ARTICLE: Lauren DeMarks

To innovate in EdTech, balance long-term initiatives with short-term wins

Every EdTech product leader wants to innovate in their space and make room for bold UX solutions that meet users’ unarticulated needs. But innovative solutions take time and resources to develop. The benefits are delayed — and they don’t always come with a guarantee of success. At the same time, your team likely feels pressure to stay on track with fast-moving development cycles and the perennial demand for measurable improvements.

The result?

Long-term design concepts are first on the chopping block as “quick wins” and inevitable fires jump to the front of the line every time. 

Make no mistake: Those short-term projects are a valuable part of any product roadmap. They allow your team to rapidly respond to user complaints and net quick wins. Ultimately, though, their impact is limited. They add up to slow and steady improvements, not leading-edge leaps.

But if you never make time for innovation, you can’t possibly hope to keep pace with EdTech’s increasingly crowded and competitive field. 

So how can you strike the right balance between fast fixes and big-picture initiatives? The answer lies in developing a dual approach — one that allows your team to execute necessary short-term solutions while intentionally building a scaffold to support long-term goals.

Why Your EdTech Team Needs to Balance Long-Term Solutions with Short-Term Wins

From incremental improvements to pressing usability problems, most EdTech product teams have enough short-term projects to keep them perpetually occupied. Unfortunately, though, teams can quickly lose sight of the forest for the trees as they work to knock out one small problem after the next. Over time, this short-sighted approach adds up to bigger problems. 

These include: 

  • Internal morale issues. If your design team is primarily focused on short-term problems, they may start to feel bored or burnt out by the constant grind. Many of them may be itching to work on larger solutions that allow them time to get more creative and flex their design thinking skills. Making space for larger, more innovative initiatives gives your team something meatier to chew on — and keep their interest engaged and skills sharp. 
  • Mounting design debt. EdTech product teams that focus on one small issue after the other risk losing the “connective tissue” that a larger vision brings. Unless you’re vigilant about identifying and promoting a unified goal, you may find your team throwing features and flows together in an ad hoc fashion. Before too long, your users will find themselves muddling through a disjointed user experience riddled with design debt. Design debt is dangerous in more ways than one. If you let it mount up, you may even find that it stands in the way of your ability to take on bigger initiatives because of underlying technical issues that need to be fixed first. (Ready to begin paying down design debt? Start with an actionable UX audit.) 
  • Failure to keep up with the competition. The EdTech industry has long lagged in innovation compared with digital products in other categories. There are a number of reasons why this has historically been the case, from longer product release cycles to the need to “play nicely” with learning management systems (LMS). Today, most EdTech industry leaders recognize innovation as a must. Yet even the most forward-thinking teams often struggle to give innovation its due. Why? For the simple reason that they are stuck in the trenches of short-term problem-solving.    

How to Build a Product Roadmap That Uses Short-Term Wins to Support Long-Term Innovation 

Both short and long-term UX design initiatives have a role in your product roadmap. In fact, the two should really go hand-in-hand, with short-term wins paving the way for long-term innovation. Here’s how to make that happen. 

Align on a long-term vision — and the problems you are trying to solve

Before you commit to a large, innovation-fueled UX design project, pause to make sure your entire team is aligned on both your long-term business vision and the user problems you are currently working to solve. Your product, development, UX, and learning science teams should all be in the loop — and in agreement. 

When everyone knows what they are trying to achieve, discussions about how best to tackle problems — large and small — can be much more productive. That’s because you commit as a group to prioritizing against a shared standard. 

In particular, make sure everyone keeps key user jobs and stories in mind as they zero in on short-term solutions. Doing so makes it much more likely your short-term work will complement and even support your longer-term vision. 

Use discovery resources efficiently to inform long-term design initiatives

All UX projects begin with a discovery phase. But not all discovery processes are created equal. What works for a clearly defined UX initiative of limited scope (like adding a new setting to your course-building interface) won’t be sufficient for a bigger-picture problem whose solution is not yet known (like reimagining your onboarding process from the ground up). 

Strive to create a process that allows your team to right-size discovery and solutioning efforts on a case-by-case basis. 

Innovation projects may demand more discovery resources than you are currently giving them. On the flip side, you may find you can actually reduce the amount of time you spend on smaller problems whose solutions are obvious.

There’s no need to revalidate those small, well-defined problems you already know exist. For example, if you already know instructors are having a hard time logging into your system thanks to your CX team’s intel, your process shouldn’t include re-validating that problem. Instead, jump right into solutioning and save the discovery time for less obvious issues. 

Break larger initiatives into bite-sized chunks  

On the face of it, your budget and product development cycles may seem to conspire against large, long-term UX initiatives. But that’s only true if you don’t think creatively about how to break the larger project into smaller phases — including short-term wins that drive immediate value. With proper planning, you can lay out a product roadmap that consists of smaller projects that actually do add up to more than the sum of their parts. 

In addition, as smaller problems arise, pause to consider whether they relate to your longer-term goals. If so, can you approach them in a way that lays the groundwork for your bigger initiative?

Pursue short-term and long-term solutions simultaneously 

Sometimes it makes sense to take a dual approach to your discovery process by considering short-term and long-term design solutions to the same problem at the same time. 

Doing so allows you to compare approaches and gauge which one makes the most impact. Not all problems require large, sweeping solutions. Sometimes simply adjusting the microcopy on a single form or button can make all the difference. Other times, only innovative solutions will do. In some cases, it will be obvious which kind of solution is in order. Other times, you’ll need to explore multiple options before honing in on the best path forward. 

Innovation isn’t a given — especially not when your EdTech product team is caught in a cycle of short-term projects. But with intention and careful planning, you can use your team’s fast-paced development cycle to your advantage — and use quick wins to build toward bigger, bolder solutions.

  • Photo of Lauren DeMarks
    Lauren DeMarks

    As a UX designer at Openfield, Lauren combines her love of helping and connecting with others with her passion for design. She holds a BFA from Miami University in Graphic Design, as well as minors in Art Entrepreneurship and Interactive Media Studies. Outside of the office, she is very serious about ultimate frisbee. Having played on both the men’s and women’s teams in college, she continues to help her alma mater introduce young women to the sport she loves so much. Lauren has a thirst for travel, having lived and studied abroad in Luxembourg and state-side in San Francisco, and is committed to supporting products and services that contribute directly to environmental and sustainability issues.

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