Stakeholders beat out users in LMS implementation (of course they do)

I have been nursing this thought for some time now. I managed to spend a little time trying to add some structure to it and see if that helps me think it through more constructively. I belive it did.

Now, in Web 2.0 style (yes I am a traditionalist), I thought I would share it and see what that process might add.

Much is written and spoken about the UX challenges of corporate systems and their implementation. Mcuh of that has dealt with our old friend the LMS. Not much of the commentary is positive. I reckon that the structure of the vendor/customer relationship is, perhaps, the most significant factor in creating that negative sentiment. The poor user is a distant and quiet voice amongst the chorus of sales folks, solutions partners, stakeholders and implementation teams.

I have tried, quite simply I know, to illustrate that in the diagram below. Depending on the size of the organisation, more or fewer of these ingredients might be in place. There is a lot of decision making going on between the bright idea and the recipient of that idea. The needs of the organisation are studiously gathered and arranged. The system is painstakingly designed in the image of those needs. (A cynic might suggest vested interests are at play. I can see the point).

It is then, all too often, implemented at the poor user.

Learning Management Systems – from Vendor to user

LMS chain

The digital consumer market is quite different. The product creator makes the their product available as directly and swiftly to the user as possible. And that’s about it. (I recognise that I have not reflected that economic dynamics of the market here. The ad networks, analytics, optimisation and billings systems are not represented. These, however do not often impact the user value, they signal the user value in the metrics). Meeting user need is central in a fiercely compeitive market for free and paid products – attetnion is always limited, it seems. All other value flows from there.

It is much easier to design a tool a user wants to use when those layers of corporate interest are absent. Hence the universal preference for consumer tools such as Google, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia etc. as Jane Hart reminds us annually. In fact, when those layers of interest are present, I would argue that a product is not made for a user. It is made for the customer. That is where the invoices land after all.

Meanwhile users vote with their clicks and swipes and adopt the consumer tools that have become so familiar to our daily lives, at work and play.

What do you think? Does the diagram look familiar? I am minded to pursue this line of inquiry, so any steering thoughts would be welcome.

 

An LMS for the open web? Not for me, thanks

Yes. This is another post about the LMS. A perennial feature of any learning commentators blog. I return to theme this week following a call with Don Taylor about leading a session at the Learning Technologies Summer Forum on designing good user experiences for digital learning. Something practical about good and bad practice is required. As I turned the theme over in my mind in drafting some talking points, I realised that I was essentially listing reasons not to use an LMS. Yes. This is that kind of post.

Since landing on planet L&D, I have tried to understand why nothing like the Learning Management System and its raison d’etre, the eLearning course, exist on the open web. In the roughly twenty years of evolutionary experimentation in the venture capital funded laboratories of the web there has been no meaningful sighting of an LMS-like product or service. If these tools are the best of the available solutions to the learning potential available online, then where are the public equivalents?

Similar services do exist to make courses available on the web (or course like packages of learning content). Masterclass is a really interesting example of the type – an explicit course provision product with closed, commercial access to exclsuive courses. This makes sense, I suspect, to provider and learner alike. It is the closed part that works best here. Register for an account and pay for the course. It’s a very simple, paid access LMS. The value for the payment is access to the course and experience. What is the user value for an open access LMS on the web, however? What extra benefit would I receive from use of that system? It certainly not search or browse – Google is pretty good for that. Recommendation is well handled via social media, as is discussion and commentary. Access to expertise is available and in large part is free, although I fancy this may change over the coming years. Of course, none of this is tracked but I don’t think LMS data is used by learners anyway (is it?).

At the heart of my LMS misgivings is basically that lack of user need. A service like that would attract little or no funding in a world where generating a large , loyal user base (i.e. millions) is the oxygen of investment. The value in the LMS is the for the learning provider: allocating courses to learners, managing access and tracking and reporting on completions. From a user perspective the LMS typically erects barriers to learning content. It then controls the experience of the content once accessed.

The gradual emergence of the Learning Record Store might shift movement in a more positive direction but I suspect it will be adopted by LMS operators as a means of dragging open content into the closed LMS domain. Open Badges also play a part in creating a location or system for recording and displaying learning achievement and activity in the wild – there is more hope here I feel as the education sector starts to consider these kinds of services. (I fear, though, that they have also been bacterially infected by the faddish application of another new buzz-tool: gamification).

Find things out. Get things done.

At one point of my BBC career I held the title of Director, Intranet Refresh Programme. The team I worked with were tasked with refreshing and re-presenting the entire corporate intranet (take a role like that with care is my advice). We had a working motto for the new product “It will always help users find things out and get things done”. This is the kind of utility value that good open digital learning tools should have too. They are designed to answer those needs as defined by the user and available at the moment of need with minimal or no barriers to access. An LMS is a long route round to the need of getting something done.

All of this is not to say that there is no value in the LMS. The idea of recording behaviour in a learning system is excellent. If only that data were then put to the use of the learner. This is where LinkedIn Learning Solutions could play a role as the place where open learning resources can be collected and reflected upon in a social context, gathering value in the user profile. Early days for this development, perhaps but there is something to pursue there clearly The utility for the user being the management of their profile and its value to a marketplace they chose to participate in.

None of this is intended to caim that there is not a role for the LMS in corporate learning. There are too many of them around for that argument to hold water. The value (and there is a fair amount to contend with), however, is for the orgnanisation rather than the user. That is why we, as users, don’t chose to use them.

 

 

 

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.

Design for users not for learners

This thought has been rattling around my mind for some time now. Possibly for years, in fact. It was nudged to the front by a recent debate about the merit of user needs analysis versus learning needs analysis. The LNA acronym is a foundational feature of the L&D world. It is a given. Thus, not having one feels like a high stakes risk.

To be clear, the debate I was part of did not consist of any denial of an LNA. The conversation turned around how helpful one is without broader understanding of user needs. To be even clearer, the context of discussion was the best route to researching a digital learning experience. Knowing what folks need or want to learn is crucial – universal agreement in that one. Also a universally emerging realisation hung in the air that is is not enough.

LNA is necessary but not sufficient. I think this was our conclusion. We need to know what the learning needs are but more than that, we need to know why. What does the learner need the learning for? Learning itself is rarely the goal. It is a route to another destination. Often a requisite route but not the whole deal. Think of the ocean of ‘How to..’ videos on YouTube. They are not there for the sake of learning. They help us get stuff done.

This is where a solid and proper user experience analysis offers a stronger foundation. UX, properly considered, will discover, analyse and define the entire experience that satisfies a user need. Hopefully, only one need. Or, one at a time. Moments of learning and knowledge acquisition will be in there, amongst other elements. Things like, discovery (with it’s own foundation, search), reading, watching, listening, communicating, writing, producing, clicking, swiping, sharing, commenting, saving, to name a few, are also likely to be critical to a helpful experience. These may or may not be learning moments but the learning will not happen without them. The learning will not happen without a well designed and focused whole experience – a problem solved or a need met.

Knowing how these tools and behaviours fit together will start to shape a good UX outcome. What the content is and how it can be used is likely to shape a good learning outcome within that. I think (still thinking see) that learning design (and learning designers) needs to extend its reach and start to take UX design into account. This is what is fashionably called design thinking these days. As with any good fashion, this discipline or method or way of thinking has been around for 20 years or so by now. Only more recently has it been packaged to seem like a trend. I am too old to be fashionable but old enough to recognise the value of this method throughout my (digital) working life.

Sticky is (still) a good thing

The phrase “sticky website” feels like something of a throwback to me. I remember first hearing the phrase and debating it as a product objective when I worked in the search industry. At the time Ask Jeeves (yes, I am that old) was popular and well used but not habitually used. Search was and still is a staple benahviour for online users and a vital tool to making sense of the choices available. In this regard, a lower frequency of use search engine has a weakness to address. And so it was for Jeeves. It was a familiar and high reach product but only a habit for the few. (The search advertising industry did, however, support a very profitable business as a result).

That frequency of use metric was drummed into me early in my career in online services as result. A small increase in frequency could have a dramatic impact on the profitability of the business. Ever since, I have regarded frequency, loyalty and depth of use as critical signs of the health of a product. How often your users return (daily, weekly or monthly), how many of them come back over the period and how much they use your service (whether searches, page views, orders, applications, message or whatever per visit) are vital in assessing how useful you are to them.

We spent quite a deal of time, money and effort at Jeeves in various marketing campaigns to persuade users that the product was the equal of the competitors or, at minimum, worthy of consideration, versus them. The best of these efforts did increase reach and nudge users to gives the Butler a try. Rarely did we retain those users, however. They would try but then return to Google. The proof of the pudding being relevance, speed, accuracy and simplicity. No advertising effort could mask those experiences relative to the engineering power of Mountain View. They did not stick.

That stickiness goal is still crucial, I think and the stickiest services are those that are useful. They reward repeat and frequent use. This is one good test of the “if we build it they will come” model. That may be true (if very unlikely). Will they, though, stay around and come back soon and often enough to return that building effort.

Stickiness equates to utility more than anything else. Be wary of a primary goal to engage users. Being engaged is rarely a primary user need. I suspect that our attempts to engage users often mask the fact that there is a weak primary interest in our offer. Being useful or interesting is much more fertile ground. From that foundation, it will be much easier to be engaging, if engagement is needed at all.

 

 

 

The whole UX and nothing but the UX

Some recent workshop sessions and user (learner?) research with a client have made me wonder about a possible wrinkle on the smooth baize of UX thinking in the corporate world. In the wild public world of product design and delivery, we are free to design our best solution to user challenges and make it available. We do have to offer that product in the messy and compromised digital world we inhabit and fight like crazy to win attention and draw traffic/downloads/sign ups. Other than that struggle we can carve a purposeful proposition and make the most of it. Where similar or related services exist, a distribution deal or conversation might be available to mutual benefit.

In the corporate world, the landscape tends to be filled with larger less well defined features. Often these phenomena (for they are rarely products or tools as a user would recognise them) mark a departmental territory and purpose, rather than a potential problem solved for a user. Often too, they carry the purpose of a system and a process designed for the benefit of the organisation and not pointed at resolving a user need. An LMS, an intranet or a finance system, in its many and varied incarnations, often appear in this form. As a user we have to negotiate them, navigate through them and hope for survival at the other end.

From a users point of view their relationship to your own product may not be clear. The same language, labelling and content may well appear on them.  If you are in the learning game then the boundaries could well be blurred. User guides, comms campaign material, policy documents and the like can rightly be the answer to a “finding something out” question. The product they are available in may not be discernible or of interest to your user. This presents a tricky challenge.

A proper investigation of user epxerience needs to account for the whole experience of a system or product. This needs to include the possible, or likely, confusion of arriving at your carefully crafted content through the confusing boulders around it. That is part of the epxerience of fulfilling a learning need. It is part of the whole user epxerience and should not be ignored.

Lobbying the owners of these other products to change them can be a complex and wearing experience in some organisations. Where it is simple and close at hand, it may still not be a priority for resource or time. Do give it a try though. I doubt that the owners of these services have much genuine UX data to hand or are aware of possible and real confusion. Failing that, stick closely and clearly to what you are about.

One option we always have is to make our own services and products crystal clear in their purpose form the very fast click or swipe. Define that purpose and stick closely to it in all iterations. Even in muddy and ugly surroundings, your users will respect you for the clarity you show them. They will know, quickly and clearly, what to expect.

The mess around our products and content is part of the reality of the UX and it is our responsibility to respond to it, irritating though that may be.

 

A digital echo of a missing friend

I have paused my work to record a moment of my social media day. It’s one of those moments where technology, data (or the lack of it) and commercial imperatives combine to create an unintended jarring moment.

Over a desk picnic, I was endorsing friends and colleagues on LinkedIn. I am happy to do this and do think it has (modest) value. Faces from the recent and distant past slid across the screen and I clicked or passed on the skills and experience they may or may not have. I like these occasional moments. It encourages me to mentally reconnect with my working past and people I have worked with.

Then a clang and a sigh. The next face to fill the space is long time friend, sometimes colleague and mentor. This is someone who has been instrumental in my understanding of my work, my career and my sense of value. One of those rare and valuable individuals. It is also someone who has recently died.

When I saw his face I experienced two immediately juxtaposed visceral reactions. Firstly, a sad moment. One of those moments of considering that someone has gone. A loss. Then I had a sense of frustration that a whole series of digital identities are out there with little reflection of the recent radical news. It was one of those moments where technology is revealed as a dumb brute. The algorithm turned and produced a really poor piece of data.

Sigh again.

I realise this is a very complex problem to solve It is, by now, an old problem to solve and there are start-ups and projects afoot to tackle our digital legacies. I don’t have an answer. Just a sense of a great deal of progress still to be made for products and services to deal with the most inevitable of needs.