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Bodankers and Botanical Gardens – Why innovative products can’t be parity products

shaun_moon
Instructure
Instructure
2 9 1,244

A few years ago, a colleague and I were brainstorming how we could help the product we owned be more innovative. At one point, she said that we were going to have to cut the lines to some of the bodankers in the product. The term “bodanker” was not one that I’d heard before. I was confident that it wasn’t a new software engineering term. I knew our product well enough to know that “bodanker” wasn’t a descriptor of anything in the code. I deduced that it must be some sort of colloquialism, and from the context, I interpreted it to mean something that gets in the way of progress. After she finished articulating her line of thinking, I said, “Before we carry on, I want to make sure I understand something particular you talked about. I’ve never heard the term bodanker. What does that mean?” She looked at me, a bit confused and responded that she had no idea what I was talking about. I recounted that she said we were going to have to cut the lines on many of the bodankers, which I interpreted to mean things that were holding us back from innovating. I felt more than a little sheepish when she laughed and laughed, saying, “I said ‘boat anchor’! Y’know, like an anchor...on a boat!”

I still think that bodanker is a much more evocative turn of phrase. And it’s funner to say — bodanker.

But for the purposes of thinking about creating innovative products, botanical gardens could be a much more instructive analogy than boat anchors.

Image credit Shaun MoonImage credit Shaun Moon

Gardens have many of the same characteristics of software products. I want to focus on just two of those here:

  • Gardens typically require gardeners to care for them.
  • Gardens typically have boundaries.

Gardeners

Botanical gardens need gardeners to take care of them. “Taking care” of a garden can include obvious things, like removing unwanted plants, sowing seeds and setting bulbs, thinning out garden beds when appropriate, pruning trees and shrubs. Taking care may require building of infrastructure—for watering, for retaining soil, for helping people move through the garden.

Boundaries

Gardeners are constrained by boundaries around a garden. They also constrain themselves through the layout of boundaries within a garden.

Because of boundaries, gardeners have to make trade-offs when evaluating how much to change a garden. If a gardener has a goal to help visitors learn about plants native to the area, they might explore the costs required to enlarge the garden's total footprint. They might look to wholly rearrange some parts of the garden by moving garden beds and moving plants from one section to another.

Gardeners AND Boundaries

When a garden changes, either by expanding the area that is cared for and cultivated, or by rearranging the boundaries of areas and planting beds within the existing garden space, or by changing plants are contained within which areas, gardeners will have to learn new techniques, or hire expertise (temporarily or permanently) in order to make desired changes AND to then care for the “new” garden in new ways.

Software Products

We are always looking for ways to make the Instructure garden better. However, “better” can’t always be bigger. We cannot always be adding more capability because for every feature, service and component, we need people to ensure its security, scalability and utility. The more features, services and components we have, the more capacity we must give, as a whole, to maintenance--to making sure our garden is well tended. In order to be able to appropriately maintain and innovate, sometimes we have to rearrange the “garden beds” of our products. And sometimes we will make decisions to remove features of the current garden in order to accommodate new elements that can provide more value to more students, more instructors, more leaders.

We are committed to making a better garden for the whole Instructure community, which is going to mean that the products in 2023 and 2025 and 2030 are not going to do the same things they do in 2021. In the coming months and years we will be doing a lot of planting and as well as some pruning throughout our products. Canvas in 2023 will not be Canvas from 2021 with more stuff. It will not be “parity plus more stuff”.

I recognize that “pruning” will not be welcomed by all. Invariably, Product leaders will make some decisions to remove capabilities and features that some of you use regularly. We will do our best to make things go as smoothly as we can, balancing many considerations. We are invested in the future of teaching and learning and we will always strive to deliver products that support and inform an evolution toward better learning outcomes for all.

If you have questions or comments about principles or pragmatic considerations that inform product decisions related to “parity or not parity,” please feel free to engage in the comments section below. I’ll ask that you hold feature-specific questions such as, “Will feature ‘A’ ever be ‘pruned’ from a product?” for discussion in posts related to that particular feature and product.

9 Comments
kmeeusen
Community Coach
Community Coach

Unfortunately, not all innovations are improvements. In EdTech, innovations that gain acceptance and move onward and upward to their final destination of "good old tech", must improve, or contribute to the improvement of...

  • Learner opportunity to learn,
  • Learner ability to engage in that opportunity,
  • The educator's ability to provide that opportunity, and
  • The educator's ability to support the learner's engagement with that opportunity!

Anything less is a software engineer's self-aggrandizing pat on the back for finding his or herself so clever!

Kelley

 

shaun_moon
Instructure
Instructure

@kmeeusen, I appreciate the reminder to distinguish between improvement and innovation. I'm often wont to collapse the two ideas. You're reminding me of a statement by Raymond Loewy that:

The smart industrial designer is the one who has a lucid understanding of where the shock-zone lies in each particular problem. At this point, a design has reached what I call the MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) stage.

If I try to synthesize what your saying with Loewy's language, innovation is often just advancement without impact because it hasn't figured out how to match with opportunity and ability.

hesspe
Community Champion

I believe, to follow along with the garden analogy, that you are headed "down the garden path."  The behavioral economics principle of "loss aversion"  is pretty well established - that people feel losses ("pruning" in your analogy) much more deeply than equivalent gains.  I have at times offered gmail as an example of software that undergoes continuous improvement with incremental changes that are unobtrusive.  The evolutionary changes don't get in the way, but are helpful when they are discovered (if they are even noticed, since they are often integrated so seamlessly).  And I don't recall any feature or function ever having been "pruned."  If that happened it was done is such a way, or to a feature so little used, as to make it unnoticeable.  As a counter-example,  there is New Quizzes.  I believe you are due for an awakening in July '22 (if you are able to meet that milestone) when the cutover is enforced.  For just one example, each semester our faculty creates hundreds of surveys.  The day they discover those are broken or missing, I expect my inbox to be smoking.  It seems to me that your exposition gives insufficient regard to the importance of legacy and tradition.  And academia (in some cases for better, in others for worse) is well known for its adherence to legacy and tradition.

faith
Community Member

I can certainly understand and appreciate the garden/gardening analogy, as it is certainly appropriate for software development and evolution, as well as many other things in life.

I certainly would not like to use or support software that becomes bloatware, where the core ages poorly with oh too many bolt-on shiny rhinestones.  For me, I certainly hope that the team at Instructure can focus on the intrinsic functionality that we fell in love with and have come to appreciate over the years.  A garden is useless unless you have quality soil, watering infrastructure, shovel, trowel, hoe, and so on.

Make the core tools amazingly functional, beat out any remaining bugs or deficiencies, and tastefully grow the functionality.  Avoid acquiring companies that have no hope of adding value. Teachers, faculty, support staff, and to some extent students all appreciate predictability and consistency.  They all expect that there will be change, but are not ready to switch overnight to hydroponic gardening.

Thank you Shaun, for being a voice of reason and adding soul to the products.

amg10k
Community Member

"If I try to synthesize what your saying with Loewy's language, innovation is often just advancement without impact because it hasn't figured out how to match with opportunity and ability."

What I understood from this statement is that you believe innovation is the precursor to advancement, but this is not always the case.  Innovation is certainly important, but I interpreted @kmeeusen's statement differently.  I interpreted their statement as a reminder that even though innovation is needed for improvement, it does not always lead to improvement.

I am reminded of a silly viral video I saw yesterday.  The video creator showed a cucumber field with small, new cucumbers starting to develop.  They then took plastic molds and enclosed a few small cucumbers in these molds and left them to grow.  The final result was a perfectly living, fully developed cucumber in the shape of the mold.  Whomever created this mold was certainly innovative - but will this product actually lead to agricultural improvements or advancements?  I do not believe so.  This product is an innovative novelty and, while I could be wrong, I do not think the future of food production will turn towards food grown in novel shapes. 

I do not in any way mean to imply that future developments in Canvas will be innovations without advancement in EdTech.  Rather, I wanted to emphasize what I thought kmeeusen's post was trying to convey: as Instructure continues to innovate in EdTech, the development teams should carefully consider the whole scope of the project.  Specifically, there should be serious consideration of how the end-users will react, what pain points might develop due to changes in workflows, and how those who dislike change can be convinced to adapt.

If an analogy of cucumbers is too far afield, consider Google+.  While it had many new and subjectively better features than Facebook, it faded into oblivion because it did not give end users what they wanted and/or what they thought they needed.  End users can be forced lose access to old or outdated features, and while they can be given access to new, innovative features, they cannot be forced to use them.  Is innovation actually advancement if the end users don't adapt to it?

KelleyMeeusen
Community Participant

@amg10k 

Yes, that is exactly what I meant, but you said it much more clearly than I.

Bottom line, I feel this is nothing more than thinly disguised social manipulation in the form of, "If you don't like New Quizzes and if you expect it to function as well holistically in Canvas and for learners using Canvas as Classic Quizzes did, then you must be against change and innovation." Propaganda in the form of shaming.

Sorry @shaun_moon , but that is how I read it. However, not being a person who is against innovation and change, I invite you to change my mind!

Kelley

 

b_lockhart-gilr
Community Member

Yes, new versions can't always be 100% backward compatible with old versions.  We don't need a lot of cruft.

But it's also vital that new versions provide the core features of old versions.  Otherwise, why should we stick with Canvas at all?  If we need to continually be on the hunt to make sure features we've come to expect are still present, it would make sense to migrate to new (and, I'd suspect, more feature-stable) LM systems. Put another way, there's no such thing as brand loyalty if the brand is completely protean.

I'll point to the go-to example, New Quizzes.  The entire point of giving quizzes is to gain understanding of our students' knowledge.  We need the flexibility to analyze that data in whatever manner makes sense to the instructor, and a key part of that is data portability, so that we can analyze the data using whatever tools work best.  Classic Quizzes allows the downloading of student responses as CSV files.  New Quizzes does not allow the downloading of student responses in any format.  This basic feature has been missing despite two and a half years of increasingly desperate pleas by the actual users of Canvas, the instructors.  This isn't "pruning" old unwanted features.  It's a deliberate crippling of features actively sought.

By the way, I wouldn't bank too much on that "50% by volume is New Quizzes" stat.  New Quizzes is now the default, so casual users opt for it whether or not they understand its features.  And support calls might be down because it's truly much more stable.  Or they might be down because lots of people are like me, who -- after encountering missing features -- will simply punt and go back to Classic without necessarily flagging it for the support team.  After all, if the feature is missing on purpose, then it's not really a bug.

kmeeusen
Community Coach
Community Coach

@b_lockhart-gilr 

Nicely stated!

I have heard that the new engineering team working on New Quizzes actually cares about the users and making New Quizzes work for users. However, I hear that through a back door to a back room. I would be more inclined to believe that if I heard it in a banner splashed across the home screen of this Community! I would be more inclined to believe this if it were touted to clients by their CSMs, and reverberated through the venue at an InstCon. Canvas has a history of being upfront. open and transparent!

Instead, we are given this "Bodacious Bunglers" (or whatever the hell it is called) propaganda posting telling us our expectations are too high, that if we really understood "innovation" we would not have such high expectations, and if we really understood product development in the 21st Century, we should have no expectations at all!

YES, MY EXPECTATIONS ARE HIGH! And, I am dag-nab-it dangdoodle proud of that. Those same high expectations are what took me to Canvas in the first place. Those high expectations are what drove me to try to convince our entire state consortium to go to Canvas. Those same high expectations are what keep me a fan of Canvas, but not a fan of this truly garbage new quizzing tool.

I expect better from Canvas! Much better! And yes, I expect INNOVATION! Honest innovation that improves teaching and learning!

Kelley

nicole_fleetwoo
Community Participant

I'm with @kmeeusen & @b_lockhart-gilr - New Quizzes is not innovative, it's a step in the wrong direction.  As the lead admin, I'm not encouraging our faculty to use it.  It's cumbersome and unintuitive, it also doesn't have some of the key features of Classic that faculty have stated are vital to them.  How it is innovative to remove key features and functions of something as vital as quizzes?  You have heard folks screaming on all of your forums, yet your answers are all the same - "Trust us - you'll love it! Once we get it all fixed that is."  How is it innovative to push something out that STILL does not work as expected after years of tweaking? We have been promised great things with quizzes and yet we still sit here with nothing but talk and folks telling us we're not innovative enough. 

I guess you are going to continue following in Microsoft's steps and testing your "improvements" on the end-users.  Our faculty are not going to stand for that.  All I can say if when the tickets start rolling in with complaints next July - I will not be responding to them.  They will all be escalated to Instrucutre and you can explain this innovative mess to my faculty.