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The most important ingredient in learning design

Blog posts | 05.10.2020

Steve Lowenthal

CEO - Kineo US at Kineo US

Most of us spend the better part of 17 of our first 22 years on this earth as students. Unfortunately, we often walk away from that experience with a lot of misinformed perceptions about learning. Our experience teaches us that teachers are more important than students, learning is passive, content comes in the form of facts & figures and it’s not important if what we learn is relevant to our lives or not.  

Not a pretty picture and not surprisingly, many of these misperceptions make their way into the corporate learning world as well. So, what’s the missing ingredient? It’s empathy, of course. 

With empathy, we understand that learning is about the learner not the instructor or SME. With empathy, we understand that the opportunity to practice and apply is more important than information delivery. With empathy we understand that stories, cases and analogies, make it easier to understand and remember complex ideas. With empathy, we understand that providing a relevant context helps us connect and create a relationship with the learner. Empathy is the most important ingredient in learning design.

Understanding your learners

Empathy for a learning designer is about putting yourself in the shoes of the learner and taking a critical eye to the proposed goals, content and outcomes of a learning program and asking questions like: Do those goals align with my own?  If, how and when will the content be helpful and relevant? Do these outcomes align with my priorities?  What will be the blockers and barriers to the desired outcomes? It’s only with these answer as inputs that we can begin to design the best solution. So how can we become more empathetic designers? Here are four easy-to-implement strategies:

  1. Spend time with learners 
    This may sound obvious, but, if you’re honest, how often do you make time to speak with, shadow or otherwise engage with the learners in your learning design process?  This can take the shape of a quick zoom call, a survey, a ride-along or focus groups.  Of course, more will generally be better, but making time to meet even a handful of people from your learner audience will likely give you a new perspective on how to design a solution that will address their needs. 

  2. Create Empathy Maps
    An empathy map is a quick digestible way to illustrate learner attitudes and behaviors.  The exercise of creating the empathy map, helps you to make explicit what you know about learners in order to 1) create a shared understanding of user needs, and 2) inform design decisions.  

  3. Develop Personas
    Like Empathy Maps, personas are a tool to make what we know about a learner audience explicit.  The two tools can be used together to get a robust picture of your learner. Personas are essentially fictional characters built on aggregated, real-world user data. The result of thoughtful learner persona research is a tangible document that represents a new, fictitious team member. This is beneficial when the full team needs to make decisions throughout the project. They will be able to view a learning solution through the lens of the persona and can consider what this person would need throughout their development.

  4. Engage SMES / Stakeholders 
    Again, this may sound obvious, but getting your stakeholders and SMEs out of their ivory towers and in front of the learners may be the most important thing you can do.  If they won’t come along, record your interviews for focus groups and share your findings.  They may fight you at first but hearing straight from the audience can be very powerful.  We often find SMEs and stakeholders think they know their learners but are then both surprised and grateful to have these insights.

As the sentiment from famous saying, before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes, so poignantly conveys, it’s critical that we see the world from the learning audience’s view before proposing a solution that will meet their needs.  Design is about problem solving through the lens of our audience and empathy is the critical ingredient.  

Steve Lowenthal

CEO - Kineo US at Kineo US

Steve Lowenthal has over 15 years of experience in Learning Technologies in consultancy, sales and management roles. He's a regular speaker at US conferences and events on trends in LMS, elearning and technology.