In the following interview highlights, David Verba, Director of Technology at Adaptive Path, had the pleasure of talking with Karon Weber and Bill Scott of Yahoo! about their recent project, Yahoo! Teachers.
David Verba [DV]: Welcome and thank you. I am here with Karon Weber and Bill Scott of Yahoo! to learn about their work on the upcoming release of Yahoo! Teachers. Would you mind giving us a little background on yourselves?
Karon Weber [KW]: I’m currently principal designer at Yahoo!, and have been working for the last couple of years on social media applications. Prior to that, I spent about six years at Pixar Animation Studios, heading up the design of studio tools for the custom tools that they use at Pixar. Before that, I worked at a PBS affiliate, and spent time actually at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, in the mid-eighties, working on video in the workplace and applications of video in the workplace.
So basically, I’m a technology storyteller who’s found different media to tell how people work with technology.
DV: Fantastic. Bill, can tell us a little bit about your background, too.
Bill Scott [BS]: Most recently, I’ve been the AJAX Evangelist here at Yahoo!. Now, I’m heading up engineering for Yahoo! Teachers and still fulfilling some evangelism roles. Before I came to Yahoo!, I created the Rico open source AJAX framework that was one of the early AJAX frameworks: Just kind of a voice for design in engineering, the blend of those two. That’s been my focus throughout my career, is bouncing back and forth.
I got my start writing a best-selling computer game for the Macintosh back in ‘84 or ‘85 called GATO, a submarine simulation. And that got me interested in doing graphics, and followed on doing war gaming and building 3D graphic stuff, and IDEs, and a number of tools that sort of blended technology and design together.
DV: And then just really quick, and we’ll dive into some more details later, but what is the project that you guys are going to be talking about at UX Week 2007?
KW: We’ve been working on a project called Yahoo! Teachers. It’s a new service that’s going to be launched later this fall which enables teachers to go out onto the web, gather materials to use to supplement their curriculum, add their state standards, so that they can actually incorporate the requirements of the pedagogy that’s put into their classrooms, and then create projects to then share with their kids. So it’s a way for teachers to go out onto the web—collecting materials, gathering those materials, collaborating with each other, and sharing with each other. Basically, it is social media for teachers.
DV: And I gather there are multiple parts to this? There’s the part that allows the acquisition of materials, the Gobbler portion of things, and then the part that allows the sharing of those items? Is that correct?
BS: Yes, that’s correct. I had mentioned that on my blog before, too. The Gobbler allows you to easily gather material. And then we share things implicitly through the network, and we make it easy to find that material, obviously, within the network with ways to publish that back out to the web and to each other.
DV: I also gathered through my reading that you’ve brought a lot of teachers in for actual development. How challenging was it to bring in such a large group of people that weren’t familiar with building the tools and communicate what you could provide to for them? Also, how did you learned from them what they were interested in doing?
KW: Well, I think that both Bill and I believe deeply in participatory design, and we come out of a world where you have a troika between end users, designers, and engineering. This was actually a perfect use case from that standpoint, where we had the prowess of Yahoo! engineering, Yahoo! designers, and then this community of teachers who knew what they wanted. So this notion that we could build things by teachers, for teachers, was really how we approached the project.
We were also very lucky in the sense that it was summer, and teachers have some time off when they’re actually not teaching to come and spend with us. We traded our technical know-how on how you use things like Flickr, del.icio.us and Yahoo! Answers in the classroom, and in return, they traded us their work practices, best practices and what teachers need in order to have technology suit their ways of working.
So it really was this amazing partnership that came together, and with the help of some amazing Yahoo!s, we were able to give them a prototype. And during the day, they would work on the prototype, provide us with bugs, and at night, the engineering machine would crank away as many of those bugs as possible, and give them a new build the next day. As I said, it was an ideal case of participatory design.
DV: So just to put some idea of scope to this, how many teachers did you have in, and for how long were they intimately involved with the process?
KW: We had 65 teachers on site for seven-days, and then post that seven days, they were available and using the tool throughout the course of the next several months. It was an intensive seven-day workshop.
DV: It also sounds to me too like having a working prototype in this process is really critical to having the participatory design work, period.
BS: Yeah, because otherwise, they can’t visualize it. And I think what was a really fun thing; that we’re helping on the engineering side of what went in on Monday morning. Karon unleashed the Gobbler, for example, and the immediate response in the room among all the teachers was this big gasp. And they were saying, you can do that on the web? And that really got us jazzed about trying to impress them the rest of the week.
The teachers would say, well, this really sucks, or this is not really good here. And then we would fix those things overnight, and they would see the change the next day. And that responsiveness really gave them the courage to ask for more.
DV: So I assume there were some challenges specific to the problems of education. But was there anything you learned out of this process that you think translates to the next project? What was the most surprising lesson you learned out of this?
KW: I think that would be the power of starting with software that’s currently available. I like to call it green engineering—being able to understand what you have component-wise to reuse, remix, and hack. That gave us such a leg up in terms of how quickly we could move, and how we could modify rather than having to invent from scratch. I think also the hack culture is very active at Yahoo!, which made a huge difference in our relationship with the Yahoo! Developer Network. Our ability to get people to volunteer to use their hack time for us was huge. It made it a whole community coming together to work on this project, rather than it just being one division, one little group, or one sort of outpost in the company.
I think that in itself is really quite a unique experience. I would love to figure out how to formalize that in some way: You can get a community involved in what you’re doing, despite the fact that you are in a large corporation.
DV: Just one final question, then we can wrap this up. Were there any special challenges in communicating the web application’s development to teachers? Was there any particular challenges or techniques you learned about presenting the issues and background information to them?
KW: I think that teachers have an incredibly difficult job, and I don’t think that most people actually understand what it is that teachers do. So they have very fantastical views of what it is like in school, either positive or negative. And they don’t actually understand the operational challenges that teachers have. That was the thing that I think we learned the most about.
A good example is standards. Right now, teachers, based on No Child Left Behind, are required to incorporate certain standards into their teaching. And what we learned is that standards are the most un-standard thing that you’ve ever seen. There are just standards for every state, and they don’t use the same nomenclature, and they don’t necessarily teach the same thing in every grade.
So, how do you take something that it is so specific to, say, a teacher in Georgia, and help make it universal for a teacher that’s in Connecticut or upstate Washington? I think what you end up doing is focusing on the notion of what I’d call global interaction patterns, and global ways of looking at something. And that drives you to be more generic, in order to deal with the specificities of each person’s requirements. That, I think was really quite an interesting challenge and also how we dealt with that.
BS: That makes sense. We had a few anecdotal things. Karon and I were in the airport flying to Atlanta last week, and this teacher who had been at the original workshop, she looked up and recognized Karon. And Karon came over and talked to her, she still looks back to that week as being one of the most exciting things she ever participated in. And that’s the kind of response we’ve gotten.
KW: We had met a teacher from Alabama at NECC, which was in Georgia last week. And she was so inspired; she drove from Alabama to Chicago to come to our workshop, because she wanted to have access, early access, to the technology. And that talks a lot about the hunger of being able to acquire these 21st century skills that we’re trying to afford this community. And when you get up in the morning, and you’re really tired, you’re really driven and motivated by the fact that you are making a big difference. You are changing how people can interact with technology on a day-to-day basis, because you’re giving them tools designed for them. You’re giving them tools that understand their profession, work practices, and tasks.
DV: Thank you for your time.