Aug 302011

Designing Learning: Steve Jobs and Lessons for Designing Learning

Designing Learning: By JeevanJoshi is a Director at KnowledgeWorking, via Learning Cafe

Steve Jobs and his philosophy of product design have some powerful lessons for designing learning “products” that deliver results and effective user experience.

When Steve Job’s resignation as the CEO of Apple made the headline item on ABC news (Australian) I knew it was serious news. The media is replete with tributes to Steve Jobs. And why not? The visionary has managed to make Apple one of the largest company (by market capitalisation just behind Exxon Mobile (Oil & Gas). For a company whose main product is innovation that is mighty impressive.

I must admit I have stayed away from Apple products for as long as I possibly could. I have a Blackberry Storm  as my smartphone and a powerful and slim Samsung NX900 ultraportable  laptop. My resistance was finally breached when I bought an iPad 2. Believe me I have tried really hard to get another tablet but I simply could not find a package as good as iPad2. However when I look at my non – Apple devices I can’t help noticing that they aspire to be Apple products. Blackberry has a touch screen and navigation similar to an iPhone. Samsung NX900 is a response to Macbook Air.  Yes, I admit, despite my reluctance I am an admirer of Apple products and Steve Jobs.

What the lessons we can learn from Steve Jobs approach to product design? Many but some of them are:

1. Less is More.

Have a look at your iPhone, iPod, or iPad. One button does the most frequent and important tasks. Flicking of screens mimics what we have learnt over centuries i.e flicking pages. Of course, Apple did not necessarily invent these features but certainly fine-tuned it and boldly made it the centre piece of its products, changing user experience profoundly.

Similarly, face to face learning and e-Learning needs to be designed so that the learner is not presented with array of buttons (i.e bells and whistles) but allows them to reach the learning in the minimum number of steps or hours or clicks. This may mean sacrificing “excitement and engagement” to give back to the learner the most important most precious commodity for them -”time”.

A project I worked on was the development of online continuing professional development (CPD) modules for specialist doctors. These specialists are extremely busy but need to learn constantly to keep up with medical trends and get the required CPD points for the year.

We started work on two modules. Both included readings and case studies. The first one had flash interactions and pictures (including happy smiley people) to make the course engaging and exciting. We ran out time to build flash interactions for the second one. When the courses went live I readied myself for negative comments from the doctors about how boring the second module was.

Much to my surprise the feedback was more positive for the second “boring” course! They could access and complete the learning quickly and get back to work. They also recommended that we remove the “smiley happy people” from the first module as it did nothing for them.  That was a bit of a reality check for me. The rest of the modules were based on minimalistic design and they continue to get positive feedback. Saved some money for the project in the process.

Let me not give you the impression that simplicity is design is simple to achieve. It takes extreme focus on customer needs (see next point) and the ruthless elimination of that which does not add value to the learner experience. The effort will be worth the pain. More on this in another blog post.

designing learning


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