Edtech must have: good design

Ever wondered why most education related web resources are adorned with images of apples, rulers, chalk, and yellow pencils? To me these are signals of bland obscurity in design.  I see a yellow pencil on an “ed tech” page—these are usually borrowed from a kitsch clip art library—and I know that whoever was in charge of that project did a bad job. They did not think through even the key details of the design, let alone the more important minute details.

With very, very few exceptions, anything that is rolled out nowadays in the education space on the web is done without much consideration for usability or user experience. Or in plain English, web ed tech design sucks.

Really bad design is a big problem that permeates the education space.

Our team understands this problem very clearly, and we are striving for a magical user experience. Thus, users and their satisfaction with all aspects of our service—from User Interface to quality of content—are right at the core of our design effort.

Dieter Rams formulated ten axioms of good design. Although his rules were meant to be directly applicable to designing new objects, these are applicable in web design:

  1. Good Design Is Innovative—The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.
  2. Good Design Makes a Product Useful—A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.
  3. Good Design Is Aesthetic—The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.
  4. Good Design Makes A Product Understandable—It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.
  5. Good Design Is Unobtrusive—Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.
  6. Good Design Is Honest—It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept
  7. Good Design Is Long-lasting—It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.
  8. Good Design Is Thorough Down to the Last Detail—Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.
  9. Good Design Is Environmentally Friendly—Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the life cycle of the product.
  10. Good Design Is as Little Design as Possible—Less, but better because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Needless to say, when we launch Rukuku services, you won’t see rulers, pencils, or red apples for that matter.

What’s in the name of our company. Part three: defining market ideal

Continued from previous post (Part 2) on this topic.

Extracting Pearls of Wisdom

Remember how I said that there is only a grain of truth in the notion that everyone is a genius brand name generator? I stand by my word—my thought process is as follows: since the domain name and brand have to fit the intended purpose, not all the names you come up with will be ideal or suitable for that purpose, i.e. some names are more appropriate for what they are intended than others.  With this in mind the task shifted to understanding whether any of my candidate names were any good to be used as a name for an education marketplace. Here’s what I did:

  1. Narrow the list down to two names—I simply talked with a couple of dozen people or so and asked them to rate the names I had “good” or “bad”. The goal was to understand if the neologisms on my list sounded pleasant and evoked positive emotions. The two that emerged as champions with the largest number of “good” ratings were the ones that I subjected to the next study.
  2. Understand the qualities of the ideal name—In order to understand what qualities the consumers perceive as must-have in the etalon ideal name for an online educational resource, I simply collected over a 100 responses through a questionnaire on Survey Monkey
  3. Understand the qualities of the candidate name—the same survey achieves this goal. The questionnaire is still active, so go ahead and submit your answers before reading further. The whole process takes about one minute: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LJVGKK6

The goal of that questionnaire was to present the new words and collect adjectives based on spontaneous reactions, and associations with these meaningless words. The way my survey is deliberately organized in its present form and sequence, and I will explain the rationale behind this design on Friday, May 18.

My next post however, on Thursday, May 17, will be about the state of things with design in web education technology. Stay tuned!

Tomorrow is a historic day for Silicon Valley:  Facebook will go public.  I want to wish this great company tons of luck in their IPO.

What’s in the name of our company. Part two: no auction, please.

Speculators and Dutch auctions

Knowing that domain names may indeed have a high fair market price and value, I was not sure whether the price quotes I got from the speculators were actually fair.  I concluded that domain names had a subjective situational value behind them.  My observation is that good speculators know this to be true, and so they engage in a form of a Dutch auction: they always bluff initially, start with a high price and then reluctantly reduce it in small increments to a level that can be accepted by the interested party.

Prof. Keith Weigelt who taught my Managerial Economics class at Wharton is a big fan of auctions: he proves that auctions are a great tool for extracting maximum value from the market. Combining the Dutch auction approach with the asymmetry of information on the domain name market gives the speculators a wonderful opportunity for perfect price discrimination, i.e. whatever price is paid by an individual for the domain name is always the maximum price that this individual can afford. This means that no price quote from the resellers was ever going to be fair, and I would always be taken for a ride. This is what Nassim Taleb would probably call “the sucker’s game”, and it certainly was not something I wanted to engage in.

This led me to the conclusion that I should avoid the resellers altogether and not waste money (as should anybody who wants to register a domain name) and instead find a different way to solve this problem.

Asymmetry is the solution

So I looked at all the wildly successful web companies, like Zynga, Twitter, Google, Yahoo! or Pinterest, and concluded that the brands they chose—let’s just agree that web domains are brands—did not represent gaming, micro blogging, search or social media before they attached the meaning to these bizarre words. If someone said “zynga” in 2000, it would be just an empty sound, and not be synonymous with anything. By the same token, the word “google” meant nothing in 1997, etc. However, even back then these words would evoke a “feeling”, which could be a foundation for branding.

Therefore, avoiding speculators and auctions was possible only by beating them at their own game by going totally asymmetric and contrary to popular belief.

I needed to achieve three goals:

  • understand what kind of brand the market truly wants
  • understand the true potential of the semantics of the names on my list, i.e. understand if any of the “cool” brands were at all appropriate and applicable for the cause
  • avoid paying a high price for the domain

I decided to play with the following concepts from linguistics and marketing:  minimal semantic units, semi-words and conjoint analysis (Prof. David Reibstein‘s SABRE game at Wharton proved very useful and practical). To put simply, my idea was to do the following:

  1. Come up with a new list of seemingly bizarre neologisms consisting of two or three minimal semantic units. This way, the chance that the speculators are holding these domains is very, very slim.
  2. Understand what qualities the market seeks in a domain name for an educational marketplace, i.e. define a semantic etalon with the ideal qualities that a brand like this should have.
  3. Test if any of the neologisms from the new list are close to the ideal, and choose the closest one.

So that’s what I did, and in my next post I will describe the process in more detail.

Stay tuned for more details on Wednesday, May 16.

The world would be a better place if Prof. Nassim Taleb could teach Antifragility on Rukuku

I am a big fan of Nassim Taleb‘s books, in fact I have read and re-read all of his books, and the reference section from the Black Swan has become my shopping list so that I can get yet more insight into what Dr. Taleb has been exploring.

When I first envisioned the mechanism that is in the core of Rukuku.com’s class editing engine, I did not know that I essentially cooked up a system based on a fractal.  I dug into the math of permutations and combinations, and this then led to the discovery that I was dealing with a fractal.  Long story short, it was Nassim Taleb who spurred my interest in Benoit Mandelbrot’s research. We still do not know how the Rukuku fractal will develop when Rukuku opens its doors to the public, but the interface of the class editing tool is truly amazing:  it is intuitive, simple and versatile at the same time.

My dream is that one day Prof. Nassim Taleb could author and teach something in the lines of “Antifragility 101” or “Non-Gaussian Finance zn+1 = zn2 + c” on Rukuku.com.

We will definitely invite him to use Rukuku, but for now we can just continue to learn in passive “observatory” mode, i.e. watch a video. Here’s his lecture on Antifragility filmed at his and my alma mater in 2011.

And stay tuned for Part 2 of the “What’s in the name of our company”—the post is coming out in 24 hours as announced.

What is in the name of our company. Part 1.

Last year I made a startling discovery:  most people I know—myself included—tend to see themselves as the source of the best domain names that the world has ever seen.  My experience, however, has convinced me that there is only a tiny, yet very valuable grain of truth in that perception. In the next several posts I will share a simple analytical approach to generating domain names.


The main idea behind the education marketplace that our company is creating was conceived three years ago during one of those very satisfying “aha!” moments when waves of ideas came up in my head one after another in a continuous storm until I formed a complete picture of what might be.  Back then I was a first-year MBA student at Wharton and the Lauder Institute, which is where I refined the idea further over several months.  However, there was no official name for the marketplace until I registered the domain name.

Problem emerges

As many people faced with the task would do, I scribbled down a long list of names for the website that I thought might be good. I also asked three of my friends to generate similar lists for me. People love donning on their “expert in domain names” hat, so asking for help is really worth it. In one day we collectively generated over four hundred domain names.

I soon discovered a big problem: the absolute majority of the domain names from those lists had already been registered—speculators and cybersquatters rein in this market.  Domain names that are obviously cool usually cost a fortune: for example, a good friend of mine paid $500K for a domain name a few months earlier for his online store in Brazil.  In my particular case, every time I asked speculators to sell a domain they would usually demand a ridiculous price right away regardless of what the domain was. One such speculator from Toronto wanted over $40K for a four-letter domain name, and that was a “bargain” offer which paled in comparison with some other quotes I received.

Further analysis of the situation revealed an unfortunate trend:  100% of these quotes were light years above my reach. If I were to pay for all the “cool” domain names from my lists, I would end up paying over $2 million. This revelation rang a very loud alarm bell:  if the quotes I received were fair market prices, it would mean that my friends and I generated $2 million worth of ideas in just a day. This was hard to believe.

My next post on Sunday, May 14 will detail my solution. Stay tuned, post comments and questions, like us on Facebook, Tweet about us, sign up for our launch.

Adding new flavor to the blog

Now with development work going at full speed, we decided that in addition to all things education, we will blog about our experiences building the company and about the technology that we are developing.

Tomorrow, I will start implementing this change with a series of posts on how we approached choosing our domain name. Stay tuned!