Be The Learner

imagine-the-learnerAs designers of learning experiences, we’re tasked with identifying the characteristics of the target audience. We discover their job responsibilities, prerequisite knowledge and interests. Our purpose is to understand them well enough to “connect” so that the learning experience we create is relevant and motivating.

While recently coaching someone who was new to the field, however, I realized that just connecting with the audience leaves too much room for error. It’s still possible to create the wrong learning experience. Instead, we have to become the audience so we can view our own work through their eyes.

The problem then, is how to accomplish this existential feat. It means stretching beyond the walls of our own individual selves and walking in the shoes of people we may not know well. It means reviewing our own learning materials through their mindset and perceptions. Here are some ways I think we can attempt to achieve this.

  1. Empty your mind of your own ideas. You’ve heard of a brain dump. In this case, you need to throw out what you know and adopt the audience’s perspective.
  2. Drop your self-importance. As learning specialists, we may think we always know best. But we can’t let self-importance and what we know about learning get in the way of clearly examining our work through the eyes of others.
  3. Ask the right questions. As you view each segment, ask yourself, “Does this make sense? Is it necessary? Is this the best way to learn a concept? Does this move me (the learner) closer to my final goal?”
  4. Imagine. Imagine you’re inhabiting the environment in which the learner takes your course. Imagine what happens before and after. Imagine their thoughts and feelings.
  5. Check the big picture view. Look at your work from a high-level, something similar to Slide Sorter view in PowerPoint or Story View in Storyline. Look at the complete flow, the organization of topics and where the interactions occur. Is the course meaningful from the audience’s perspective?
  6. Stay away from the work for a few days. Then review. Give yourself some space to get a fresh perspective. Then come back and review your work.

Dealing with Discomfort

As you review your own or your team’s work from the perspective of the audience, some aspects are bound to bring discomfort. You may discover extraneous points that go nowhere important, interactions without real challenge and usability issues. Even worse, you may become impatient because the end of the course is nowhere in sight.

In his book, Interviewing Users, Steve Portigal tells a story about pushing on with the process, even in the face of discomfort. (See podcast Best Practices for Interviewing Users.) The same applies to the review process. You can’t turn away because you feel uneasy. Take notes and write down the problems and issues. Then fix them.

To be better at what we do, let’s keep trying to leap out of our own skin. What techniques do you use? Respond below.

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  1. TalkShop Best English School says

    I agree about “Be the Learner”. In this way you can see your work as an audience. You can see if the material is interesting for them or if this topic is the one they need. You can also see if the design process of the learning is interesting or can get your audiences attention.

  2. Joe Fournier says

    Hi Connie,

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. Good reminders for all of us! I particularly relate to your point # 4: Imagine.

    In the crazy world of urgent requests and short deadlines, I sometimes find myself developing embarassingly long courses in weeks (or less). In rapid-response mode, it’s easy to lose sight of the flow and feel of the course. I find it helpful to walk through the design, constantly reminding myself that I’m “new to these ideas and have not applied them”. I usually find concept or idea or two (or three) that need simpler, cleaner explanation or repositioning in the course. I have to go through this process at various conceptual stages as well (especially when I don’t have “time for rework”–do we ever?).

    During the walkthru’s and through development, I also keep asking myself questions like: “would I get this now?” “do I believe this?” “am I tired?” “am I bored?” Being honest with yourself on these questions is paramount.

    One challenge we all have to master is envisioning the experience of the learner before investing too much in development. Even with tight deadlines and shifting content, it’s possible. But designers must be ever-mindful of that learner experience in order to “get it.”

    A former manager and mentor of mine used to often say: “Keep the learner at the center of everything you do.” That maxim is at once inspriring and challenging, and IMHO, ever-essential.



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