Making it Personal: Why Putting Learners First Really Matters in Training Design 

A woman sits in front of a laptop computerWe’ve all been there: enduring a boring lecture or class as a student or employee. The same goes for digital learning. Who hasn’t sighed at a compulsory course, or even tried to skip to the end?

On the other hand, plenty of us have participated in digital learning experiences that stick with us for different reasons. The learning experiences we remember most make an impression by meeting our needs and keeping us engaged.

So, what makes learning personal and memorable in the right way? How can training or e-learning speak to each of us individually, influence our behaviour, and empower us?

My favourite training experiences were ones that spoke to me and experiences, to my ambitions – and even to my failings. They got to the point and empathised with the problems I’ve faced in my topic of choice, then gave me the information and tools I needed to be better and do better.

Whatever the subject matter, if I can relate to the learning content, and if it speaks to me and my personal history with that skill or competency, then I’m much more likely to engage with, understand, and start to recognise the value of an online course. When I’m participating in an effective online course or training module, I’m able to answer that age-old question that so many learners ask: “What’s in this for me?”

Empathetic Design Addresses the “Why” for Any Digital Learner

Scientific research in adult learning shows that our emotions dictate how and why we learn and the efficiency of our cognitive functions. As humans and as learners, the events that resonate most with us are emotional ones that are shared. All of our experiences – even the painful ones – become memorable and impactful because they trigger our emotions and permit us to relate to others who have gone through something similar.

Learning a new skill or topic can be difficult, and learners facing training challenges may feel a slew of negative or complex emotions. “Growing pains” are real, even in digital learning environments. As a learning designer, part of my job is making all learners – regardless of their personal backgrounds or expertise – feel seen, heard, and supported.

When designing a learning experience, sowing the seeds of empathy and understanding nurtures the growth of each learner. To be truly empathetic in our design process, we really need clarify the “why” for our learners. We need to be able to know what is in it for them and what we can provide to get them to their goals.

You may recognise that this approach to addressing pain points and solving problems sounds a lot like marketing, and you’d be right!

Taking a Marketers Approach to Learning Design

When I’m designing a digital learning experience, I do so with the understanding that my courses could be taken by learners in many different roles, of many age groups, and of various experience levels. This makes personalising e-learning a challenge. But structuring learning to engage participants as people with human emotions, needs, and wants (just like marketers do) can help.

Marketing aims to identify the pain points, problems and issues of a product or service’s key audiences and induce those audiences to engage with the product and eventually buy it. Our learning designs should mirror a good piece of marketing by engaging with the learner in shared issues and concerns, and then providing calls to action to help solve those problems. The call to action, of course, is to use and apply the knowledge and tools included in a well-designed and curated e-learning solution.

Focused Content for More Effective Learning

By zeroing in on learners’ concerns, we can be equally laser focussed on the training solution we provide in our e-learning courses. This means no “content dumping,” i.e. indiscriminately gathering and distributing all information related to a course topic, regardless of the personal contexts or learning styles of a course participant. This approach loses learner trust and wastes their valuable time and attention.

A key lesson that we can take from marketing is that empathetic design and clear messaging are not optional, but essential.

The tone and content of the best learning experiences need to:

  • Recognise the learner’s pain points and empathise with them.
  • Be authentic and avoid a punitive or patronizing tone; learners know sincerity when they see it and don’t want to be treated like naughty children!
  • Have clear calls to action that will help improve performance long after the course is finished.

Learners are grown-ups with diverse life experiences. Let’s recognise them as people and design learning that reflects their needs and wants, so that they’re sure to come back for more!