Sean Oakes is the Principal and Creative Director of Backpack Interactive, a Strategy, UX and Design firm focused on EdTech product design. Oakes has set the mission and creative vision of Backpack Interactive for nearly 20 years. He is devoted to pioneering new ways to connect to educational audiences through technology. Oakes earned a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design and started his career in various creative positions at New York start-ups and agencies. His work has been recognized by The Webby Awards, ISTE, Communication Arts, SXSW Interactive, Business Week, The Smithsonian, and Apple.

How did your education and previous professional experience shape your current work at Backpack Interactive?

I trained in Graphic Design at RISD in the early 90s. A lot of my work centered around promoting social and civic issues. When I landed at a digital startup in the 90s that focused on making fun, educational games for kids, it felt good and I was hooked. I went on to start SOS Brooklyn in 2000, which provided UX & design for nonprofits, hospitals, and education companies. Eventually, I realized that we had such strong expertise and passion for edtech that we needed to specialize in just that kind of work. We rebranded as Backpack Interactive and tailored our mission to match our passion. I’ve always been interested in how the things we make get used, not just looked at. I think as your relationship to design evolves, it inevitably becomes more sophisticated about navigating the interplay between the audience and the message. That’s essentially what User Experience is and that’s why UX is at the core of how Backpack approaches strategy and visual design.

What has been the general response from educators and learners to products from Backpack Interactive?

It means a lot that our products have been used by literally millions of teachers and learners. It also means that the stakes are high to get it right. We spend a lot of time checking our work with users before releasing them on a larger scale. We’ve been thrilled by the responses we've seen in user testing and feedback from our clients about their end-users. Teacher testing on a recent student data product had some participants saying "I’m not sure I get it right away, so I don’t know if I’d use it." We went right back to work on the problem, iterating and re-testing using rapid prototyping. When we came back to the larger group with a new approach, they said, "oh, you fixed it, great," That little bit of feedback is a big win for us.

What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?

Broad trends include edtech tools that help teachers be more effective through smarter qualitative data (or soft data) that’s genuinely easy to use (not just for the most tech-savvy teachers). Right now, technology is very good at providing personalized learning experiences around math and some early reading mechanics, but not very good at teaching mastery and critical thinking in most other subjects. There is simply less structure to how these subjects are taught and the output is harder to codify and measure. It makes it difficult to use technology to personalize this instruction. I think the teacher will always play a critical part in instruction around these subjects, but new products should focus on helping them be more effective.

Another trend includes edtech tools that empower learners to have a more active role in their education, allowing them to build curiosity about the subject matter. I see technology playing an important role in the decentralization of the classroom and enabling students to learn everywhere and make deeper connections in their learning.

AI-powered voice will be a big player in the next two years as well, and there's a lot of interesting UX work to be done to make it more than just a way to search for information.

What, if any, are future plans for Backpack Interactive?

There’s an aspect of our work product that is production; we’re very good at making logical wireframes and engaging visual interfaces for products. And with the constant emergence of new types of interfaces and technologies, that expertise will continue to evolve. But our approach to solutions through intense design thinking and user-centered problem solving will remain constant and at the core of our process; it’s platform-independent.

Who are the most interesting people you are following on Twitter?

David Baker is my creative business guru, John Meadais the champion for the value of what we do and no one brings together visionary thinking in edTech with what’s really going on in classrooms like George Courous.

Image: Courtesy Sean Oakes