04 Nov 2016

Designing Training Tools That Work


Instructional Designer and Training Consultant

I’m sure you’ve experienced poor design at some point in your life. You’ll find a good example of poor design in bathroom sinks across the world. After you’ve washed your hands, you reach round the taps to find the button that pushes the plug out. But?soon discover there is no button. It turns out you have to dip your hands back in the dirty water and push the plug down to make it come out again.

Whoever designed those sinks was thinking of function alone. Plug goes in, plug comes out. They weren’t thinking of design. They weren’t thinking of how people use those sinks. They were engineers, not designers.

Bad design causes a lot of frustration. It costs money. It wastes time. And if our training tools are the victim of bad design, then they won’t get used. They’ll be buried away in a draw somewhere and our learners will have nothing to support their learning.

So what does good design look like? And how do we apply good design to training tools?

There are three answers to this question:

  1. Reduce the Gap
  2. Dumb it Down
  3. Make it Loveable

Reduce the Gap

Everyday, we take knowledge out of our heads and put it out into the environment. We write shopping lists on note pads, set reminders on our phones, and stick bills on fridge doors.

We do this because our heads are actually pretty poor places for storing knowledge. Things get forgotten, we get distracted or we might even struggle to encode a memory in the first place.

Our training tools are a way of putting vital knowledge out into the environment. If our learners can refer to these tools at their exact time of need, then they don’t need to depend on their unreliable heads, they don’t require much thinking capacity, and they are more likely to turn that vital knowledge into vital actions.

The challenge though, is reducing the gap between accessing that knowledge, and using that knowledge.

For example, if our tool is a set of instructions on how to operate a piece of machinery, then where should we put it?

Should we put it in a big booklet together with instructions for all the other machinery, and then store it away in a draw? Should we put it on the company’s Wiki or Intranet? How about stick it on a notice board in the office upstairs?

None of those will reduce the gap. In fact they will all increase the gap. To reduce the gap we need to put it in a place the learner will see at the exact time they use that machinery. So to reduce the gap we should stick it actually on the machine itself, right above the control panel.

So we know we need to reduce the gap between accessing knowledge and using it, but how do we even start to reduce the gap?

Start by thinking of the context they will use the tool in. Where are they going to be? What will they be doing? What is the environment like? What will they see? Will they be in a hurry? Will they be under pressure?

If they are operating a machine, then they’ll be in the factory, standing by the control panel. It’ll probably be quite noisy. They probably won’t be in a hurry, there is probably a culture of safety in that environment so it’s important they take the time to use the machine right.

All of the above reveals?lot of useful information about how a tool can be of help to the learner.

Let’s change the example. We’ve been asked to design a course on how to prepare a presentation. So what will the learner’s context be like?

After speaking to some learners, you learn that they don’t have much time for preparing presentations. They’re pretty busy. Most likely they’ll go straight to PPT as that’s their habit. So naturally they’ll be at their computer, which is a laptop, which also means they could be anywhere at the time they prepare it.

So now we know that the tool should appear on their computer. We also know that PPT is a place they’ll go from habit. Why not work with their habits? How about build a template into PPT that they can follow to prepare their presentation according to the way you teach them?

Maybe we get called back to teach the next part of the course; how to deliver a presentation. We teach them about body language, voice control, eye contact etc. What’s the context going to be like now?

We know they’re going to be in a small meeting room. They’re going to be talking to a small audience. They’re going to be under a lot of pressure. They won’t have time to look at reference aids in their environment. And even if they did, it wouldn’t be appropriate for that situation. So what can we do here?

In this context, putting knowledge in the environment won’t help. Ideally our learners would develop good habits so that they naturally show good body language, voice control and eye contact. And whilst developing those habits is the ultimate goal, development is still a process that can be greatly aided by a tool. So we still need to give them a tool, but can’t put it in the environment. So where do we put it?

In their heads.

This is where mnemonics come in handy. Mnemonics organise overwhelming amounts of knowledge into digestible mental models. Learners can easily encode mnemonics into memory, and just as easily retrieve them at the time of need.

So when our learner stumbles in the midst of their presentation, and they need a moment, albeit a short moment, to get back on track, they can access that mnemonic in exactly that moment.

It’s even better if your mnemonic can take cues from the context to make it even easier to recall. Every time the audience drop their heads and lose interest, that could cue our learner to change their speaking speed. Every time our learner turns out of habit to face the PPT screen, that could be a cue for them to make more eye contact. And so on.

Analysing the context of application gives us a great deal of insight. It tells us what format the tool should be in. Where we should place the tool. How to present the tool. What knowledge should be in the tool. And if we turn that insight into action, we can reduce the gap between access and application.

Dumb it Down

Our learners aren’t necessarily going to be as passionate as us.

Take me. I eat, sleep and breathe communication. I am obsessed with making a message as easy to grasp as possible. But that doesn’t mean that my learners should be just as passionate about that.

For some of them, communication is just that thing that they have to do because it’s part of their job. Maybe their real obsession is semiconductors, or cloud computing, or even logistics. And that’s fine. And we should work with that.

I once saw a “tool” that was intended to help learners prepare for negotiations. It was incredibly thorough. It was so thorough it was seven whole pages long. I’m sure anyone who went to so much effort to prepare for a negotiation would feel well prepared. But there is a big problem with this.

Who has the time to work through seven?pages of best practice in the real world?

The nature of today’s real world is that it’s busy. People don’t have the luxury of time. And I know this sounds horrible, but people NEED quick fixes. If your training tool doesn’t provide a quick fix, then they won’t use it.

And the reason they won’t use it is because they will find a faster way, a shorter way, an easier way. And that way probably won’t be an effective way, it probably won’t be as effective as following the best practice that your tool recommends, but it will be the way they follow.

Your tool cannot compete with laziness. So don’t let it.

This means asking three questions:

  1. What do they really need to do?
  2. No, but what do they REALLY need to do?
  3. OK, but what do they REALLY, REALLY REEEEEAAAAAALLLLLLYYYY need to do?

Look at the actions your tool recommends performing. Determine which ones are absolutely essential, and which ones are somewhat essential. And purge until you’re left with not just absolutely essential actions, but absolutely essential actions that when combined, are easier to perform than any other way.

This is not easy. It should not be easy. It should be as hard as passing a water melon (think on that one for a while). This is part of the art of designing great training tools. It requires a commitment to focusing on what really matters.

But content is one thing. There is also presentation.

Your tool should be clear on first glance. No thinking required. Look, then act. That is what should happen.

What shouldn’t happen is the following:

  1. Look
  2. Huh?
  3. What does this mean?
  4. ..
  5. OK so I should…Huh?
  6. Oh, lunch time!

To avoid the above scenario, we need to be fussy.

Write fewer words. Write fewer sentences. Write shorter paragraphs. Or don’t write paragraphs if possible (there is no bigger turn-off than a big chunk of text).

Use everyday language. Use words they understand.

I know it makes you look really sophisticated when you use really advanced language, but no one has a clue what you’re talking about.

And I know it makes you look really cool when you create your own language (e.g. “Use the Jason Bourne technique to achieve the Strasbourg effect”), but again, no one has a clue what you’re talking about. So keep it simple.

Also, focus on what they should do. Don’t focus on what they shouldn’t do (which ironically is what this sentence is doing).

If I tell you not to play with your phone when meeting a customer, not only do you now have an image in your mind of playing with your phone when meeting a customer, but I’ve also left a great deal of uncertainty around what you should actually be doing (which by the way is making eye contact, listening and asking questions).

And if you can, make it visual. Is there a picture you can replace those words with? Is there some schematic you can use to organise the information? And can you do it with SmartArt in PowerPoint? You might not be a graphic designer, but don’t panic, there are lots of tools at your disposal, and they’re easy to use, and they make you look cool (browse any App Store to find them).

Assume your learner is a dummy. They won’t feel patronised, in fact they’ll feel smart because you made things easier to understand. And they’ll appreciate all that effort you put into the design.

Make it Loveable

I bet that somewhere in your home, you have proudly on display something that you adore. It might be a family photograph, your grandad’s war medals, maybe even your latest gadget. Whatever it is, you absolutely adore it. You might even say you love it.

What is it that makes us fall in love with things? And is it possible to make a training tool that learners fall in love with?

A great place to seek an answer is Donald Norman’s book ‘Emotional Design’.

In his book, he talks about how we process design on three different levels which actually correspond with different parts of our brain; Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective.

And if we design training tools with all three levels in mind, our learners are more likely to fall in love with them. So how can we appeal to these three levels?

Starting with the visceral level, here we want to appeal on a sensory level.

We have ingrained into us millions of years worth of evolved instincts. Many of these we share with other species.

Some things we instinctively know are good or bad for us. Many of us are afraid of heights, spiders and the dark. Likewise, many of us like sweet things, bright colours and hugs. And that makes sense. Because at some point in the process of evolution, these things have determined our survival.

But it’s not just instincts that react at a visceral level. We’ve also developed our own set of positive and negative associations through our life experience. And the two of these combined will create either a positive or negative reaction to just the sheer sight of something.

The key to appealing to the visceral level is to look at the tool and ask “What does this remind me of?”.

Some things you don’t want your tool to remind your learners of include:

  • Another annoying administrative task HR now requires them to do.
  • That form they had to fill in when they got put on a Performance Improvement Plan in their last job shortly before they got fired.
  • The boring homework their old chemistry teacher used to set.

Think of key words you’d like to come to mind when first looking at the tool. Words such as:

  • Professional
  • Easy
  • User-Friendly
  • Efficient
  • Fast

To achieve that result you have lots of simple elements that you can adjust like:

  • Font
  • Size
  • Colours
  • Shapes
  • Language

And to make your life even easier, find some inspiration. Find something on the internet that gives you the feeling you are looking for. Look at what it is that gives you that feeling and apply it to your own tool design.

For the second level, the behavioural level, we need to think beyond just initial impressions.

The behavioural level of our brain is about learned behaviours, or unconscious behaviours, which are driven by expectation. And our goal here is to set the right expectations.

You see the chocolate cake on the plate in front of you, and you have a desire to eat it. The desire then summons your unconscious behaviour of picking up the plate with one hand, a fork with another, and then coordinating both to eat it. You are not quite sure how you managed to coordinate all of those movements, you just willed them to happen and they did.

OK, so what has this all got to do with training tools?

The key here is to set the right expectations to drive them to use this tool. We need to ask “What is going to happen as a result of using this tool?”.

If they follow the instructions on your tool, then will they be able to perform the skill exactly as they hoped? Will they get the results they were expecting? Will they even get a reward for having done so?

Or does your tool oversell itself? Upon using it will they actually feel disappointed? Will they not get to experience that buzz of a job well done?

You may have heard of the concept of Flow. That state that your eleven?year old nephew enters when he plays video games and can no longer hear his mum calling him for dinner. Or how you feel when you read a Harry Potter book. Or what strangely happens to your elderly neighbour when they water their plants.

There are three conditions that must be present for someone to enter a Flow state:

  1. A challenging (yet achievable) goal
  2. Confidence in achieving that goal
  3. Feedback on progress towards that goal

Break one of those conditions and there is no buzz of a job well done. So how can we design our tools to fit these conditions?

There are lots of things we can do, but for the sake of simplicity here are a few ideas:

  • Focus the tool on behaviours or goals that are within their grasp
  • Make the tool relevant to their personal goals (not just the goals their boss has set them)
  • Make the tool easy to access, understand and use
  • Tempt them with an outcome to look forward to on successfully using the tool (think?Gamification; “Yay! I got Level 14!”)
  • Provide ways of measuring their progress (think Gamification again; “Yay! I got the Super Database Geek Trophy!”)

And at the final level, the reflective level, we are concerned with what the tool means to them.

It is this level that separates us from other animals. This level is concerned with conscious thought. It’s what we use to reflect on our experiences. It’s what allows us to assign meaning to things.

What do you think would mean more to you out of the following examples:

  • A house you inherited, or a house you bought with your hard earned money?
  • War medals you picked up at an antique shop, or war medals awarded to your grandad in the war?
  • Learning Kung Fu from your local club, or from a world famous master?

Most likely you choose the latter in each example. Because those mean things to you.

There is literally so much we can do at this level, and far too much to talk about here, so again I’ll keep it simple. Here are some examples of how we can make our training tools appeal to the reflective level:

  • Award it as a symbol of achievement
  • Make it exclusive; only share it with certain learners
  • Get a respected figure to personally hand over these tools in a ceremony
  • Award status symbols to people who use the tool (think Gamification, again!)
  • Get them to personalise the tool to make it their own

The Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective levels offer a lot of ideas on how to make training tools more appealing. And when you realise the possibilities, it can be easy to get carried away. But don’t. Keep it simple, stay within your capabilities and focus on what works.

And thank you for reading through to here. I know that was a long read, but I sincerely hope you at least got some new ideas.


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