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Do we just want to be loved – engagement and relevance.

(This post is an extract from my regular newsletter. If it is your kind of content, you can subscribe here – just an email address and unsubscribe any time).

I believe that L&D folks get bogged down in designing for engagement. Myself included. I would like to propose that we abandon the search for it and focus on relevance and challenge instead. I wrote a post about one corner of this theme last week, inspired by the always inspiring Jacob Nielsen. From a UX perspective, he has been bursting the bubble of design hubris for a few decades now. A powerful design impulse is for audiences to like or enjoy what is made. Awards are handed out for such endeavours, making Nielsen an unwelcome critic. Uncomfortably, he has been right for a long time.

“Find things out and get things done.”

Before you close your browser, I do not mean to say that engagement is valueless. It is important, but it is not our objective. In the learning world, our task is to be helpful in solving relevant problems. Engagement might be useful along the way but it is not the goal. Simply put, our task is to help folks find things out and get things done. Access to useful and interesting information at the performance support end of the spectrum (finding things out) and improving work performance towards the other end (getting things done).

I suspect the engagement impulse in the L&D world is rooted in instructional design, in a digital context, and the origin of the eLearning module (SCROM wrapped learning objects and such). The challenge set here is to smooth the experience for a trapped learner, staving off boredom, in an unhelpful and artificial product paradigm. Completion stats rule the roost and lubricating the experience helps. Alongside this lie the happy sheets of classroom delivery, another performance free engagement metric. The blame does not lie at the feet of the designer. It’s a management problem. Engagement scores help us understand appreciation but not whether the activity has value in the first place or whether a need is fulfilled. Back to relevance as the foundation of utility.

Engagement has become such a feature of conversation in the profession that reducing its significance has a ring of heresy to it. Perhaps reframing our design choices is instructive. A more useful question, in terms of content design at least, is to ask “What makes good content”? How do we know it is doing its designated job?

In an advertising context, a number of jobs need to be done by content. Google has summarised those quite nicely in this research digest. Primarily, a connection needs to be made with the audience and memorability is important. It tends to require these four facets:

  • It is from people like me – the visible identity of the author is important (TikTok and YouTube expose this routinely)
  • It has smart and interesting production and is arresting – this does not necessarily equate to high production values and polish, but it does need to show thought and effort (beware generic stuff)
  • Storytelling quality with personal and emotional connections
  • Relevance – is it for me?

As always, our standards of quality are set by consumer experience, so these count for learning professionals. And, as with all of these lists, the points are obvious. These expectations are set by old principles, however. What has shifted is that the benchmarks for good content now are set by individuals and ‘amateurs’. It is professional content creators who have the lessons to learn. Learning designers face the same challenge for relevance and for engagement, should we chose to pursue it.

Challenging times

Where learning diverges from marketing and advertising is that it often needs challenge. Learning is often difficult, and it needs to be. This is a tough design brief and a significant departure from mainstream and consumer content trends. Advertisers are much less likely to want to challenge an audience in meaningful ways. Making life more difficult is rarely a brand value. Convenience, simplicity, ease of access and often brevity are more important than challenge. We have an interesting design conundrum to solve in learning in this respect.

Editorial mission statements in media organisations, often claim a desire to challenge audiences. Frequently, this is lip service in support of shock and surprise, a much lower order goal. Piers Morgan is probably the highest profile example of this approach – reaction but little edification.

I do think a good case can be made for challenge as a form of engagement, and this is where the term can have value for us. But we need to be precise as to what we mean at a lower level of detail: what kind of engagement and to what end? Alien is an entertaining film, as is Ratatouille. They have quite different jobs to do for the audience, however. This closer examination also helps define metrics to monitor the extent to which we are successful. What does a challenging experience look like and what data can we gather to describe its effectiveness?

The most valuable (and, erm, challenging) goals of learning require challenge and support over long periods of time. Significant behaviour change and the development of new skills are the heart of the value we hope to deliver and at the heart of the value the industry can offer.

So, I seem to have talked myself round to advocate for engagement after all. Not for its own sake but for the value of one particular form in support of our proper objectives. We do all want to be loved. We should be loved for the help we provide, but not the fun in providing it.

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Are we having fun yet?
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