Client Interview - Carbon Five and Drucker Institute

Lessons from Developing a Community Learning Platform –

Nancy Samahito ·

Carbon Five and Drucker Institute - Bendable - Product Development

An interview with Rick Wartzman and Sarah Zaner.

In the midst of a global pandemic, Carbon Five client, Drucker Institute, launched Bendable, a community-based learning platform, in June 2020. We sat down with Rick Wartzman, Executive Director, and Sarah Zaner, Senior Director at KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at Drucker Institute, to learn more about their experience and the lessons they’ve learned while developing, launching and running Bendable during this unique time.

What is Bendable?

Launched in South Bend, Indiana, Bendable is a life-long learning system that allows all residents, no matter their background or age, to acquire new skills through online courses as well as through in-person opportunities.

TLDR – Bendable lessons in a snapshot: 

  • User research and design become exponentially important when launching a product during the pandemic.
  • Community-based design is a growing craft that can help product development teams build better human-centered products
  • Know your base and set realistic expectations when it comes to user growth and adoption. 
  • Users will “hack” and help evolve your product in unexpected ways. Respond to user behavior accordingly.
  • Product development partnerships thrive with process, transparency, and trust. 
  • Watch the complete interview on video here.

Carbon Five and Drucker Institute - Bendable Interview

A few highlights from the conversation

Launching during a pandemic forced the Bendable team to make significant changes to its original rollout plans. 

“We always designed Bendable to be part place-based and part digital system…and what we wanted to do with the technology was to help organize resources and connect people to them. Give them access to really valuable and relevant content. And really connect them to their own community. Then COVID hit and we realized ‘Hey we’re not going to be able to launch the place-based part of this program the same way we wanted to.’ But we had a lot of great design principles in our digital app that brought out the feeling of belonging and community through the app itself.” -Sarah

With more people at home due to the on-going pandemic, the demand for virtual learning grew overnight.

“In some ways, you can argue, this was an incredibly important time to launch in June. People need up-skilling and re-skilling more than ever. There are indications from some of our content partners…after the initial shock of the pandemic, not surprisingly, did people start to go to online learning because they were stuck at home. Maybe they’ve been furloughed and they were trying to use the time, or they were told to use the time by their employers to take a certain course. Some unfortunately, and this trend is hardening and deepening in terms of people, now being laid off permanently. If they have the means and can do it in terms of affordability and time, depending on childcare and other things. [People are] turning to online sources to up-skill and re-skill to be in a better position when the job market turns back up.“ – Rick


Finding trusted partners like Carbon Five and IDEO played a key role in Bendable’s launch success. 

“Be purposeful and intentional about who joins the team…It all comes down to trust, and building trust and having it be genuine. What trust allows is for the hard moments.” 

Process, listening and transparency creates “genuine respect and that allows for candor…There is nothing personal…it was all about the shared goal about making the lifelong learning system as good as it could be.”-Rick

The Bendable app has already seen: 

  • 8,000 unique visitors
  • 1,200 returned visitors
  • 1,000 referred visits to partner sites

The platform is an example of how community-based design can effectively contribute to the development of a successful human-centered product.

There is an emerging craft and discipline in the design community and certainly within IDEO around community-based design…it follows through from human-centered design…and it makes sense to think about not just the individual humans that are going to touch and feel a product, but the actual community that’s going to have to be engaged and activated to make change happen.”  -Sarah

“An important part was bringing the Carbon Five team to South Bend [pre-COVID] to be on the ground and meet people and understand the full context. You were designing the software, but you need to get on the streets to really understand the project fully and be exposed to all of that. And I think those things are invaluable.” -Rick


As the Bendable community continues to grow, users are starting to use the platform in collaborative ways beyond content discovery. 

What we’re most excited about is the use of Bendable by organizational partners, institutions across South Bend. Employers are starting to use Bendable to assign different courses that they can find on the site to their employees for learning and development…Classroom teachers are starting to use Bendable in the classroom to assign to their students. The city’s parks department had a youth summer jobs program and 89 young people took six classes on Bendable as part of that experience.

What we’re seeing is that all kinds of stakeholders across the city are starting to hack Bendable and are starting to figure out, with our help, how to leverage the system and meet their own missions, meet their own goals and weave it into their own programming and activities. That is really starting to take off through the hard work of our colleagues on the ground and through the library in South Bend. Which is really the public face of Bendable in the city and the steward of the system locally. Their hard work is starting to really pay off in that way.” -Rick

To support this, Bendable has created a new learning management section within its digital app called “Communities” where organizations can curate the learnings to share with or assign to groups. 

Deeper industry challenges also emerged as the pandemic and social justice movements continue to impact communities in different ways. 

“At the same time, the pandemic has exposed all these deep fault lines in the system. How precarious most people’s economic lives are, how terrible institutional racism is. We see all those things too through the eyes of the community that we work closely with and in South Bend. The resulting economic turmoil has just made it harder for people to do anything. In some ways, they need Bendable now more than ever and, others, their lives are so fragile, they can barely keep their head above water, and maybe as much as they’d want to use Bendable, there is just no time and space in their lives to do it. 

Learning is just one piece of a bigger solution that needs to happen in so many neighborhoods that have been under served for so long in cities and communities across America, along with all kinds of other things. It’s a piece of the puzzle along with the need for good jobs, childcare, transportation, and more green space and healthier food, and all these things.” -Rick

“It’s been interesting to have a technology forward solution put out in the market and space at this moment. It is showing the urgency of up-skilling and re-skilling…There is an interesting role for Bendable to play in that overall conversation where we keep reminding people there are these enormous numbers and statistics, but there are people and communities and families behind those statistics. 

What you have to really do is focus not only on the humans, but also the jobs, the quality of jobs and the lives they’re going to live beyond COVID. There is a role for AI to play in all of this, a role for other job matching platforms, but our corner of the puzzle is really to help build resilience within a community.” -Sarah

What’s next for Bendable?

“We’re looking to expand to new cities. We’re in conversation with a half dozen or so different communities around the country. On-going conversations about bringing Bendable to those places. Launching more cities in 2021.” -Rick

Watch the complete interview with the Bendable team and sign-up for the next Agile Growth Workshop to learn more about product development and design.