LXD is a (relatively) new abbreviation for learner experience design, and you may have seen the term LX being used as well (especially here on this blog and in the work that ELTjam are doing). We like to have these codes for our work niches because it makes the club cosier on the inside and a bit harder to enter when you’re on the outside, making us to feel valued and establishing new fields of practice. But perhaps you’ll agree that this codification can be a bit dehumanising as well. As a designer working in the learning ‘space’ part of me enjoys viewing my work within this specialism, but another part of me fears the direct parallels being drawn with UX practice and the assumption that when we speak about LX we’re talking about digitally delivered learning.
How a learning marathon works
Over the past five years I’ve worked across several learning ventures, platforms, products and programmes. These include The Matter, a skills development intervention for NEET young people in Scotland, Year Here, a postgrad fellowship in social innovation, and School of System Change, a new venture in sustainability leadership. Most recently I’ve been piloting a new concept in adult education called a Learning Marathon, so named because it’s designed for people who are working to integrate learning alongside their work. I wanted to respond to the lack of adult education offerings which are both affordable and genuinely compelling. The Learning Marathon focusses on peer-to-peer and self-led learning approaches in order to negate the need for expensive tuition and facilitate an exchange of skills and experience. The film below describes the experience of participating.
So I work predominantly with face-to-face learner experiences, supporting learning in some instances with digital. I’m not working exclusively on edtech products or services. I therefore see it as crucially important that the perspectives of the educator, designer and techie are all baked into the practice of LXD. I want to reflect on which guiding principles from the world of user experience make sense when designing for learning, and which do not. I worry about the word ‘user’, particularly when what we really mean is ‘consumer’. Of course a user can be a learner and a consumer. But consumer behaviour is not learner behaviour, and what is conducive to consumption is very unlikely to also lead to learning. This is because developmental learning is a fascinating, slippery snake of a subject. Shortcut the consumption process and you end up with what you want, faster. Shortcut the learning process and you shortcut the learning itself. Instant gratification and learning simply do not speak the same language.
So how do you balance the often conflicting needs of the learner in the online realm? If for example you’re designing a language learning app then of course you need a seamless user experience, but you need to apply pedagogical principles too. How do you ensure they are not at odds? Here are four UX principles to be wary of when designing for learning:
1. Present few choices
This just doesn’t represent life very accurately. This is precisely why it produces an enjoyable user experience. There is temporary suspense of the complexity surrounding the decision-making that we have to do in life and at work. It’s a great relief when this is made simple for us. But does it help us grow our capacity to make decisions in an increasingly complex world?
Principle becomes: Guide learners through complexity but don’t hide it behind a curtain and dumb down the process.
2. Limit distractions
This is a tricky one. Often distractions are what prevent people from focussing on the learning that they want to do. However, let’s assume potential distractions innocent until proven guilty. A group of peers could be considered a distraction or a great source of potential learning through exchange. Through the lens of UX you might see things one way whereas through the lens of pedagogy you might see something else. One man’s distraction is another man’s stimulus.
Principle becomes: Be careful when deciding for others what is distraction and what is stimulus.
3. Never let people get lost
Sometimes people run to education when they feel lost, particularly further education. Not fulfilled at work? Consider a Masters. This is because the act of learning develops new connections, relationships and eventually new routes forward. If you’re designing a service you will likely shoulder some responsibility for this wayfinding, but be wary when assuming that feeling lost is always negative. If you’re reading this and thinking that I’m interpreting the principle too literally and it simply refers to how someone navigates a menu system then fair enough, but maybe reflect on where you are allowing learners to find their own way.
Principle becomes: Allow learners to feel lost and hold their hand instead of telling them where to go.
4. Reduce delays
Instant gratification is one of the core values of our society, but self-mastery cannot simply be summoned or bought, it must be earned. It emerges through practice; tiny steps forward (and backward). Do you want to master the art of patience whilst online banking? Clearly not. But on the other hand, will e-learning that allows users to click their way to completion ever have much transformational potential? Unlikely.
Principle becomes: Look actively for where you should reduce delays and where you should build in delayed gratification.
I don’t believe that any amount of technology will ever separate difficulty from learning. They are like light and dark: one does not exist without the other. So in the education setting we need to shift our thinking from user-centred to learner-centred, especially when designing for what someone needs long-term will not be facilitated by designing for what they want in the here and now. Louise Downe (Director of Design for the UK government) says it really well at the end of this blog post:
‘Designers like doctors: your job isn’t to give people what they want but what they need and sometimes that’s an uncomfortable process’
When designing a learner experience, the discomfort comes from having one foot in the world of design and another in the world of learning and pedagogy. For now I’ll be using my imaginary lenses, switching from designer to educator and back again to see how different the picture looks; and whether work needs to be done to bring the two images together.
All comments, responses and thoughts most welcome!
- I’m starting a Meetup for Learner Experience Designers (with collaboration from ELTjam) which it would be great if you could join – the first Meetup will be Wednesday April 5th.
- Apply now for the next Learning Marathon, kicking off in May 2017: a six month peer-to-peer learning accelerator where you can develop your practice.
Zahra Davidson is a designer who specialises in design for learner experiences, programmes and products, and she is co-founder of Enrol Yourself; a platform for affordable, flexible lifelong learning. Zahra also works with Forum for the Future developing The School of System Change, and was previously a senior designer in their System Innovation Lab.