Your Teachers Are All Around You: How human-centered research can transform your services
This guest post was contributed by our friends at Greater Good Studio. Greater Good Studio is a design firm focused on creating tools and solutions for social change.
Limited staff, budget and time make it difficult to keep a nonprofit innovative. Trying to improve your programs may seem impossible without the ability to step back. How can you gain the necessary perspective? Where do you even begin?
Start with the people you’re serving.
It may be moms, youth, artists, entry level workers… in our case it was teachers. At Greater Good Studio, we had the opportunity to work with Reading in Motion, a nonprofit dedicated to improving literacy in the early grades. Reading In Motion is a program with immediate impact; through its curriculum, students learn to read at grade level. It was our goal to help the organization transition to a model with lasting impact, where every teacher achieves positive results, year after year.
Rather than making assumptions about the current system or focusing on the leadership team, who initiated the request, we went straight to the source: teachers. We engaged exemplary teachers who shared Reading in Motion’s passion for early literacy. Our team spent whole days in the classroom, observing teachers and talking with them about their work. What tools did they depend on year after year? What program components were being lost in year two? How did the program fit into teachers’ overall school day? What supports did they need?
We purposefully didn’t send out surveys or conduct focus groups. While these methods can be helpful for validating a known need, we were looking for unmet and unarticulated needs. When initiating your research, be ready to explore! Ask open ended questions and encourage participants to share their experiences.
During our observations, teachers shared their time intensive paper based process, inspiring features for a digital platform.
Advocate on their behalf.
During our first round of research, we filled our workspace with photos of the teachers, their environments and the tools they used so we could constantly be reminded of their stories and their needs. We shared video footage with the Reading In Motion leadership team that was recorded on simple hand-held cameras. Video helped the team more deeply empathize with participants, by hearing directly from teachers how the current program was working.
After just a handful of observations, patterns began to emerge. You don’t have to invest large amounts of money in statistically significant data. The goal is to collect the information you need to be an informed, inspired and thoughtful advocate.
As we moved from research into brainstorming, we continuously put ourselves in the shoes of the teachers. How would this idea work for them? What need was it addressing? How could we make it more relevant to their work in the classroom? Our goal was to represent their voice when they weren’t present – and then to get their input when we had something to share.
Get feedback throughout the design process.
To improve the teachers’ experience with Reading in Motion, we needed their help throughout our process of developing ideas. Creating rough paper prototypes — mock-ups of of different tools the new system could include — we communicated our initial ideas. Without laboring over fancy new designs, we were quickly able to represent new opportunities and elicit teachers’ opinions on them. The low fidelity of the prototypes made them seem approachable and ready to be changed, as opposed to more refined designs that may have felt too finished.
With multiple rounds of feedback from the teachers in one-on-one sessions, we learned which tools to cut, which ones to keep and how they could be improved. When teachers were equally enthusiastic about all the ideas, we asked them to choose their favorites. Reading In Motion didn’t have the resources to implement everything in year one, so gauging user priorities was key. Integrating the people you serve into the creative process will help you create more relevant, meaningful solutions that they will be excited to adopt.
A few weeks ago, Reading In Motion’s digital platform went live! The system includes tools for teachers to plan their classrooms, access the curriculum, and engage in a community of support. About 90 pilot teachers have started using it this semester, with plans to expand next year. By engaging teachers throughout the learning and creating process, the end result is a system that responds to their needs and will support them in running the program for years to come.