When You Let Customers Tell You What They Need, Everyone Wins


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By Erin Joyner, SVP, Course Solutions Product, Cengage


My colleague Kevin Carlsten, who leads the Cengage team that works directly with college administrators, wrote recently about the frustration and compassion fatigue felt by faculty in the wake of the pandemic. He explained that going forward, authentic listening must be at the core of any organization supporting higher education. It’s true: without taking the time to understand the perspectives and workload of educators, the words of anyone mean little. On the flip side, listening authentically to instructor needs can help everyone in the higher education ecosystem better support faculty so they can continue to support students. That support could mean anything from leadership providing faculty with the support they need to companies like ours that create products that make life easier for faculty.

What is human-centered design and why does it matter to us?

According to IDEO, a global design firm, human-centered design is a set of design principles that revolve not around the expertise of the maker, but on the real needs of the end-user. Designing from the user’s perspective, the logic goes, will allow designers to arrive at unexpected answers while coming up with ideas that will be readily embraced by the market they serve. The process consists of three phases: inspiration, ideation and implementation, all aligned in the grounding theory that if design is centered on actual human needs, the solution will emerge relatively organically.

At Cengage, we have been using human-centered design (also known as “design thinking”) for many years. What is special about this approach is that it focuses on listening to customers to understand their needs, and including customers at every step of the process of building a product. This ensures that we, as product designers, can continually cross-check ourselves to make sure that we are building not just an “ok” thing, but the right thing.

The core of a human-centered design approach is empathy, and the approach is inherently collaborative and multi-disciplinary,” says Asha Srikantiah, Professor of Human Centered Design and Senior Director of The Hive at The Claremont Colleges. “Given all the shocks we’ve just had to our education system, we need to recalibrate our understanding of how we even define a ‘classroom,’ and what teachers and students need to feel engaged, optimistic and successful. Human-centered design can help with this reframe, and the innovation born out of it.”

What did a human-centered design approach teach us?

It was out of listening to customers that we came up with the idea for Cengage Infuse; a first-of-its-kind product that also launched a whole new product category called embedded course kits. Unlike online learning platforms, which live outside the Learning Management System (LMS) and may “integrate” to varying degrees, an embedded course kit places the textbook and dynamic activities embedded directly into an instructor’s LMS. Through our work with educators, we learned that nearly one in three instructors don’t have enough hours in the day to spend any amount of productive time in more than one technology interface. Yet, they’re often asked to balance the need to become versed in using their LMS with the need to get familiar with a separate online learning platform. We heard from some instructors that COVID put a lot of new stressors on them and removed even more time from their work week. A newfound—and more widespread—reliance on the LMS at many institutions also meant that being asked to use any other system felt like too big of a burden.

While faculty have been asked to spend more of their day learning, using and relying on technology, they have also been balancing the need to fulfill their essential mission of helping students learn and retain subject matter, with the demands of life. If it’s true of instructors like Jane, an adjunct criminal justice professor who teaches 300 students across five courses at two different local institutions, it’s certainly true of her students, who have little bandwidth to learn new technology in addition to retaining their course material. What these instructors told us they wanted more than anything else was simplicity. So, we designed Cengage Infuse to be completely embedded in the learning management system (LMS). And hence the category embedded course kits—products that live in the LMS with no additional technology integration needed—was born.

Educators and students today have families, jobs and life responsibilities, and EdTech companies should simplify their work and lives rather than posing yet another hurdle. While the pressures of living in the wake of a pandemic may be more acute, the reality is students and educators have always had a lot on their plates. When we take the time to ask them what their balancing act really involves—what their day-to-day looks and feels like—we can more finely craft products that are in touch with reality and more empathetic to their circumstances.

How we did it

Continuing with the human-centered design approach, we involved customers in every part of the design process. So, we launched a Development Partners Program that enlisted faculty to help us with our iterative design. We mapped their workflows, and we asked for their insights to inform our rounds of product design sprints. We showed them simple prototypes of what this product could be, to see if it met their needs.

Finally, we expanded this group into a formal Advisory Board to get granular about specific product needs and to ensure we had their feedback on continual iterations of the product until we felt it was ready to build at scale. With input from 600 educators across 500 institutions and 20 disciplines, we feel confident that we built something valuable.

Is human-centered design good business?

With institutions facing declining enrollments, EdTech budgets are tighter. By the end of 2020 alone, nearly two-thirds of institutional IT leaders said their overall budget had decreased during the year by a median of 10%. And teams are smaller. Just a year into the pandemic, nearly 13% of the higher education workforce had lost their jobs. So, given that educators are doing more with less, and under tremendous pressure, is now a good time for institutions to make new investments in EdTech? The answer is “No, unless….

In 2022, institutional EdTech spend doesn’t just have to meet a mission-critical need to be approved. It must be proven to work and bring much-needed simplicity and efficiency to the workload of all users. The only realistic way for EdTech providers to achieve that level of product utility is by becoming deeply acquainted with the challenges, frustrations and expectations of the people they serve. This approach is working for us, and we are excited to see where it takes us in the future.


Want to know more about how Cengage Infuse is simplifying work for educators?


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