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Meeting actual learners face to face

This post first appeared on the Epic blog on 3rd October 2012.

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend Evgenia Grinblo’s talk ‘The practice of empathy’ at the Reasons to be Creative conference here in Brighton. As a UX designer with a background in qualitative research, her focus on designing inter-subjectively (designing from someone else’s point of view) got me thinking. How often do we really do this when designing learning? And how can we get under the skin of our learners?

As a lead designer, I spend a lot of time talking to SMEs, stakeholders and project managers about ‘the learner’. But I very rarely meet any of our learners. Recently, I had the opportunity to do just that. The project was for an organisation working in the health sector and the audience consisted of frontline staff. What I knew about this audience (from those SMEs, stakeholders and project managers) was that it was varied in terms of age, background, location, knowledge and experience. Good thing I love a design challenge.

What I found most interesting on meeting and talking with the learners was that for this particular group, their drivers for learning were overwhelmingly emotive. When questioned, each and every one of them talked about a desire to do a good job for the people they supported because they believed in the personal value of the role they performed. Many were also worried about their abilities to do so. I’d gone from having a completely disparate audience to one with a common goal. I could work with that.

Conversations with the project team could never have so clearly captured the learners’ motivations. Project teams talk a lot about really important things such as business drivers, cost saving, streamlining processes and so on. But they don’t often talk about that individual learner, who actually sits in front of their computer. Understanding the ‘why’ can only help us improve the ‘how’. In this particular case, understanding where their motivation and their concerns came from helped us to design a course that was truly learner-focussed. This understanding affected everything from the design approach (simple, practical and scenario-based) and the activities we designed (end-user scenarios, confidence checkers, ongoing support resources) down to the tone of voice we used to address the audience (friendly, informal, supportive, emotive).

Of course, it’s not always practical to meet large groups of learners, and this may well have been done by your client-side team before the designers really get involved. But for me, it was a really worthwhile and valuable experience. Actual learners face to face. Fancy that.