Why design at Khan Academy?
We don’t just make videos. Khan Academy is a non-profit with a mission to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.
There are three things that deeply motivate our small team:
- 🎨 Do great design work. We’re designing in a space that’s underserved by world-class design chops — but we can’t think of many areas that deserve it more. Education should be a fundamental human right. Why shouldn’t it also be a joyful, well-designed experience?
- 🙌 Raise the bar for how we work. This includes teamwork, collaboration, inclusion, and all aspects of our culture. We must embody the change we want to see in the world — every single one of us. It’s a constant journey of introspection and iteration.
- 🌎 Do work that deeply matters. Our mission is to help anyone, anywhere find their own power to learn, grow, and make an impact on the future. To fulfill that mission, we’re committed to offering our educational resources for free, forever, for students and teachers.
Accomplishing all three of these at the same time is extremely ambitious. Plenty of mission-driven organizations can’t or don’t deeply invest in design. I’ve been in organizations that do amazing design work, but have a toxic work culture. I’ve witnessed teams that sacrifice quality in order to stay too “nice”, rather than cultivating healthy, constructive critique.
Achieving all three things at the same time won’t be easy — it isn’t easy! We are by no means perfect, but we know what we’re aiming for.
1. 🎨 Do great design work.
While of course we aim to execute highly-crafted design work, it isn’t just design for designers’ sake. We push hard on the reasoning behind our decisions and how we’re best helping students and teachers accomplish their goals. Our process of involving users and pedagogy matters to us as much as our pixels and craft.
When I joined Khan Academy in 2014, the design team of four people was still in its early stages. At that moment in history, our designers still had to be mostly reactive, fixing something up as best they could just before it shipped.
Fast forward to 2018: we’re now a team of thirteen people, including designers who have come to Khan Academy from places like Airbnb, Apple, Square, Vox Media, and 18F. We’ve shifted things so that designers are working alongside Product Managers to define the strategic vision for our company. In just this last year alone, we’ve won awards for our app, kick-started our new design system, and are launching a rebrand.
While we’ve still got plenty of room for improvement, we’ve already made massive strides in a short amount of time and had a ton of impact.
Check out our Khan Academy Annual Report for more information!
We aren’t afraid to use our own design instincts, but we also recognize deeply that we’re not teachers or students. We know that education is a big field with a long history full of amazing people who have dedicated their lives to it! Our classroom team works with teachers both inside and outside of Khan Academy, and we research and co-design with them using a wide variety of techniques.
These techniques necessitate that we be self-aware (we are not saviors) and collaborate thoughtfully and humbly with students and educators from all kinds of backgrounds.
2. 🙌 Raise the bar for how we work.
Systems and behaviors that shut certain voices out and result in a monoculture are no longer acceptable.
We can and have to design better ways to work; not only because otherwise we’ll miss out on important perspectives to help solve these big unsolved problems, but also because Khan Academy’s mission is literally to serve anyone, anywhere.
Here are just a few examples of our practices:
- We maintain a balance of remote and local team members. This means that we can have representation from communities outside the Bay Area. Because remote-friendliness is the default at Khan Academy, all our meetings have automatically-generated video conference links. We keep an eye out for when a remote teammate un-mutes their microphone, and make room for them to speak.
- We integrate different styles of communication. To make sure that all ideas are heard— not just the loudest ones — we embrace non-speech-based collaborative techniques. If a meeting starts turning to ideation or debate, especially with remote or introverted folks involved, we jump into a shared online workspace and spend 5–10 quiet minutes adding ideas or pros and cons so that everyone can contribute. The side effect is that when we’re done, everything is already enumerated and easy to refer back to!
- We all learn and teach. For us, growing in a design skill means both getting great at something and empowering teammates to get better, too. Everyone has something to learn and something to teach. There’s also no better way to really learn something than to teach it.
We’re constantly iterating on our practices. We value collaboration and a learning mindset in how we hire, what we incentivize, and how we assess our progress.
Raising the bar for how we work together is one of the most challenging and fascinating parts of my job. More than anything, it means I have to constantly look inward and see what I could be doing better to serve this team and our mission. It’s not easy, but I believe it is absolutely essential.
“This team is naturally more diverse than other teams I’ve been on that have had entire positions devoted to diversity.” — Vivek Venkatraman, Design Manager at Khan Academy
3. 🌎 Do work that deeply matters.
Many people join our team because they want to work on levelling the playing field in education. They want to help students, especially those who might have been left behind, to discover and grow their own potential. Instead of solving one smaller problem at a time or accelerating our rate of consumption, we empower more people to participate in creating solutions, inventing, and shaping our collective futures.
As of today, Khan Academy helps around fifteen million students and fifty thousand teachers every month.
Here are some of the things they‘ve told us:
“I am 12 years old. And I have no words to say. This changed my life forever.”
— Linda, middle school student, January 2018
“Khanacademy has changed my school life so much✌🏽. It changed it by helping me with Math ✍🏽. I was really behind then I started to use khanacademy and got ahead. Thank you so much!! 😜😜”
— Ana Raquel, student, December 2017
“I grew up in southern Afghanistan. When I was in fifth grade, I was forced to drop out of school after the Taliban threatened to douse my face with acid. From then on, I was largely confined to my family compound. But I decided I would not be confined to a life of ignorance.
I began by teaching myself English, and then tackled algebra and calculus with the help of Khan Academy. Eventually I discovered my dream of becoming a physicist — in a corner of the world where dreaming is forbidden. Every equation took me one step closer to understanding a universe full of wonder, temporarily liberating myself from a life of bigotry and difficulty.
Now with the help of friends in the US, I am studying at Arizona State University on a full scholarship. For a girl who wanted to run, to fly, even to fall, but never to stop — now I have my wings, and I’m flying to heights I never imagined possible.”
“I’m going to get sappy for a minute. Not many people/organizations really treat teachers with respect as professionals with valuable knowledge and experience. It is a huge problem with lawmakers and even school administrators who often seem to think they know better than we do. It is so refreshing that KA is showing that teachers have this knowledge and experience that is valuable. By being an ambassador this year, I have felt more respected as a professional than I have in a long time. Thank you!”
— Amy Forsythe, high school geometry teacher at Mason high school, Mason OH, May 2018
The fields of learning and education are full of big, unsolved problems. For me, this work has been both more challenging and more rewarding than shiny new technology things I’ve done in the past. Rather than asking “what is the fanciest new thing I could do with this technology?”, our designers wrestle with questions that feel far more meaningful and grounded in things that actually matter. Here are some examples:
- How might we give our teachers and students a motivating and self-reflective sense of progress throughout the learning journey?
- What words should we be using that encourage a growth mindset in students, and how do we best integrate those words into the experience?
- How can our illustrations give students a greater feeling of possibility?
- How can we be more inclusive in our design choices?
- How might we support students — and everyone, really — to get better at critical thinking and self-reflection?
What might it look like when we’ve designed interactions and experiences to empower people to learn to love learning?
As I said on Twitter after our last design summit: the design team at Khan Academy is so much more than I ever could have imagined. I couldn’t be more smitten by this talented and thoughtful group of wonderful humans. They inspire me to be a better leader and a better designer, but more importantly, they constantly inspire me to be a better person.
This is just a glimpse of who we are, what we do and how we do it. I hope that our work, our mission, and our way of working together as a team inspires designers everywhere to join us in painting a brighter future.
Khan Academy is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization — one of the few whose primary product is software. It’s an unusual set up, deliberately chosen to better align our incentives to serve teachers and students.
If you’re interested in being part of our journey, apply here. (And no, we haven’t updated that part of the site yet. But we will!)
The entire team contributed to this article — this is a representation of their work. Extra kudos to Tabitha Yong, Erica Deahl, Vivek Venkatraman and Elizabeth Lin for the feedback and suggestions on the writing itself.