Successful Edtech Products Aren’t About the Product

Five key elements to focus on instead.

GUEST COLUMN | by Conni Francini


As product developers our goal is to create market-successful products. We strive to win new customers, increase our user base, gain market share, and see high return on our investment. But successful edtech products aren’t about the product.

Truth be told, we often get excited about the “what” of a product. What it can do. What new technology it leverages. The quantity of content and assessments. The interface. The security features. The interoperability. The reporting capabilities. We geek out over the details. As a product developer, I’ve been there!

‘We geek out over the details. As a product developer, I’ve been there!’

A hyperfocus on the “what” during product development can lead us down the wrong path:

  • poor product-market fit
  • overinvestment
  • product complexity
  • low-impact product positioning
  • ineffective marketing
  • slow sales

And, yes, I’ve been there, too.

In my experience as a senior product executive and consultant, the “what” is the least important element of successful product development. Instead, the keys to developing a successful product can be summarized with a simple learning strategy: 5Ws+H. Beyond the “what,” we can focus on:

  • why—Why is this product needed?
  • who—Who are the stakeholders?
  • how—How can our product solve the problem and create better outcomes?
  • when—When will this product be used?
  • where—Where will this product be used?

Why is this product needed?

This essential question should lead product development—even before MVP work. Successful product development begins with the problem in mind. And, the key is to identify the problem from the point of view of our stakeholders–not diagnose what we think is needed.

Who are the stakeholders?

Once we’ve honed in on a key problem, we can identify all of the stakeholders: decision makers, influencers, and users. Then we can look at the problem (the “why” our product may be needed) from each of their perspectives.

Here’s an example problem: low reading scores. This problem may be perceived and experienced differently by different stakeholders. Administrators may feel under pressure to make gains while also dealing with exhausted teachers and distracted students. Teachers may feel overwhelmed by the reading gaps in their classrooms and ill prepared to tackle the instructional challenge. Students reading below grade level may have lost their confidence and see reading intervention materials as boring or babyish. Any new product developed to solve the low reading score problem must address the problem through each perspective.

How can our product solve the problem and create better outcomes?

This one can be tricky. Sometimes we end up focused once again on the “what” of our products. Here the key is to get clear on the outcomes we want to create for our stakeholders and users.

In the low reading scores example, we can think of the transformation we want to make for each stakeholder group. Administrators can see increased test scores while also increasing engagement and confidence of teachers and students. Teachers can report improved scores for their students and rep

When will this product be used?

To create a compelling, right-fit solution, product development leaders can get crystal clear about when a product will be used. For best results, get as specific. For example, it isn’t enough to say “at any time during the instructional day or period.” It also isn’t enough to say “during the ELA block” (unless you’re creating a core ELA program). Going further, if a product is meant to be used during the ELA block, be clear about the elements of the ELA block it supports and for how much time it is intended to be used.

I learned this lesson the hard way. Years ago, my team developed a wonderful literacy product. While it was well received in presentations, sales were lukewarm. The issue? The product didn’t fit in a specific time within the ELA block. It felt superfluous to decision makers. They couldn’t justify the expense when instructional time was precious and accountability for results was high. 

Where will this product be used?

Once we’ve identified the “when” of the product, we can look at the “where.” Again, it pays to be specific. The examples “in the classroom” or “in the library” are too general. Identify what physical and digital resources are available. Know any logistical challenges of the location.

The answers to these questions serve as a north star during product development. They guide choices and decisions as we create new products. And, they can help us achieve our ultimate goal: to solve a big problem in education. And, to celebrate a successful product.

Conni Francini is the CEO of Clarity Consulting, a strategic growth partner to education companies that want to make a mark in the industry. They help clients grow faster, create more successful products, and improve performance and profit. Connect with Connie through LinkedIn.


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