Design needs to work and sometimes boring is OK

That is not an entirely representative title of a post to summarise our conversation this week. Although some attendees may claim that we took this advice too seriously and caused a quieter conversation. (If you were there, do tell). We were gathered to discuss “Learning, design and Products”, the call for boring was a thread running through the content emphasising that good design needs to work well and help people. In our world, that means help people learn. At certain points, being helpful will involve some boring stuff. As we also said, we are not in the entertainment industry and being helpful might not be fun.

We also talked about (well, I told people) that we cannot design learning. Learning is a process of the learner. Our role is designing to help people learn. That might involve close guidance and instruction, it might involve challenge and provocation, it may be offering the shortest answer to a question. And much more. When we talk about designing learning, we are talking about our processes and techniques in delivering content and events, by and large. Learning design is often stuck in delivery design. Sometimes our best design decision will be getting out of the way. 

I am not sure whether I am surprised or not that we didn’t fully address the mix of expertise sets in designing well for learning specifically. In my mind (and it may well only be mine) there was a shadow of the evidence based design we require to be effective in helping people learn. The insights from psychology, sociology, neuroscience and related disciplines are dangerously overlooked at times. Maybe that was a given in the audience, and we were rightly conversing around the whole experience of helping people learn – end to end and front to back. Again, if you were there, let me know how you see this point.

Russ Hendy, our guest speaker, is pretty clear that the projects in the L&D world he is involved with do not stray from the universal design principles he shared. The context will vary, the measures and signals of success will differ and motivations of users will as well but the design challenges hold pretty steady. Not least of these points is that design starts from the first moment we start an endeavour from kick-off to switch off, all our choices are design choices.

Russ also exhorted us to behave like a toddler with the Five Why’s in our scoping conversations. This was amongst some other advice about stakeholder management and the dangers of unsophisticated clients. The notion was raised that design standards we readily expect in everyday life can be swiftly compromised once inside the office. Given that those ‘private standards’ are the ones that count, we must try harder.

Understanding the environment and mapping the domain in which you will work is a crucial element of required research. Mike Kibblewhite added to this the emergent methodology of behaviour change mapping and how that can direct our decisions, including considering what changes we are most interested in observing as we gather our evidence. One to watch, I think as we hone our practice. 

Personally, I appreciated the discussion of constraints in design choices. These can be both blessing and curse. Sometimes what seems like a barrier can unlock a creative solution and a lack of constraint can hinder clear decision making. The prototyping stage is our opportunity to check assumptions here and change course accordingly. For many in L&D, platforms and systems can be a source of constraint. Thankfully, we did not embark on the quest to bash the LMS (again) but there are important considerations in designing within a technology system as constraints are often rules based and breaking them can cause confusion for users. This was unresolved, but remains a critical design question and not only a technology one.

In drafting this, there are some thoughts emerging from the background which might form the next topic of conversation in a couple of months. That theme of behaviour change is nudging at me, as is dealing with customer and stakeholder sophistication. We will be back with more…

Photo by Ono Kosuki on


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