SDN Team
Author - SDN Team

How service design was used to create a new kind of coding school in Helsinki and radically change people's perception of computer programming.

Service Design Award 2019 Finalist Project

Crack the code: How one school demystified programming - by Kuudes Kerros Helsinki Oy

Category: Professional Non-Profit/Public Sector

Client: Supercell

Location: Finland

The challenge

From the apps in our smartphones to the driverless cars coming to our roads, computer programming is used everywhere in our increasingly digital world. Recruiters are always on the lookout for skilled coders, and yet they are in short supply. It is estimated that by 2025, Finland alone will be suffering a shortfall of some 25,000 programmers (Kauppalehti, 15.03.2018).

Part of the reason for this is that society has a very narrow view on what coding is about. It's widely perceived as a male-centric profession dominated by mathematics experts who have been working with computers all their lives. Indeed, only 15% of ICT students in Finland arewomen (Tieto Trendit, 29.11.2018). And education in the sector has largely been theoretical, lacking the hands-on approach that modern organizations expect from coders.

The client – a global mobile-gaming giant that itself employs many coders – felt that the best way to tackle these challenges was to establish a completely new kind of coding school in Finland.

The company's CEO wanted to base the school on the French 42 school model, where learning takes place through peer-to-peer collaboration, creative problem-solving and project based learning. The concept comes with an established curriculum, but everything else about the school and its student experience needed to be designed from scratch. The client
started a new, independent foundation to run this first 42 school in the Nordic region.

We were chosen to lead this massive service-design project: crafting an insight-driven customer experience concept for the school, designing and building its identity and digital presence, and creating the spatial concept for the physical building. The school opens its doors to students for the first time in the fall 2019 and the objective for the first year was to receive at least 2 000 applications – both from Finland and from abroad.

The insight-driven process

For the insight phase, we wanted to tap into the mindsets of prospective students and learn about the problems with tech education in general. For this we used a variety of explorative insight methodologies, including contextual interviews with high-school students, a questionnaire for the client's coding employees, and semi-structured interviews with opinion leaders from the education and technology sectors. In total, we spoke to more than 20 potential students, received questionnaire responses from 25 employees, and interviewed 10 opinion leaders.

We then segmented and built four target group profiles for potential students based on two motives for applying to study coding. Some had a higher level of openness to try new areas of expertise than others who were already more focused on what they knew best.

When it came to their relationship with technology we saw people who had been coding and using technology as a means to express themselves and others who needed other values an benefits before jumping in. We mapped these against "pains and gains" that the school needed to address.

This work was accompanied by a trend mapping and benchmarking study to explore the different futures of both working life and education, in order to understand the wider context in which the school operates.

We also compiled a positioning analysis of the school's competitors, and conducted workshops with the client's top management team – including the CEO, CFO and head of communications – to analyze our insights and define their impact upon the execution of the new school. These joint workshops helped us to map the findings against the client's own experience working in the tech industry, and define the goals and vision for the future school.

Breaking the myths of coding

The data was analyzed through affinity mapping ang grouped into themes. These key insights laid the foundation for our design work. Surprisingly, the perception of coding as a profession from people outside the industry was almost the direct opposite to that of people inside of it.

Few outsiders regarded coding as an appealing career choice, viewing it as solitary work – mainly in the gaming industry – where people interact only with machines. Many also saw the field as too masculine. We discovered that these prejudices are reinforced by tech companies and other schools that use cold colors and hard lines to communicate and emphasize "tech". Some people viewed it as strengthening the masculinity and coldness of the industry.

While people working in the field agreed that more gender diversity is needed, they viewed coding as a social profession that requires proper skills in group-working, communication, and problem-solving.

We also learned from employers that the coder recruitment shortfall is not necessarily related to a lack of available coders, but a lack of good coders. The most successful coders are not only skilled at programming, but also in problem solving, creative thinking and group work.

What they have in common is not a specific skill, but rather a passion for something else besides coding, such as music, gaming or studying law. We understood that in the future, these are the people, companies recruiting coders will increasingly be looking for.

Thus, in order to attract the best potential coders, we needed to help prospective students to discover and nurture their passion. It was these people that we wanted to have as applicants to the new school, and for this we understood that we needed to lower the threshold for applying to study coding. In short, we had to effectively communicate the diversity that exists within the profession.

When we looked at other education institutes teaching coding, we saw that they were not geared towards helping students with the difficult life decision of choosing a future career. Schools were focusing on communicating what they teach, rather than how the skills are taught, and why they would be of benefit to student's in their future careers.

In order to demystify the whole concept of coding, we needed to redefine what coding as a profession actually is, and we needed to champion new kinds of role models – including women.

Bringing the school to life

We decided we would create a coding school that would lead the way by living and breathing diversity, inclusion and collaboration. We understood that rather than thinking about the school as a traditional educational institute, we needed to treat it more like an organization. The school needed its own clear and distinctive mission, vision and brand.

The output of the insight-based customer experience concept has been executed in an omnichannel manner, the main design outputs being the school's tone of voice, visual identity, digital services, and physical space.

We used the design thinking process where divergent and convergent modes led from inspiration to implementation. The four target student profiles that were created have been used in all phases of the design process.

Designing the identity and communication

Whereas other coding schools projected an academic or technical approach, we designed the new school's experience concept around the creation of an inclusive community that uses code as its global language, and as the ingredient to fulfill one's potential and passion.

The idea of a common community and language inspired the design work for the visual identity, which combines ancient writing, lines of code, pop culture references, and emojis. The end results were visual identity and illustrations that are colorful and inclusive.

Designing the web experience

The main goal of the digital experience was to lower the threshold for applying to the school and to be the main communication channel to communicate about coding in a radically different way.

People first
Putting people first in digital experience meant being relevant to all four identified potential user groups – not only the people who already knew what coding is all about. Inclusion and diversity were constantly visually reinforced, with practically every photo and video including real pictures of men, women and people of different ethnicities – all coding together. We also put a lot of effort in understanding what kind of information people were looking for and how and in what form we should provide it.

Content first
By content first, we made sure that we had the actual content ready and on tap before we started to design the layout. This clickable prototype was tested and iterated many rounds with several potential users both in Helsinki and in a coding school in Paris.

This iterative model helped us in terms of designing the user-flow, adapting the communication style, and learning about which content was best received. Written content and videos covered coding in general, real student profiles from the school in Paris, stories about living in Helsinki, and information about the school's pedagogical program.

Mobile first
As the target group mainly comprised younger people using mobile devices, the whole digital design process was done with mobile-first principle. We lowered the threshold for applying by requiring applicants to insert only their email address – as one would do for an online newsletter – to get information about the application process once it opened.

Designing the space

To develop the actual school space, we went to Paris to study the first 42 school. We conducted both contextual interviews and observed students and staff to learn about their biggest successes and challenges.

One of the core ideas behind the space was to make it look and feel playful. As students may sometimes be there 24/7, the building needs to feel like home – not like an institution.

To create this feeling, we put a lot of attention into collaborative spatial areas that include a games room, a library, an exercise area, and a common kitchen. We also created a separate space for hosting events. This is especially important for partner organizations who want to be visible to students.

Toilets for males and females are separate, as we learnt in Paris that women appreciate some privacy from the predominantly male student group, especially as many of the other spaces are open to anyone 24/7.

We created spaces for both individual work and collaborative work. Computer clusters are organized in a way that naturally places people close by or opposite each other, and thus encourages interaction and team-work.

As Helsinki was seen as a positive reinforcement to the school's identity, we wanted to bring a Finnish feeling to the space as well. Thus, part of the spatial concept reflects Finland’s four seasons, each of which is shown in a different part of the school. We also emphasized the use of Finnish design in interior materials and furniture.

The impact – significantly increased interest in coding as a career

Website, media and public opinion

Since its launch in December 2018, the new school's website has had more than 118 000 unique visitors, and its front page almost half a million visits. In the first two weeks, we had 2 500 people sign up for an e-mail with more information about the application process.

These numbers support the fact that the school has indeed made a massive impact, and that interest is coming not only from potential students, but from a wider audience too. The school has been featured in Finnish media reports almost every week, and has ignited a broader public discussion about the importance of studying coding. The discourse has shifted to a view that studying coding is indeed for everyone, and that it is about helping to solve some of the world's biggest challenges.

One week after the launch of the school in December 2018, 45 % of the core target group (brand awareness market research, 16–30 years old, n= 1000) had heard about the coding school, and 48 % of the core target group said they would consider applying to the school. 42% of women considered applying.

The application process
We had hoped to have 900 people pass the preliminary online test in the first five months, but we surpassed this number in just 2 weeks. Within six weeks of opening the application process, 7 000 subscriptions to the preliminary online test had been submitted, and over 2 200 applicants had passed the test. To date, the school has received 9 000 applications and 2 792 tests have been passed.

In comparison, the biggest university in Finland had just 1 624 applicants for their computer programming course in the spring of 2019 (helsinki.fi). The new coding school received more than five times as many applicants.

Improved gender diversity
In clear confirmation of the insights yielded by our research, the share of female applicants to the new school is 34% – more than double the industry norm (Tieto Trendit, 29.11.2018). We have also been told by Helsinki University that the number of female students applying to study computer science there has suddenly increased by 40%, and that they believe the surge is related to interest in the new coding school.

Conclusion

We believe this project is a textbook example of how a service-design approach can provide the insights required for iteratively designing a truly user-centric experience – all the way from A to Z.

We increased the client’s understanding of the context, we widened the base of potential students, we began to shift public opinion, and we created a solid foundation for the school to begin its operations.

The concept was so novel and strong that it has also impacted other schools, and has influenced the discussion around coding education both in Finland and in other parts of the world.

Several coding schools have since reached out to the client to understand how they were able to create such an inspiring concept and make such a huge positive impact around studying coding.

As the school opens its doors to its first 120 students in October 2019, we’re eager to see how the physical design concept is received, and we look forward to seeing the positive impact the new school will have on its students and their future professional needs.

We feel privileged to have been involved in this unique project, and we hope to continue working with the client on making iterative improvements to the concept.

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