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  • Writer's pictureRob Wright

A Checklist for Jumpstarting Learning Experience Design (with some inspiration from Disney)

"Hey, I need you to take this 20 minute eLearning"

Ok. Pretty sure everyone reading this just cringed. Because we mostly hate mandatory slides or videos with multiple choice questions at the end.

This is true (in part) because the experience economy is in full swing - the bar has been raised on our expectations on just about everything as it pertains to quality, ease of use, and personalization. And learning/training isn't exempt from the trend. To make this point here's an exercise I sometimes do with my teams.

First, go home over the weekend and take note of all the experiences you willingly engage in. Binge some Netflix. Order a pizza from your Domino's app. (sorry Papa Johns fans!) Buy something on Amazon. Map out all those images and experiences on one wall of your favorite conference room.

Then go to work and do the same exercise with your learning/talent tech + content. Print out some LMS search bars, course registration screens, eLearning slides, course workbooks, or performance management evaluation forms. Put those on the opposite wall of the room.

The difference between the two walls can often be pretty staggering in terms of quality, ease of use, and personalization. Why?

Of course, there are a lot of reasons, but a lack of experience design is one reason (which I'll write about below). And a lagging learning tech landscape is another reason (which I'll write about in a later article).

What is Learning Experience Design?

When I say 'learning experience design' I mean applying human centered design concepts to internal talent experiences. Designing things based on what employees see, think, feel and actually do, instead of forcing a solution on them outside-in. The difference between designing a learning 'class' and a learning 'experience' is similar to the difference between a theme park 'ride' and an 'experience.' And who better to study on this topic than Disney?

I recently had the pleasure of taking my family to the new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance feature at Disney's Hollywood Studios. (sorry for the humble brag) Even if you haven't been on this particular Disney ride, you know it wasn't just a ride. It was an experience.

(Mild spoiler alert if plan to go on the ride and want it all to be a surprise...)

The experience started at 6am with a wait in line for the park to open - Cast Members shouted Star Wars trivia over a megaphone to keep us engaged. Then at the right time an announcement went off over the loudspeaker to 'join the virtual queue.' Then thousands of people - heads down in a frenzy - clicked through the app to book a space in line. After you receive your boarding group number, you come back after hours of anticipation. You play with starship screens as you walk through the line. Then, once the experience begins, interact with holograms, animatronic characters, live human characters, get on space ships, walk through 8 different rooms, get driven or flown around by droids, feel the wind and smells of the world... basically feel like you saved the universe. Amazing.

What's this got to do with learning? Am I saying that if you don't have Rise of the Resistance level learning experiences and learning budgets you're done for?

No. But there are some parallels.

Jumpstarting Learning Experience Design

Below is a (mostly) Disney-inspired checklist to help you dial up the 'experience' element of your organization's learning program:

Build Experiences Over Time: This Disney experience took place over 20 minutes, compared to the usual 3-minute roller coaster. And really, the conversation in our house started weeks before. The parallel here is that for most humans, learning takes time - weeks or months (not minutes or hours) to sink in. If your goal is to build skills, avoid automatically talking in terms of minutes or hours of content. No matter how good your video is, or how inspirational your facilitator is, your learner is going to forget most of what you covered within hours after they leave. So don't overpromise what your content can achieve in minutes or hours. If you can get your teams and business leaders to accept this as a fact, you'll have taken a huge step on the journey towards experiences.

Say No: After watching The Imagineering Story it's clear that Disney said 'no' to many initial ideas before they got to the final solution - it's pretty easy to design a 'ride.' Harder to design an impactful experience. (By the way you MUST get Disney+ and watch this - I consider that show a mini-MBA in experience design.) But we're often so busy that we default to 'ride-mode' design for learning programs. So, the next time a business leader tells you confidently "We need a class on X," you should feel empowered to respond "No. We don't." When a leader says, "We need a class on X,' what they usually mean is, 'We need Y behavior/skill to change.' And the best solution for that probably isn't just a ride (aka class).

Use Multiple Modalities: Disney used a mix of interventions to deliver the experience - mobile apps, virtual characters, ships, animatronics, lasers, screens. Similarly, learning needs a broad set of tools to create experiences that build skill. There are very few learning needs in the modern world that couldn't benefit from the use of multiple modalities over time (as opposed to only a class; or only an eLearning). Use a mix of reading, video, coaching, simulations, in-role practice, and more. Bonus tip: we're increasingly seeing organizations create bespoke portals/websites with capabilities most Learning Management Systems (LMS) can't offer. So sometimes the modality you need may not exist yet!

Personalize: Rise of the Resistance felt personal. Disney puts each group, and even each individual, through a slightly different version of the story, making the experience feel personal. I actually had one Cast Member dressed as a First Order leader tell me I would "suffer greatly if I didn't obey his orders" - I'll never forget it! Similarly, learning needs to be personalized. Employees come to the table with different levels of experience and skills. And they progress through experiences and build new skills at different paces. So one-size-fits-all classes and videos are limited from the outset. As you foray into experience design, look for technology that can make it easier for you to 1) figure out what each individual needs and 2) curate experiences tailored to those needs.

Get Managers Involved: This isn't necessarily a Disney parallel, but in a busy world, sometimes managers hope that 'sending an employee off to training' will magically (ok, there's the Disney connection) fix skills gaps. The danger in this view is that it shifts too much of the responsibility for skill building into the hands of learning teams who have relatively little time with the employee. Best-in-class learning experience design seeks to 1) educate front line managers about learning experience content, 2) provide resources managers can use to activate or pull through in on-the-job coaching, and 3) measure whether reinforcement is actually happening. This can be an incredibly difficult cultural challenge, and it's difficult to do at scale, but it's something we all need to acknowledge and start thinking about. Always ask 'what is the role in the manager in activating this experience on the job.'

Put It All Together in a Journey Map: If you've done the points above well, you'll be ready to visualize the learning experience in an employee journey map that shows how the employee will experience skill building activities over time. The journey map format doesn't matter as much as your ability to demonstrate to your team, your business leaders, and the employee that their learning will be a true experience. If you'd like some inspiration, I've attached a sample HERE (preview below) that shows an employee moving through multiple modalities over time, including front line manager engagement.


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