Voice of the Learner

We’ve been hearing about the Echo Chamber a lot lately. This is the effect where you become surrounded by people who think like you to the exclusion of new ideas. This happens in L&D a lot. We talk to each other about what works and what doesn’t work in learning. We talk to our stakeholders but the conversation is focused on the same ideas around delivering learning. This is problematic for creating learning content, but it is disastrous for implementing learning technology. It can lead to spending a lot of money on things that the learners don’t want.

In IT and Business improvement methodologies like ITIL and Six Sigma put a to of focus on getting “The Voice of the Customer,” finding out what the end user of the system, process, product or service is going to do in the real world. This way, the requirements of the project line up with the way users get their work done. What if we did this with learning content and learning technology? When was the last time you talked to a real-life learner? What would it be like to talk to someone who has no knowledge of our methods or jargon. That project that you’ve been working on for months that seems to be the most important project in the history of the company, might draw blank stares from someone who has been focused on their own work. Really listening to these people might just break us out of our Echo Chamber.

When my team does VOC work, we break it down into three tiers:

  • We collect general quantitative information from surveys of large groups
  • We get more specific insights and trends from small focus groups
  • We get targeted information from individual observations

Start by figuring out what questions you want answered. There are two types: questions to get information that you don’t currently have and questions designed to challenge your assumptions about what you already know. Here are some examples:

  • How are people solving the problem today?
  • What are people not getting out of their current solution?
  • Why do people need what we think they need?
  • How will our solution fit into the way people do their work?

Next, find people to participate. Make sure they are not in L&D, not stakeholders of L&D projects, and not in HR. It helps if they come from the remotest of offices and a variety of business functions. Find a strong community where people are engaged. This could be a charitable giving group or a cultural or health based club. Ask the leader for access to their member list. It’s best if the leader reaches out to their community on your behalf. Remember to always explain the importance of getting people’s feedback and most importantly THANK them profusely and at every opportunity for taking the time to help.

Now it’s time to implement the components of your VOC project:

  • Survey: Keep it short. People don’t have time for multipage surveys. Ask only what you need to get your core questions answered. Ask quantitative questions (multiple choice and likert scales, so that you can create graphs that show trends. At the end of the survey ask if they would be willing to participate in more user research (this will help you generate the list for the forums.)
  • Forums: Here’s where you can get details on the answers to the survey. Make use of the group dynamics to a get a discussion going. However, the discussion can be dominated by one or two dynamic personalities. Make sure others get a chance to talk by directing questions to them by name. It helps to show them something existing or at east a mockup of the proposed solution so that the participants have something to comment on. Make sure you schedule sessions around applicable time zones.
  • Direct Observations: After the survey and user forums, you might have very specific questions about what you heard. Or you may still have an assumption that you think might be off base from reality. By watching someone actually use a system or content, you can see directly what the effects of your design decisions will be. Schedule one to one meetings with individuals either in person or using video conferences with screensharing. Ask them to use the existing system or the mock up and have them narrate what they are doing. Ask them what they think each element means and what they expect to happen when they use them. This is where you will get some big surprises. Users always see at least one thing quite differently than was intended.
Finally you can aggregate the results and report out to your stakeholders. Don’t skip this step. You won’t remember all the conversations later. Keep good notes and summarize them. What you learned can be helpful to other projects in the future.
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