What next for the learning technologies market – the Trello acquisition has some clues

Some time ago I posted a piece about the problems of the one stop shop. Essentially, I was aiming at the increasingly bloated, feature rich LMS and HR systems which tend to dominate the market. They are ripe for that famous digital business moment – disruption. Disruption by smaller, faster, simpler and cheaper alternatives. Not alternatives for everything they do but for a small number (probably one) of the most valuable needs that their array of product features meet.

The recent acquisition of Trello by Atlassian is a really good case example of this phenomenon. Trello is a fast growing project management tool (over 19 million users from 100 staff – that kind of business). Rooted in the software world it was also marketed at designers, marketers and non-tech project workers who enjoy its clarity of purpose, simplicity and ease of use. It helps them track and share progress. Atlassian’s success was built, initially, on the Jira and Confluence products. They started in a similar place and became a standard of the toolsets used in the software world to manage projects and collaborate on development and documentation. By contrast they are more hard core.

Trello was rapidly eating away at Jira’s luncheon and Atlassian was faced with a choice. Compete, (i.e. build a Trello competitor), ignore Trello and continue to build out Jira with new features or buy it. They chose to buy it. This piece by Mitt Tarasowski is an excellent summary of those options and of the position Atlassian found itself in. It is also a parallel story of the LMS trajectory, I believe and of the risk and opportunity in the learning technology and eLearning markets.

Does this seem familiar: large incumbents with feature rich systems, at high and rising prices, which are becoming increasingly hard to manage for customers and can be a dangerously poor experience for the end user. They manage an array of functions for their customers and as result are increasingly complex. These are often market leading positions to take but they are also ripe for focused competitors who do one thing well.

Some of this activity is visible in the learning technology world. New tools and products are arriving which are focused on certain use cases for learners (or users) and are easy to implement or pilot. Noddlepod, Fuse and Looop are examples of these small(er) or new(er) businesses developing a tool quickly and enabling customers to get up and running with a minimum of fuss. I doubt that these are currently replacing LMS purchases (David Perring will no doubt have a view on this). They don’t need to in order to grow, however. There is an opportunity to target smaller customers for whom the full fat options of the big box LMS is too rich. They can target departmental buyers of larger organisations who like the flexibility and simplicity of not having to do battle with the LMS (and sometimes its owners). In this way they can grow the market as they redefine it.

They can focus on a subset of the features of the traditional providers precisely because many of those features are of little utility. Whisper it but…I suspect that you do not need to be a ‘learning professional’ to use them to help people learn. You may not need a technology budget to buy them –  a project budget may be adequate.  The market will grow but perhaps in a less comfy direction for some.

These products have some common attributes which are vital to their success. They are also difficult for large incumbent providers to match and will sustain their advantage for some time yet:

  • Easy to try – low barriers to pilot and test
  • Easy to scale from a small implementation
  • Little or no customer support requirements
  • Cloud – few infrastructure issues or integration headaches
  • Easy to use – low maintenance and support for users
  • Easy to learn how to use – low introduction cost
  • Have user advocates already often via free versions or other jobs/projects
  • Integrate well with other tools (YouTube, MSFT, Gmail  etc.)
  • Develop features and fix bugs quickly

None of this is to say that the large systems vendors are foolish or have poor vision. They have a market to develop and each other to compete with. These smaller providers are not, yet, troubling the Sales Director. They may also provide a route as an exit for start-up investors. That is a more familiar story for the learning technology world.

I suspect, however, that the market will be redefined by new entrants who can see their way to the end-user whilst finding a new route to the customer.



The device is not the user – the user is

Flicking through some conference notes this morning I noticed a quote from an event I attended last year. My notes are poor so I cannot attribute the quote. It was the 2016 version of this event. If you are responsible for it, or you know who may be, do let me know and I will attribute accordingly.

Here is what this wise person said about developing for mobile.

Think of a mobile phone as a customer, as a person, not as a device.

Reading this again, it struck me as blindingly obvious yet very helpful – a hallmark of much good advice. Short. Simple. Direct. Thank you.

As with most consideration of UX matters, a quick check of my own behaviour and expectations helps confirm the approach. There is also the simple fact that (most) devices do not work independently. They are the tools of the user. As tools, they are applied to a purpose, to the purpose of the user. Whilst consideration of how the device or the OS and software handles our content is crucial, it does not necessarily support the intent of the user.

I have been hung up on the challenge of rendering and presentation across devices and platforms in the past and have overlooked the user intent as a result. This is not an easy problem to solve. As always (and as I remind myself) the start point must be the user need. What is trying to be done? The device and presentation is, at least, secondary. As machine learning marches on, it is still useful to remember that there are organisms behind the machines.

What is, perhaps, importantly different about our mobile phones is how we personally attach to them. They are part of us and we imbue them with our selves as we use them. This brings a mobile phone interaction closer to us than with other devices. Close enough for us, as service providers, to pay extra care and attention. A dumb response on the phone feels dumber and more brutal than via the laptop browser I reckon. More care needs to be taken.

We also have some more particular needs on our phones. Time may be more pressured or more scarce, at least. We may not be sat attentively waiting to bathe in the wonder of that content. Standing, on the bus, in the supermarket, walking the dog. These are modes that require simplicity as well as brevity. At the very least,  they require choice. These are not device constraints they are the context of the user.

That context can be remarkably well defined on a phone as well. The amount of data available will vary from native to mobile app to mobile browser and from provider to provider. This data can describe a great deal about the user behind the device. To my mind any data we have needs to be handled responsibly. It needs to be put to good use or not gathered at all. The more data we hold form a device and it’s owner/user, the more utility and value we are responsible to offer. That’s what I expect on my phone, anyway.

Too much data

What do you think of this?

The company’s smart badge is equipped with a microphone to monitor the frequency of employee conversations and how long people spend talking versus listening.

Actually. What does it make you feel?

It made me feel somewhat conflicted. As a fan of data (big or otherwise)  I can see the logic and the possible outcomes. Do people spend more time listening or talking? That might be a useful thing to know. (You can see more here for a broader explanation of Humanyse and their approach).

As a relatively independent human adult, I also found this to right down at the creepy end of the scale. I know that Google and Facebook gather a lake of data about me all the time. I also know that they sell that data to fund the use of the products and services I chose form them. There is an exchange there. It could be a clearer exchange but it is there.

As an employee of the smart badge using employer I would need a lot of trust in that exchange of value. I would want an account that I can access and see what data has been gathered and how it has been used. I would want to see clear evidence of that exchange of value and the outcome for me individually.

Actually, I don’t seem so conflicted, on rapid reflection. I feel decidedly old fashioned. To understand the balance of talking and listening in an organisation, one could, amongst other things, talk and listen to people. Just saying.

Let’s get beneath the shiny micro surface too

I have noticed a fair amount about micro learning this last week. I suspect it was always there but the algorithms placed it better for me. I am a fan of it (or what I think it to be). The idea of short, simple and relevant content to help me work things out and support rehearsal is what the web has always done so well.

It’s less obvious that it is still being done so well though. This excellent piece from Seth Godin brought that into clearer focus.

We can survive if we eat candy for an entire day, but if we put the greenmarkets out of business along the way, all that’s left is candy.

Candy is lovely. But only candy is unhealthy. Not only for the eater but for the production system too. The healthy alternatives are starved of income and wither. This is now a existential problem for news providers. Frothy clickbait seems to be the only model that advertising can support. It is training a generation (may generations) of information consumers to expect little to no effort in their diet. Small gobbets of low fibre information roll effortlessly across the feeds of our media world and reinforce the notion that effort and enquiry might not be required.

So, whilst I will champion the short, relevant content slice falling exactly at the point of need, I aso intend to return to the thought provoking and challenging experiences that call for attention and reward great effort. A long read is often a good read and the Godfather II repays the concentrated time spent after all those years.

My A level English lecturer always emphasised to his room of teenage students that “great art requires great effort” (most often when he was trying to encourage focus on TS Eliot). As usual, my seventeen year old perception cold not make as much of that as it now can. The point stands though. Micro learning or miro content, or whatever, is undeniably useful and probably a good tool for most requirements. But not at the expense of substance.

My A level lecturer was not crude enough to use the “must try harder” evaluation but I think it may also be a useful catchphrase to warn against the current information malaise.