Human-Centered Learning

By Nathan Pienkowski

Imagine you’re planning to design a new product that will help its users solve a specific problem. Before beginning the design process, doesn’t it make sense to first analyze the problem, understand how it affects people (your potential customers), and then design the product with end users’ perspectives and needs in mind?  Of course it makes sense!  There are even names for that approach, and the most common ones are “user-centered design” and “human-centered design.”

The same concept applies when designing learning solutions.  Here, we’ll call it “human-centered learning.”  So, what does human-centered learning look like?  Let’s find out.

Keys to Human-Centered Learning

For trainers and instructional designers, the first key to human-centered learning is to clearly understand the problem that needs to be solved.  It’s critical to articulate the goal the business is trying to meet.  For the most part, instructional designers do this anyway, and it’s a part of pretty much every instructional design model.  But human centered learning goes a bit further.

Another key is to go beyond studying the “problem” and to spend time focused on the learner, closely examining how he does his work as it relates to the problem and goals.  This requires an in-depth look at what the learner thinks about when he does his work, what his goals and intentions are, what his motivators and barriers are, the tools he uses, the people he works with, and so on.  It basically involves fully understanding why the learner works in the way he does, and how that relates to the “problem” or business goal at hand.

Empathy for the learner’s situation is another key to human-centered learning.  The instructional designer must accept the primacy of the learner and how she works, then orient the training around the learner’s work and working world.  In other words, solutions should be “wrapped around the learner” and not the other way around (which is often the case).

Examples of Human-Centered Learning

Let’s move from concepts to more concrete examples.  In pharmaceutical sales, the District Manager (DM) role is an important one, requiring sound management skills as well as the ability to coach and develop sales reps.  Field visits are an important part of the coaching process, as the DM accompanies a sales rep on a number of calls, offering support and coaching along the way.

Let’s assume that a company wants to improve the coaching skills of its DMs.  The easy way out might be to develop—or to acquire—a generalized training program on coaching skills, with little consideration given to how those skills are expected to fit into the DM’s day-to-day job responsibilities.

Unfortunately, the easy way isn’t always the best way.  A better approach would be to understand the dynamics of field visits:  How they work, what behaviors are expected of the reps, the opportunities DMs have for coaching, and so on.  Then, the L&D team can design a training solution that’s specific to the situation at hand.  Which training solution sounds more effective:  Improving Coaching Skills or How to Have Successful Field Visits? If I were a DM, I know which one I’d rather go through.

Next comes decisions about how to deliver the training.  Remember the point about empathizing with the learners?  If the company’s DMs are very busy, with little time available for training, then it probably makes sense to use delivery methods that are less time-consuming.  For example, the training might consist of short “mini-modules” delivered using mobile learning solutions that a DM might be able to do while sitting in a car or at lunch.

Training design should also acknowledge and operate within the constraints of the field environment.  For example, it’s probably not a good idea to train a pharmaceutical sales rep to have a conversation that involves five complex steps when they only have an average of just a couple of minutes per call in front of the doctor.  Instead, it’s best to design training that helps the rep make the most of the short time available.  Training should help them apply the desired skills and behaviors within the constraints they face.

Human-Centered Learning in Action

Let’s look at another example, this one from the Bull City Blue archives.  One of our clients, a leading pharmaceutical company, had developed a number of online tools that its sales reps were expected to use.  These tools were supposed to help make reps’ jobs easier, but they were also designed to help the company do a better job of collecting data on—and managing—rep activities.

The problem was, the reps didn’t actually use the tools very much.  Applying “human-centered learning” principles, we studied the reps’ day-to-day jobs, as well as the tools, and discovered that most of the reps’ resistance was due to two things:

  1. They didn’t really understand how the tools could benefit them
  2. They felt like the tools were more of a burden than a help

Keeping these realities in mind, we then developed a learning program that kept the learner’s perspectives and motivations firmly in focus.  To start, we identified the specific tools and features of the system that were most important to the company and most consequential to the reps’ jobs. Rather than developing a training program on every nuance of the system, we focused attention on the most high-impact components.

Then, we developed a series of micro-units of 5 to 10 minutes each.  These units were short enough for a rep to do while sitting in a parking lot or while eating a sandwich at lunch.  To make it more interesting and fun, the units were designed as short games, during which the learners could score points.  The entire set-up allowed reps to compete against their peers, with unit high-scorers and leaderboards.

The whole approach generated an interesting dynamic, as reps would often take individual modules several times, attempting to beat their previous scores or to knock off the current leaders!  Even people outside the sales force were asking for access to the learning so they could participate, too.  Clearly, an approach that places the learner at the center is superior to one that simply focuses on jamming information out to the field force.

To sum up, employ human-centered learning by keeping the following points in mind:

  1. Understand the business objective.
  2. Understand the learner’s world, including their job, the tasks they’re expected to do, their challenges, and their incentives.
  3. Have empathy for the learners and design training solutions around them, rather than forcing them to conform to the training solutions.

Remembering these points will help any L&D team develop more engaging—and more successful—programs.

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