Learning Leaps Part 4: Using empathy to uncover the needs of your learners

Welcome to another edition of Learning Leaps, where I’ll be sharing lessons learned from my first 16 months as a product manager at Pluralsight.

While transitioning into a Product Manager role, one of the biggest responsibilities of my role became leading my team through a human-centered design process in order to deliver meaningful learning experiences to our customers.

That’s why for this weeks Learning Leaps, I’ll be taking a deeper look into how learning practitioners can use empathy to help uncover the needs of their learners.

A human-centered approach to learning

After spending the past 9 years designing and delivering learning experiences, I was no stranger to the need to connect to learners in order identify their needs. Historically, I spent a lot of time using the ADDIE framework (analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate) to create the learning that I was creating. This all came to a head during 2016, when I transitioned to the user experience team at the company I was working for.

My time on the team exposed me to using a human-centered approach to solving problems. For those unfamiliar, human-centered design is an approach that focuses on building a deep empathy with the people you’re creating for, using brainstorming and ideation to identify possible solutions, sharing your ideas with your audience to get their feedback, and then eventually pushing your solution out into the world.

By incorporating this approach into the way that I was already working, I was able to iterate quicker and truly connect to the needs of the learners I was serving. Since moving into Product Management at Pluralsight, I’ve seen the true power of human-centered design in action. Part of my daily role is leading a team through the human-centered design process in order to deliver impactful experiences to our learners. I’ve become such a huge advocate for this framework that I wanted to share some tips and tricks for how other practitioners can incorporate this framework into how they design and deliver learning experiences.

Tips to use empathy while creating learning experiences

Identify your purpose for connecting with learners

As I shared during the last Learning Leaps article, learning interventions are proposed solutions to help solve performance problems inside of an organization. Thats why before you jump into meeting directly with learners, you’ll want to first take a step back to determine the outcomes you’re hoping for.

Some questions you may want to ask yourself are:

  • What is the current performance taking place? What is the ideal performance the organization is looking for?
  • What are my learners backgrounds?
  • What am I looking to find out by connecting with learners?
  • What decisions am I looking to make with the information that I find out?
  • How many learners do I need to connect with in order to get an accurate picture of what is happening?

Determine the best way to connect with your learners

Once you have your intentions nailed down, you can start to identify questions that you’d like to ask learners and determine the best way to connect with them.

Where I am in the discovery process, will usually impact the type of method I might use to gain empathy with my learners. For example, if i’m trying to identify the problems I’m looking to solve for customers, I’ll usually use some type of qualitative research method like sending out surveys, conducting interviews, or focus groups. If i’m trying to gain a better idea of how a learning solution is already performing, I might use some type of quantitative measure.

Below are some things I keep in mind when choosing the best way to connect with learners:

SurveysSurveys can sometimes get a bad rap because of overuse and poorly written questions.

They’re a great tool if you’re looking to collect data from a large group of people or identify trends over time.

I’ll often send out a survey to identify general themes from my audience and help narrow down participants that I may want to interview in person.
InterviewsInterviews are a great way to meet directly with learners and ask them about their needs, motivations, and preferences.

It can take some time to recruit, conduct, and synthesize information from interviews so be sure you schedule enough time in your process.
Focus GroupsFocus groups can be a helpful tool if you’re looking to facilitate a group discussion around the area you’re exploring.

As learning practitioners, we often conduct focus groups without even realizing it. It could be in the form of a group discussion or debrief at the end of a course or training session.

In any case, they’re a helpful way of getting feedback from multiple learners at the same time. Just watch out for any bias that this may cause!

Regardless of the method you choose, connecting with your learners doesn’t have to be a labor-intensive process. Connecting with only 5-7 learners can help you to notice themes and trends that may be occurring.

Practice mindful communication

Once you’re able to connect directly with learners, remember to practice mindful communication. This might include being mindful of asking non-leading questions, asking open ended questions, embracing silence, and keeping your reactions neutral when learners are responding to you.

Synthesis always takes longer than you think it will

Finally, once you’re done speaking with your learners, you’ll want to synthesize your findings into a way that is manageable for you and your team. I find that incorporating stakeholders in your synthesis process is a great way to get buy-in from them when you’re designing solutions later on.

One general rule of thumb when conducting synthesis is that it always takes longer than you think it’s going to. I’ll usually try to schedule a block of time on my teams calendar for the session.

Some questions you may want during the session might include:

  • What were our expectations going into this?
  • Are we surprised by what learners told us?
  • How does what we learned impact decisions related to our experience?
  • Whats the best way to communicate what we learned to others?

Do you have any tips for others on how to use empathy to meet the needs of their learners? Post them in the comments below!

Be sure to check out the final edition of Learning Leaps where we’ll be diving the need for learning science in technology products offered today.