Design For How People Learn: Book Review

Even if you’re not a learning geek, leafing through the pages of Design For How People Learn by Julie Dirksen will make you think, “This should be be fun.”

Any book that includes stick figure illustrations and people with speech bubbles automatically breaks down any sense of conventional formality. The book was designed for how people learn—it’s friendly, accessible and concrete.

What’s Inside

Design For How People Learn is organized into nine chapters that walk the reader through the thought processes and tasks of designing learning experiences. It’s written in the context of  the learner’s journey and paired with the instructional designer’s quest: how to effectively enable learning for competence.

Making effective use of metaphors, graphics and stories, Dirksen covers everything from the basics of how to get started, to cognitive foundations of learning, to design strategies. She easily translates theory into practical terms so that readers can quickly apply the content to their real-world projects. She also poses many questions to stimulate thinking in new ways and to release instructional designers from the doldrums of boring or ineffective instruction.

Developing a Learner-centric Approach

A key principle in Design For How People Learn is its learner-centric focus. Readers are continuously reminded to consider what’s right for each unique audience. For example, in the chapter titled Who Are Your Learners?, Dirksen covers how to reach an audience of learners who are motivated by extrinsic factors. The strategies?

  • Scour their situation for intrinsic motivators
  • Look for pain points
  • Avoid extensive theory and background
  • Use interesting hypothetical problems

The chapter on How Do You Get Their Attention? uses the metaphor of an elephant to represent the non-rational parts of the brain: gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions and intuition. Designers should seek and find ways to engage the “elephant” that lurks within their target audience. Strategies might include:

  • Tell it stories
  • Surprise it
  • Show it shiny things
  • Tell it all the other elephants are doing it
  • Leverage the elephant’s habits

It’s About How the Content is Taught

A second guiding principle is that learning experiences are not about the content, but about how learner’s experience the content. Achieving success is based on the designer’s ability to architect engaging and sticky instruction. In the Will They Remember? chapter, Dirksen expands on this with topics on: how to stimulate what learners already know; problem-based learning; how friction or difficulty provokes thinking; showing rather than telling and allowing learners to draw their own conclusions

Effective Experiences are Based on Cognitive Models

Fortunately, Design For How People Learn reinforces the importance of design based on cognitive psychology. Without an understanding of human memory types and capabilities, its difficult to make successful design decisions. This chapter is particularly important for those who entered the field as “accidental instructional designers.”

The How Do We Remember? chapter focuses on types of memory; how we retrieve information from memory; and how various instructional practices relate to human cognition. For example, Dirksen delves into why role-playing and storytelling can be effective, the differences between recognition and recall, the value of practice and repetition and the downside of blunt force (memorization).

The theme of accommodating our cognitive processes is threaded throughout the book. For example, underlying the recommendations in the Design For Skills chapter is the fact that learning something new can create cognitive overload.

To avoid this, designers can restructure learning to alternate new information with what is already known. Designers can also distribute practice over time, provide feedback in various ways (it doesn’t all have to be obvious) and engage in follow-up.


Design For How People Learn should satisfy the interests of both novice and experienced instructional designers and trainers. For the novice, there’s a wealth of content presented in a way that is easy to absorb and apply. Readers with experience in design will enjoy Dirksen’s creative approach and will find useful suggestions and recommendations for those times when inspiration is lacking.

Design For How People Learn is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle and at other online book stores.

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  1. Marc Schnau says

    I recieved my copy yesterday (Bought it because of your review). And yes, even after 15 years of experience, Julie Dirksens book is loaded with useful informations. Thanks for your review, can’t wait for the next one.


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