Unbundled Apps as a Lesson for Ed Tech Product Teams: Behold the Interaction Model

This post about “unbundling” apps is mostly for Ed Tech Product and Marketing professionals, but the discussion about setting bounds to the features supported in an app leads to an important point for those who design instruction and interfaces as well.

In 2014, Facebook unbundled its Groups and messaging features.  Earlier that year, Google unbundled productivity apps.  These events are well known, and the decisions to do so are rich with insights on product strategy, but I’ll cherry pick one item for today’s post.  Have a look at this quote from an article on unbundling from The Next Web: 

“Unbundling is completely untenable for smaller companies. The only reason that companies like Facebook, Google, and Foursquare are able to do it is because they’re giants in the space,” said Mark Burstiner, senior product manager at the mobile design agency Fueled told us in an interview.

Burstiner argues that app developers should figure out their minimum value proposition, find the data to support it, and then build the app feature-by-feature. This approach saves the developer from launching an app with multiple user experiences and having to unbundle sometime in the future.”

I agree with Mr. Burstiner.  Unbundling is a choice for established providers with good market penetration and brand visibility.  Furthermore, a “minimum value proposition” is a helpful concept for helping a provider avoid a complex solution that might compel it to unbundle.   In any case, smaller provider can risk ruin when their solutions offer too much for users to do:  too many value propositions, too many features to build and maintain, probably too much happening on each screen as well.

My suggestion would be to go a bit deeper on behalf of teams that build and sell Ed Tech products.   Start with a minimum value proposition and then articulate your value with an interaction model, a diagram that represents the narrative of your users’ most frequent and important actions as a repeatable loop, line, or link in a chain.  Maintain this interaction model so that the app continues to correspond with the problem/solution statement that the interaction model is supposed to support.

I’ll share a very early and rough version of the interaction model we built for Apropos, our collaborative search app. 

Apropos Interaction Model

The circle at the center is the model; summarizing all main tasks our learners will perform in a collaborative search activity.  Since we offer an activity that could be used in a variety of pedagogies, we put circles on the perimeter to show how a group search can relate to ontologies like 21st Century Skills.   Over a year later, those outer circles have changed a lot as we learn more about what users and clients value, but that interior circle, save a minor detail or two, is the same.

From our team and user communities, ideas to improve our experiences come all the time. However, these ideas don’t make it into Apropos unless they leverage this interaction model that sends groups of learners in motion against a common search prompt. In fact, a living interaction model, if used by the team, is a great way for a team to know when they are considering an enhancement to their product or a separate one.

Interaction models have some real detail and can still be approachable to anyone in your organization.  People who work on partnerships or sales can know what learners do so that they can articulate a more precise value proposition and relate it to the ones they hear.  Developers get a predictable pattern of screens, objects, and interactions.  Designers get an opportunity to let the experience embody the value proposition.  Product and Project Managers get an artifact that can govern scope and encourage extensibility within the right bounds.

What if your app’s interaction model has no clear end?  What if your goal is to get the users to stick around, do other things, maybe bring their own content?  If this is the case, you likely have a platform rather than a “tool”, or an app that supports a specific interaction rather than a more broadly defined virtual learning space.  

In the next post, I’ll discuss platforms and tools in more detail in order to reveal how these two concepts can tell us a lot about how technology implementations, integrations, and partnerships happen in education.