An insightful chat with the product manager behind one of the world’s most-used apps for inquiring minds.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Becca McArthur is the Product Manager at Socratic, a homework app that combines cutting-edge Artificial Intelligence (AI) with amazing learning content to make learning on your phone easy.
She leads prioritization, strategy, and development for their iOS and Android apps, including user research, product exploration, wireframes, requirements, and execution.
“I’ve always subscribed to the notion that the knowledge we carry around with us is our greatest asset; it’s something no one can take away,” says Becca (pictured).
Education is an inherently human problem. Technology can help us make great strides—but solving the problem will depend on our ability to scale and strengthen what is essentially human: our relationships with our teachers, tutors, our peers, and ourselves.
“For me, that’s why education—the collection of that knowledge—matters, and I love that online communities can make what matters to us easier.”
Launched in 2013, the company now serves a community of more than 11 million users.
“I’m at Socratic to connect teachers with students and students with knowledge, making learning an accessible, powerful tool for everyone.”
What prompted you to get into edtech?
Becca: Education is an inherently human problem. Technology can help us make great strides—but solving the problem will depend on our ability to scale and strengthen what is essentially human: our relationships with our teachers, tutors, our peers, and ourselves.
Before getting into Product, I was a Community Manager, so connecting people around what matters most to them is my bread and butter. And because of that, I knew I wanted to learn about and build for problems that are deeply human, and whose solutions rely on human connections to succeed. Education sits at that sweet spot for me.
From where does your passion for education derive?
Becca: As a kid, I loved school, but I struggled with math early. Despite spending hours in the kitchen practicing my times tables, it never seemed to come naturally to me. The world told me that math came more naturally to boys anyway, so I submitted to the idea that this would always be hard for me.
Even today, when I look at data on a new feature for the app, I have to remind myself not to be scared of the numbers. I think my experience would have felt very different with a tool like Socratic.
My dream is to build something that will give students the confidence they need to know that they can learn the really hard thing, whether that’s math or history or science—no matter what circumstances are causing them to doubt. Because knowledge, once you’ve got it, is something that no one can take away. That’s where my passion stems from.
What is a data-driven product builder?
Becca: I see the qualitative tools—user interviews, surveys, and user tests—as only half of a product manager’s arsenal. The other half is using data to illuminate what the user couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell you.
For me, this means running tons of A/B tests, ideally wherein the variable between versions is as different as possible (everything else, though, should be identical). This way, we’re likely to see a wider delta between usage and have a clearer sense of what to build next.
Another strategy: I try to visualize each feature on our app as a funnel, and then create those funnels on our analytics platform. What is the user’s goal in a given scenario, and where are most people dropping off?
For example, we were able to improve conversion on our new user login flow from 51% to 84% from analyzing each step of that funnel in detail. We found that students were happy to give the app camera and notifications permissions, but many dropped off when asked to share their contacts. So we moved the contacts permissions request later in the flow, and added a straightforward reason why the app needed that permission. The jump in completion saved us tons of users.
Data can also be used proactively, not just after a feature is launched. I love going into “exploratory mode” — I’ll look at a wide swath of usage data from a specific cohort and try to pick up on patterns. Often, it’s seeing the different pathways that students take through that app that is most illuminating about what’s working for them and what might not be. I use those insights to inform what we build next.
Any highlights illustrating “early-stage hustle”?
Becca: At Socratic, we’re unlike many startups because we as employees are quite different from our users: high school students. So it’s been really important for us to get inside their heads, which has led us to lots of user testing. But recruiting actual students for user tests is tricky; posting ads on Craigslist led to people posing as students just to make a buck. So we had to get really creative.
We started by cold-calling the high school nearest to our office in downtown Manhattan—and when that didn’t work, we physically walked over, introduced ourselves, and asked if we could work with students to get their feedback on our app. We ended up building a strong relationship with the administrators and students there, and that laid the foundation for our first core group of testers.
We’ve built a strong network of students we can rely on—all from scratch. And without their feedback, our product would look quite different than it does today.
We got to know those students really well (which led to really authentic feedback), but we quickly realized we needed fresh feedback too. We started hosting open houses for the students we knew at our office, asked them to bring their friends from nearby schools, and offered them Shake Shack in exchange for coming back to our office for paid user tests.
It’s taken us years (plus lots of cold emails, conversations with students, and boxes of french fries), but we’ve built a strong network of students we can rely on—all from scratch. And without their feedback, our product would look quite different than it does today.
What does ‘empathic design’ mean?
Becca: Empathic design is all about understanding a user’s emotions around a problem space, which can reveal needs around that space that even the user themself isn’t aware of. It relies on a lot of observation: beyond just asking a student how they feel about something, it’s watching how they react to certain topics, and what makes them light up or shut down. I think it’s these types of insights that can inform really interesting product decisions.
In regards to Socratic, what is the importance of community? How is it defined?
Becca: Community was essential to the success of Socratic web product. The ability to mobilize a group of global volunteers relies on some very human mechanics: feeling welcome when you arrive, getting feedback on an answer you’ve written from another educator, or reading a thank-you note from a student who learned what they need to know from your contribution.
We intentionally built all these mechanics into our product, and I worked with Socratic’s earliest community members to write defining principles for the site’s culture. The result was a space on the Internet that does, ultimately, feel very human: though it extends across cities and countries, it is a group of people collaborating on something they care deeply about.
If the site didn’t feel and function like a true community, Socratic.org would lack its unique sense of belonging, purpose and mission—that critical glue—that keeps students and teachers coming back day after day.
As product manager, what have been some lessons learned by you? What fixes have you had to make? Any time you had to ‘eat crow’ / be humble / change?
Becca: From the beginning, we set out to help students learn using the Internet, not just find answers. It was very important to us that the answers on our website always had an explanation as well as an answer (a sharp contrast to what we were finding on other sites around the web).
This led to explanations that were thorough, but long, often building up from the basics, which I believed to be the best learning experience for students.
But when we started building our mobile app and I began watching students look at lessons on their phones, my stomach dropped. Watching them skim quickly over all that “helpful” content—barely reading any of it—was a big awakening for me.
When a student is looking for help, their first step is to judge the answer as quickly as possible. If the answer is long and dense, its usefulness becomes much harder to judge. It can also feel incredibly intimidating for a student who is already lost. That was a critical lesson, and forced us to rethink our content strategy for mobile.
Whenever possible, lessons should be really simple—and even hide details upfront. The first version of our math stepper included a text explanation at every step, but after watching students use it, we decided to hide the explanations beneath a tap. Design for an initial impression as well as lifetime learning value.
Love this quote of yours: “I’m a pragmatist when it comes to execution and an optimist when it’s time to dream.” Anything further on this?
Becca: Education is a complex space with lots of entrenched thinking. So it’s important to be very open, and to be a believer in lots of different types of ideas. During that early ideation phase, I try to be a yes-woman as much as I can. “No bad ideas!” is my brainstorm tagline.
But when it comes down to prioritizing a solution that will actually serve students, the ability to cut scope and draw a hard line matters a lot. I believe that shipping something good and learning from it is better than shipping something really good that takes twice as long to build. So taking a pragmatic approach to which details matter is really important in those cases.
What advice do you have for other edtech startups? What makes you say that?
Becca: I believe that too few education companies build with students as the top priority.
Edtech is a space with a lot of inherent tensions and thus opportunity for misalignment. For example, it’s school districts who buy textbooks, but students are the ones actually using them.
My advice is to deeply understand how your product reaches students, and how they experience it. Build students’ needs and hopes and dreams into that experience; make them a central stakeholder no matter what.
What are your thoughts on education these days?
Becca: It’s exciting to see how people are tackling education in a world where students’ access to information has essentially exploded. I love that the conversation is moving away from, “isn’t this helping students cheat?” to how we can better equip students to solve problems and understand their world, given what they have access to.
I’m excited to figure out how we help students build a ‘growth mindset’ around their education. How do we help them see progress, find confidence, and believe they can excel?
Next, I’m excited to figure out how we help students build a “growth mindset” around their education. How do we help them see progress, find confidence, and believe they can excel? This feels like one of the biggest challenges to me.
What is technology’s role in education?
Becca: There are outstanding teachers in the world who are helping students learn and grow in powerful ways, but not all students have access to an outstanding teacher. And further, those incredibly formative 1:1 interactions don’t scale. I think technology can help us scale what these teachers are doing.
I don’t think technology should ever replace great teachers. We should continue to rely on educators and experts (i.e., humans) to develop what we deliver to students, but we must lean on technology to help us deliver it.
Anything else edtech relevant you’d like to add or emphasize?
Becca: Check out our app to get help with math, science, history, and more, or tell a student or teacher in your life.
If you have knowledge to share, consider answering a question on Socratic.org. You can reach thousands of students with just one answer—which feels pretty great.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org