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Empathic Instructional Design

First published February 18, 2002 by Maish Nichani

Critics of e-learning are quick to point out that many course offerings are nothing but digital page-turners. Some refer to the act of taking an e-learning course as "e-reading." Many reasons are attributed to this prevalent condition–from time and budget constraints to limitations of traditional instructional design. We feel another important reason is the lack of exposure to alternative practices. In this article, we take cues from Interaction Design, Usability Engineering and Product Design on a process known as empathic design, a user-centered approach to design that can lead to innovative e-learning.

The story thus far

Wired Magazine (August 30, 2000): Forrester Report- Online Training ÔBoring'.
"Many of the managers who responded to Forrester's survey said they were struggling to convince employees to utilize "boring, text-heavy content," and were meeting real resistance from employees who preferred traditional person-to-person training methods."

e-learning Magazine (November 1, 2001): Elliott Masie: No More Digital Page-Turning.
"About 98 percent of the e-learning content that is now offered to adult, corporate learners, is modeled after a textbook or classroom metaphor."

From the above two reports it seems that in the year that separated these reports there has been no improvement in the representation of e-learning courses–'boring, text-heavy' content still rules the day.

Why isn't there much innovation in the design of e-learning courses?

From Masie's point of view, the lack of innovative e-learning is attributed to the natural transition of adopting and accepting a new medium: "Whenever there is a new technology, early usage is often modeled after something that is familiar. Right now, we see many of the classroom or textbook metaphors shining through."

Others blame by-the-book Instructional System Design (ISD) process. They posit the current ISD model: Analyze-Design-Develop-Implement-Evaluate (ADDIE) has not adapted to reflect the changing times. See A Hard Look at ISD for more on the "Attack on ISD."

Whether the blame lies on the Darwinian pace of adaptation or out-of-tune ISD processes, we need answers to what can be done NOW with what we've got. One way to do just that is to look at how other successful companies are sparking innovation in these trying times.

Sparking Innovation Through Empathic Design

In "Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design", Harvard Business School Professors Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey Rayport write extensively on the practice of empathic design in many successful and innovative companies. They describe empathic design as follows:

At its foundation is observation–watching consumers use products or services. But unlike focus groups, usability laboratories, and other contexts of traditional market research, such observation is conducted in the customer's own environment–in the course of normal, everyday routines. In such a context, researchers can gain access to a host of information that is not accessible through other observation-oriented research methods.

The research technique is similar to ethnography or field research. For example, ethnographic researchers at Intel travel in buses around in streets of London just to observe how people interact with technology. Corporate anthropologists at GM observe and study their workers and customers to help design products that better reflect emerging cultural trends.

Leonard and Rayport point out that traditional market research techniques–surveys, focus groups, usability testing–are not adequate when novel product concepts are desired:

Market research is generally unhelpful when a company has developed a new technological capability that is not tied to a familiar consumer paradigm. If no current product exists in the market that embodies ablest the most primitive form of a new product, consumers have no foundation on which to formulate their opinions. When radio technology was first introduced in the early 20th century, it was used solely for transmitting Morse Code and voice communication from point to point. Only after David Sarnoff suggested in 1915 that such technology could be better employed in broadcasting news, music, and baseball games was the "radio music box" born. Sarnoff had put his knowledge of the technology together with what he found when he observed families gathered in their homes to envision a totally different use for the technology. No one has asked for broadcasting because they didn't know it was feasible.

In contrast, an offshoot of by-the-book ADDIE process is Detached Design–design based on subject matter content rather than on real-world interactions.

How many times have we developed e-learning based on those 150 PowerPoint slides our client gave us? Or depended on those 100-page manuals and transparencies that were used in classroom sessions?

And as a result of our detached designs, How many times have our learners felt that all they required were simple FAQs and not the elaborate tutorials we designed for them?

Guess you get the difference.

Detached design is process-centered, almost assembly like, and taken to its negative extreme can create course after course devoid of any differentiation. In contrast, empathic design is user-centered, where each problem could have, and usually does have, unique solutions.

In order to innovate, we have to learn to empathize with our learners, and then base our designs on resultant observations and reflections. This trait is essential for all designers.

A successful interaction designer has to not simply suppress his own personality, but must eagerly endeavor to understand the needs, desires, and methods of his potential users. For better or worse, empathy is not a trainable skill--you either have it or you don't.
–Peter Merholz on empathy.

Some Links:

The Process

So, how do we do it?

We've taken the process from Leonard & Rayport's article and applied it to e-learning. Here are the five steps to empathic design that can be juxtaposed with traditional instructional design processes:

1. Observe

Observe users doing their daily tasks with the goal of identifying learning needs to real performance problems, and studying contexts under which they occur. If it is possible, instead of just observing, do the tasks to get firsthand experience of the problem and needs of the task.

The observers should be from multidisciplinary fields such as instructional design, graphic design, human factors design, etc., to get a rich understanding of the problem.

Example: When designing a training solution for a call center, send out a team to observe learners-to-be in action. Watch their actions, their expressions and identify their unarticulated needs. Empathize with them.

2. Capture Data

Capture the practice using photographic and video toolsets. Record the sounds of the working environment. Ask open-ended questions. Make notes of problems faced and solutions rendered. Chart out daily routines.

Example: In the call center training above, photograph the call center environment. Listen to questions asked and answers rendered. Video the search for solutions to new problems. Capture the interactions between workers.

3. Reflect & Analyze

Share the captured data in its many forms with the team. Analyze the data. Picture the current state of performance. Visualize the desired state of performance. Identify "real" learning needs. Many times a discrepancy in performance might not be due to a learning need; it might just be the case of mis-aligned motivational issues (see Robert Mager's Analyzing Performance Problems, Pdf file).

Example: For the call center training, massage the collected data and create scenarios of performance, problems and solutions. Build work flow diagrams and identify discrepancies. Share these with call center representatives.

4. Brainstorm for Solutions

Start the brainstorming session once learning gaps are identified. Discuss solutions for their appropriateness to learners and their contexts. Cross-pollination of ideas from different domains like video games, sports-training, televisions, etc., will broaden the search horizon.

Search far and wide: Does the learner need just-in-time information? Would the Macromedia-type knowledge-base suffice? Is is better to have a print supplement? Would the learners be more attuned to audio streams? Would a Harvard-type case study be a viable option? Would a small simulation be appreciated? Can we adopt a Disney movie style? Would a blended solution fit in? Can the work environment be a part of the solution?

Example: In the call center training above, assume the designers noticed that the workers didn't like to work with their computers during breaks. Instead, workers would gather in groups at the office lounge to cool-off and discuss work related problems. Just by these observations, solutions could be designed that are 1) available at the lounge, 2) not too grueling, and 3) are problem-based.

5. Develop Prototypes

Once a set of solutions are decided upon, small working prototypes are built and tested with learners to determine its learnability–the effectiveness of the solution in enabling learning.


In the course of writing this article we came across this:

When DigitalThink's design team was developing training software for Circuit City, they did something unusual. Team members donned the polo shirts of Circuit City sales associates and spent a couple of days working the sales floor, selling Palm Pilots, cameras, and stereos. Then they returned to their lab to begin designing 200 one-hour training courses for sales associates.

Needless to mention, we were delighted!

Rather than wait for a new ISD process to take shape, or succumb to the fate of glacial adaptation of e-learning to the Internet, we can learn a thing or two from companies that are already reaping benefits of innovation by empathizing with their customers.

Some predictable concerns for companies opting for empathic design are time, money and the effort. At times it might not be conducive to do a full-blown empathic approach when working under small budgets or time constraints. But, even in these cases, not attempting a limited empathic design approach should not be an option.

We leave you with this advice from a computer science professor to online instructional designers and developers.

My message to developers of distance learning and instructional computing technologies is simple: Follow the user-centered design practices that human-computer interaction specialists teach. Follow me around for a semester to see how important it is to have groupwork and direct observation. Watch how a lecturer reads the class as the class is listening and learning. Collect the artifacts that make up a class. Then, don't sacrifice any of these capabilities until you can propose something that surpasses them. Teaching more isn't teaching better.

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