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 empower non-designers with tools to visualize their ideas.

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

We use the power of metaphors to encourage sharing.

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

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

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


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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