Smart Board, Dumb Idea: When Great Tech Solutions Miss the Mark

A few weeks ago I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. As we were chatting about our lives, she mentioned how much she loved her new job. She’s a teacher now and, unsurprisingly for someone I met while
working with youth, she’s taken to it like a fish to water. She loves seeing individual growth and transformation as it happens, and she loves being a part of shaping young minds.

That being said, there are a few things she’d change if she could. Most of them are the same things all teachers wish were just a little different, but there was one thing stood out to me: She said if she could change only one thing about her work, it would be getting rid of the smart boards. (I can hear you thinking to yourself “Smart boards? Really? That’s the thing she would change in the school system!?” and I’ll be honest, I had the same reaction.)

Smart boards have been an undeniable boon to meetings, enabling participants to engage in new and more meaningful ways than whiteboards and flip-charts ever did. But it turns out those high-tech, interactive screens that school boards were scrambling to get into every classroom a few years back are the bane of her existence these days. She teaches elementary-aged students and for their needs, the smart board poses some unique challenges. As a result, she faces more frustrations dealing with smart boards than with school boards, so if she had her way, they’d be the first thing to go.

I was a little surprised, but since I work in tech I was also intrigued. I’m always curious when tech “solutions” end up causing even bigger problems than they were meant to solve— especially when they’re solutions that have worked so seamlessly elsewhere. So instead of bouncing on to the next topic, I dug in on this one. Why did she hate them so much?

When Theory Meets Reality

For her, there were two major problems: First of all, young children are highly tactile (especially when learning new concepts). A smart board doesn’t offer the same kind of interactivity that say,
 tangrams and base ten blocks do. Smart boards, while hugely engaging in meetings, don’t engage kids the same way actually holding an item in their hand does. For that audience, the ability to physically manipulate an object is a big part of how they grow to understand a concept.

Even more challenging for her than that, smart boards run the risk of malfunctioning — and like all tech, inevitably they do. When it won’t turn on or it freezes mid-lesson, her options are limited. There are no other surfaces that the whole class can see to actually write on anymore, since the smart boards replaced all the chalkboards and whiteboards. And restarting it, which usually solves the problem, interrupts the lesson. Young kids don’t have the ability to focus and stay with the learning through the pause in teaching. Clearly, some of the implementation of this technology was impacting her in the classroom every single day, and not in the ways it was intended to.

(For the record, this isn’t a diatribe against the smart board — which is an irrefutably great technology-based tool. But like so many others in similar scenarios, in the zeal to “bring technology into the classroom”, not enough time was spent on whether this was the best way to do it.)

Of course, she’s not alone with her technology woes. People face frustrations and roadblocks like these all the time with business software. That’s why what’s more interesting and instructive to me than the specific flaws she’s dealing with, is the larger and more crucial flaw that’s at the heart of it: a technology solution implemented without fully considering the implications.

It’s a problem we see a lot of in the tech space. Great ideas routinely fall apart when put into real-world use, because they haven’t been properly vetted with the intended audience or tested in real scenarios.

There is some combination of utility, usability, learning curve, and right-time/right-place that has to come together when we introduce new technology. The reality of my friend’s smart board situation is a problem we tackle every day at Myplanet: How do we think about and account for all the ways a new, tech-based solution will impact its users?

Big Ideas, Small Details

For any given project, there are countless potential solutions. And before creating the solution—before deciding on what that solution is, even—it’s important to assess not only the actual needs of your users, but also the ways a potential solution will impact them.

When we start working on a new project, the first question we ask is what problem needs to be solved? That’s what good design and development teams do. It might sound obvious or even redundant if you’re unfamiliar with design thinking principles, but it’s an essential step in the process. The reality is folks are quick to jump to a solution, often before establishing what the actual issue is.

But when we skip that first step, all we end up doing is putting a bandaid on a broken leg. You can fix a lot of symptoms without ever solving a problem if you don’t take that step back and dig deeply into what’s causing the issue(s) in the first place. It can be especially tricky to overcome this tendency when there’s a specific technology people want to employ (because it’s new and exciting and they want to be leading-edge). But only once we’ve established what the problem is can we begin looking at possible solutions.

For people who are genuinely motivated to improve everyday experiences, the questions that open up at this stage are some of the most important for the whole project: What are the restrictions around possible solutions? Who will be impacted, both directly and indirectly, by changing the current system or introducing a new one? In what ways? How can we mitigate the upheaval? And how can we make adopting the solution as seamless and easy as possible?

It’s when we ask these questions that we start to think critically about what we’re developing and designing. Take the smart board example: it’s about more than just knowing teachers and students will both interact with it. Howwill students interact with it? What about students with special needs, how will they be impacted by changing the teaching methods? What environmental challenges might be an issue, such as how interacting with the smart board will be impacted when teachers want to rearrange desks for group work? And how can teachers solve — or at least work around — technical problems when they occur? A few tweaks to how the smart board was introduced to the classroom and it’s mandated uses could make all the difference for my friend.

We can’t account for every edge case, but thinking things through and actually connecting with users where they are—before, during, and if we’re lucky, after—the development of the product, can help us anticipate some of the most common potential issues and resolve them before they become permanent barriers to success.

User First

We work with large companies, designing and building software solutions for some of their toughest workplace problems. The work we do gets rolled out to tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people. It can look nicer, or go faster, or meet some other metric that sounds good, but if it doesn’t meaningfully improve how the work gets done, then in the end we missed the mark. And if we roll something out that makes it actively harder to get work done? That’s a worst-nightmare-of-all-time scenario, as far as we’re concerned.

Being user-centred requires us to be interested in uncovering the truths beneath the surface. It takes a bit more time, but in the end we create solutions for people that actually solve their problems, not just provide them with a new set of headaches. Maybe the smart board is the right solution for my friend, but the way it was implemented sure wasn’t and that’s an important part of the equation.

Last week we wrote about a “Smart Things Canvas” we created to help ourselves think through some of the new technology being implemented in the artificial intelligence and machine learning space, breaking down the big idea of AI into smaller, actual-use components on individual projects. It’s one way among many we help ourselves think holistically about the solutions we create.

But it’s not just the sexy new technologies we need to be careful with; any technology change can have a big impact when it requires a shift in behaviour or understanding. Smart boards are brilliant advances in interactive technology that have seen huge success in business contexts all over the world, but put them to use where they aren’t the right solution and they quickly become a dumb idea.

Interested in how techonology can help your workplace? Want to be sure it's implemented in the right way? Talk to our solutions team today.

Written by

Leigh Bryant

Leigh Bryant

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