Minimum Viable Learning

Awhile ago in my career, I was brought onto the type project that I’m sure you’re vividly familiar with – the large-scale, technology-based solution, intended to transform the day-to-day operations of a company. Of course, our L&D team delivered what was expected by the business: learning paths, complete with talking head videos, “how-to” vignettes, WBT courses, culminating in an in-person facilitated event designed to bring it all to life. 

Since then, I’ve been engaged in a few more of these types of initiatives and I can’t help having a feeling in the back of my head that we haven’t gotten this right. For one thing, it takes an incredibly long time to develop, and much of the “how-to” stuff explained basic functionality that should be already intuitive with good user interface design (Why some L&D shops design assuming that learners have zero knowledge of how a computer works is a topic for another post…). No one watches a video on how to use Facebook. So why were we building fancy videos to demonstrate how to perform basic tasks? Our learners don’t need or want this.

I came across a news headline while standing in an elevator one morning. It was about “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP) design – a strategy for avoiding the development of products that customers do not want or need. The idea is to rapidly build a minimum set of features that is enough to deploy the product and test key assumptions about customers’ interactions with the product. 

 MVP has been used successfully for years in product development, but it is complete anathema to how L&D thinks. With limited budgets and high expectations of responsiveness from learners, we can’t keep designing the way that we do.

“This module needs more talking head videos,” said no learner ever.

So if I had to do it all over again on a technology implementation, and if my stakeholder was brave enough, here’s what I’d do:

  • focus the learning on the pure behavioural changes and design content for that only – be brutally ruthless on what is developed
  • don’t start every learning piece with the laundry list of learning objectives. Likewise, no lengthy intros and extros, and use talking head footage sparingly. The truth is, your learners don’t care
  • ignore the basic “how-to” stuff. Your learners are technology savvy. L&D isn’t the solution for poor user interface design – send it back to product dev
  • work with comms/change management to build an overarching WIIFM piece that details the 5 or 10 ways things will be different with the new technology

Lastly, once you have this extremely lean program developed, launch to a set of early adopters and monitor usage. Not just usage of the learning, but of the technology platform. Most importantly, when you have this data, look to see if there are behaviours that are already intuitively demonstrated by users. For example, if learners are naturally using a feature, then you don’t need a learning intervention. If there is something learners aren’t doing, then that’s your phase two development identified.

If I can close with the analogy that I started this post with: applying MVP design to L&D projects is picturing your learner sitting down for a meal. You could design a Swiss Army knife for every possible scenario, or maybe you provide a plastic spoon to eat their mashed potatoes with. Because after all, they’re hungry now.