Designs on learning

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Written by Preethi Anand on 1 August 2013 in Features

Preethi Anand shows how learning can become “as exciting as Disneyland” when it is designed in the right way

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting presided over by our CEO. He was talking to us about presenting to our clients and suddenly asked us: "What is the difference between our local carnivals and Disneyland?" If you actually think about it, both of them have very similar characteristics: they both have joy rides, they both have people dressed in costumes, Ferris wheels, bumper cars, games, food and many more. But we all know that there is a world of difference between the two. So what exactly was the difference?

The difference, he said, lay in the experience of a visitor. A carnival might be thrilling but Disneyland is a lifetime experience that is designed to make it "the happiest place on earth" for its visitors. Disneyland stitches an enthralling story around each of its attractions, staying cognisant of what would excite the visitors, how they would navigate through the place.

Now, learning is no joy ride, employees say. But why should it not be? Why can we not design systems that make learning as exciting as Disneyland?

'Learning experience design' has been slowly discussed in pockets, by educational bloggers, following the trends in web and app user experience design. Let us discuss why it is not just another fad, why it is here to stay and why it could be the next step in the L&D evolution.

What is learning experience design (LXD)?

"Experience Design is an approach to the design of products, services and environments based on a holistic consideration of the users' experience. Experience design is therefore driven by consideration of the 'moments' of engagement between people and brands, and the memories these moments create," says Wikipedia.

Professionals in the field of web/app development have adapted the concept to their fields and refer to it as 'user experience design', and branding experts are beginning to talk about 'customer experience design'.

For L&D professionals like us, the concept can refer to the design of learning experiences, focused on the learner, that are engaging, exciting and memorable. It is, in essence, a conscious shift in perspective from focusing only on the effectiveness of learning interventions, to focusing on the employee's learning experience as well.

The driving principles of LXD

Principle 1: Through the learners' looking glass There's a common joke in Tamil Nadu, the Indian state from which I hail. God appeared in front of a man and said he would grant any wish of his. Laughing, the man said: "How do I believe you are the Almighty?" God tried to appear in another form, and the man said: "That is a cheap magic trick." God then brought before him his long-lost love, and the man said: "That was just a coincidence." So, God took a tube of toothpaste, squeezed the contents out and used his powers to put the contents back in. Shocked, the man said: "My God! Sorry for doubting you."

Agreed, it is not one of the funniest jokes but, the first time I heard it, the only thing I could think of was the design of our toothpaste packaging. It is one of the very few packaging concepts that have not changed over so many years. It could not have been designed without the user in mind: a tube that pumps out the paste efficiently, no matter how full the tube, and a small nozzle that disperses adequate paste for our toothbrushes.

Now, let us consider everything that we do as L&D professionals. We strive so hard to cater to the learning needs of our employees, but do we really understand how our employees interpret our learning interventions? How do they experience learning? The foremost principle in LXD is to look through the eyes of our learners. Through surveys, focus groups, feedback etc, when we understand how our learners access learning, how they learn and what support systems enrich their learning process, we can design more responsive systems.

It will also automatically serve two crucial functions, which we have always found difficult to do, namely aligning to individual learning styles and adult learning principles. Arguably it is a difficult task, as it requires dedicated effort and a lot of research to understand our learners, but it is difficult, not impossible nor improbable.

Principle 2: Aligned with the business, addressing learner needs A video introduction to user experience designing, by the creative team at, serves as one of the most comprehensive generic introductions to the subject. It illustrates, among various other aspects, the significance of UXD to address both business and user needs. While it is important to create a product that the users love, the business needs also have to be met for sustainability.

This principle holds true for L&D and HR as well. While the business requires certain learning interventions, to ensure that employees are competent and geared up for the future supporting the organisational strategy, the employees also have learning preferences based on their plans for individual career development. While we have mastered the art of listening to and aligning with the business, we are now slowly beginning to understand the pulse of our learners. Designing learning experiences is about finding the sweet spot where the business needs and the learner needs intersect.

Let us look at this from another angle. Why should 'business needs' and 'learner needs' be any different? When an employee, for example, participates in a project management programme because the business is in need of project managers, would it not help the employee to grow in the organisation? Would it not help the employee in his career as well? True. But the growth strategy that the business has set for itself may not be the path an employee wishes to take. It is not fair to discount employee learning styles and career choices for the sake of the business, and it is not wise to cater to employee learning needs at the cost of the business.

Principle 3: Learning experience design is a living, evolving organism LXD cannot be a one-time effort. It is much more than a periodic intervention; it is a philosophy that needs a strong foothold in all our processes, initiatives and learning arenas. It is also crucial that it evolves with the business and the learner.

Imagine throwing a small pebble in a glass of water; some water may disperse but neither disturbs the other. Now imagine adding a drop of red paint in a glass of water; in a few seconds the entire mix changes colour, as the red paint becomes one with the water. When we launch new initiatives, in our efforts to keep pace with the business and the employees' learning requirements, we have to consciously keep in mind that they should blend in with the learning function's current model. And our learning model should adapt to the new initiatives as well.

Our learning function's purpose and objectives rarely change and hence, when we adapt, we have to think of the whole function from the users' perspective. It may not always be an additional process being put in place. We may have to consider letting go of some of our processes and initiatives that this change made redundant. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, "a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away".

Focus areas for the application of learning processes

Learning processes are among the least focused upon, rarely discussed areas in L&D. And for that reason, it is of foremost interest. It is often the things that we take for granted that we need to rethink.

Learning processes act as the gateway to learning experiences and, however simple this sounds, it is important to ensure learning is easily accessible; the process is intuitive and known to employees. These processes, when they seamlessly integrate with an employee's work process, can largely contribute to helping employees make learning an everyday habit. The land where learning is not a stand-alone event, where it is an integral part of one's work life, is not a mythical one. And designing smart learning processes have the power to promote that kind of learning culture.

A case in point

The L&D function at organisation X was working on the design of a leadership development programme for employees in a specific role, role Y. The programme was unique as it had a holistic approach to leadership development, taking into account the knowledge of quality standards, business acumen and technology know-how required to fulfil role Y. For those who required extra help with some of the subjects, exhaustive training sessions and coaching were among the various options.

Now, when the organisation did some research to understand the learners better, it understood that role Y required extensive travelling and being available for international clients on a week's notice. And nearly 90 per cent of role Y holders were Gen Xers who preferred a traditional classroom education.

After hours of brainstorming, the L&D function decided on the following actions, among many others, for a much richer learning experience:

  • the leadership programme was designed along the lines of an executive education programme: a course with four modules every year, each module focusing on one leadership quality and related concepts in quality, business and technology
  • there were two other initiatives currently organised by the function for role Y that focused on quality standards. The learning content from them were incorporated to the leadership programme and they were suspended
  • the L&D function published annual learning calendars to help role Y holders plan their schedule in advance
  • the participants were sent reading material, including industry case studies and book reviews, once a month by mail
  • biannual reunions were organised that provided a platform for role Y holders to connect, and share their work experiences, with their counterparts.

With a terrific ROI score at the end of the year, the programme had a much larger impact on the learning function, as the model was replicated with two other roles as well.

Learning arenas

Classroom training sessions, video learning platforms, game-based learning platforms, social learning, e-learning… The list of new learning arenas we have discovered in the past few years is one that runs to several pages.

When we consider LXD, we need to look into the design of our learning arenas. The good news is that user experience designers have created a huge knowledge base from which we can learn, in order to evaluate all our online learning platforms. Beginning with understanding how a user navigates through a website, to interesting insights into psychology, user experience designers can help us tremendously in understanding our employees' learning experience.

A case in point

At organisation A, a newly-started e-commerce website management company, the L&D and HR professionals were looking again at the design of their induction programme. Organisation A had a largely young, Gen Y workforce, who worked in creative fields such as graphic designing, website development and communications. The L&D function, after a survey among its employees, found that the existing induction programme did not capture their attention and, when it did, it failed to excite.

The L&D professionals, along with the HR team, uncovered a few common characteristics shared by organisation A's employees: the employees' jobs required them to be technology-savvy, creative and highly individualistic. They did not believe in hierarchies or any traditional concepts of management. There were several informal networks among employees across departments and locations.

So they developed and implemented a new learning solution that replaced their induction process, with the following characteristics:

  • inductions were a day-long activity, in smartly-designed, modern classrooms furnished only with bean bags and no tables. Each participant was given an iPad, through which they were connected to all other participants and employees in the organisation
  • the entire induction programme was developed as a social role-playing game, through which the participants learned about their organisation, connecting with others in their batch during the course of the game
  • sessions, on policies and processes for example, were taught through an animated video followed by an online pop quiz and a facilitator-led session to answer any queries.

The programme was very well received, with a surprisingly sharp decrease in attrition among newly-joined employees.

In the words of Winston Churchill, "to improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often". Change will be the one constant in the process of designing learning experiences. And this dynamic, user-sensitive field of study can take our L&D projects one step further, towards a new dawn of responsive and personalised learning systems.

About the author

Preethi Anand is head of branding and research at Polaris Financial Technology's Nalanda Corporate University. She can be contacted at


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