Learning Leaps Part 5: Incorporating learning strategy while building products

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. 

Since transitioning into Product Management, one of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn was about the difference between learning strategy and product strategy. Thats why for this final edition of Learning Leaps, I’ll be taking a deeper look into the need for learning strategy to be incorporated in technology products.

Whats in a strategy anyway?

Many organizations, especially those in the technology space, focus on the importance of product strategies to help drive their decision making. For those unfamiliar, a product strategy can be defined as a set of decisions and priorities that a company focuses on in order to achieve a shared vision that wins with the users of its products (thanks to my good friend Jess Kadar for this concise definition!).

During my time in the industry, I’ve sat through my fair share of product strategy sessions. These meetings would usually include some sort of discussion about the company mission and vision, OKRs, and even product roadmaps. These sessions were great exercises for the company to illustrate why they were focusing on specific areas of investment. The outcome of the meetings would often empower product teams to drive the specific areas that they oversaw. Despite this, the more I sat in on these discussions, the more I noticed learning strategy not being considered during the creation of technology products (even when creating learning products).

For those unfamiliar, learning strategy can be defined as a set of decisions, techniques, procedures, and processes that learning creators can use to promote desired learning outcomes. As a learning strategist, I’m often thinking about the learning outcomes I’m looking to drive and the best way to deliver them. In other words, I consider things like learner goals and objectives so that I can determine the types of content or activities to help influence a learners knowledge, skills, and behavior.

Learning and product strategy are different yet intertwined

Over the years, the general theme I noticed in the industry is that product strategy and design are often driven by market and customer needs while learning strategy is driven by theory and research (Note: this is an oversimplification and I’m happy to dive deeper with anyone who may be discussing more of the intricacies).

Theres a few problems with this approach. First, as Clark Quinn mentions in Where is the Learning Science in Technology Products?, there is a documented disconnect between what learners think is good for their learning and what actually works. This is the same way that customers will ask for things that they think they want but it still may not get to the root cause of what they actually need.

Second, this approach leads me to think about the ancient qualitative vs. quantitative research debate that happens in product and UX communities. It should not be one or the other but rather a blending of the two or a mixed-methods approach.

What i’m recommending is that learning strategy should be considered an equally as important apart of a business as product strategy. If you look into the market, the best learning and educational products have a solid foundation of learning strategy. To put it succinctly, if you’re building a product to help people learn, you have to know how they learn.

Balancing customer needs with learning science

So whats the best way to balance your customer needs with learning strategy? Heres a few tips to get you started:

Connect with people who have learning expertise

If you don’t have a background in learning, thats okay! You can connect with folks who already have some inside of your organization. These individuals might be sitting on your learning and development, UX, or even product teams. They’ll be familiar with learning theories and models that could help to influence the success of your learning product. Use them!

Incorporate learning research while making product decisions

As a PM with a background in learning, I often lead and conduct my own learning research alongside the product discovery process. This often means leading mixed method research which include surveys, conducting user interviews, or prototype testing. At the same time if I have a specific research question in mind, I’ll look at existing learning research to see what it was says. I’ll incorporate this research into any synthesis and consider it when making any product decisions with my team.

Build out a center of learning research

Depending upon the size of your learning product and organization, it might be worth investing in a center of learning research. Many of the larger learning companies in the industry such as Pearson, edX, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have done just this. These centers often focus on staying up to date with the latest learning research and techniques in addition to conducting efficacy studies among customers to prove that learning outcomes are indeed happening.

Do you have any tips on how technology platforms can incorporate more learning science into the experiences they’re building? Post them in the comments below!