User Experience in Learning

dreamstime_xs_62282700Over the last 18 months, working – for the first time – with experts in user experience (UX), I’ve come to truly appreciate the need to put the learner (our own end-user) at the heart of what we do in L&D.  In our everyday lives, the products and services – at least those that are successful and enduring – have UX at their heart, from the design of the product, through to its packaging and how it’s delivered, be that online or through more traditional approaches. And these brands never stop refining whatever it is they do.  They truly listen to the voice of their users; and when they’ve stopped listening, they’ve faltered.  There is so much we can learn from them.

I will admit to have only really taken the user’s voice into account in the latter half of my 23 years in L&D; and then only gradually.  And when I look around today, I see many examples of where L&D practitioners and instructional designers still default to models and practices that demonstrate their competence in the science of learning and the art of training, but which don’t wholeheartedly embrace the critical insights our learners can offer – and that only our learners can offer.

I’ve also had the privilege (and luxury of time) to impartially listen to the learners (users) within many organisations and to hear their honest reactions and opinions on learning in the workplace. Along with their respective L&D professionals, at times we’ve been taken aback by how differently they see things.  I’ve personally found myself questioning what I’ve done in the past and I caution any L&D practitioner who thinks they still know best.  From my own experience, I’d go as far to say that:

The moment you take up an L&D role, you cease being a ‘normal’ learner yourself and can no longer solely rely on your own judgement.

By taking on board what learners tell us – and do naturally and habitually – we really can remove barriers to learning and improve the overall impact of the learning we support.

The user-experience in learning has a number of dimensions that deliver a learner-centred L&D strategy, which I’ll now describe.

Learner-centred L&D Strategy
A learner-centred L&D strategy
Whose agenda?

Most of us now accept that we need to continue to focus our investments on what will truly make a difference for our organisations and directly support them in the achievement of their goals.  But when it comes to developing the solutions to support these, we also need to align what we do to the agenda of the learners themselves.

  • What will motivate the individual learner to engage with the learning solution? We will need to translate the organisational driver into something more personal for them.
  • In an ideal world, the goals that individuals set for themselves – either within or outside of the performance management process – should have some alignment to the organisational goals. We should look to link the learning to those, as they are what will translate the ultimate goal into reality.
  • With all the conflicting priorities faced by the learners, how can we reflect those in the learning solution, so that it receives the attention it requires? This might well mean we need to design it in such a way so that it can be interwoven into the workflow.
  • How can we target the individual learning needs of each person, rather than offering a blanket solution that we know doesn’t deliver an efficient result?
Whose learning structures and frameworks?

This consideration has arisen from the work I’ve been doing with learners regarding their experience of using learning management systems (LMSs) and stems from how we organise content.  Get it right, then learners “get it” and are able to quickly, efficiently and effectively consume the learning they need.  Get it wrong and they are left confused and less engaged.

  • Do you organise you content according to academic models? Do you refer to curricula, syllabi or learning pathways, etc.?  Does this fit with your employees’ views of how content should be organised?  Are individual pieces of content getting lost within these structures?  Do the concepts that underlie these models imply that people should study everything at the expense of letting learners choose what they actually need?
  • Are you constrained by how your LMS lets you organise content? There might be a smarter way to do this within the confines of your system, or you might achieve some quick wins by stepping back from using all of the layers of content your system lets you create.  I’ve actually seen a lot of success by stripping back on the use of perceived structures, letting a more visual representation of how content is aggregated to lead learners through the content.  The user experience suffers when you over-complicate the organisation of content with numerous catalogues, topic areas, channels or categories, especially if your system hosts the content from a number of different stakeholders, who each have their own views about how “their” content “must” be organised.  It’s not uncommon to see a single piece of content appearing in more than one place, which only serves to confuse matters more.
  • Have you considered how employees consume content outside of the workplace? Popular social networking sites – and those that provide forms of learning content – follow the latest (and robustly tested) principles of consumer–grade content organisation.  The users of these sites have no problems in finding what they want quickly and easily, so we should learn from these.
Whose preferred rewards?

As we’ll see later, getting the job done successfully might be the only reward a learner is looking for, but looking more broadly, a great user experience should leave the learner (user) feeling good and looking forward to more of the same.  Developers of other services often refer to “moments of delight” when something unexpected but pleasant happens to the user as they are interacting with the system or service, possibly even when just doing something very mundane.

  • Learners are actually motivated by receiving acknowledgement for the activity they are doing and this doesn’t have to be fiscal. Even a simple “thank you” or “well done” from their line manager can be enough.  Building in ways for our learning solutions and systems to notify managers of the learning achievements of their staff can enhance the overall user (learning) experience.
  • Learning – long before the days of self-paced digital solutions – has always been an inherently social experience; and with the arrival of social media and online relationship building and collaboration platforms, we are seeing a return to an appreciation of the value of social interactions in learning. Peer support and recognition is increasingly providing rewards for those undertaking learning, both in terms of the support that others can provide but increasingly through learners being able to get feedback on their contributions to the learning conversations that increasingly support more formal learning interventions.
  • Gamification may have a role to play here too, though evidence I’ve seen suggests we need to be careful in not assuming that all our learners feel this rewards them appropriately. But in terms of providing “moments of delight”, I’ve seen lots of examples of learners receiving boosts when getting bonus points or badges they weren’t expecting, then appreciating there were more on offer if they continued on their current path, so enhancing their user experience.
Whose terminology?

This is a related area that can often tie us up in knots, as also proven when I’ve worked with end-users.  Do you refer to programmes or courses or modules or lessons, for example?  Is a course made up of lessons, modules, classes, events or sessions?  I’ve seen how learners can soon become frustrated when they have to master the terminology and then wade through the accompanying levels of content to find what they actually need.  The move towards more micro-learning resources also points to the need to strip away much of the terminology we use.  As I mentioned above, I’ve seen a lot of success from visually representing learning content that has not used any terminology whatsoever.  Learners have been able to make the relevant connections without the need to master different terms.

Whose preferences?

A great user experience occurs when developers take on board what the user tells them, either explicitly or indirectly through observing their actual behaviour.  It’s therefore important to consider user preferences when developing user-friendly learning.

  • Learning styles is generally one of the preferences that concerns L&D professionals the most, though we need to be mindful – and open-minded – about the real significance of this, as evidence points to the fact that most people are able to learn via any approach. But it’s still important to look at what target learners (users) say about this topic.
  • Learners should also be consulted about the method (and format) that would work best for them in terms of the content being covered and the context and environment in which it will be consumed.
  • In today’s digital world and where technology – in particular mobile – dominates the world outside of work, it’s also important to consider what technology learners feel would best support the learning need. With employees turning to the smartphones or consumer-grade sources of external content on a regular basis, we need to be sympathetic to these approaches when we develop our learning solutions.  In fact, thinking – for example – “mobile first” has its advantages in encouraging us to provide content in an easily digestible format, providing we adhere to good mobile user experience design principles.
Whose content?

The interest in user-generated content (UGC) has – in part – arisen due to the popularly of peer-to-peer content creation and sharing.  Organisations are already seeing the benefits from introducing UGC content into the mix in terms of increasing the amount and variety of content on offer that has a higher degree of authenticity in the eyes of learners, is more practically-focused and able to be contextualised and applied back on the job more quickly.  The user experience is also improved through the author and curators of content being more in tune with the needs and environments of the target recipients.

Whose measures of success?

In the world of user experience, we often refer to task completion as a measure of success.  How easy and quick was it for the user to complete the task they set out to do?  If that proves difficult, users typically vote with their feet and abort what they’re doing at the first major hurdle and look for a Plan B.

Learning something is rarely a goal in itself in the world of work.  It’s not the main task.  Getting the job done – or doing the new job that top management wants being done – is the typical driver, along with helping advance one’s own career.

In the world of user experience, success comes from understanding the so-called user journey.  So it’s important that we look at the learner journey when developing learning solutions.  That doesn’t mean imposing what we believe to the desired journey either, but working with learners on what routes they feel they need to take to arrive at the final destination.  Do they want to go directly there, perhaps through stepping back from what they are doing to follow a concentrated period of learning, or are they looking to meander their way there, through engaging with short bursts of content as part of their everyday workflow?

Whose standards and benchmarks?

It’s not uncommon now to hear the expression “just enough is good enough”.  Striving for total perfection in today’s fast-paced work environment is not always realistic or even desirable in some situations.  A great user experience nowadays is a combination of helping people to meet their immediate and pressing needs and making sure they can do this efficiently and without overloading them in the process.

Outside of the workplace, users gravitate to those sites that keep things simple and allow them to get the job done quickly.  The developers of these sites might have originally intended to offer much more to their users, but early – and ongoing –  user trials have taught them to scale back and to focus on delivering just enough to get the job done.

Over-engineering a learning solution – either in terms of content-creep or by over-complicating its design and structure – can lead to a poor user experience and lower levels of engagement.

That’s not to say that learners will readily accept something of a low standard, but simplicity is the key factor.  Learners will also benchmark what they get internally against what’s out there in the wider market for information and knowledge sharing, so we need to be mindful of the tools, sites and services that they are using outside of work and understand what attracts users to these sources.  Today, these are important benchmarks for L&D professionals.

* * * * *

Remember:  Google, YouTube and platforms such as and TED Talks are now the dominant learning brands in the world of learning.  They successfully put user experience at the centre of what they do.  How will your L&D brand stack up against them?  By following their example, you will improve your competitive position in today’s consumer-driven learning world.


User Experience in Learning

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