Treat learning programs as products if you want to see results
Strategy • March 25th, 2020
Jarrod Tredway, Director at Beyond
Companies have long invested in training content for their employees, recognizing that when people have the tools they need to improve at their jobs, they become more effective and, typically, more loyal. Following a similar rationale, tech companies in particular have begun to turn their educational efforts outward, offering training content for customers, advertisers, and publishers to help them better take advantage of the products they offer.
Though, for all the effort going into creating this content, there are still very few companies treating these programs like the very products about which they teach. Program updates can be few and far between and opportunities to give feedback can be sparse, as can invitations to come back.
Compare that to the most compelling digital products: updated every few days and informed by surveys about your experience, with push notifications at perfectly timed moments. These products do what they’re designed to do, and they do so in part by getting your attention, staying sticky, and tailoring themselves over time to more of what you want to see. As a result, you take the intended action—you spend the time, you view the ads, you buy the things.
Want your learning program to be similarly effective? Treat it like a product. At Beyond, a design and technology agency, we build digital products regularly, many of which are learning-centric. This unique experience with industry leaders like Google, Facebook, and Snap has given us a set of five practices helpful to anyone building or scaling an educational effort:
1. Get to know your learners
It may seem obvious, but the power of simply talking to people can’t be understated. When building products, it’s commonplace to conduct research with the aim of developing tools like personas that help design and engineering teams better picture those for whom they’re building. In our own product work, this kind of research proves particularly helpful as we often uncover multiple personas, each with distinct needs and motivations.
The same holds true for learning programs. Before we built anything for Google’s retail training product, we first interviewed learners in the field, finding distinct differences between nine-to-fivers and career retail workers. These differences informed our content strategy and set the trajectory for what would eventually become a robust multi-country program involving blended learning, tailored content, and physical rewards.
2. Put science to work
In the realm of ad-supported products, algorithms do the heavy-lifting, making real time decisions behind-the-scenes about what will keep you engaged. Your learning program may not have access to that same technology, but there’s still a takeaway: what keeps people engaged is knowable.
Learning science is actually well-documented: we know that people’s motivation to learn wanes before it waxes, that they forget much of what they learn soon after they learn it, that they need to practice (and practice and practice) in order to apply what they learn; the list goes on.
If, like product-builders, you can ensure you’re designing for human behavior—versus simply creating content that you hope will resonate—your program will be all the better positioned to have an impact. In our work with Facebook Blueprint, Facebook’s business education arm, we brought learning science to the fore to shape a gamification strategy. Through scientific models, we knew with a high-degree of certainty that our strategy would raise the number of courses people would take, which—in turn—would increase their knowledge of Facebook’s ad products.
3. Build a roadmap
Any good product has a roadmap that captures the long-term direction of the product, demonstrating how each release maps to user needs. In many cases, it represents the product vision as much as it communicates a tactical plan.
As learning content can typically be created more quickly than product features requiring development, it’s easy to fall into a reactionary pattern of producing content purely based on user requests or help tickets without first charting out a broader course. A good question to ask is: What is the big picture idea behind your learning program? To lower help request volumes? To spur brand advocacy? Something else entirely?
At the start of our work on a soon-to-be-launched marketing learning program, our client had a clear vision (“Help people become better marketers.”) and a clear business goal (“Get influential marketers certified.”) That vision drove our roadmap and made our first step clear: we focused on coursework that emphasized foundational marketing principles, balancing material that taught “how” with material that explained “why”, a route we may not have otherwise taken had we not had a roadmap.
4. Deliver incrementally
Product designers and developers across industries are well-versed in the principles behind the Agile Methodology, one of which emphasizes the importance of continuous delivery. In practice, that means prioritizing frequent, iterative updates in pursuit of making things better for users.
Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to approach learning programs similarly iteratively, is because learning itself, is iterative. People build on what they learn, bit by bit—a perfect opportunity for any learning program to grow alongside its learners, earning a place alongside those products that learners use everyday in tandem.
For learning programs, continuous delivery may mean a hybrid approach between iterative experiential improvements and scheduled content releases—as we’re currently doing with a program for Google marketers—and that’s okay. The core of the practice is simply to treat your learning program as a living thing, not a “set it and forget it” type of thing.
5. Invite learners back
“Your friend just posted for the first time in a while…” “Revisit this day in time…” “A live video stream just started…” The most savvily designed products capture your attention and draw you back in with relevant and timely notifications.
Like those notifications, invitations to explore new content or revisit previously taken content are especially important for learning programs because our brains quickly let go of information we don’t need to operate day-to-day. The “forgetting curve” theory demonstrates just how quickly this happens when there’s no attempt made at retention.
But with just a little nudge, learners will come back just as they do with “sticky” products, and the results speak volumes. Again, in our work with Google retail, we sent learners not only “bursts” of bite-sized content, but also follow-up “boosts” that emphasized key points. We measured the impact of these boosts and found that they demonstrably combatted the forgetting curve to such a degree that the burst/boost model became a part of our ongoing content strategy.
The aim of any business-driven educational effort is undoubtedly about moving the needle in some way, but perhaps the biggest thing products show us is that results come when you focus on user needs versus the results, themselves. These five practices—while not comprehensive—are foundational to the product mindset and can help you build a human-centered program that does what business education is meant to do: provide value to both the learner and the business.