Development Engagement Learn Better Microlearning

What It Really Means to Be Learner-First

Written by Alex Khurgin

Product designers talk with users to understand their motivations, perceptions, and actions before they begin designing products. Yet in the world of training and development, learners often aren’t involved in the learning design process.

When it comes to planning out and delivering learning programs, the totem pole in many organizations looks like this:

Senior leaders, managers, SMEs, L&D folks, and learners on the totem pole

Notice the SMEs smiling, the learners cowering, and the L&D folks whistling as if nothing is wrong.

Let’s flip this totem pole.

Rather than designing learning solutions around the points that senior leaders, managers, SMEs, or even you find important, interview your learners first to uncover their true concerns.

Once you know those concerns, your work with other stakeholders becomes clear. The conversation shifts from “how do we teach someone this topic? ” to “how can we help someone who has these specific concerns?”

What should you ask your learners?

Once you know what behaviors you want to target with your learning program, talk to your learners.

If you ask them only one question, let it be this:

  • What makes this behavior hard for you?

If you have two questions, ask:

  • When do you fail at this behavior?
  • Why?

You can learn a lot about the concerns of a broad swath of learners from these one or two questions embedded in an email form.

To get additional context, schedule a 10-minute one-on-one interview with a handful of learners (allocate more time if you want to talk about multiple behaviors).

Say for instance you want to design a solution to help employees give one another effective feedback. You might begin with these questions:

  • When do you struggle to give feedback?
  • When is giving feedback easy?
  • Do you ever avoid giving feedback? Why?
  • What would encourage you to give feedback more often?
  • What would make it easier?

The more examples, stories, and details you can gather, the better. In asking these questions, you’ll surface learner pain points that you could never get from the other stakeholders. These pain points are priceless assets in ensuring the learning experiences you ultimately design are useful and get used.

Finding patterns in learner concerns

There will be some overlap in answers, but that’s a good thing. Patterns will emerge and you’ll pinpoint where people need the most help.

One way to help recognize patterns is to bucket learner concerns into different gaps–what is it that is really precluding someone from performing the behavior? Is it knowledge, environment, skills, habits, or attitudes?

Learner gaps include knowledge, environment, skills, habits, and attitudes

Bucketing responses in this way can help guide your decision-making when you design a learning solution later. For example:

  • To close an attitude gap, you might use a story to reframe how the learner views the target behavior.
  • To close a skill gap, you might include an extra helping of practice exercises to develop proficiency.
  • To close a habit gap, you might identify a trigger to help break the old habit and form the new one.

The insights and pain points that surface during your learner interviews can make or break your learning efforts. Be sure to gather them before you move on to designing your solution.

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