Zeal: Classroom Disruption that Teachers Will Welcome

DesignMap’s engagement with education tech start up Zeal shifted and flexed from logo to interaction to visual design, web to mobile, kids to adults, sole designer to collaborator, project-based to on-going limited consulting. Through it all we stayed efficient and effective, loving every minute as we helped Zeal build a teaching tool for 21st-century education.

Education is a large market sector that has yet to be significantly impacted by technology. In most of today’s classrooms, work flows much the same way it did 50 (or even 100) years ago. But with tablets and other technology moving into classrooms in increasing numbers, teaching is ripe for digital tech disruption.

Education start-up Zeal takes aim at this market with assessment and adaptive learning that allows teachers to differentiate classroom learning. Differentiated learning is a kind of Holy Grail for classroom instruction that tailors lessons and homework to individual student abilities. While it’s what every parent wants for their kid, differentiated learning is what every teacher dreads. Planning for and creating individually tailored lessons takes “hours upon hours of time,” explains Megan Sullivan, an elementary school teacher in San Jose, CA.

Zeal solves this problem by replacing the busy work of teaching with an online learning system that adapts to students’ ability and allows teachers to observe students while they work on math and reading skills. With a right answer, a student will move on to the next level; with a wrong answer he or she will get another problem focused on the same skill. Teachers can observe where students are in their comprehension and adjust classroom instruction accordingly.

Sullivan, who uses Zeal in her 2nd-grade classroom, says she has virtually eliminated paper-based assessments and is able to keep all her students engaged no matter where they fall in ability. “My kids range in reading levels from kindergarten all the way up to mid-4th grade,” she says. “With Zeal, I can quickly assess where my students are by looking at the data and then break them up into small groups of like ability for focused classroom instruction.”

Online Learning Tools that Make Teaching and Teachers More Effective

The seeds for Zeal began while founder John Danner was running Rocketship Education, the charter school non-profit that he founded in 2007. At Rocketship, Danner integrated technology from the start, creating adaptive online learning tools to teach basic math and reading skills. With Zeal, Danner wanted to pick up this concept of adaptive learning and expand it with the important teacher component of real-time student assessment.

At our first meeting, Danner came with a clear vision for an Internet-based education tool but without features, design, a logo or even a name. Our tasks touched just about every piece of this work, including interaction, visual and logo design for both desktop and mobile devices.

Our first step was to map the paper-based homework and assessment cycle of a traditional classroom and then show how Zeal changed this workflow.

Classroom Workflow Model

Zeal’s real-time assessment makes the feedback loop between teachers and students, which can take days in the paper world, virtually instant. Teachers can even watch while students work on homework assignments outside the classroom.

Zeal classroom model

In addition to mapping the workflow of a Zeal classroom, we also helped Danner to conceptualize and visualize interactions between teachers, parents and students. These interactions get complex during the on-boarding process, which requires specific actions from all three players—parents, students and teachers—that happen on both desktop and mobile devices.

Teacher Roster Model

The fleshing out of Zeal’s components and features was a truly collaborative process. The humility of Danner’s approach to shaping Zeal and its design was a delightful experience for us. While he could claim consummate expertise both as a former teacher, a charter school founder, a parent and as Zeal’s founder, Danner managed to remain open to our contributions and learnings from users while still holding firmly to his vision.

“DesignMap was extremely helpful in the early stages of Zeal’s development,” explains Danner. “I didn’t think I would need a design firm involved until later in the process but they were able to help us visualize the way we wanted to app to be. They really understood where we wanted to get to.”

Nimble and Collaborative Logo Design

Once Danner and his co-founder Sanjay Noronha landed on a name for their product, they asked us to design a logo. While logos don’t fall under DesignMap’s typical engagement umbrella, we liked the idea of adding this piece to our Zeal work. We started with a “design swarm,” bringing over 15 of our designers together to sketch out logo ideas and concepts.

Logo Sketches 1
Logo Sketches 2

We narrowed down the sketches within the team and then sent them to a broad collection of educators and parents for their opinions. With this group’s feedback we further narrowed down the options to just a few and then refined those so we had more than sketches to present to Zeal.

Logo Options

Once the final logo selection was made, we went broad again, playing with color and versions for both desktop and mobile implementations.

Logo Variations

We reached out again to our group of educators and parents for feedback on the final versions. This process of collecting input is typical of the effective work cycle with created as we worked with Zeal: starting with highly defined task, providing space for ideation, taking a humble stance regarding feedback and designing iteratively.

Mistakes will be Made: Designing for Kids

Iterative design played an important role in creating design elements for Zeal’s student users. For much of the product, the primary design consideration was the non-adult user, a new challenge for us. For example, Zeal required a non-text based password system that would provide real security while still being memorable for even the youngest students. So instead of a typical password system, we devised a system of “Secret Identity Masks” that students built themselves by choosing slices of different animal graphics, such as fox ears, fish eyes and an elephant trunk.


When user testing revealed that the software’s student users couldn’t remember their mask slices, Zeal had to revise the password system. They expanded our graphic concept of animal heads into a new picture-based PIN method that kids were able to recall at log in.

Picture PIN Log in

Again, this process was typical of our partnership with Zeal, which by this point in the project had hired its own design team. We provided a design direction that they tested and then adapted based on results.

Zeal’s Real-Time Testing Uncovers Design Quandaries that We Help Solve

Real-time user testing continues today as Danner and his team refine product features and functionality. Each test uncovers design issues and after a year of “getting into the grind” of developing and going live, Danner reengaged DesignMap to help solve new design challenges. Zeal’s design team meets with us to review the week’s design issues and we provide feedback with ideas for solutions.

“We follow lean start up practices,” explains Danner. “We are always trying to figure out the minimal version we can get out to test with users. These features almost never survive first use and we have to go back and fix it.”

Before Feedback
After Feedback

“Each time we meet, DesignMap gives us three to four solid ideas,” Danner continues. “They are a great sounding board with an ability to clarify the problems we’re having and what we need to do to fix them.”

Today, Danner decribes Zeal as a pre-funding product looking for its market fit. “We’re about half way to where we want to be,” explains Danner.

While Danner searches for that market sweet spot, teachers are using the product watching it get better and better over time, as elementary school teacher Sullivan says.
“The more time they spend on making the application better, the more useful it is for me,” she explains. As refinement continues, DesignMap is a part of the process, helping Zeal to get all the way ‘there,’ one step at a time.