IRL UX - Influencing Behavior Outside of Your Application

My name is Yoshi Tryba – I work as a Product Manager at Ellevation Education. Over the last two years, I’ve played a central role in launching a product that helps teachers develop a specific new set of teaching skills. Through that work, I’ve learned some hard-won lessons about helping people change their behavior in the “real world” – after they use your product.

While I’ll focus on Ellevation’s context, I suspect our lessons learned will be relevant to many domains including: health, finance, relationships, leisure, pet care, and more.

Teachers Have it Harder than Ever

Imagine that tomorrow when you arrive at work, you discover that something strange is going on: 1 in 10 of your coworkers no longer understands the words you say. Unfortunately your boss is still demanding progress on projects you’re running with those coworkers… even as you, apparently, no longer speak the same language.

This is very much like the experience teachers are having in our schools, every day.

Over the past two decades, the population of English Language Learners (ELL’s) in our schools has grown by 60%, and has now reached 1 in 10 students. And it’s widespread: Almost 70% of teachers in the country now have at least one ELL student in their classroom.

Teaching a classroom consisting of both ELL’s and “monolingual” students presents unique challenges – teachers have to ensure the ELL’s are acquiring enough language skills to fully participate in the class, while still moving the whole group along.

Fortunately, there are approaches to teaching which can balance these needs (in fact, research has shown that ELLs are capable of exceeding their peers if given the right support from educators).

Unfortunately, very few teachers have had a chance to learn those approaches (fewer than one in three teachers have taken any courses on supporting ELLs).

Unsurprisingly, as a result, ELLs are falling badly behind.

The ELL high-school graduation rate is 68% – lower than any other student subpopulation

Why This Problem Persists

One factor: high-quality Professional Development (PD) for teachers is expensive (in particular, when it is delivered synchronously by an experienced teacher-of-teachers).

ELL departments (responsible for ELL-focused PD) receive funds on the basis of the number of students they serve (~10%), not the staff in the district that need to receive that PD (~70%).

Further, teachers are stretched thin and the covid-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread teacher shortages. Districts struggle both to schedule PD time, and also to find substitute teachers for it (sometimes, the very teachers who might deliver PD are instead being pulled into classrooms to cover staffing shortages).

In many ways, this is precisely the kind of problem Ellevation Education was founded to help solve. We’re a mission-focused business, trying to help ELLs “achieve their highest aspirations”, and we’ve been focused on supporting educators from the moment we started.

The challenge for us as a software business is that solving this problem runs squarely through how teachers approach their classroom instruction - which means changing their behaviors and practices when they’re not using our software.

I’ve been lucky to serve as the lead product manager on Ellevation’s product that steers into this problem (“Ellevation Strategies” – a Professional Learning product for teachers) – and as such, have had a chance to learn a lot about how to help people change their off-app behavior.

Here are some principles we’ve developed.

1. Base your product design on a Theory of Change

To change behavior outside an app requires digging deeply into the social and psychological dynamics surrounding the behaviors one is trying to influence. We came to call this developing a “Theory of Change” – looking holistically at our users' lives, and not just at the moments they were using our product.

For our R&D team, our Instructional Specialists helped us understand why educators often resist ELL PD and why existing PD solutions often don’t work.

For starters, 55% of teachers don’t view their ELLs as a core responsibility - seeing themselves as content teachers (math, social studies etc.) rather than as language teachers and thus don’t believe they can impact their ELLs.

This is a misconception. All instruction builds on academic language. For example, to learn geometry, students first need to learn terms like angle or hypotenuse. And in fact, instructional strategies that most help ELLs develop academic language are best practices for all students.

Beyond this, most PD comes in the form of workshops, conferences, and online-courses. These are usually ‘one-and-done’, where there may be intensive learning, but it doesn’t translate to classroom application or sustained growth.

We took these learnings and flipped them around - developing a set of criteria for what effective PD should look like. The resulting criteria (job-embedded, classroom-focused, collaborative, and sustained) then guided our product development process.

In another context, say, dieting, this might mean understanding the complex feelings people have about food and the subtle triggers that help drive their eating patterns. Or, for personal finance, this might involve developing a deep understanding of the guilt people can feel around money.

That might not feel like classic “product design”, but, in our experience, if you don’t focus on these deeper, underlying issues, you won’t see any changes in real world behavior.

To wit: an early version of Ellevation Strategies was, essentially, a library of research-based instructional strategies. It was a great resource for educators to solve the problems of serving the ELL’s in their classroom - except that few teachers were using it. We hadn’t fully understood the context of their days.

2. Orient towards the ‘Aha!’ moments in the real world

If a user can directly see or feel the benefits of a solution, their own motivation can drive sustained usage and then real behavior change.

The challenge becomes getting the first-time users to that ‘aha’ moment in the real world. Although, in some ways, this is much like a classic user funnel… the key “conversion” moment occurs outside of the product and thus is very difficult to measure.

In our case, the ‘aha’ moment comes when a teacher first tries an instructional strategy with their students in the classroom.

This is when teachers see the ELLs that were silent or disengaged suddenly come alive and participate in the learning. Over and over, teachers have told us how exciting and inspiring it is to realize they can better connect with and support their ELLs.

To drive educators to try our instructional strategies in their classrooms, we decided to develop a series of courses (a scaffold), each of which worked backwards from encouraging a teacher to try out an instructional strategy. This provided a pathway with a clear invitation, at the end of it.

3. Provide value in-app before asking users to change behavior in the real world

First-time users need to trust an app if they’re going to risk trying out a new behavior. Giving them some form of immediate value in-app helps a lot.

In our case, we did this by, as soon as a teacher starts a course, sharing detailed data about the ELL’s in their classrooms – who they are, what their english proficiency levels are, links to full school histories, etc.

We’re able to do this because Ellevation’s other products focus on addressing problems around ELL-data collection, aggregation, and visualization. We leveraged all this data to provide these immediate insights.

This basic level of visibility is, (maybe somewhat surprisingly), a huge boon for teachers. They often feel like they’re “flying blind”, without a sufficient understanding of which students need what supports.

Simply sharing this data we already had thus not only solved a user problem, but enabled us to provide a unique offering in the market.

4. Leverage both carrots and sticks

While giving users immediate value and driving them to a real-world ‘aha’ moment is very important, sometimes that isn’t enough to drive usage and behavior change.

Again, going back to our Theory of Change, part of what our Instructional Specialists helped us understand is that, although most teachers do want to deepen their skills, they often struggle to find time to do PD - teachers can often feel overworked and underpaid (also, some of them don’t believe they have the problem you are solving).

To address this, we focused on leveraging existing incentive and accountability mechanisms - e.g. by making it easy for admins to issue PD credits for course completion. Teachers can then use those credits both to meet district and state PD requirements (the stick) and/or to get pay increases (a carrot).

This helped to get teachers engaged and using – and then many of them discovered the excitement of teaching in new ways.

We were also able to link this to a challenge we had around visibility. To complete the course and receive credit, educators would have to return to our app and document their real-world actions. This gave both us and district administrators a way to measure the degree to which the product was having the intended impact.

5. Tie into social activities

Even with incentives and requirements, sometimes people still don’t use your product and change their behaviors.

One other effective path to change is if usage of your app can be linked to social relationships with peers they value.

In our case, we saw a promising opportunity around educator meetings such as Professional Learning Communities and Grade-Level Meetings.

These are opportunities for teachers to get together with their peers, discuss challenges they face, share ideas, and collaborate together to plan their instruction for the coming weeks.

We were able to fit our product into these meetings in three distinct ways.

First, our product served as a great resource for someone to lead one of these meetings: reducing prep-time for the PD facilitators of these sessions (a major pain point).

Then, the pedagogical content and the specific activities could be the subject of discussion for the group (giving them a chance to take the courses, without adding any burden to their already-packed schedules).

Finally, later meetings could then function as a due-date for each attending teacher to have tried out one of the activities in their own classrooms (the key “aha” moments, again). This naturally created accountability.


Driving this kind of behavioral change is very challenging, but also incredibly rewarding - especially when teachers respond with enthusiasm:

“The program provided for me a lot of things I don’t have to go and get for myself."

“If I had not looked at the Ellevation website, I would not have been able to see that my students had specific deficiencies in particular areas, and I did discover that there were tweaks and things that I could do in order to help students learn in a different way."

“As a teacher, when you look at the modules, it’s kind of the way we teach: learn, do, reflect. This helped me because it gave an idea of where I needed to go because I did feel it was a new concept for me to teach in a whole new way…"

“The way I see it, this is a tool that is helping me help all of my students.“

We have much work left to do, but knowing that we have some real chance at making changes in the lives of both educators and students is enormously motivating, every day.

Yoshi Tryba

Yoshi is a Manager on the Product Management team and leads our Strategies product. In his spare time, he loves to dance West Coast Swing and play Go.