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Walking a Mile in Your Learners’ Shoes

Good instructional designers learn to put themselves in their learners’ shoes. Try them on. Walk a ways. See what happens. This helps us to figure out what they need so they’ll be able to learn something well.

04-10 Walk a Mile

When we do an audience analysis we may conduct interviews and focus groups, use pretests, talk with coworkers, observe our learners, and collect relevant data. Good for us, but this may not be enough.

The two most important things we find out about our learners are these:

  1. What do they know about the subject already?
  2. How do they feel about learning what we’re about to teach them?

Try on Those Shoes. It’s so helpful to make sure that our audience analysis isn’t just a big pile of information. We also need the human side. Here are a few ways we can develop empathy for what our learners know and how they feel about what they’re about to learn:

  1. DIY. Try to do the new tasks yourself (if you are not good at them already).
  2. Watch someone who has never done the task do it, to see what that’s like (especially if you already know how and have forgotten about all the many things you had to learn). Ask the person to talk about what they thought and felt while doing the task for the first time.
  3. Find out: Will they think what they’re about to learn has value? Will they think it’s too hard or too easy?
  4. Learn about the system within which your learners will employ their new skills. For example:
    1. Goals. Do they know they are supposed to do these things? Is their direct supervisor or manager on board?
    2. Performance Expectations. Do they know how well they should be able to do their new skills?
    3. Feedback. Can they tell if they do a good job or not?
    4. Rewards/Punishment. When they get back to work, what happens if they perform well or not so well?
    5. Environment. Is it quiet, noisy, distracting, supportive? Will they have the information and tools they need?
    6. Social Considerations. What will change with their peers? Will they interact with them more—or less? And will their peers admire their new skills or possibly make fun of them?

Consider Other Stakeholders. You may also want to walk a bit with the learner’s managers, their internal and/or external customers, and any other essential stakeholders.

  1. Management. What will it be like to manage people with these new skills? What can their managers do to be supportive? And by the way, are they in favor of this new way of doing things? If not, now what? (Get help.)
  2. Handoffs. Are there handoffs between your learners and others that will change because of these new skills? How will this affect your learners and others? How will they react, and what can you do to help?
  3. Ripple Effects. What are the likely ripple effects from the new behaviors your learners will bring back to their jobs and other stakeholders in or outside the organization? How will that affect your learners, and what can you do to make sure these ripples are traveling in a positive direction?

So, audience information is essential. Of course you must have it. And, to do a great job of designing instruction, add this:

Find a way to walk in your learners’ shoes.

When you are short on time, focus on what they know already (prior knowledge) and how they feel about what they’re about to learn (motivation). Look beyond the learning event to the system within which they work. Imagine yourself in your learner’s work environment. Make sure to provide the right amount of support—both for learning and also for carrying that learning through to using it on the job.

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