Pretend for a moment that your target learner is a field sales rep named Kate. Her schedule is packed with customer visits. Kate is expected to not just know about a wide range of products and competitors, but be able to articulate this information in a meaningful way to her highly educated customers. She also must effectively execute the company’s sales process and build meaningful rapport quickly. Easy, right?

When Kate needs to reference or practice something, she is often already sitting in a prospective customer’s parking lot. She is likely using her phone or tablet. Do you want her to know how to differentiate your product from Competitor A? Too bad… the eLearning course on that topic is locked away on an LMS. What about the course Kate took that covered the latest product information? She passed the completion test, but that was over a month ago and she has forgotten most of the details.

Regardless of what industry you are in, Kate is your learner. The constraints your learners face in their work environments may be different from the example I’ve given, but my point remains: When we fail to put learners first in our designs, the training we create is doomed for irrelevance.

Don’t Jump to Solutions Just Yet

In the search for more meaningful training approaches, many of us turn to the latest trend or technology. The one getting the most hype and attention in the industry. Microlearning, Augmented Reality, Gamification, Machine Learning: each one of these trends, or perhaps a trend I have not listed, can seem like the one thing that your training approaches are missing.

There are articles and webinars galore that hype up the latest learning trends. They talk about how you must add X, Y, or Z technology to your training strategy. But while these technologies and approaches may be useful to you, they do not get to the root of the problem.

We need to figure out what our learners truly need. More specifically, we need to think about what Kate, a real person with a pulse, truly needs. Then and only then can we select the right mix of tools and technologies.

Is Your Training Business-Centered?

“Business-Centered Design” is not a formal discipline, although it might as well be. I’m referring to the tendency to do whatever is most cost-effective or convenient for the business and putting the needs of learners second. An example might be mandating that all corporate learning materials be housed on the LMS, no matter what. Or that you must create all online learning materials with a single software tool regardless of the business need.

Business-centered approaches make sense on the surface. Businesses obviously have goals to meet and metrics to hit, and employees are responsible for making it happen. But if employees need to gain knowledge and skills to make that happen, and the training they must take was not designed well because of various “business requirements” or legacy processes, was it really so business-centered after all?

The Human Element

It is nothing new to consider the human element of design. Many different processes, terms, and methodologies exist; design thinking, human-centered design, and user experience design to name a few. Human-centered designers build empathy with their users so that they deeply understand how whatever it is they are designing will fit into their daily lives and solve meaningful problems.

Surprisingly, it sometimes feels like a new concept to think of our learners as human beings. They might find it hard to log in to a training portal, or pinch to zoom in on a PDF on their mobile device. Kate has five minutes to locate the resource she needs before her sales call, and you might have known how stressed that makes her if you had asked!

How to Create Human-Centered Training

No single process or methodology has a monopoly on creating training with a human-centered approach. If done with a flexible mindset, even the ADDIE model can deliver human-centered solutions. The key is to make the analysis phase meaningful and iterate quickly.

The discipline of design thinking has a great deal to offer the L&D community. The at Stanford University has a variety of free design thinking resources on its website if you are interested in learning more. I found this 90-minute design thinking workshop particularly valuable to see how the process works in action:

While I’ll leave it to the experts at Stanford to teach design thinking in full, three essential elements of the process stand out to me as especially applicable to instructional design:

1. Empathy is the goal of analysis

Instructional designers are already familiar with performing a training needs analysis, task analysis, focus groups, interviews, and surveys. They are less familiar with uncovering the deeper, more fundamental needs of target learners. Do we understand Kate’s feeling of frustration when she can’t find the information she needs on her phone before talking to a customer? How does that frustration help us define the real problem and identify possible solutions?

2. Ideation is essential to design

In the design thinking workshop video above, notice how the process involves the creation of many ideas quickly, followed by immediately sharing with the “customer”. Besides the possible focus group, learners are often the last ones to see the result of a corporate training initiative designed to help them learn something. This needs to change.

3. Iteration is the soul of development

So you made a user interface and you think it looks good. Now what? Did you test it with target learners to make sure they find it useful and intuitive? Development must include frequent touch points with target learners so they can validate design decisions and identify aspects of the learning solution that are unclear or difficult to use.

No single trend, fad, or technology is enough to get the results you seek from your training initiatives. But when you take a human approach to design, you will discover what approach is truly optimal… and wind up with a whole lot of empathy in the process.