“People don’t like experimenting with kids’ futures”

Pratham Books, flickr.com, CC-BY 2.0
Pratham Books, flickr.com, CC-BY 2.0

Amr Abu-Hmeidan, Chief Executive Officer of the Dubai-based Asafeer Education Technologies and winner of the Transforming Education Prize, talks about the roles of behavioural research and habit building in developing effective ed-tech products.

Elizabeth West: Why do you do what you do?  

Amr Abu-Hmeidan: I am a parent of two kids, and as they started growing up I found the lack of good content and stories that could get them interested in learning more about the world quite troubling, so I thought I should do something about this and started working on it. I was doing it on the side, as a favour to other parents like me.

The first thing I did was develop a website, a social page, and a blog, which quickly saw a positive response from parents. The team expanded and we developed an app – called Asafeer – to help build literacy skills for primary school in Arabic. We started getting feedback from teachers who were using it in the classroom. At that point, I was still writing the stories myself, illustrating them myself, developing everything myself – and then I thought we should take it to the next level.

I began hiring authors and illustrators and we got lots of scripts from different authors of children’s books. The main challenge was to find good stories that could get kids interested and at the same time would touch them emotionally. This was the starting point and then, bit by bit, working with the teachers, we came to understand their problems; we created a special app for schools and then took it from there.

EW: Why hasn’t a company like yours been created before in this part of the world?

AAH: It takes a blend of different things, different skills and different passions, for a person to want to create something like this. I had a passion for reading, that’s one thing. The other thing is I have considerable experience in technology. And then I’m compulsive about building habits – how can you build habits that are productive and positive in your life, and how can you get rid of bad habits? So, I took these three things and used them to build what we have today and to keep improving on it.

EW: You mentioned that one of the things you like to do is to focus on habits. How does behavioural science work to promote literacy?

“How can you build habits that are productive and positive in your life, and how can you get rid of bad habits?”

AAH: One of the first things we did was to look at the data that already exist.

We found that everyone who is reading through our app is doing so around bedtime, so, we started referencing that in the messages we sent through our social page.

We were successful in encouraging lots of users to develop the habit of reading, and they now use the app regularly – before going to sleep they read a story or two. We started sending notifications that keep reminding parents and teachers to encourage reading, and keep reminding kids to read as well. If we do that enough times, they will become regular readers.

EW: Can you describe how research has contributed to the development of the technology?

AAH: Whenever we do something, we try to look at the body of research that has been done in that area, so most of the work we do is based on research. We try to focus on the effort of the children rather than the end result. We mainly used research from Carol Dweck, a psychologist from Stanford. She wrote a good book, Mindset, that talks about growth mentality versus static mentality and how it affects progress in life – that’s one part of the research we used.

We also classify our stories by their accessibility or level of difficulty, using a standard developed by the Arab Thought Foundation which is based on research by Hanada Taha. Help was provided by researchers Ahmad Oueini and Katia Hazoury, who took a study conducted on literacy in the English language and re-ran it in Arabic to determine whether the findings still apply, noting important differences between the two languages.

EW: Based on your experience, do you think it’s preferable to do research in advance of launching a product; or to launch a product and then do customer research?

AAH: The common wisdom with start-ups is you keep tweaking and improving your product, which I fully believe in. But in education, you also have to at least understand what you’re trying to do and why you’re trying to do it in that way so that you can achieve proper results. Plus, people don’t like experimenting with kids’ futures. We generally use small focus groups and the large amount of data that we collect from our 100,000 monthly active users to gain more and more insight into what we are doing and how to make it work better.

Asafeer Education Technologies is a Dubai-based company which provides schools with online digital resources for reading focused on enhancing literacy and socio-emotional skills for Arabic speakers. Asafeer is the winner of the Transforming Education Prize, a collaboration between Seedstars World and the TRECC program. Asafeer’s CEO, Amr Abu-Hmeidan, has over 13 years of experience in the tech industry.