“Don’t impose joy, deliver service”

Not my words, but those of Jacob Nielsen. One of the interesting features of Nielsen’s work is that he has consistently irritated designers over the last twenty years or so, and been entirely right to do so. I first came across him when working on the early days of BBC Online, around the turn of the millennium. (Yes. I am exactly that old). His insights into usability and UX research were powerful counters to those whose ambitions were running ahead of both users and technology.

In a recent video (one of a series), he is sharing his UX slogans. Essentially, these are principles we exhorted to live by in our design. They are relevant to all of us. The first two: “You are not the user” and “keep it simple” should not really require repetition. And yet, we contravene them habitually.

You can’t impose joy.”

Jacob Nielsen

The third, I believe, is closer to our L&D home: “You can’t impose joy.” The full video is embedded below and is only 3:18 minutes of value. As I was watching, I translated joy for engagement, and the lesson held pretty firmly.

We should not attempt to impose engagement in our design. Firstly, utility needs to take precedent – our primary responsibility is to get out of the way. Secondly, engagement is unlikely to be a first order need in learning, or even a significant one. Our task is to solve a known problem, by way of design, (or learning design) as a means to offering a solution. Engagement tends to enter as a variable in an attempt to balance an equation which is out of kilter because the problem is assumed, imposed or unknown. “Well, hopefully they’ll like it anyway” is a less motivating slogan for the design effort.

In earlier times of instructional design, the need to prove digital learning experiences to be as valuable as the classroom was important. That’s where the satisfaction scores came from and the desire to be engaging started to take hold as a proxy for enjoying time in the training room. More importantly, digital was, and still is, most often where the compliance catalogues lived. Sweetening the pill with engagement made an intervention less painful – or so the theory hopes. So, engagement was a prized design objective, sometimes the primary one. In 2022, this need should have faded into the distant past. If it has not, a lack of engagement is not the right issue to address and we have deeper problems.

We should always pursue being helpful or useful. Probably interesting. Often challenging. Engagement can wait for a popularity contest, perhaps? At least, let’s listen to Jacob and not try and impose it.

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