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An agile approach to education services product development lifecycle

Written by Bill Cushard

Published on August 6, 2020

An education services product roadmap helps us plan out what courses we are going to create and when we are going to create them. A product development lifecycle helps us take each of the courses in our roadmap from concept to maintenance. Philip Bourne, in his CEdMA Europe book, Technical Training Management, describes a product development lifecycle as a process used to manage the lifecycle of a training offering involving seven stages:

  1. Concept

  2. Feasibility

  3. Design and planning

  4. Development

  5. Verification

  6. Release

  7. Maintenance 

There is only one problem with this lifecycle. 

There is no mention of contact with the customer until step six. How do we know we are building the right course before we show it to customers? 

We don’t. 

Not really. 

This lifecycle could lead a team to spend three months building a course, only to discover in phase five or six that customers don’t want it. We don’t have time for that. 

Don’t build a course and then show it to customers

We need to get customers involved much earlier in the process.The earlier the better. We need to test courses in the market, so we can find out what customers actually want. 

This is really what agile development is all about. It's about putting something real in front of a customer and getting them to react to it. Not a survey asking customers what they might do, but course content they can sign up for, consume, and then tell you what they think of it. You then take that feedback and make improvements to the course. 

That’s agile. 

And in the context of the product development lifecycle above, that might mean getting customers involved in the “concept” or “feasibility" phase.

Let me explain. 

An agile approach to developing courses

There are four milestones you can use to get course content in front of customers and get real feedback. These milestone are:

  1. Course description on your website with a buy button

  2. Webinar version of your course

  3. Pilot version

  4. Full version

Each of these four milestones, is an opportunity to gather feedback from customers and learn what they actually want. Let’s talk about each.

Course description: If you have designed your value proposition canvas and wrote out your roadmap, you know which courses you need to start building first, right? You also probably have enough to write a solid course description; one that describes what will be taught in that course. Your course description will include the summary, the description, the outline, maybe even learning objectives (though this likely will require some design work), prerequisites, duration, delivery method, etc. 

Your course description has two purposes: 1) describe what customers can expect to achieve after they complete the course; and 2) persuade customers to purchase the course. So, the first thing you can do to test whether a customer wants one of your courses, is to write a solid course description, put it on your website, and ask customers to buy it. 

If customers buy it, then you know there is demand for it, and you are on the right track. If customers don’t buy it, you have some changes to make. 

I know what you’re thinking, “How can I sell a course before I make it?” That’s a longer story, and you can read about that here. Just trust me, you can sell a course before you build it. 

With very little work, you can test the market and validate whether customers want a course. 

Another way to test a course topic/idea with customers is run a webinar version of a course.

Webinar version of an instructor-lead course: Instead of publishing a course description on your learning site (or in addition to…), you could write up a course description as a webinar and work with your marketing team to run a webinar. Webinars are lighter weight and have less detail than a course. Webinars are more about “why” and “what” and less about “how.” This makes them easier to create. But it is still an opportunity to get customers to declare interest by signing up (or not) and showing up. 

If people sign up, you likely have demand for that topic. If people sign up and attend and participate in the chat or ask questions or complete the post-webinar survey, then you really have feedback you can use to turn this into a real class. 

This will require working with your marketing team, but this type of team work is a win-win. Your marketing team would probably love to have some content ideas that will attract new prospects. And you would like an audience to test a new course idea.

Win-win.

Pilot version: If you publish a course description in your web site for sale, and customers buy it, you then need to build the course. You might think this is panic time. I can be, but not if you understand that the first version of this course doesn’t have to be perfect. 

Not at all. 

In fact, you can make it clear to customers that the course is a new course, a pilot version of the course, and that it will still be valuable to them. Here’s how you do that. Price the course at a normal, high list price, and then discount it. You might write on your course description: “This is a pilot course. Normal price will be $799, but if you sign up for one of the first 5 sessions, you can get in for $99."

Then, when you deliver it, you have the instructor tell customers (create a slide for it) that this is a pilot course. Thank them for taking a chance on it, and then deliver on the learning objectives you promised in the course description. 

Mostly customers will not expect you to have perfect slides and exercises and demos. Especially, if you’ve told them along the way that this is a pilot. Just make sure your instructor is knowledgeable of the topic and prepared. 

Full version:  After you deliver the pilot a few times, you start to get feedback. The learning objectives might be out of order. Maybe they don’t fit together. Maybe you are trying to fit too many into the course based on the time. Maybe more hands-on practice is required. You might need to spend more time setting up the “Why” so they have more context. 

After each pilot delivery, you can make a change, refine the course and deliver a new version in the next session. Do that a few times, and you get close to a full version of your course. 

Once you get to the full version, you will have a course customers want and you will know it. Remove the discount and call your marketing team to help promote it. 

We have just described course milestones at which you can show course content in front of customers and get their feedback before you go off into the dungeon and spend 3 to 6 months developing courses your customers might not want. 

Scrum is for figuring it out

This is what agile is all about. Doing the smallest possible bits of work that produces something you can put in front of a customer, so a customer can interact with it and give you real feedback you can use to make a small improvement. Then...repeat this cycle. 

Build > test > learn

Not that I want to get into specific agile methodologies, but Fred Fowler, certified professional scrum master (PSM I and PSM II), and one of 50 people with his PSM III, taught me a valuable lesson about scrum: 

"Scrum is for figuring it out."

Every time we build a course, we are figuring it out. Figuring out if customers want it. Figuring out what customers need to learn. Figuring out the best way to teach a set of learning objectives. Figuring out what price to charge. Figuring out what else customers want to learn. 

Scrum was made for building software training courses. Just as it was made for building software. To figure out what people want. And then give it to them.

Pull your customers into your product development lifecycle

You cannot afford to spend 6 months in the background building something that might not work. That is a recipe for disaster. Pull your customers into your product development lifecycle and build better courses that customers actually want. If you want to learn how you can apply scrum to your education services product development lifecycle, get the Learndot guide to better agile course development. 

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