In the spring of 2020, more than a billion children were out of school worldwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many families, who were already adjusting to working remotely, scrambled to adapt to having their children at home as well. Parents had to learn to become teachers and technology experts, while also coping with a new work situation and local restrictions that changed their daily lives dramatically from what they’d known in the past.
The impact on kids of not being in school was broad and varied. In some areas, virtual learning was simply not an option because of limited finances or access to technology and the Internet. For families in such circumstances, the educational setbacks were devastating. For other families, with parents who were accustomed to working from home, who have flexible schedules, and who have access to devices and the Internet, the situation was frustrating, but manageable. I’m lucky to be part of that group of families for whom the spring school shutdown didn’t have severe impacts.
My husband and I have always worked from home—so our girls, who were four and eight in the spring, are accustomed to our being on conference calls or their needing to leave us alone when we need to focus. It was difficult for my younger daughter to participate in preschool virtual meetings, so we usually just let her play or watch TV, then sporadically engaged in educational activities when either my husband or I could manage it. My older daughter, who is in second grade, required a lot more help in navigating remote learning. She didn’t have much live instruction, so my husband and I had to manage her time and assignments. We made daily schedules, set timers, checked spelling, and reviewed math. As for others in our community, we got through the spring and were eager for summer. Summer meant more opportunities to see people outside our home, backyard water fun, and not having to manage school assignments on top of all our usual work. But it also meant planning for the fall-2020 school year, with myself and neighboring families eagerly waiting to see whether schools could reopen normally.
As planning for the reopening process unfolded between June and September, the service designer in me was fascinated by how our kids’ school district made decisions to ensure the safest school reopening and how they communicated these plans to the community. During a normal year, education is a complicated service because of its diverse stakeholders, financial investment, enrollment, and curriculum. But education during a pandemic is truly the definition of a wicked problem.
In this column, I’ll explore how my local school district handled the reopening process, which provides an example of great service design in action. In particular, the district understood all of the considerations that would need to go into their decision-making—from parent, student, and teacher preferences to state and local policies. Essentially, they were aware of the scope of the problem they needed to address. Moreover, their solution modeled best practices of effective service design: transparent communications to families, community feedback and satisfaction, alignment of a broad group of stakeholders, and an emphasis on measurement.
Defining the Scope of the Problem
It’s important to dig deeper into the complexity of my local school-reopening situation, which is likely similar to that of thousands of other educational districts. First, as I mentioned earlier, you have diverse stakeholders with diverse needs. Most obvious are the needs of the working parents who might not have the flexibility that my family has. Some parents might be essential workers, while others still need to go into an office for their job. All have come to rely on school as childcare. Some families don’t have the devices necessary for their kids to attend school virtually. Children could have different educational needs, ranging from their having fallen behind academically because of the spring school closings to students who have special needs and require rigorous intervention. Teachers might also have different situations at home—for example, they might have younger kids whose schools are not open, thereby creating their own childcare issues. Plus, these teachers have varied comfort levels and experience using educational technology and devices.
Across all these stakeholders, people have varied health situations and risk-tolerance levels. I know of parents who are immunocompromised and never went to the grocery store during the spring, as well as others who held regular indoor gatherings and opposed the wearing of masks. Plus, there are state and local guidelines mandating health policies, with which the schools must comply. Finally, there are transportation considerations. In my district, the elementary, middle, and high schools all use the same bus company. Therefore, they had to orchestrate pick-up and drop-off times across more than one thousand kids.
All of this illustrates just how wicked the school-reopening problem was. Our district leadership understood this complexity from the beginning. This enabled decision makers to create a reopening plan that was strategic, cohesive, and comprehensive—and it ensured that the implementation of that plan in September went smoothly.
Transparently Communicating to the Public
We know how important communications are in effective service design. The school district did an exemplary job with timing and the channels and content of its communications. Early on, they established the cadence of a weekly update every Thursday, which provided the status of the virtual-learning model in the spring and the reopening plan and progress over the summer and into the fall. If the cadence of these updates had to change, they notified families—for example, when there was a lull in activity, they went to biweekly updates. They sent these weekly updates via email, in the form of a PDF that people could read or print. The superintendent also provided a video version of the content that provided more explanation and commentary. Moreover, they posted a frequently updated FAQ on the district Web site, which addressed the community’s common questions and concerns.
Plus, every two weeks, the Board of Education met virtually and allowed the public to attend, giving families the opportunity to contribute to and witness decision-making by the Board. Lastly, for urgent updates the district robo-called the parents who had subscribed to these calls—for example, when registration deadlines were approaching or for updates on COVID-19 cases.
Across all of these varied communications, their messaging was clear and easy to understand—even when topics were controversial. For example, parents were eager to see the final plan for the fall school reopening. Many were frustrated that a full-time, in-school model was not possible. Parents needed to choose between a hybrid model—a mix of remote and in-person schooling—or a full-time remote model, so it was critical that they understood what those options were. The district presented a combination of slides and a training video to communicate how these two schooling options would look. After sharing the plan, they solicited questions from parents about these models and held two information sessions to answer them. Figure 1 illustrates one example slide they used in communicating these models. This thoughtful approach—sharing the details about the reopening options, allowing parents to submit questions, and offering virtual sessions to get answers—prepared parents well to make the best decision for their children regarding which option they should choose.
Enabling Community Feedback
As service designers, we understand the importance of soliciting feedback regarding the satisfaction not only of customers but also of employees and any relevant users key to a service’s operations. It is easy to think of examples of this in private industry: Whether you’re ordering food for delivery or dropping your car off for service, at some point, you’ll be asked whether the experience met your needs. However, the concept of conducting surveys to gain audience insights and get continuous feedback isn’t typical in education. It should be. Education relies on a symbiotic relationship among students, parents, teachers, and the administration. Understanding the needs of these different constituents and soliciting their feedback regarding the education experience is just as critical for public services as for corporate, for-profit services. My local school district accomplished this through a mix of surveys and public comments during Board meetings.
Throughout the six months during which we were coping with virtual learning, then planning for school reopening, the school district sent invitations to participate in online surveys to parents almost monthly, with some of the following objectives:
assessing the success of the virtual-learning structure in the spring
determining preferences for a reopening schedule—alternating weeks or split weeks
assessing comfort levels with health protocols and policies
determining whether parents had the flexibility to drive their children to school versus busing them
understanding whether families had devices children could use for virtual learning
Importantly, the district surveyed not only parents but teachers and staff as well. Again, a service such as education is successful only if it works for all of the people who are involved. Therefore, understanding the needs and preferences of the professionals they were asking to come to school or to work from home was as important as understanding the needs of families. Any reopening plan had to work equally well for both sets of people. Figure 2 shows an example question from a survey that the district used.
The other way in which the district gathered feedback was through public commentary at the virtual Board meetings that they held every two weeks. They set time aside for residents to bring up topics of concern or provide feedback on earlier Board discussion and decisions. It was during these open forums that they really made the frustrations and emotions of virtual learning for families tangible. Parents brought up the struggles of working from home and managing their children’s learning, concerns over the lack of socialization and excessive screen time, and mental health and frustration for children with special needs. At one meeting that over 250 people attended and which went to almost 2am, dozens of vocal parents insisted on reopening in-person learning as much as possible. This meeting led to the Superintendent and Board agreeing to revisit the school-reopening model, allowing more hours in school for those families who chose the hybrid model. The combination of quantitative insights from surveys and qualitative insights from Board meetings helped ensure that the district gained a holistic understanding of the community feedback on virtual learning and the school-reopening plan.
Creating Stakeholder Alignment and Governance
Service designers understand that, for a service to be successful, it’s necessary to recognize all of the stakeholders who are involved and ensure effective governance across them. For our district’s reopening plan, the stakeholders weren’t solely students, teachers, parents, and staff. Because COVID-19 is a public-health problem, the stakeholders are broader than those who are immediately affiliated with the schools. For example, our district needs to work with county-health officials to understand how the COVID-19 cases are tracking overall. Current guidelines indicate that, once our county reaches a very high-risk level, schooling must be remote full time. Our district also needs to work with local, town-health officials, as they identify cases affecting the school and ensure that contact tracing occurs. Similarly, as for other community organizations such as sports venues or churches, whenever schools identify new cases, they must notify the local health officials. These procedures and communications create a governance model for health officials and the school district that enables schools to target the identification of families who need to quarantine, thereby allowing more students to remain in school.
Measuring the Experience
The final best practice that the local school district followed, which exemplifies good service design, was its emphasis on the use of data and analytics to guide decision-making. The aforementioned surveys enabled them to understand community preferences, attitudes, and needs, helping them to design an optimal school-reopening plan. But data regarding actual service usage helped the district to better understand the full service experience. The registration numbers for the two learning options—hybrid and fully remote—compliance with daily health needs, and opt-ins for bus transportation illustrated how families were actually interacting with the service and drove service optimizations. For example, many families who originally opted for fully remote learning because of their concerns about student safety eventually migrated to the hybrid model. The primary reason for this shift was people’s confidence in the health protocols that the schools were following to keep students safe, during the initial weeks of the fall reopening. Effective service design and continuous optimization of services relies on such service-usage insights.
Designing for the Greater Good
I’ve previously written about socially conscious design and designing for the greater good. No service better exemplifies the need to design for the greater good than education in the middle of a pandemic. Our local school districts, school boards, or whatever other governing bodies our communities leverage for education are absolutely responsible for driving the successful reopening of schools. However, keeping schools open relies almost completely on the community and their behaviors.
COVID-19 has highlighted just how much services rely on well-orchestrated interactions between the service provider and the customer. From wearing masks to temperature checks to social distancing, we’ve all adapted to new ways of shopping, receiving health care, or going to the library. We’ve also adapted to new ways of learning, whether our children are learning virtually or in school, with masks on and sitting six feet apart.
Districts that exemplify service-design best practices such as gaining insights into constituent needs and ongoing measurement are likely to be more successful in implementing their models of learning during the pandemic. But it’s the broader community’s behaviors and choices at home that determine how long we must live in this new normal.
Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data
Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA
Laura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey. Read More