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What Gmail and the Ipad Have in Common (And Most Lms’s Don’t!)

Paul Buchheit, probably best known as the creator and lead developer of Google’s Gmail, recently blogged that “If your product is great, it doesn’t need to be good”. His point is that really great products will start out by focusing on a small number of really important features, and not try to tick every box in the competition’s feature list. This approach lets you focus on what’s really important to start with, and then to evolve the product with the really important ‘missing’ features.

Sound good? It’s how products like Gmail and the iPhone / iPad managed to break new ground without getting bogged down in minutiae. However Buchheit then goes on to say, perhaps slightly tongue in cheek: “This advice probably only applies to consumer products (ones where the purchaser is also the user – this includes some business products). For markets that have purchasing processes with long lists of feature requirements, you should probably just crank out as many features as possible and not waste time on simplicity or usability.”

This is a problem we see frequently with the leading Learning Management System software implementations. In most environments, this software is used by all employees but is not, and probably will not be something they use on a daily basis*. These attributes are shared with typical consumer web sites and web apps (large audience, infrequent visits), but LMS software usually focuses on implementing features rather than ease and speed of use, resulting in systems that are hard to use, confusing for users, cost too much to customise, integrate and maintain, and consequently don’t meet learning or business goals.

It’s not all down to the LMS vendors, though. After all, companies do buy their software. But are the people in those companies, who choose the software or who influence its choice (procurement, IT management, finance) dedicated and passionate LMS users? Probably not, and as a result other factors (cost, procurement processes, feature lists, size of vendor, reference customers, conformity with existing standards and norms) come heavily into play. These are all potentially valid and useful in the decision making process, but the undesirable side-effect is that hard to quantify, non-functional aspects like simplicity and usability play second fiddle to that which is easy to measure.

Fortunately it doesn’t have to be like this. In 2008, LINE worked with Jaguar Land Rover and software developer Redware to implement a bespoke LMS for their dealer community, replacing a mainframe-backend system in North America and one of the well known LMS vendors in ‘Rest of World’. It lacks several of the features in the systems it replaced, but this hasn’t stopped it from reaching a wider audience and gaining higher usage and user satisfaction figures. The system now has 42,000 active users and is progressing well towards 100% usage. Furthermore, dealer Learning Management Systems in the automotive industry that have been successfully deployed both globally and to all parts of the dealer (sales, aftersales and technical) are a rarity (we believe that Volvo Cars may be the only other one?) Then, in 2009, we deployed e2train’s Kallidus LMS at the UK Government Home Office. A key component of the project was to customise the home page to provide a small and simple set of features informed by best practice in contemporary consumer web sites, such as ratings, recommendations and auto-completing universal searches. In the 14 weeks after launch, take-up of this product was more than double that of the system it replaced.

So, if you’re rolling out a corporate or supply-chain LMS, think outside the box (-ticking procurement culture) about the following points:

  • Consider the LMS a consumer application – remember that this will be used infrequently / casually to help people do their jobs better – but it’s not the system they use to do their daily job
  • Look at what makes consumer web sites / services work right now – ease of use, integration, simplicity, communication
  • Identify and focus on a small number of core requirements and make sure you get these right – even at the expense of others
  • Deploy quickly (and you need to keep it simple and relatively inexpensive to do this) and after the initial implementation measure usage, solicit feedback from users, and evolve your offering to meet the key requirements without adding excessive complexity

Ian Leader is MD Central Europe at LINE Communications.

* it probably should be, but that’s another post!

This blog first appeared on the LINE website on April 30th 2010

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