I have wondered if one must come up with a new job title named ‘Learning Product Manager’. Such a thought is based on my experience as an entrepreneur running an e-Learning company and also as someone who has been in a senior managerial role in one of the best and fastest growing e-Learning companies of India (Toppr). Learning products are driven by content and a goal to provide a learning experience which is not the same as providing user experience in a traditional sense. According to me, this is what makes learning products unique. You can treat the product (the interface along with it’s functionality) as the body and the content as the soul. So, in a nutshell, it is not all about buttons, navigation and wire-frames, there is more for a learning product.
An important distinguishing feature of a product manager managing an education product is some training in how human learning works. Product features must be based on learning principles grounded in cognitive science. I myself have committed mistake of adding background music to some of the educational videos that my team created. But, now that I have learnt e-learning design principles and methods, I understand that this background music can only be a cognitive overload, a potential source of distraction. So, what product features are important from a learning perspective is an important decision that has to be made by the product manager and some domain knowledge of e-learning principles is required. In fact, even the e-learning standards that exist including SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model) do not do much justice from a learning perspective. Learning scientists have time and again complained about including components in the model that can capture some learning model and not just a model that can be shared.
Almost all product teams work in an Agile fashion and use some framework like Scrum or Kanban to manage the development, release and maintenance of a product. By definition, in most of these frameworks, development teams are supposed to be self-sufficient in terms of the needed expertise. In most of the e-learning companies, product and content teams work in silos with very little co-ordination amongst them. To add to this chaos, some companies also have research teams that work in yet another silo. I believe that we must have a logical configuration of agile development teams which must include a learning engineer as a specialist on the development team. This will ensure that the body (product features) and the soul (content) can connect better. Technology developers can take care of the ‘how to implement a feature’ but ‘how the feature helps in learning’ is a question that can be answered well by the learning engineer on the development team. This gives appropriate context to the technological developers. In terms of human resource management, depending on the work load, the same individual can be a learning engineer on more than one development teams. This learning engineer will also be the link to the content development team. So, this ensures that even if content and product development teams work in silos, they are constantly in sync with each other.
User testing is an important phase in product management, be it at the stage of alpha, beta or commercial release. Testing for learning is not the same as testing for user convenience. So, the number of page visits and the number of times a button is clicked are not the kind of metrics that can be useful to test learning. This is where things get complicated because one may argue that the total learning experience is the result of both the application (product/body) and the content (soul). We will then need A/B tests or multivariate tests that can determine whether certain features or certain content led to an increase or decrease in the learning experience. Pre- and post- tests are one way of measuring the learning experience but one can also use metrics similar to net promoter score.
So, in conclusion, just like business analysts play an important role in product development in many domains, learning products and services need a learning engineer on the agile teams or the product manager himself or herself must have some domain knowledge of e-learning principles.