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Think like a product manager

February 10, 2016

Instructional designers create instructional or training products. Whether we like it or not, product design and product management is our industrial cousin. How so?

  • We produce a “thing” that others choose to use/buy or not.
  • We have to market this “thing” to ensure our target audience is aware of it and knows how to get it.
  • We have to balance what our target audience wants and tie it into overall corporate goals and/or messaging.
  • We have to support our users in using and troubleshooting it.
  • We have to plan for updates.
  • We care about what’s included and what problem it solves.

So, if you agree, here five lessons we could learn from our product cousins:

  1. Your instructional product should solve a problem. Does it? In the start-up world, many follow Steve Blank’s advice to do “customer discovery” and figure out what problem your product would solve and for who.
  2. Build a minimum viable instructional product. Don’t misunderstand the term. It’s not minimally acceptable product, it’s identifying the core aspect of your product that will solve your customer’s problem. The intent with the MVP is that you cut to the core and then polish your product once you are confident that it fixes a problem. Does your instructional product do that? Our industry gets caught up in making stuff look pretty, but if it does what it was supposed to do, then it is good enough.
  3. Design thinking. Customer journey. Empathy mapping. Scenario planning. These are trends that are intended to use product design to match the needs of the customer/user. This involves feature selection, visual look and feel, product use, and other aspects that define how your customer interacts with your product. Have you done this with your instructional products? Could you use design thinking to engage stakeholders? Could you map the learning journey to understand the types of instructional products/support you might tap into or need to develop? Could you use empathy mapping to outline behavioural outcomes? Could you use scenario planning to test your solution?
  4. Invest in marketing your instructional product. You want widespread adoption, so plan your implementation carefully. Work backwards and forwards from your “release” day, using the following timescale. We’ve included a rough example to give you an idea of hotimescalew to make it work.


  1. Think about product support early in your cycle. Ensure that you have people who are on call to support users. Identify vulnerable groups and reach out. Build review cycle into your instructional product during initial development. In fact, if your product is akin to a “seasonal” product (limited shelf life), you could cut down on the nice to have features, such as custom graphics or illustrations. Can you build into the maintenance loop a “check-in” to ensure that it’s still current? Analyze what problems are trending. Address those in an “update”. Communicate out to your customers that there is an update and have “release notes”.

What do you think?

The Talent Question

February 1, 2016

One of the common things heard at the recent #BCTECH summit was the cry from organizations for more talent. The government responded with coding in schools and investment in post-secondary facilities (let’s build more talent) and relaxed immigration (let’s buy more talent). One aspect I wanted to explore is the third element – organizations investing in talent development (let’s shape more talent). Pushing the burden of providing talent to the education system is a long term strategy, but it’s also flawed. Education does not produce talent.

Here’s a parallel example: many organizations we work with lament the lack of critical thinking in their workers. It’s not that they have hired adults that can’t think, it’s more that the context of their thinking is not ingrained. They need to figure out how to apply their critical thinking to the organization. Critical thinking to one organization might be very different to another organization. I think the same will be true with hoping that schools teaching coding is going to solve the problem. I suspect it won’t deliver exactly what tech companies are looking for out of the box.

Does skill = talent?

The biggest question you need to answer is… “what IS talent?” or more specifically… “what does talent mean to US?”.  If you assume that every skilled hire you make is going to hit the ground running, you are probably setting yourself up for disappointment. An old adage in the training industry is that you hire for fit, but train for skill. However, getting people to do great work is not all about skill, so recognize that you need to improve the onboarding and orientation to your organization. It’s not enough to just hire them and give them a computer. You have to help them fit in. Figure out what it means to work for you. You have to set and communicate expectations. You have to be able to give constructive feedback. You have to provide direction and support. You have to lead and manage. A skilled employee is not enough. Talent is a skilled employee who can adapt to excel in a particular environment. A talented employee at Microsoft is not the same as a talented employee at Apple. So, you have to invest in shaping your own talent.

Industry needs to step up as well. If you invest in people, we all prosper.

I would urge organizations to invest in their own talent development initiatives, some of which stretch beyond their own walls. This doesn’t have to be a big financial investment, but it does need to be a time investment. Some approaches you could consider, some are specific to “coding”, but most could be applied to a variety of skills:

  • Tapping into existing bootcamps – encourage your staff to volunteer or get involved with them. The best way to learn is to teach!
  • Partnering with other organizations that have a similar ethos to build some training/development initiatives. These could be lunch-n-learn sessions (shared cost/logistics), temporary job swaps, other brainsharing ideas. Think of it like a guild…
  • Internal hackathons – get people working on things hands-on – and provide ways to discuss/share/learn together
  • Hosted hackathons – invite prospective employees or students or community groups to participate in your hands-on activities
  • Partner with local schools or community youth organizations – you could help students gain real world experience
  • Hire co-op students or paid interns
  • Discuss with other organizations how you might reduce the gap – could you automate certain common things that would benefit many organizations? – could you change the workflow to support someone who has less skills? Training everyone to do the same thing is not the most productive.
  • Build training and documentation for things that are critical to your organization – make sure your developer’s notes are annotated. Invest in simple screen recording capabilities so key tasks are recorded for future reference. Don’t make new staff learn everything the hard way.
  • Introduce an “each one teach one” philosophy – apply it to your existing employees and have them find a buddy inside or outside your company to teach and learn with.
  • Reward staff for teaching non-coders how to code – encourage them to find someone outside the tech industry and skill-swap

There’s a reluctance to spend on training and development when you are small, but it’s an investment.

I’ll leave you with this:

A rising tide lifts all boats.

Or in the context of this post – the more you put into the talent pool, the better talent there is in the long run. For everyone.

Love to hear your thoughts.

#BCTECH Summit – an instructional designer’s perspective

January 30, 2016

Last week I attended the #BCTECHSummit and one of the things I was interested in finding out was how companies were innovating around technology and training. BCIC wrote a nice blog post highlighting some of the cool things about our tech scene. And of course if I could be a hometown type of cheerleader, well I was happy to do that too.

Here’s my “trip report”…

Overall, I was so excited to see such a variety of tech-related solutions:

  • Agritech
  • Healthtech
  • Clean/green tech
  • Biotech
  • Resource based, such as mining & forestry tech (this is the historical hub of BC’s economy)
  • Fintech
  • Gaming and entertainment
  • Big data
  • Open government
  • Artificial intelligence

I saw: drones, BB8, 3D printing, VR, robots and exoskeletons, which made it fun and interactive.

In terms of “Edtech” – this is a muddy term, as many are focused on education, whereas we are interested in more community or organization based training solutions.

There were many tools that could deliver training in new ways:

Virtual Reality – yes it was there and it was cool – Cloudhead Games was there showcasing their product on an HTC VR set. Conquer Mobile was there – they have a simulation for pre-op training and simulated surgery via VR.

Augmented Reality – Microsoft did a presentation on their HoloLens and it did feature instructional uses.

Wearables – there was a great case study by Human on their band that altered utility workers about the presence of voltages (Proxxi). Perhaps a bit more behaviorist than some of us would like, but you’d sure learn (and the target audience would avoid harm/death, so there’s that)! We’ve written about the use cases of wearables before, and I appreciated how the founder of Human (Kharis O’Connell) described it in this article:

“We don’t want to make trinkets, there is a lot of that around. There are a lot of real world problems that can be solved elegantly if we approach it the right way.”

There was also CommandWear which is a Situational Awareness platform. The ability to review and annotate afterwards for training and performance improvement is a great feature.

Differentiated Learning – Microsoft One Note Learning tools and Skype translator are both tools that enable learning.

Hard to categorize, but some potential application for training/learning

ThoughtExchange is a large scale platform for input, prioritizing and decision making. I could see some use for it in MOOC applications for organizing the massive amount of discussion that might take place. For example, Curatr is currently running a “eLearning beyond the next button” MOOC and there’s tons of rich conversation happening, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it. Finding ways to filter and sort would enhance the experience.

Tradeable Bits is a “Fan CRM” platform, but I could see some organizations that offer training products, using it as a pseudo-LMS. Speaking of platforms, of course our friends from Thinkific were there – they have a great platform to deliver training.

The two days were filled with optimism and excitement for the future. There were passionate entrepreneurs there who really do want to make the world a better place. The epitome of this philosophy was Ray Kurzweil, (founder of Singularity U) who was a fascinating speaker.

I can’t wait for next year.

“Training for Good”

January 15, 2016

There’s a lot of focus in the L&D world on corporate applications of training or elearning. Which is understandable, but it would seem that the not-for-profit organizations are underserved and under-represented. Several months ago I saved this link with the idea that the L&D world needs a bit of this. for Good

Some examples do exist:

As an industry, there’s more emphasis on the hard aspects of training – e-learning is efficient, compliance training is risk mitigation, etc.

But, we have tools and skills at our disposal to help the planet!

We should use these tools and skills. Help people learn, connect, grow, make good choices, etc. For example, MOOCs started by MIT opening their content up in 2000 mainly for developing nations to gain the skills they’d need even if they didn’t get “credit”. It was about equipping the world to build and solve. Training can help a lot of people. Learn how to start their own business. Learn how to manage a household budget. Learning how to manage a chronic condition. And the list goes on. Our focus as a company is to use training to help build capacity.

When do you need a “course” (and not something else)?

January 13, 2016

There are times when it seems that when training is suggested, it always means “a course”. In North America, a course means a single instance of programmed instruction (an e-learning module, a 2 day workshop). It may have different connotations elsewhere (in the UK, it can mean a series of related workshops/events). But many training needs are put in a “course” format unnecessarily. The reality is that an instructional designer has many tools in his/her toolbox and the trick is to determine which one is the best fit for the need.

Here are some times where a course makes sense:

Multiple steps in a process

Say you have to train people on a process that has multiple steps and there’s some context or reasoning behind why it needs to be done in a certain way. A course would be a good fit here, as it’s probably too many things for someone to remember the right order and all the details that would go into it. Actually in this situation a course PLUS a “Quick Refresher Card” would be an ideal combination. This is common in corporate settings, but could also apply to many other types of training: citizen science, software training, medical procedures, flight training, etc.

How to do something that has many possible options

Your target audience can follow a path down many side-shoots and you want them to understand and react to the consequences of many of them. Unless you are training animals, there are many elements of modern work that aren’t black and white, and you need to ensure your target audience knows enough of the consequences without learning them the hard way. While we think that business is automated through technology, the reality is there are many small decision points in most jobs all day long. How to respond to a customer. What to do when your estimating is out of whack on production work. What advertising campaign to choose for your new product. Which strategy to pursue to maximize earnings. How to diagnose or triage something. Again – doesn’t need to be corporate, it could apply to creative work, volunteer committees, leisure activities, etc.

Lots to learn and a definite order exists

In some organizations, employees are dealing with hundreds of products or services (or combinations) and need to be able to market, sell, support, make or otherwise learn about them in a way that makes the most sense. Let’s say you have one product line where you put things in a room, like furniture and a service where you build the room as well. One employee services the clients who will often use both products and services. They need to learn about the furniture and then they need to learn about the room. Then they’d need to learn about what things to do to make sure the room and furniture go together effortlessly. If you focus on the room specifications first, then the employee may spend hours trying to get up to speed on the furniture. If they learn about the furniture first, they may have a better understanding of how to select furniture for the room. Emergency management comes to mind as well. You can’t just wing that.

There’s a right way

While it would be nice if we could assume that everyone could learn socially, there are a couple of not so great realities in that method: first, the co-worker/peer might not know what they are doing, so you end up having an untrained person training another one. Secondly, in some (many?) organizations, there’s a lot of boring stuff that you have to learn. And you are not really going to seek out others to learn it. Mostly you just want to get it over with, so a lot of shortcuts and just plain ignoring it happens. Third, the company is counting on focused execution of strategy and/or brand messaging and actually needs you to learn the right way, not just any old way. So, a course here is best. It meets the needs of the audience and organization.

Consequences are significant

Might be life or death. Might be significant harm or cost. Your audience really needs to learn this stuff. And not just learn it in the “I can google it if I get stuck” way. This is the type of stuff that a course was made for. It could be a hands-on, extremely experiential course, but it’s a classic situation that needs a training course. Don’t be afraid to prescribe a course. Just make sure if you do, that you create a damn good one.

Otherwise, you/your instructional designer will look through the entire toolbox to see if there’s a better fit for the need:

  • Need to fix something, once (say a household appliance part) – well, unless you are planning to get into household repair, a good video or asking an expert would be best.
  • Need to remember the steps for something not terribly hard, but consequences of mixing up the steps is significant (say giving your car battery a jump start) – a good illustrated job aid would do the trick.
  • Building habits over time, for example learning about nutrition – a “drip” campaign (subscription course) could be ideal

The reality is that most situations might need a more integrated approach and a good instructional designer will put together the best combination of instructional tools to help address the training need.

2016 Trends in L+D and how to make the most of them

December 21, 2015

blog postI wasn’t going to write an obligatory end of year/predictions for next year post, but then read this one and and liked how they added the “how to make the most of them” part, so I guess you could say I was inspired. Here’s my list of what I think might influence E-Learning in 2016.

Five Tech Trends for L+D to check out in 2016

1. HTML5 Tools

The rise of responsive HTML5 tools.This has been a raging debate in the industry for at least a couple of years, but we believe 2016 will be the year that these tools really start to go mainstream. While I would agree that there is a need to have modern tools that support modern devices, I also think that instructional designers should not just pump out courses that work on any device, but respect the use cases that each device would demand. We advocate that tablets are much like desktops, but smartphones (even the big ones) are not used like desktops, but as performance support devices. While there’s been much noise around the death of Flash, the HTML5 trend is a market change, not a technology change. The market is ready, the tools are more WYSIWIG, so everything is primed for lift off. We’ve been waiting for xAPI to become mainstream and with wearables and the increase of responsive tools, this could be it’s breakout year. A long shot, but something to at least try out.

How can you make the most of this trend?

Jump in and try some out. Pick a small project that you have time to experiment with or collaborate with a colleague.

Our input: as much as I wanted to try Adapt, the install on the authoring tool is just too daunting, so will try out Easy Generator and H5P instead.

2. Video, video everywhere

In L+D this means: blab, periscope, narrative, go pro, google jump, and other ways to either record or stream media. In the consumer world, streaming is mainstream, but for L+D, we are not really there yet, except Learning Now TV and some other industry programs or individuals who are doing it. To be a “Youtuber” is now a legitimate profession. The number of Netflix competitors is on the rise. Video has been around a long time, so in 2016 I think it’ll make up a larger portion of the content that we’ll produce or assemble.

How can you make the most of this trend?

Again, experiment. Keep your eye out for a project that would really benefit from this type of dynamic video or streaming approach. You can use an existing smartphone, so the barrier to entry is time and skill.

Our input: Blab is an easy start, it’s much like Google Hangouts or Skype video. Jump on a blab to see if there’s potential for you.

3. Virtual Reality

All the pundits agree that this is the THE trend for 2016.  Hardware will begin hitting the market and this is likely to be a consumer product trend as well in 2016. In L+D we could certainly see it used for more than gaming. The ability to create a fully immersive experience is essential for some areas of training (medical education) and it could be a tool for other industries as well.

How can you make the most of this trend?

Start with a Google Cardboard – this allows you to use your phone within a cardboard VR environment to begin to see the possibilities of how you might see this working in your L+D world. Even the NYTimes is giving away these sets to immerse readers in select stories. I wouldn’t suggest we all run out and buy Unity to begin building our own apps or games, but consider getting your hands on a low-end set to begin seeing the potential of this technology.

Our input: honestly, just start with a google cardboard unit, a $20 investment, and see what all the fuss is about. That’s what we’re doing. Also, read Donald Clark’s blog posts who has been writing around this topic for some time.

4. Podcasting

This seems to be making a comeback – everywhere I go, people are talking about it. It may be driven by the unexpected success of Serial, but there’s a resurgence – people starting their own and listening to them again. And, since many people are talking about tech cars and the influence Tesla has had on the automotive industry, I think we’ll see more innovation of media integrating in cars. So, not just radios or your own music, but the ability to subscribe to podcasts from your car dashboard.

How can you make the most of this trend?

If you are so inclined, you can try out podcasting, or just start listening to a few.  The beauty of podcasting, is the isolation of content to an audio channel. You might learn about how to tell a great story, keep listeners engaged. Check out the NPR coming out with radio production websites for public consumption. I follow a number of “start up” thinkers and most of them avidly follow Marc Andreeesen, who’s VC firm (Andreessen Horowitz) has a podcast on soundcloud. When the techies start to go audio, then you know it’s a trend. If you are a runner, driver, or regular traveler, then check out podcasts. Share some of your recommendations. Or you can be like Brent Schlenker who is using blab as a type of podcast tool.

Our input: the value for us is more in the storytelling or the way podcasters put together information about their story, to add context and extra information.

5. Wearables and the Internet of Things

While this still seems to be considered a non-L+D innovation (and most people fear Big Brother when it comes to this), there are aspects that could impact adoption. Add in the xAPI connection and you could see some real innovation in delivering content and tracking performance.

How can you make the most of this trend?

Do some research and find out what the potential of wearables/IoT is for your work before you invest any time in tinkering or make friends with a tinkerer. It’s not about whether or not you can build a solution, it’s more about understanding the capabilities and seeing the potential. It might be beacons or mood trackers. It might be a watch or an RFID chip, but as this moves more towards consumer reality, it’ll seep into L+D too.

Our input: we’ve written several blog posts on this in 2015, so check them out to get a sense of how wearables could be used in the L+D world.

Things that seem to be fading:

Coding craze

While many people were on the coding bandwagon (confession: myself included), it turns out it’s harder than it seems to ADD coding to our already broad skill set. What L+D folks should know isn’t how to code (except for HTML, that would be useful), it’s what “code” actually means and know some folks who DO know how to code.

The uber-tool

I think that many E-Learning developers are looking for the uber-tool that will do everything. And perhaps it’s time we accept that does not exist. Putting your content into a magic software and expecting it to spit out a course for your desktop/laptop users, an app-like experience for tablet users and a performance support tool for phone users is a fool’s game. Consider some of your favorite providers – something like Evernote – is it the same product for all your devices? Nope. We need to be thinking of the same sort of thing. What are our users going to need to learn/recall from our content when using this device.


A couple of years ago, all anyone could talk about was MOOCs. In the corporate world, most people struggled to see the relevance or the logistics of how this structure would really be worth the effort. Overall, things have cooled on MOOC-mania and while they can still offer a way to deliver training, it won’t likely be in the corporate world. Unless you have a massive audience or some kind of generic skill that you are trying to reach/teach. So, stop spending all your time trying to figure out how to get on the bandwagon, because it’s time to get off.

So, that’s how we see things. What about you?


Other Training Debt

December 16, 2015

I’ve written before about “Training Debt“, based off:

Here are some other ways that training debt might hurt an organization or a cause.

Customer Training Debt

Without investing in customer training, you might find that your customers don’t know how to use your product. Without that knowledge, they might not get the full appreciation of your product. They may not be aware of ,or know how to use certain features. You should be concerned if that’s the case. And you should really provide not just feature list training, but use real tasks and help your users know how to get the most out of your product. They’ll be more loyal, more likely to refer and be more invested in how your product helps them meet their goals. If you don’t provide good onboarding and product training, they might become a “flight risk”. In today’s hyper-competitive environment, if your customers aren’t really using your product, then they may just be swayed by a better pitch. And you’ve probably heard the adage that its’ easier to sell to an existing customer than find new ones. Investing in training to increase customer loyalty makes good business sense. Putting it off, or throwing some random screencasts up on your website may actually do more harm than good. So, do the cost/benefit analysis and you’ll probably find that providing training is a good investment.

Some good examples:

Articulate’s E-Learning Heroes Community – these guys seriously understand how to make you want to use their product and continually provide their users with tons of training, ideas, hacks, tricks and freebies. Even if you aren’t a customer, they offer some awesome things.

ELH-learnSmartSheet – we have recently signed up for this online project management tool and have found the way they structure their training helpful. The notion of a playlist is pretty compelling. And while the interface isn’t as slick as some others we’ve seen, it’s a powerful tool, so learning ways to really get the most out of it is critical.

smartsheet helpSo, don’t just focus on building an “intuitive product”, consider how your users will get up to speed on your product and how good training will ensure that they don’t end up swamping your support service or cancelling their subscription because they can’t see the value in using your product because they don’t know how to use it.

Community Training Debt

If your community is lacking in knowledge, think about how difficult it will be to build, sustain or grow your community’s capacity. There’s sometimes resistance to providing training in areas where it seems like people should just “get it”. The reality is that we assume an awful lot when we are behind an initiative. And, we also place a lot of faith in motivation. We believe that people will want to do things so much, that they’ll go to great lengths to figure it out. But the reality is, that motivation is only part of the puzzle. If you really want to see new behaviours (because that’s REALLY what it’s about), you need to a few more ingredients. One of them is ability. So, invest in making sure that people know HOW to do something, not just that they WANT to do it. You’ll also need to make sure that they know WHEN to do it as well. If you ignore training, you may also end up with well-meaning but misguided supporters who dilute your efforts or create more work for you because of their lack of ability. Or you might find yourself falling into the trap of “I told them” and they didn’t do it. I have seen this many times, and it’s not a matter of  purely “repeat your message” (although that would be good too), but compounded with the assumption that everyone knows as much as you do.

A couple of examples from personal experience:

Orca Network – I have to confess to being a bit of a “whale nerd” – I am fascinated by whales, especially orcas. Living on an island means that I see/spend quite a lot of time on the Pacific Ocean. Our local orca population is a mixture of fish eaters (“Southern Residents”) and mammal eaters (“Transients”). The Southern Residents are endangered. There are less than 100 of them (although we’ve seen a baby boom – 7 calves born this year), and finding ways to help sustain the population is something the community would like to see. You can see in the image indications to “Be Whale Wise” are linked to and the ability to report sightings (which help scientists gather information about the whales). Incidentally, I also love how technology can assist here – drones that can observe and the SnotBot project which can collect whale exhalations (“snot”) which can provide biological information too. I want to see these whales saved, I’m motivated, but also need to know what I can do personally to make a difference.

orca network

Note: If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see me post photos of my #islandcommute, where I am typically trying to spot whales (and occasionally do!) as well as sharing photos when I do see them in my leisure time – sailing or kayaking.

Economic Development

Recently I volunteered to sit on the local economic development commission. As a small community, there’s not a lot of economic diversity, and the commission exists to develop a strategy and work with other organizations to support and attract businesses. One of the key elements that I feel we can bring to the community is better training on HOW to start, manage and grow a business. Since I’ve worked with the BC Tech community developing the Market Validation Training for the past four years, and have volunteered as a Futurpreneur mentor, I feel that the combination of the subject matter experience and instructional design expertise can really contribute to building some skills.

So, don’t just build a website or invest in marketing. Those two things are often seen as the panacea to building community capacity. Invest in training so that your community or cause has motivated AND capable members who know WHAT, HOW and WHEN to act.

What other areas do you see training debt piling up? Where could an early investment lead to a greater return down the road?


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