Alphonso “Fonz” Morris is a senior product designer at Coursera, one of the world’s largest EdTech platforms. We sat down to talk to him about his journey and his vision for the company and himself.
Hailing from Brooklyn, NY, Fonz made his way to the south in search of higher education at the historically Black Morehouse College. As a self-described “engineering-minded kind of kid,” his childhood dream was to become an architect. However, when he got to college, a computer science career seemed to have more potential than an architectural one.
While at Morehouse, he also participated in a study-abroad program at Oxford University, where he studied art history and visited some of the world’s most iconic museums and galleries.
Although he began his computer science degree at Morehouse, he later transferred to Georgia State after two years because he could no longer afford tuition. While he made this move purely out of financial necessity, he believes everything worked out for the best.
During his last year of college, Georgia State received a grant to build a multimedia lab fully-furnished and equipped with all-new tools.
Morris started his first business about one year after graduating from GA State. He and his co-founders started off doing promotional materials like flyers, logos, and business cards.
The business’s initial success allowed him to imagine a career in digital art and design rather than in computer science. They continued to grow the business, which got aqui-hired by The Lomax Company, a Black angel investment company from Pennsylvania. The investment from Lomax funded their first product, myArtistDNA — a platform for independent creatives to promote their work and skills. The application saw some success, but the business lost financial steam and shut down.
On Continuing Education
Morris had already immersed himself in formal and informal education, but he was still compelled to elevate his skills. He attended the UX Designer boot camp at General Assembly so he could learn the industry’s best practices and bring more value to his customers.
“This was me saying how could I possibly add value to the product that we were building. That’s when I realized; maybe I should go to something like GA to make sure I’m caught up on all the necessary processes and steps that I need to build the product the right way,” Morris said.
He had met the founders of General Assembly before the company had even launched and was already familiar with their idea. The founders encouraged him to give the program a try once it launched. The experience would change his life in more ways than he previously imagined as it exposed him to the power and potential of EdTech through GA’s online platform.
Journey to Coursera
The founder’s hunger to be an entrepreneur meant that he spent the first few years of his career jumping between startups and traditional corporate jobs.
After myArtistDNA closed down, he joined the team at High 5 Games, an online video game company. Then, he moved back to Philadelphia to work on Comcast’s sales and merchandising team.
“Luckily enough, the same guys that I did the first company with, they raised money, and we did a second business, MyChannel — basically a smaller version of Zoom,” he said. “We were trying to figure out how to do cinema analysis on top of videos and chat.”
Unfortunately, myChannel also lost financial steam, and Morris returned to corporate America. At this point, he was adamant about finding a company whose mission, values, and product would resonate with him. Hoping to find new creative energy in a new environment, he focused on finding a job on the West Coast.
He applied to Coursera because he saw them on CNBC’s list of top companies for 2018 and had also taken courses on their platform. The interview process went well, and the company relocated him and his entire family to their new home in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Life at Coursera
In his role as a lead product designer at Coursera, he’s living his dream of making EdTech widely accessible and has learned what the discipline of product design really is.
“Product design isn’t a specific function. The discipline focuses on the whole lifecycle of a product. If there are five steps in building the product, product design is involved in all five — from ideation to execution. UX design, UI design, user research, product management — these all fall under the product design umbrella,” Morris said.
He admits that the sheer range of tasks with which product designers are required to engage can be daunting, and the job requires someone who can comfortably wear many hats.
“I think I bring the value of just being honest and being able to communicate. I’m a really good designer, but I’m also a great team player, and that allows me to build relationships and work across teams to get things done,” Morris said.
He credits the success in his current role to his computer science background combined with his passion for people.
“I’m that guy who can talk to the marketing team, talk to the engineering team, talk to the design team, and talk to the business strategy team. At Coursera, I think I’ve had success in executing projects because I stress good communication,” he said.
His enthusiasm for continuous learning also guides his work by allowing him to empathize with the platform’s customers and potential customers.
“At Coursera, we design for the user. When I’m working on a project, I try to take on the learner’s perspective — someone who’s an up-skiller or re-skiller. I think, if I were them, what would I be looking for? This is why we do a lot of user testing to make sure we’re getting the right feedback rather than designing in a silo,” he said.
So, how do you design a product to be effective for tens of millions of global users from all walks of life? Fonz gives us some insight.
“Inclusive design is a tough job, but you try to do the best you can with a global platform like Coursera that has 45 million learners. You try to be as open-minded as you can about what the learners’ goals are because there is no one right answer. It requires lots of experimentation and creativity,” Morris said.
He points out that Coursera organizes internal teams to strategize outreach to under-represented learners like refugees, minorities, convict re-entry, under-represented high schools in the Bay Area, and veterans.
“Education is for everybody, and everybody can get smarter and should want to get smarter. We’re in a digital revolution. Why not get the skills you need to stay relevant and prosper?” he said.
At the end of the day, Morris’ mission is to empower learners to find what works for them. Whether it’s a single personal development course, specialization, or a master’s degree in computer science, his goal as a product designer is to give learners the tools they need to thrive.