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Principles for designing a useful learning service

[This is an extract from an issue of my regular 10L newsletter. You can sign up for it here.]

“Too much delivery and not enough design”.

Anonymous learning leader

This quote from a conversation over the last few months sums up my reservations and anxiety about Learning & Development. And, by design, I mean ‘big D Design’ not only the lower case of experience and content design. The upper case articulation includes asking whether there is a real problem to be solved, and then whether your audience are sufficiently motivated about that problem to take up a possible solution. Further, design choices follow before the experience and/or content choices arrive. That is, before we start to make things, which is habitually our preoccupation in the industry.

I have often (too often, you may observe) pursued the benefits of product management as a valuable, if not required, approach for a learning team or business in the digital age. For the keen reader, many of those thoughts are here. From a recent resolution to read work related books over breakfast (highly recommended if you are a stuck reader like me), I have discovered some highly useful principles of service design to add to these considerations. These principles are described and explained in the excellent “Good Services: How to design services that work” by Lou Downe.

For service providers and vendors, I suspect (hope?) that the principles are clear and close to home. For corporate and internal learning teams, I believe they are highly valuable and can lift our sights to longer-term value through a clearer view of what users and stakeholders really need. The author has a simple prose style and a practical editorial eye which keeps the reader on track and avoids theoretical flights of fancy. There are many examples and a clear sense of humanity amongst all of them. Solving important problems for real people is a strong and visible thread throughout. As we see from the outset, “A service is something that helps someone to do something” (Learning in a nutshell).

These are a few of the principles covered which stood out for me from a learning perspective. Encouragingly, they all have the ring of common sense to them:

  • Your user defines what your service is – whatever we think and hope we are doing, it’s their choice and how they see it that counts. We may want to be a performance service but if the user sees and uses courses, for example, that’s what the service is.
  • A good service sets the expectations a user has of it – in part this is being clear about what the user needs to bring with them and then what to expect in return, going back to that helping them do something point in the definition. (More than “in this course you will learn…”).
  • A good service enables a user to complete the outcome they set out to do – for us learning folks this further clarification is sharp: “all too often we become myopic about our services over time and forget that what we’re trying to do is helping someone to achieve something rather than complete the small part of the end task we provide.” (Too much delivery, not enough design).
  • A good service should respond to change quickly – a service is not just for christmas and managing a live one requires attention to data and feedback. It may also require significant course correction and organisation changes from time to time. There is no one shot deal or silver bullet system, no matter what the exhibition stands say.

There are eleven other principles discussed in the book and should you be looking for reading recommendations, I would propose this one. It further supported the notion for me that internal L&D teams could be valuably recast as performance development services or some similar phrasing. This more clearly articulates the outcomes we are in pursuit of (aren’t we?) and signals to others that this is our intent. It raises the sights above the design and delivery of ‘learning’, pointing towards the goals of that learning.

I wonder if this articulation, or something like it, may avoid having to clarify digital/online/face to face/blended/hybrid etc. and the debate about appropriate delivery channels. There is an assumption of a solution here, where a well designed service could include exploration of these decisions as part of its method and value. This far into 2021 (at time of writing), we should be channel neutral and focus on designing for the benefits of our service users. On the understanding, from me at least, that if ‘digital’ is missing, a design mistake has been made somewhere. In any contemporary context, digital really ought to be some part of a good service design for workplace learning services.

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miniature model butler in action
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