The same is true of design, and for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on the design of learning experiences, websites and apps.
The secret to great design is simplicity. The challenge is that designing a simple solution to a complex problem is usually a long journey. It is far easier to design something complicated with every bell, whistle, doodah and whatnot, than to focus in on the minimum critical functionality and doing that really well.
So firstly, why is there a tendency to over complicate designs?
The customer wants it – if a customer has a decent budget and you have a reasonable timescale, almost anything is possible. It becomes tempting to include ‘cool’ functionality just because you’re able to. This is rather like, in course development, adding far too much content – the user can’t see what is important.
Unrealistic expectations of users – when you are totally submerged in a project it’s easy to forget that what might seem ‘intuitive’ to you may not be for your users. Getting their heads around your workshop, course, app or system is something they will expect to be easy. They will have high expectations of usability from the apps they use in their personal lives. If your design falls short of this, they will quickly switch off.
Not allowing time to think it through – boiling something down and making it really simple to use takes time, thought and effort. It is far easier to design more than less. In the pressure of a project it is tempting to rush the design phase so that you can get going on the build. The trouble is that this will lead to a sub-standard, over-complicated product.
So what can you do to address these three situations?
The customer wants it – the constraints of time and budget are your allies here and even if a budget is generous, it won’t be bottomless. This helps you to focus in on the key functionality that the app / system / course / whatever must have. I often ask customers to prioritise functionality as this gives a really good steer on what it vital and what is secondary. Also focus on the behaviours, skills or outcomes that you want users to achieve. Wireframes, mockups and prototypes are great ways to help customers appreciate the level of complexity of something without having to build it.
Unrealistic expectations of users – what you need here is empathy. Empathy is the single most important ability for any designer to have. How can you develop empathy? Get to know your users. Spend time with them, talk to them, observe them, run focus groups and studies and use them as sounding boards. User testing early and often will help uncover if something is confusing or over-complicated.
Not allowing time to think it through – we typically separate out the design from the build phase of a project. The design phase is done for a small fixed cost, the output of which is the design, specification, costs and timescales for building the solution. Even before we begin the design phase, from discussions with the customer we are able to give an indication of the build cost (usually a range) which the design phase then specifies precisely. This approach mitigates the risk of the project for both parties. I like to work on a design over a period of weeks whilst working on other stuff too. If there is a particularly knotty design problem I don’t throw my self at it. I do a little work, leave it for a few days, then do a little more. I let my mind rest against the problem and wait for a solution to appear. It always does.
I challenge you to look at whatever you are designing right now – it might be a document, a presentation, a workshop, course, system or app – and ask yourself “is it simple?” If the answer is no, invest the time to make it so.
I have now officially stepped down as the Chair of the eLearning Network. My four years on the Board are up and I will be handing on the mantle to another dedicated soul.
It has been a privilege and pleasure to have worked with so many lovely, talented and committed people over my term. I can’t deny that it’s been a lot of work, but when I look back on what the Board has achieved I feel very proud. I was there for our 25th anniversary celebrations and the setting-up of our mentoring scheme, which is unique within the industry and which has helped many, be they seasoned professionals or newbies, negotiate their way in the wonderful world of elearnng. We’ve published the first ever eLN book, with contributions from the most fabulous world-renowned authors, such as Clive Shepherd, Jane Hart and Charles Jennings, revamped our online presence, run a successful guerrilla marketing campaign and seen the popularity of the eLN increase.
I am genuinely sad to go, but I know that the enthusiasm and dedication of Board members will continue and that the eLN will go from strength to strength. It’s been a blast!
We were thrilled this month to win Silver at the 2013 eLearning Awards in the ‘Best eLearning Project (Private Sector) for a project that we did with bookseller, Waterstones. It was the toughest category with over 30 submissions. This project was a lot of fun to do, as Waterstones embraced an innovative and creative approach with commitment and enthusiasm. They were brave enough to do something a bit different and it has reaped rewards. Here’s their story…
Waterstones is one of the leading booksellers on the high street and online. They first opened in London, in 1982 and currently trade from nearly 300 shops in the UK and Europe. Waterstones’ reputation is built upon the knowledge and enthusiasm of their 4,500 booksellers, who are able to offer passionate and informed recommendations and advice to customers. With the introduction of the Kindle as a product range, there was a need to train booksellers on how to operate and sell these new devices, so that they could offer the best possible service to customers.
Although Kindle training was the starting point for this project, Waterstones’ vision extended beyond that and they wanted the Kindle training to sit within a bespoke system/website which could be built upon to include induction, career progression, ongoing training, a Certificate in Bookselling Qualification, task management and a simple performance review process.
Waterstones needed to introduce their booksellers to their new Kindle product range, however, the booksellers had a range of technical abilities. Despite this, they all needed to be able to confidently and competently talk about, demonstrate and sell the full range of Kindle devices as quickly as possible.
With Christmas, traditionally the busiest time of year for Waterstones, on the way in just a few short months, the timescales for building a solution and training all their Booksellers were extremely short.
Another challenge was the availability of technology in-store. Booksellers are not desk-based, whatever solution we came up with had to fit into their working patterns and be accessible, not just on the in-store computer, but also on Kindle devices themselves.
In terms of the system itself, Waterstones wanted the site to behave differently for different people or people at different stages of their career – so varying subjects and functionality would be made available to individuals, depending on their position or area of work.
They wanted to be able to set timescales for completing goals and to have a facility for learners to allow their line managers to review what they had done. The goals needed to include text, images, videos, podcasts, quizzes and assignments and have a star rating system.
The final challenges were that Waterstones wanted to be able to create and edit the content themselves. The site needed to work cross-platform (so on computers and the Kindle devices themselves) and also the design needed to have the Wow factor.
Waterstones knew of our work with University of Cambridge and had already seen our goal-based systems. They immediately saw the potential in the approach to solve their business issue of how best to train all their Booksellers on selling the Kindle range.
The solution that we came up with was a goal-based learning system with a number of ‘shields’ (subjects) that Booksellers and other Waterstones employees could attempt. They would work towards attaining a shield by choosing goals to achieve and then completing a range of real-world activities, to be done within their work environment. We also included embedded quizzes and surveys using a third party tool, to reinforce their learning.
Many retailers wanting to provide product training would opt for face-to-face training, or elearning courseware plus an LMS. Waterstones went further and embraced a performance-focused goal-based learning approach:
- Instead of going through courses, users work towards goals that will improve their performance.
- They undertake real-world activities that build skills and rate how they are doing.
- They access knowledge-based materials in support of the activities.
- They reflect upon their learning and gather evidence of it.
Waterstones added in the ability for Shop Managers to conduct informal scheduled reviews with the booksellers. This, combined with the goal-based learning, is a truly innovative approach to people development.
They now use Waterstones Academy to deliver a nine-month bookseller qualification and have more plans for further development too.
If we had to say what the key factors were in making this project a success they would be these:
- Openness to new ideas
- Aligning the project with organisation strategy
- Engagement with key stakeholders from the start, including Booksellers, who were the target audience
- Marketing and communications that kept staff informed and involved in the project from the outset
- Support – providing great front-line support to users and managers
- Evaluation – including sales statistics, completion rates, user and manager comments which allowed us to demonstrate that the learning was meeting organisational objectives.
So what did they think?
‘The Waterstones Academy site has provided us with a fantastic new tool to develop and train our bookshop teams. We wanted something both simple and sophisticated in both functionality and look and feel and LearningAge really grasped this. We are so pleased with the site and have received glowing positive feedback from the users, and seen a great take up from booksellers signing up and completing content. We are keen to continuously improve and evolve the site and every time we approach LearningAge with suggestions, however seemingly impossible, they give us practical, non-techy advice and make it happen within equally impossibly tight timescales. ‘ Emma Brown, Head of Learning and Development
Firstly I should clarify what I mean by a ‘distance learning course’. A distance learning course is something that:
- Is undertaken remotely
- Typically takes a number of weeks, months or years to complete
- Includes self-study and assignments
I’m not talking about elearning tutorials or online webinars, though these may form a part of a distance learning course.
With the prevalence of freely available learning material there has never been a better time to create a distance learning course. With some careful searching and curation you can assemble a course using pre-existing resources. Don’t just make it all about knowledge though, remember that participants want to learn new skills too.
Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping process can also be applied to the design of distance learning courses.
- Identify the skills that you are trying to teach to students
- Design assignments where students can practice these skills
- Seek and curate some core learning materials that will support the assignments, and encourage students to do the same
- Design in ways for students to collaborate on assignments and add to the body of knowledge
- Consider whether you will accredit or grade students and what form this will take
Without the motivation of a tutor and fellow students physically being present, ‘completion’ rates can be low. In our free Rapid eLearning Development (ReD) course we see the following approximate ratio:
- 100 people – enrol and are sent joining instructions
- 60 people – log in to the social network where the course is hosted
- 25 people – make a start and tackle some of the assignments
- 12 people – form a core group and complete more-or-less everything
Essentially about 10% ‘complete’ the course. This rings true with massive open online courses (MOOCs) whose completion rates are typically around 7%*. Do I mind? No. Just because people haven’t completed everything it doesn’t mean they haven’t got value from the experience. We explain that people can pick and choose what they undertake – not everyone needs to learn everything.
What I get great satisfaction from is watching that core of 12 or so work together and collaborate. They are often from different sides of the globe and from different cultures, yet they are able work effectively together.
* This figure of 7% comes from a study by PhD student Katy Jordan conducted of 29 free MOOCs over 2012 and 2013.
By Tess Robinson, Director, LearningAge Solutions
Technology now affords so many more options to learn new skills without being physically present, but how can we ensure that participants are kept engaged and motivated when they’re not sat in front of us? It’s a constant challenge and one that we haven’t yet completely cracked but we’d like to share some things here that have worked for us…
If the learning is taking place within an organisation, get yourself a champion at senior level. Choose someone who is respected and liked and who has influence. If learners can see that the learning is valued by the organisation, they will be more inclined to commit to it themselves.
If you are a company providing distance learning to a wide and varied audience, be aware that your reputation impacts heavily on the perception of the distance learning you have produced. For example; if you are an award-winning company, if people have been involved in the design who are well-known and well-respected in the sector you are likely to be perceived far more positively than a company who does not have this track record or involvement.
Consider accreditation. The fact that an external body has validated the learning can be very reassuring. Also consider whether the learning could lead to a qualification or provide credits – people do still love to collect ‘official’ things for their CVs.
Make sure that learners understand what is expected of them. They will need to know what the learning outcomes are and what the purpose of each element of the distance learning is, before they start to use it. For example; this could be in the form of a course guide that is emailed out in advance. It’s also important that learners are aware of the technical spec that they will need to run the learning and that they have the opportunity to install any relevant programmes, apps or upgrades before the learning starts in earnest.
Whatever DL intervention you offer, it should always aim to be rewarding, involving, engaging and enjoyable. Participants also need a very clear idea of what is in it for them. The learning outcomes and their benefits need to be stated at the outset.
Even if you get all the emotional motivators right, a badly designed intervention will soon put learners off and their motivation will take a rapid nosedive. Consider how learners will access the learning; one or two clicks is far better than wading through pages and pages to get to what you want. The choice of technology should be appropriate, relevant and aligned to the characteristics of the audience. If you have a few different elements, the purpose of each should be made clear at the outset.
Make sure your content is concise and to the point – think ‘more quality and less quantity’. Make it interesting, engaging and memorable. Use humour or try something a bit different, such as setting it in a fictional world or using story-telling to make your points.
Anyone who has ever undertaken distance learning knows that it can be lonely. Designing in elements of collaboration, peer review and tutor interaction, assignments and deadlines can help draw learners in and keep the pace of the course going. A ‘live’ element such as a webinar or ‘live chat’ can also help with engagement and to maintain interest.
5. Goal setting
At the outset, encourage learners to think about their goals in relation to the learning and beyond. On a simple level this can be achieved through reflection or, if you want to make it a more substantive part of the learning, through integrating goal setting technology into the course. These goals can be linked to performance review if necessary or can be stand-alone goals for the individual. They can also be tied to workplace transfer to ensure that what is learnt is put into practice.
Learning by experience is not a new concept. Reflection can be a powerful way to improve motivation, skills and confidence by allowing the learner to take a step back to consider and understand their experiences. It gives them space to think about what they might do differently next time, to challenge assumptions and to consider the positive as well as the negative. This can be done through a learning blog or wiki, or even privately off-grid. If you have a collaborative element to your learning, it can be very useful for learners to be able to see and comment on each other’s reflections. The success of this does, however, depend on your audience and the culture in which they are embedded.
7. Tutor skill
A skilful tutor can make all the difference to the success of distance learning. It is the tutor’s job to set the ball rolling, set the tone for the course and to maintain momentum, for example; through setting assignments. The tutor can also facilitate collaboration by asking questions and encouraging others to ask questions of him/her and each other.
The tutor is most effective when they maintain a presence. This might mean regularly clocking-in to the course, providing surgery times and responding to queries in good time.
8. Peer support
Giving a human face to participants encourages interaction. At the beginning of the course, learners can be asked to upload photos of themselves, to introduce themselves and share their goals for the course and beyond.
Peer review is an interesting and potentially very valuable tool. As long as participants can use it honestly and constructively, it encourages knowledge–sharing and provides a network of support alongside the tutor. This is particularly good for distance learning where the audience is spread globally, as learners can get feedback or ask for advice and get a reply from someone, be it peer or tutor, at any time of day.
9. International awareness
If you have a global audience, be aware of cultural differences, language barriers and time zone differences all of which can have a significant impact on participation. Review where your learners are coming from and schedule ‘live’ elements at times when most people can make it. Vary the times if necessary and always record it so that those who cannot attend can watch later.
10. Feedback/ problem reporting
There is nothing that makes you want to switch off more than if something isn’t working or you don’t understand what is being asked of you and you have no mechanism for feedback. Clearly, in most cases, the tutor cannot be available 24:7. It may be that peers can provide the answer but, if not, make sure that learners have access to a log, messaging facility, email address and/or phone number. Clear instructions on how to use these should be given at the outset along with expected response times.