Stress-Tested Like Never Before

In an historic moment, user research is key to peering into edtech’s future.

GUEST COLUMN | by Adam Sonnett

As an edtech product leader, you know that any product’s success hinges on its ability to meet its users’ needs. That’s why you so strategically leveraged user research in building your product in the first place. But of all the many use cases you anticipated, a sudden, pandemic-fueled shift to remote learning probably wasn’t one of them.

It’s safe to say that educational institutions everywhere — along with students, teachers, and parents — are reeling from the abrupt changes brought on by COVID-19. As schools scramble to adapt, they are leaning ever more heavily on edtech products, many of which were never designed with remote learning in mind. At the same time, they are also adopting a range of other technologies (hello Zoom!) to fill in the gaps.

‘As schools scramble to adapt, they are leaning ever more heavily on edtech products, many of which were never designed with remote learning in mind.’

If yours is like many edtech companies, the pandemic may have brought with it a sudden influx of new users. Which means that your product is being stress-tested like never before. It’s a situation that has almost certainly exposed new gaps and challenges. But as stressful as it may be, you are face to face with a tremendous opportunity.

Students, teachers, parents and administrators are clamoring for new solutions to meet their rapidly unfolding needs. The edtech companies that find a way to deliver them first will emerge victorious. If you want to step into the lead, you must start by supercharging your user research efforts.

The Pandemic Will Continue to Alter the Educational Landscape. The Question is, How?

Few industries have been as heavily impacted by COVID-19 as education.

Every industry is marked by those rare moments in history when marketplace upheaval forces fundamental shifts in the way things work moving forward. Many experts are now predicting that the coronavirus pandemic represents just such a moment for education. No one knows for certain what the long-term impacts will be. But it’s fair to say that we can expect seismic shifts in the ways K-12 through higher education approach learning. Indeed, many expect a blended approach of in-person and remote learning to be the future.

Of course, even the most educated guesses are really still just speculation. The only thing we know for certain is that education models are currently in flux. Students, teachers, and administrators no longer wake up, take a shower, and head to the classroom, cafeteria, computer lab, and practice fields. Everything is different. Yet educators must still work to deliver the same results they do in a “normal” year. So what does this mean about how your products are integrated into your users’ lives?

In a rapidly changing situation with so little clarity on what’s to come, you may be struggling to chart a clear path forward for your product. What do your users now need from your product that it isn’t prepared to deliver? Where should you focus your efforts first? And will you be able to adapt quickly enough? The answer to these critical questions can be found in user research.

Now is the Time to Double Down on User Research

You may be balancing opposing imperatives: the pressure to reduce your budget and adapt your product to meet a host of unknown new demands. But by keying into what your users are experiencing in this tumultuous time , you can anticipate their evolving needs — and design solutions that make your product indispensable in the process.

User research is a critical piece of the product development process under normal circumstances. But in the uncharted territory that 2020 is offering up in spades, it should be a non-negotiable. It’s the only surefire way to fill the educational gaps laid bare by the pandemic — and retain all those users you so unexpectedly gained.

Remember: Whatever you thought you knew about your users prior to the pandemic is no longer a sure bet. Everything is up in the air. All the research you relied on to build your product to date needs to be reevaluated. Your first order of business, then, is to revalidate your product’s:

  •  User base. Who is using your product, and what do they want or need from it? 

  •  Use cases. How is your product being used? In what environmental contexts? 
On what devices? 

  •  Underlying user needs. What are your users’ most pressing problems, and how 
can your product solve them? 


Time is of the essence. As the situation continues to unfold, commit to communicating with your users on a more steady cadence. What they are feeling and experiencing today may be totally different in two months. By remaining in close contact with your users and taking a flexible approach to your product roadmap, you can respond with agility regardless of what happens.

The Benefits of Investing in Additional User Research

Reacquainting yourself with your users now and in the future will yield long-term benefits. By focusing on user research, you can:

  •  Shape your product to match your users’ real-world use cases and evolving needs in their new reality 

  •  Identify and fix trouble spots that have emerged now that students, teachers, and administrators are using your product differently 

  •  Uncover new use cases and identify how to create a seamless user experience in those contexts 

  •  Keep your finger on the pulse of your users’ needs in a rapidly changing situation 

  •  Defend and strengthen your position as a market leader 


You’ve committed your professional life to edtech because you are passionate about the power of education. Today, you have the opportunity to uphold the integrity of this key pillar of modern society in an extraordinary time. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime privilege — one that begins with listening closely to the students, teachers, and administrators you serve. 

Adam Sonnett is President at Openfield, an edtech-focused UX research and design company based in Cincinnati, OH. He helps product leaders plan to integrate the right blend of research and design that enables them to deliver award-winning educational experiences to millions of students, teachers, parents and administrators in K-12 and higher education environments worldwide. 


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