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.

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.


This product must be installed by a competent person

It is Sunday afternoon and I have just laid fragile claim to some masculine territory. It is a minor triumph by any standards and no triumph at all by many. However, as an office worker, who has been a keyboard warrior since work began, I will take my emotional sustenance as I can. My achievement was fitting one of these and one of these all on my own. I celebrate because I am anxious of electricity. I don’t really understand how it works but I do know it is dangerous and invisible.

I read the minute instruction leaflet that came with the equipment. It was clear that “the product must be fitted by a competent person”. Was that me? Am I competent? An important choice to make here. I read ahead to see what step I needed to be competent in. Some wire cord cutting, shaving of plastic, joining of wires to fittings and putting it back together. All of this was to be preceded by TURNING EVERYTHING OFF FIRST. If I could, I think I would have disabled the entire electricity supply of my postcode. You can’t be too safe.

I judged that I could be competent at this task.

I satisfied myself with switching off the lighting circuit upstairs and wearing rubber soled slippers. As I proceeded, I realised that there was only really one way of fulfilling my task. There were probably a few options to complete it more or less well. But, to get it working, one set of steps would cover it. Quite a well designed product then.

One thing I did not do, which I would normally, was checking the advice of a surrogate dad on YouTube. You know the fellow: impressive tool belt and a great deal of kit at his disposal. A sign of confidence in my competence. No father figure needed for me.

It all passed off well and the new light fitting is working well. My son can see his work space clearly again (another excuse removed). Thousands of light fittings are out there fitted by the self diagnosing competent electrician I reckon.

If I were at work I suspect some form of diagnostic would be in play. Some questions about my understanding of electricity and electrical equipment. A quiz on my knowledge of tools and their appropriate modes of use. A risk assessment, for sure (insurance policies are exacting). Ideally, some way of having a go in a safe space.  A record of my achievement of sufficient mastery would be needed. What would have slowed the whole thing down and raised the expense is the involvement of a third party in judging my competence. Most tasks in most work can be done by most people with sensible support and some trust to figure it out (with a surrogate parent at hand – often called a friend or colleague).

I now have my eye on the light fittings downstairs. My competence is growing.




Whose training record is it anyway?

Some time ago, a friend and colleague suggested this topic. I agreed and then time overtook me and I missed the moment. A conversation yesterday jogged my memory and the theme rose again. So, thank you Karen Moran, if you still have the patience to stick with me, for what was a good idea.

The theme is disruption. (I know. I know. It always is. Sometimes it is hard to get away from it). To be a little more helpful, the disruption of the recording of training and education. The higher education world is struggling to respond to the idea that a three year degree is weak signal of the value and capability of a candidate or employee – add the £27,000 fees to that and the pressure for higher education to pay off is aggressive. Breaking degrees down to smaller and more descriptive qualifications that match economic needs is a valid response. Smaller credit bearing learning ‘moments’ would be easier to participate in, beyond higher education, too. Separating the learning from the credentialing will help this. Smaller, cheaper courses with employment requirements designed in will become more common: “we should put learning from all sources on equal footing and assess it through an independent approach”

There is a clear logic and trend towards this outcome. But, where does that record of education reside? With the issuers of the credentials? Yes. A centrally recorded, managed and verified repository seems like a necessity to help deal with false claims and mendacity (the CV will never overcome it alone). But this is not enough. I want my own record too, one where I can add context and experience that does not carry a credential. I want to show projects I worked on, teams I was in, technology I know about, documents I have written. I want this to carry the context of my working network too. It needs to be public, at least to have the potential to be public. (Maybe even blogs could be included?) LinkedIn are moving into this territory, to claim the place as the professional profile of record for the global workforce. The purchase of may help cement that case. I’m sure Microsoft will be pleased to support as well.

The world of Training and corporate L&D needs to respond more thoughtfully. asAs workers are increasingly mobile and decreasingly company-loyal, a fragmented series of learning record  scattered across LMS systems of the past becomes more impediment than irritation. The increasingly freelance workforce needs a solution as well. Companies will want to retain their training records but need to set them free for workers to apply them outside of the corporate boundary. The Experience API deserves applause for enabling the addition of learning context from other experiences beyond the LMS (webinars, workshops, books, blogs, conferences can paint a much more subtle and useful picture of a person). So far, the application of the learning record store has been corporate or institutional (please do let me know where I am wrong – a meaningfully open LRS feels like an important development to share). So, an LMS morphs to include, or become, an LRS. There is still a personal angle missing. Is it truly my record?

Is there a real opportunity here? Are we ready for personal professional profiles that carry accredited learning evidence? I think we are. The momentum behind Open Badges seems to support it. Smaller credentials accumulated as we work and learn feels like a good answer or will LinkedIn just swallow it all up?


Unbundling records and tin cans and such

Prompted by an email form Karen Moran, I had a return to the idea of the LMS as the only place where learning records are held. That message also sparked a thought about the unbundling theme I posted about recently. The idea that all learning activity is stored in a learning management system seems increasingly old fashioned, if not bizarre. All training activity – yes I can see that. Even, all consumption of the content offered via an L&D team makes some sense in that regard. I can’t see an LMS as a useful record of all learning, however.

Whilst it is tempting to ride “the LMS is dying” hobby-horse, I will refrain. I am a supporter but the horse needs little help these days. The question of what comes next may be more rewarding. The Learning Record Store seems like a sensible answer, allowing the LMS to become more flexible and therefore more relevant. The idea that leaning for work can be more than the courses laid on by your employer needs little selling. Where the line is drawn beyond those courses is quite interesting though.

What other content and experience is relevant in the organisation? Who decides and how does that decision manifest itself to those with the records? It’s possible that a team or department can set their benchmarks of useful learning. That kind of decentralisation makes sense as it emphasises local relevance and context. The right seminar or book can make a lot of sense locally, when the global context it to vague too detect. More power to the learner in defining relevant career learning should be supported too. As our digital identities become so much more important, more say in their creation is vital.

One line that needs to be crossed is the organisational boundary. I would like my learning record to be mine. Mine to keep and take with me. Perhaps my employer and I can share it or own parts of it mutually but I want to keep the whole record. It is about my learning after all. In our freelance, fluctuating world of portfolio work, the idea that my learning is locked aw2ay in a corporate LMS is, a the very least, highly inconvenient. I would like to take it with me.

I think LinkedIn understand this point well. A record as part of your LinkedIn profile could be very helpful in establishing value on the job market. Combine that with (the once derided) endorsements, recommendations and connections and a more rounded and helpful profile starts to emerge. A wide range of content and experience could really start to flesh out a strong profile. And it would be mine.

How far should that go though? What can sensibly be included in a learning record and how might it be validated? This is trickier territory. Populating a profile with every YouTube “How To…” video I have watched may demonstrate my curiosity.  It might well do little else though. And all the blogs I read…And all the podcasts. If the narrow currency of training courses is not sufficient, a new currency needs to be arrived at to replace it that is not a free for all.

Perhaps this is where networks and connections come in handy. A communal or networked view of relevance and usefulness when it cones to learning might be a useful way of extending what is worth sharing in a record of experience. Like an open source CV with badges and links. LinkedIn are definitely onto this one. Not an open one though, I doubt.






HR and L&D: Never the twain shall meet?

This blog was originally published on the HRN Blog in May 2016.

Much has been written and said about the relationship between the disciplines of HR and L&D. Representatives of both sides have shared views on the topic and on the most useful framing of a healthy relationship between the two. Cases have been made for merging the functions together; are they not, after all, sides of the same coin, servicing the needs of the worker/employee/staff/workforce/management/leadership and the organisation? All the easier to plan effectively and view the opportunity as a whole with all that capability and expertise available in one place? Cases have equally been put in defence of specialisation and the value of separation. Proponents of the latter view, I suspect, have a tendency to emphasise the weaknesses and failings of the “other side” as they support the inherent value of their own specialism.

Before I proceed, I should declare my own hand. I see this issue more from the L&D perspective than HR, I believe. Five years at the BBC Academy (which, in that time was both within and without HR) have formed something like a world view. Perhaps more significantly, I spent that five years as the Head of Digital for the Academy. During that time my teams and I spent our time selling the benefits of designing for user experience and focusing on the user needs of the learners we were in service of. Very often, we were engaged in some form of disagreement, more or less vigorous, with owners of processes, systems and policy (none of these three are very beneficial to user experience in my view). Very often, the representatives of those entrenched views were from both L&D and HR camps. We were proposing a change to the established way and neither camp felt entirely comfortable about that change. It is that perspective, rather than tribal differences, that I think might be helpful in a view of the challenge of a whole view.

Now living on the outside of corporate life I have a slightly different perspective. In the last two weeks I have chaired discussions at (HR) industry events on the use of technology in learning and on the rise of the digital workforce. The participants in these discussions were senior managers and often senior leaders from HR and L&D teams in a wide variety of organisations. By its nature, the position of the chair is neutral which helped me see the problem afresh. In each discussion I was trying to thread the idea of user experience and meeting user needs through the debate. We all need to try and offer tools and content to employees that behave in the way we expect good digital tools to behave in our everyday lives. Very few corporate systems and services achieve this goal. It is a simple point that was swiftly grasped by smart and experienced people at both events.

But, where to start and how to make it work? That was the real challenge that resonated with all around both tables. In both discussions and from both L&D and HR leaders, the challenge of dealing with conservative naysayers was painfully described. One HR leader described his traditional learning technologies team protesting at the use of social tools because the LMS did not support them and they could not be tracked. The project ground to a halt. Equally, another L&D manager bemoaned a reactionary HR view which stated that social learning platforms do not fit the current policy for corporate social media. That point and anxiety about a suitable process to delete negative comments parked the initiative in the sidelines.

Many other examples were shared and those round the tables nodded with familiarity as the cases were described. My neutral, chairman’s view is that the conservative tendencies arise when we see a threat to our traditional authority in the organisation. This is felt particularly keenly when that threat comes from outside of the team. Whilst so much of the world of work seems to be changing around us, the temptation to retreat to the safer ground of our functions is powerful. The source of traditional power for HR, in these instances, is the processes and policies that define how the organisation will handle communication and content. In the case of L&D, power lies in the systems that define the value of the function – the management (control) of learning and the counting of completions. Neither of these territories will sustain the functions that were built on them for much longer though. They are strengths built on old models and expectations. These expectations are shifting quickly and we need to experiment with new models to meet them.
The imaginative folk around the discussions all championed the view of the worker trying to make the most of their working life and a desire to support that effort. That “worker perspective” needs to be the common ground around which all sides of the debate congregate. We all need to solve the problems faced by those busy and pressured people in the way they need them solved, not in the way that our part of the organisations sees most benefit. I suspect some more imaginative organisation principles would help a lot as well. I also suspect that these principles will come from outside of both traditional disciplines where user needs are paramount.

Beware the one stop shop…

Be wary of buying from the one stop shop. In fact, I would suggest that you don’t. Perhaps best not to purchase at all, if you are in any doubt.

Last week, I was speaking with a systems vendor who was, politely, pitching their product to me. The beauty of it (apparently) is that a newly minted sole trader and a corporate client can use the tools therein. This struck as an interesting pitch territory: a tool which will satisfy an SME and a corporation alike. We didn’t get on to pricing which would have been an interesting space as well – I am confident of success but I suspect my investment potential is somewhat limited by comparison to a corporation of any scale, as yet.

The reason, it seems, that it is useful for me as a consultant and to corporate buyers is that it does pretty much everything. In the cloud. I could use it as an LMS, an intranet, an extranet, a enterprise social tool, a document store, a resource library and video library (which is somehow different) and an e-commerce package. I am uncertain that I need any of these things at present. Were I in a position to buy on behalf of a corporation, I would frown and ask: “What is it?”. I mean, singularly, what is it for – what problem does it solve?

Defining the customer defines the benefits of the product. Or, it should do. There are so many potential buyers implied in the list above that confound a clear pitch of the benefits of the tools. That is to say nothing of the budget holder that one would seek to pitch at. Where are they in the global address list?

Let me exemplify the problem with a metaphor from the pitch itself. (And this where I really lost my way). The product (or products) were likened to 3D chess. Now, I like chess. I am quite bad at it but I do like it. It is very hard and requires a lot of effort to be good at. I have not yet played 3D chess but I suspect it is rather horrible and on the unsatisfying end of the difficulty spectrum. I think the benefit behind the metaphor (some distance behind, in the shadows) is that it can be seem from many perspectives and applied in many ways. It is a cunning and powerful tool (maybe). Let me be clear, this was supposed to be a good thing. There is a reason this is not even a thing of any kind. There is little joy or utility in it. 3D chess has currency as a metaphor precisely because it is exclusively difficult and challenging. Nobody plays 3D chess.

To be honest, if it were pitched as likening good old 2D chess, I was a lost customer. A good workplace tool, or set of tools, needs to help us find things out and get things done. Quickly.

Despite the problem of the pitch missing the benefit by a country mile there is a design problem too. A one stop shop is not what I need – there is not a destination that I am travelling to. I want resources, advice, ideas and context as I travel. A diversion to the universal emporium will slow me down and may re-route me entirely.