members (including researchers, engineers, product managers, writers, and educational specialists) into our brainstorm process so we can draw on a broad range of examples during the very early phases of design. By finding inspiration through products and services we otherwise might not have heard about, we make steps toward creating a more inclusive and relevant design.

Work in parallel so others can contribute thoughts in their own time.

Sometimes it’s hard to collaborate in the same room, especially if teams are split between different offices or time zones. We try to transform this challenge into an opportunity by harnessing the power of divergent thinking. One tactic we use is to provide key stakeholders with a task that we are completing in parallel, such as creating an ideal user journey. Later, we compare and contrast the versions and use the similarities and differences to identify where we should focus our design efforts.

We look for opportunities to build on the ideas of others.

Through our user experience research, we often hear about creative approaches and workarounds that teachers are already implementing to complete tasks that are not yet supported by our product. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we ask teachers to share their favorite creations with us so we can build off of what was already working. For example, when we built agenda and planning tools for teachers, we learned a lot from the creative ways teachers were using Microsoft Excel, like color-coding tables and creating custom sortings to group their students. By taking advantage of opportunities to be inspired by and further build upon their solutions, we are able to efficiently design tools that we know teachers want to use, and include them in the process to do so.


Design in education is influenced by many perspectives, all of which are important in shaping the future of the products we build. It’s our challenge and responsibility to include those perspectives in order to make products that are meaningful: products that shape behavior, lead to positive outcomes and integrate elegantly into the worlds of our stakeholders.

Through our work in education at CZI we aim to help create a future for everyone. Through our design process, we can ensure that everyone has a say in what that future looks like.

Illustrations by Grady Fike

CZI Technology

The Technology team at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Nivi Ramesh Brett

Written by

designer previously @ IDEO, Facebook, CZI

CZI Technology

The Technology team at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

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