Let’s get beneath the shiny micro surface too

I have noticed a fair amount about micro learning this last week. I suspect it was always there but the algorithms placed it better for me. I am a fan of it (or what I think it to be). The idea of short, simple and relevant content to help me work things out and support rehearsal is what the web has always done so well.

It’s less obvious that it is still being done so well though. This excellent piece from Seth Godin brought that into clearer focus.

We can survive if we eat candy for an entire day, but if we put the greenmarkets out of business along the way, all that’s left is candy.

Candy is lovely. But only candy is unhealthy. Not only for the eater but for the production system too. The healthy alternatives are starved of income and wither. This is now a existential problem for news providers. Frothy clickbait seems to be the only model that advertising can support. It is training a generation (may generations) of information consumers to expect little to no effort in their diet. Small gobbets of low fibre information roll effortlessly across the feeds of our media world and reinforce the notion that effort and enquiry might not be required.

So, whilst I will champion the short, relevant content slice falling exactly at the point of need, I aso intend to return to the thought provoking and challenging experiences that call for attention and reward great effort. A long read is often a good read and the Godfather II repays the concentrated time spent after all those years.

My A level English lecturer always emphasised to his room of teenage students that “great art requires great effort” (most often when he was trying to encourage focus on TS Eliot). As usual, my seventeen year old perception cold not make as much of that as it now can. The point stands though. Micro learning or miro content, or whatever, is undeniably useful and probably a good tool for most requirements. But not at the expense of substance.

My A level lecturer was not crude enough to use the “must try harder” evaluation but I think it may also be a useful catchphrase to warn against the current information malaise.

Bubbles, filters, fakery and social limits

I need some help. This filter bubble idea is really eating away at me.

The promise of open and direct communication with everyone or anyone at any moment gripped me with some excitement for many years. Having worked in digital advertising and in broadcasting for large portions of my professional life, I found the revolution of personal media to be genuinely thrilling.  Finally, the ramparts of corporate communications would be breached. The imperial editors and commissioners would be dethroned. We, the blogging people, would transform the production and access of information. It would be ours. Mine. To do with as we wished.

I think, for a while, this was true. Twitter really fueled this change. Everyone had a broadcast voice. Truth was spoken to power and intermediaries were dissed. For me, Stephen Fry, reaching one million followers on Twitter was a seminal moment. Here was someone who could now reach his global audience without the need of an agent, a distributor or a schedule. An inversion of the old ways. He became storyteller, agent, publisher, producer, distributor and promoter. All from one keyboard.

Those were the good old days of Twitter. That was before the trolls infected the blood of the organism. Before the anger and bitterness broke – wave after wave. That ability to create and communicate directly also produced the ability to shout, abuse and hate directly.  Many of us may have experienced a glancing blow from this force over the years. I imagine many of us are luckier than someone like Leslie Jones, however. She dared to be female and black and in a sci-fi movie. Twitter was violently unhappy.

Meanwhile, in media and learning circles, Facebook was not taken so seriously. Few of the journalists I worked with were much bothered by it. (They were entranced by Twitter, however). Belatedly, most of us now stand in awe at the power of the business. Facebook is more than a window on the world. It is the world. The liberty from the editorial barons has been replaced by a tyranny of filter bubbles and an emerging fake news industry. The wonderful ability for the internet to connect us with like minds has become fly paper, sticking those like minds together.

The Facebook alchemy that creates the glue binding us to our bubbles is obscure. We know it reacts to likes and shares. To attention. Bringing us more of what we seem to enjoy. How it is done is hard to discern. The fraction we see of our feeds is both pleasing to us and profitable for Facebook. It is no more true of all the content created than the editors slice was of the news available in the broadcast model.

I did think that social media offered us the chance to learn directly from all. That seemed so natural to me. The poverty of deep interaction never really worried me. Most of us are pretty happy with pictures of our kids, our food and holidays. Profundity is rare for a reason. This never stopped social media from being interesting and useful though. I could and still can learn simply and quickly from an array of experts at the swipe of a screen.

A number of calls have been made to strengthen the role of the ‘curator’ in the social world. A class of folk who can verify the data and warn the unguarded against fakery, abuse and howling anger. This is a worthy aim but no better than the editorial fiefdoms of old, I fear. This is an expensive solution too – these are new roles. Educators and learning professionals see a role here – mediating, trimming and cleaning the social world of their learners. This feels like grasping hold of the past a little too tightly in search of a relevant role. It also seems very difficult to achieve. How do we qualify for these roles? How do we know best or better?

I would rather we found means of raising the social tide above the effluent line and finding new sources of value in that always-on, direct access world. This probably means educating each other, supporting constructive behaviour and sharing beyond our bubbles. (That last one is really hard to sustain). Will we be rewarded for good social citizenship?

I can’t tell now whether I am jaded or optimistic. What do you think? Is there a problem to fix or do I just need a bit of a rest?

 

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.

 

Learning on the web – Can it be as simple as that?

I was reminded of one of my early exchanges of views on arrival in the BBC this week. I was curious about the deliberation of the commissioning process and about the edifice that was being created under the learning banner. Coming, as I had, from the rapid fire and restless world of search, this all seemed like a lot of trouble and effort. Having “had my ass handed to me” (as my indelicate US colleagues would say) by Google for seven years, left an impression. An impression of simplicity, function over form, relevance and speed.

There isn’t much, if anything. you can’t learn from a combination of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube.

My recollection is of saying something like “there isn’t much, if anything, you can’t learn from a combination of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube”. I had not been around for long and was struck by how quiet the room had become. In my prior life (as in my current one) this would have been heard as another remark along the lines of “Is there nothing that Google can’t win at?”. That was not the thrust of my point. I was trying to open the idea that an edifice for learning was already there. The curation problem had been solved (in the late 1990s). The content production system was built. Why all the effort to replicate this within the corporation. Not just that corporation, but any corporation.

I remembered this exchange on Thursday over lunch and then later over tea (yes, I took tea and will do so again). Both conversations were about the corporate learning world being trapped in a mode of planning and production. A world that focuses on creating and recreating infrastructure that is better made in the open to publish content that is already there, in the open. And to publish it into a Portal – a digital product format that lost currency around the turn of the century.

I know that security is a major concern for many. Not all sectors are liberal enough to exploit these, now historic, changes. Not everyone is allowed YouTube at work. That will change and we need to help make it change. The temptation to hide behind policy is powerful – it is warm and dry there. I doubt for too long, though. The revolutionary change in learner behaviour came from the outside and the change in providers to corporates will come form the outside too. I suspect new customers with different budgets will open the doors for them. 

 

 

Listening makes it personal

I am now a pretty well embedded Spotify user. As a keen music fan (with excellent taste), I probably listen to more music than I have ever done. Much of this music is new to me. Combined with the seemingly endless trove of tunes on YouTube, I am experiencing a renaissance in my music education. The digital revolution is troubling the industry but for listeners, there has never been a better time. For curious listeners there has never been a better chance to strike out in new directions  – some of them in glorious South London.

Spotify is not unique in the use of data to offer a listener a ‘better’ discovery experience. It is very good at it though and has worked hard to understand what we like in a playlist. The Daily Mix is their most recent step to keep ahead of the growing competition. This is what big data can do when clearly focused on user needs and acting in constant response to them.

As Spotify grows, it is becoming interesting to ancillary businesses (a little like Twitter was before it lost it’s commercial way). Songkick is a really smart example of this. As a ticket vendor, the business needs to recommend shows and gigs that meet members demands and tastes. In my personal experience as a subscriber to many email lists of concerts and tickets, I have tired of the poor matching and spammy recommendations. “Customers who liked this also liked that…”. Very often I am not one of the customers in that first premise. The conclusion is therefore clumsy and unhelpful. The bad matching makes it worse.

Songkick overcomes this with a simple inference. “You have listened to that band. Would like to go and see their show?”. My Spotify habits make it clear what I like. Very clear. I may have listened by accident or my playlist may have been hijacked by a family member. Even in this case, it’s a fair punt on their behalf and someone I live with may want to go.

This is a simple and obvious point, I know. It is a simple and obvious lesson (I know that too). It does seem very hard for corporate product owners to take it in though. We struggle to overcome the belief that we know best. That we have a more valuable view of what a personal experience should be and manage it accordingly. This is the stakeholder view. It is a foggy view because it is not the users view. As we struggle with creating valuable personal products and services, we need to focus on where the personal value lies. We also need to recognise at what height the benchmark of comparison is set.