Pain-free user experience

Technology, Support 1 feedback »  3794 views

To minimise support calls and maximise usage, we must focus on designing around the user.

That's true whether you're a learning intervention designer (including online, print and face-to-face), or whether you're a learning systems designer.

A great model I recently discovered (after a talk with Ben Betts) is the User Experience Honeycomb from Peter Morville.

Within it, he describes seven facets of user experience:

  • Useful. As practitioners, we can't be content to paint within the lines drawn by managers. We must have the courage and creativity to ask whether our products and systems are useful, and to apply our deep knowledge of craft and medium to define innovative solutions that are more useful.
  • Usable. Ease of use remains vital, and yet the interface-centered methods and perspectives of human-computer interaction do not address all dimensions of web design. In short, usability is necessary but not sufficient.
  • Desirable. Our quest for efficiency must be tempered by an appreciation for the power and value of image, identity, brand, and other elements of emotional design.
  • Findable. We must strive to design navigable web sites and locatable objects, so users can find what they need.
  • Accessible. Just as our buildings have elevators and ramps, our web sites should be accessible to people with disabilities (more than 10% of the population). Today, it's good business and the ethical thing to do. Eventually, it will become the law.
  • Credible. Thanks to the Web Credibility Project, we're beginning to understand the design elements that influence whether users trust and believe what we tell them.
  • Valuable. Our sites must deliver value to our sponsors. For non-profits, the user experience must advance the mission. With for-profits, it must contribute to the bottom line and improve customer satisfaction.

It's about the whole user experience, from initial awareness through to efficient usage, that counts.

Is SCORM a barrier to learning?

Technology, Connected Learning Environment 4 feedbacks »  2900 views

Short answer: No, but the way we use it might be.

Long answer:

First of all, let's just remind ourselves what SCORM is, and what it's for...

SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model) is a collection of ideas that describes how to put "Content Objects" together in a way that they can be reused (Shared) across multiple, different systems.

These ideas cover:

  1. How to describe such content with metadata
  2. How the content should be bundled together into a single package
  3. How the content should talk to the receiving system
  4. How the content should be sequenced to other pieces of content

In corporate learning, (1) and (4) are very rarely used - because they're pretty complicated, which leaves us with very little of use.

The SCORM bundling process takes something very simple (putting files into a zip package) and adds an unnecessary layer of complexity by requiring an XML file which describes the contents of the zip package. If we were using SCORM as was intended, we would be breaking our content down into component parts which would make use of the XML file. But usually we don't.

Similarly, the data transfer between content object and receiving system is usually limited to simple end-of-unit test scores and progress information. How often this is for the benefit of the learner is questionable. SCORM is capable of much more in terms of data transfer, but it's rarely used, often because you start to lose the ability to move content between systems easily.

Comparison with the real world

Outside of corporate learning very few people will have ever heard of SCORM. Yet many people will have used learning content delivery systems such as Youtube, Scribd, Slideshare and Flickr.

All of these take learning content in a particular packaged format and deliver it in the most efficient way possible to the end user.

But these platforms do so much more than we get from our corporate learning systems:

  • The content is embedded in the platform, not separate to it (although learners can choose to make the content operate in the whole screen - choice is the key here)
  • Therefore the learner always has access to the platform's functionality when they're using the content.
  • Around the content, the platform wraps social elements such as comments, ratings, and social media links.
  • It also displays metrics such as aggregate ratings and viewing numbers.
  • The platform displays other, related content items, based on the metadata and the way other users have behaved.
  • The platforms allow users to engage with the content, again through comments, and through adding to personal "playlists" or "favourites".
  • The platforms, in some cases, allow users to enhance the content, through the addition of layers containing links and explanatory text.
  • The platforms allow users to embed the content in their own websites - the ultimate in shareable content.
  • The platforms put "search" at the centre of their user-experience. By exposing as much content as possible to the search engines, they make the content more useful.

All these are for the benefit of the end-user. If they weren't they wouldn't get used, and no-one would publish content to them.

In contrast, how do we use SCORM packages?

  • We hide content from search engines, and only allow users to search by metadata (if there is any)
  • We treat the platform as secondary to the content, and ignore the user experience of getting to, from and between the content packages.
  • We treat learners as if they are in isolation from each other while they're using the content, and forget the social elements of learning.
  • We take away anything that will help learners exercise choice (a key element in self-motivated learning), whether that's cues to help them choose (eg. ratings and usage figures), or how they will use the content (eg. full screen, no ability to bookmark in their browser, and, often, no ability to cut and paste)

SCORM isn't necessarily the villain, but it does add a layer of complexity, which is beyond most L&D teams to embrace fully.

For most current corporate elearning, we could easily get by without using SCORM, if our systems allowed it. The ideal, of course, would be for our systems to be able to accept multiple content types (including SCORM) and display them all in a consistent user-centred way, like Slideshare, Youtube etc. It's all learning content, so why is SCORM seen as something that's special and different?

Related posts

SCORM Warning (2008)
Looking for a learner support system (2007)

What's the impact of L&D?

Learning, Presentations & Workshops Send feedback »  1898 views

At the #elnevent yesterday, one of the key points that kept coming out was the need for L&D departments to be able to articulate their value proposition.

ie. L&D people need to be able to communicate what value they are offering to their organisations.

At it's simplest, they must be able to explain to senior stakeholders what the impact would be if L&D stopped working...

For most functional departments this is quite easy. It's easy to imagine the impact if IT, Sales, or even HR stopped doing their work.

But L&D is a bit less definable. Perhaps that's because the impact on the organisation is not immediately visible?

Think about the impact L&D has had on you. In my case, it's very little. If I need to learn something, I'll learn it.

Now, think about what would happen if the L&D department shut up shop and said no more courses. What would be the short, medium and long term effects to your organisation?

What real value are you offering to solve real problems?

New wine - old wineskins - part 2

Social media Send feedback »  1601 views

In the first part of this article, I raised a number of questions around how, in general, we are not yet realising the benefits of online learning within our schools, universities and workplaces.

Outside of these structures, we can see new technologies breaking down the boundaries between organisations and people, providing ready access to information, and democratizing the knowledge economy. Inside them, much is the same as it has been since the start of the industrial revolution - with hierarchies and control to the fore.

Responding to a follow-up comment, I wrote:

How many schools have changed the way they use their classrooms, because of what can now be achieved through online methods? How many have changed their teachers' contracts to allow them to work from home? How many are accepting students on a more flexible basis? How many schools still close down all operations when there's a bit of snow?

In the workplace, it's more common to find organisations blocking the very tools that are used outside for learning, than embracing them. Until cooperation and communication finds a place at the heart of the work we do, organisations will remain reliant on centrally-driven elearning programmes that simply reinforce the status quo. By so doing, these organisations will continue to lag behind in a business and cultural environment that is changing far more rapidly than they can.

You can find examples of institutions and workplaces where the potential has been seen by visionary leaders; where the boundaries of the underpinning organisational structures themselves are pushed, and occasionally completely reformed.

I have worked with schools where teachers' contracts were re-written, to allow them to support city-wide live online learning sessions from home. Thus enabling sharing of resources between schools.

Other schools, eg. Hollinsclough Primary School are providing flexible schooling - working in partnership with home-schooling parents from across local authority boundaries. They are leading the way in showing how pooled resources can help small schools and home-schooling to remain viable.

Some teachers, schools, and sometimes even whole local authorities (US: school boards) are exploring different models of learning, where classroom time is seen as too valuable to devote to one-size-fits-all lock-step teaching. Instead it's used for conversation, problem-solving, peer support. The teacher's role becomes that of a facilitator, coach and guide. How else can we manage increasing class sizes and diverse student populations? Who says that every hour of a student's time in school has to be spent in a classroom with a teacher? Why not build managed self-study into the timetable, thus allowing classroom time to have a better student:teacher ratio?

Some workplaces are taking the best of what happens on the real-world internet, and bringing it in-house. Deloitte's use of Yammer (a Facebook/Twitter-like tool - discussed in this video by its CEO) has been a catalyst to breaking down hierarchies - but with real business benefits. Cash America's use of user-generated video content has provided a simple, but effective means of upskilling front-line staff. Software developed under collaborative, open-source models now drives the majority of the world's web servers, powers thousands of learning institutions' online learning functions. Open source, collaborative development has also begun to take shape in the real world, with "distributed DIY projects" (see video below).

But these are just the outworkings of a new model.

What sits behind them is a sea change in how we deal with people. Rather than hierarchies and control, the underlying principles of this new paradigm are contribution and trust - leading to self-organisation (discussed and demonstrated brilliantly by Sugata Mitra at ALT 2010 (Youtube)

Show me inexpensive learning interventions that work

Learning, Technology, ROI 2 feedbacks »  1719 views

Alongside the eLearning Network's Campaign for Effective Elearning, I propose that we also need to be highlighting any learning interventions that really work.

And by "work", I don't mean ones that necessarily use state-of-the-art technologies and high quality graphics. They might look good to the people paying the bills, but are they really what is needed to solve the problem?

I mean the interventions that are being produced on a daily basis by learning professionals (and those who aren't professionals - where they are allowed!)

To be included in the list, they need to:

  1. Reach maximum audience for minimum cost
  2. Be tested on a realistic sample of real learners
  3. Have made a demonstrable positive difference to the behaviours or skills of those learners

For a start, I'd like to propose my own video how-to on changing a light bulb in a Ford CMax, and the analysis I did on its effectiveness.

Thanks to Barry Sampson for stimulating this train of thought.

Preparation for eLearning Network workshop

Context, Management & Implementation, Presentations & Workshops Send feedback »  2306 views

On 23rd March, along with @bbetts @lauraoverton & @JulieWedgwood, I'll be running one of a series of workshops taking a fresh look at elearning.

The notes below are designed to help participants prepare for my workshop. It will be very hands on and interactive. In the afternoon, in Laura's session we will move from this case study approach to one that is much more focussed on the participants' particular contexts.

Any reference, inferred or implied, to real organisations is completely coincidental!


XYZ Solutions Ltd is a 3000 strong global company, involved in providing outsourced IT support.

Within the company there are a number of key functions:

Front office

Back office


On-site technicians

Helpdesk technicians

Administration & finance


Human resources

Learning & development

Internal communications

Research and development


Bids & Tenders

Account management

Solutions design

The problem

The company has an integrated customer-relationship management (CRM) system, that was designed to improve efficiencies across all the functions, and to enable consistencies in communication.

However, the promised efficiences have not been realised.

The IT manager has investigated, and discovered that:

  • Some sales people are not using the CRM at all – preferring to work with their own spreadsheets
  • There is confusion amongst the customer-facing functions over what information should go into what fields
  • The quality of technical advice given to customers is varying, mainly because technicians are not documenting calls properly, and there is little aggregation of knowledge by team managers.

Senior management have decided that Learning & Development should be the team to solve this problem.

Success criteria

  • Total spend (including travel & subsistence) to be within the allocated budget
  • Time away from work for learning to be no more than 1 day per person, with no more than 1 hour in any working day.
  • The solution should be sustainable, with minimal ongoing input, to enable new starters to “get with the programme”
  • Efficiencies should be realised in both sales and front-office

L&D Culture

Up to now, the company L&D culture has been focussed on face-to-face, classroom-based training. Follow-up reviews indicate that much of the content is irrelevant and poorly presented. Also the training often takes place when the learner is least able to make use of it immediately.

The L&D team has created some elearning materials (using a rapid development tool) around topics such as information security, data protection, diversity and health & safety. Although most people have completed the training, it has had little noticeable impact on behaviours, and the general reaction has been that the elearning was boring and poorly presented.

Elearning is perceived as a poor substitute for attending a face-to-face course.


The L&D team have developed a programme which comprises:

  • Ongoing identification of CRM best practices through a limited number of CRM champions from across the business
  • Procuring a series of short, 3 minute videos which highlight the benefits of the CRM system, and focus on specific, centrally-affirmed best practices. These will be hosted in an off-site video-delivery system, with access only for XYZ staff on XYZ hardware.
  • Quarterly face-to-face workshops for CRM champions to raise issues, share best practice and create new resources.
  • A hints and tips hashtag for CRM champions (and other users) to share their knowledge on the company’s micro-blogging system

They know that, for the programme to succeed, initial and ongoing learner engagement is critical.

Your team has been brought in as consultants to help with this...

Encouraging Engagement

[You will be discussing these questions in small groups on the day - but feel free to comment back on this post for clarification or to test out ideas]

  1. What problems can you forsee with gaining and sustaining learner engagement in this programme?
    Hint: Consider access, motivation, communication and management
  2. What elements would you like to see within the design of the videos or the delivery system that would specifically encourage engagement?
    Hint: Consider the characteristics of Youtube videos that achieve high engagement, eg. usefulness, quirkyness, comedy. Also consider what gets and keeps people engaged with long term programmes such as video games, TV drama serials, sporting leagues.
  3. What should go into the communication plan for this programme?
    Hint: Think about communications in four stages:

    Well in advance of start -> Just before it starts -> During -> After
  4. What specific management practices would encourage engagement?

Related posts: Engaging the unwilling learner

Engaging the unwilling learner - video

Context, Management & Implementation, Presentations & Workshops Send feedback »  1093 views

The video below is from the workshop I did at this year's Learning Technologies conference.

Go to the conference video page

Engaging the unwilling learner

Mark Berthelemy, IT Solutions Architect, Capita

Click to play now

New wine - old wineskins*

Learning, Social media 2 feedbacks »  1830 views

Whenever something new is introduced into an organisation it raises questions about the old ways. Should they remain? Should they be changed to accommodate the new?

Online and informal learning is a case in point. For decades, learning (whether in schools, universities or the workplace) was based mainly around the classroom. There were occassional forays into self-directed or distance learning, but primarily all learning activity was focussed on the interaction between the "teacher" and the "learner" at a particular moment in space-time.

Until the late 1990's, the closest many people got to informal learning was browsing the books at home or at the library - both of which were limited in scope.

Now, however, we have more information at our fingertips than we can handle. We have access to experts, pundits, friends and extremists in equal measure, from across the world. Lack of data is no longer an excuse.

This knowledge economy is also democratized. Anyone, with even the simplest smartphone or cheapest computer, can add into the ever-expanding global knowledgebase.

Yet our schools, universities and workplaces - the core, foundational structures of society - continue working as if nothing had changed.

Our classrooms and lecture theatres are still designed as places where knowledge is imparted, and their curriculums as the sole source of that knowledge. Anyone that strays outside of the proscribed norms of behaviour or ability is a problem to be dealt with or ignored, rather than the individual they are.

Our training departments and the dependency culture of learning they implicitly promote are unable to keep up with the pace of change, and run the risk of, at best, becoming irrelevant, or at worst, a barrier to development.

Our work is done in isolation from other people doing similar things. The freedom of communication taken for granted across the internet is rarely replicated inside our workplaces, and often blocked on work equipment...

If we were starting again, what would our learning institutions look like? What would be the essential skills, knowledge and behaviours that we would expect every school to develop? How would we organise (or allow?) learning inside our companies?

Online learning has the potential to break down boundaries between organisations and between people, and to allow knowledge to flow easily between them. Outside of our societal structures this is already happening.

Should we be seeking to make that potential a reality within our current model of schools, universities and workplace? Or do we need to rethink the very structures themselves, and look for alternative models of society that can make best use of the new knowledge networks?

To be continued...

* Matthew 9:17

"Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Communication - the organisation's lifeblood

Social media 2 feedbacks »  1936 views

Hans de Zwart, writing in his blog this week about Automattic (the company behind Wordpress) states "They would say that their productivity as a company is dependent on how well they communicate."

I have seen so many examples of organistations where the opposite is the reality: Where the communication structures in place actually inhibit productivity.

If knowledge and information is the lifeblood of your organisation, shouldn't you provide every means possible to allow it to flow freely?

Video summary: engaging the unwilling learner

Learning, Presentations & Workshops Send feedback »  3012 views

Thanks to Kate Graham at Ascot Communications, there's now a short video available of me talking about the key points from my Learning Technologies workshop.

If you want to see some of this in writing see my pre-workshop blog post.

You can find more of these at the Ascot Communications Youtube channel

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