CAT | Design

blisterpack (Mobile)I just had such a great Out-Of-Box-Experience. My experience was with a new desk chair, manufactured by SPACE . I ordered it online, so of course, it came needing to be assembled. When I opened the box, I got the usual assortment of parts and fasteners, with one brilliant difference. Instead of the bag o’ fasteners most assemble-yourself stuff comes with, the folks at SPACE put the fasteners and the Allen wrench in a nicely LABELLED blister pack. There was none of the usual scrutiny of a drawing of various screws trying to figure out which one goes where. They included a standard assembly diagram, with the usual steps and arrows for what goes where. But that painful ritual of digging a fastener out of the bag, trying to figure out whether it’s the right one by looking at tiny drawings was eliminated from the process.

It’s such a simple thing. It can’t possibly cost them much more than just putting the things in a bag. And it makes me wonder whether they might make other things I would like to purchase, just because the assembly experience was so much more pleasant.

Interaction designers work hard to make the user experience for their products one which welcomes users and makes their earliest interactions with the system pleasant ones in software, as well. But over time, feature creep and the desire to reach into new markets can complicate our systems to the point they no longer deliver the experience we once worked so hard to create.

A customer wrote to our support desk the other day, asking what report he should use to find out how his learners scored on a particular learning activity. He’s been with us for some time. The report he has used for years to pull this information is still on his system. But a recent upgrade pushed it to the “additional reports” page and off the main page of his dashboard, and he never has learned the (fairly long and complex) name of the thing, he’s just been used to pulling that report that starts with an “L” from the middle of his report list. We were able to point him to the report, and offered to put it back on his dashboard. In response, he asked “Is there any talk about making report names more intuitive?”


We struggle a LOT with labelling, in part because different organizations often use very different terms to talk about the elements of a learning experience. We recognize that what is “intuitive” to the software designer and the developer may not be intuitive to the user, so we do talk to our customers about what they call things. We even change our nomenclature as the term of art in the field changes – which then makes it hard for users who have accommodated to the previous naming scheme to find things in the new order of the ages. We also make it possible for organizations to customize the nomenclature to the org – but that can raise support issues since our support staff tends not to be versed in specialized customer nomenclature.

So it makes my heart sing to receive this blister pack, in which they eschewed using whatever technical jargon might differentiate the different fasteners in favor of the very intuitive “Screws for Armrest.” And it makes me wonder what we can do to make our user experiences similar.


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Gotta love Breaking Science News!

I normally prettify link text, but in this case, the URL says it all:

Raise your hand if you find this shocking. (Didn’t think I’d see any hands…)

Per the article:

Freeman and a group of colleagues analyzed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods. The meta-analysis, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation.”

It’s good to have some serious research behind this notion. But we already knew.

“The current study didn’t directly address the effectiveness of one new twist in the traditional lecturing format: massive open online courses that can beam talks to thousands or even millions of students. But Freeman says the U.S. Department of Education has conducted its own meta-analysis of distance learning, and it found there was no difference in being lectured at in a classroom versus through a computer screen at home. So, Freeman says: “If you’re going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers.”

Precisely. Lecture is sometimes the best we can do when we are addressing individuals whose motivations for learning are individual and unlinked.

But in organizations, our learners already have relationships to one another — we’re trying to facilitate the formation of those relationships in ways which improve the ability of our people to work effectively together. The way humans learn to work together is by working together, preferably under the supervision of people who know a lot about the task at hand and can provide guidance when things get difficult.

Our learners are not at home in bunny slippers. They are dressed and present in our workplaces. We should be leveraging that advantage when we design our training programs.

If you are ready to move beyond the electronic lecture, call us. We would love to show you how to develop training that truly develops the capacity of your team.  Drop us an email at

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There’s a buzz around micro-learning in training circles. A brief survey of the training-oriented discussion groups on Linked-in suggests that as with many au-courant terms, this one isn’t very well defined.

The basic idea is to break training up into very small, highly digestible “chunks” – but what this looks like in practice varies from making 5 minute videos available as part of a performance support tool to editing down a 4-hour(!) webinar to a one-hour one. There seem to be a group of people who regard lessons 15 minutes in length as the typical micro-learning object.

Of course, micro-lessons do not necessarily lead to learning! But the hope is that by requiring a minimal time commitment from learners, that there will be more uptake of the offered lessons. And perhaps that this learning will take place on non-company time, like the morning commute.

I’ve also seen micro-learning cited as a cost-containment strategy for training departments. I’m skeptical —  the work involved in assessing learner needs and structuring easily accessible platforms for information delivery doesn’t vary much with the size of an individual unit-of-training. Arguably, scheduling the delivery of numerous small lessons may be more complex that delivering longer training experiences.

It seems to me that there are two obvious places for small learning “snacks”

  1. In the performance support system. Workers looking up how to do something are grateful for nicely packaged job-aids which focus specifically on the task they are trying to do – and it’s awfully nice to have the more in depth treatment of the topic right at hand in case the small module raises more questions. Meeting the need for just in time/on demand training is rightly the function of the performance support system
  2. As reinforcement modules, following up on longer, more formal training experiences. Weaving the concepts presented as part of a training program into the daily workflow can be done with a nicely timed email to the trainees, offering a reminder of the content, and perhaps a bit of preparation for the next stage of training.

Where do you see micro-learning serving your organization?

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Blended Learning Design: Key Practice 2






We believe there are five key practices in designing blended learning programs that map against the levels of competency and learning timeline. The second of these is Questioning. After adult learners hear, see, or experience new content, they need to assimilate it into their current cognitive structures. The first way they usually do this is by testing it against their own experience, which often leads to questions.

It’s important to note that, in this sense, questions aren’t FAQs – the five most common questions people ask. Those can and should be answered in the presentation of content. These are questions about how new concepts can be applied in what the learner considers her unique situation, or questions about how new concepts relate to previously learned ones.

These questions required adaptive answers from a living human being, not cute pictures of “the coach” that talks you through a canned response to an elementary question.

We see designing for questions as part of the basic knowledge level of competency, and can and should be taught during the instructional phase of the blended learning program.

Depending on the content, questions can be taken in instructor-led training, same time web meetings or conference calls, or asynchronously (but publicly) with forum posts or similar social media.

Key take aways are that:

  • Adult learners question content
  • These questions require adaptive answers from living human beings
  • This is all part of the instruction phase.

Future posts in this series will address other key practices.

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Blended Learning Design: Key Practice 1

We believe there are five key practices in designing blended learning programs that map against the levels of competency and learning timeline. The first of these is Discovery: Becoming familiar with key concepts, vocabulary, and procedures. This is part of the basic knowledge level of competency, and can and should be taught during the instructional phase of the blended learning program.

Depending on the content, concepts can be introduced via self-paced instruction, instructor-led training, rich media presentation,  or simple background readings. They can also be introduced via one-on-one coaching, but this is inefficient.

More complex instructional designs can provide a pre-work assessment that lets the learner know what areas they do not know, or more creatively  raise questions in a learner’s mind by posing scenarios that the learner cannot solve, before providing the content.

In any case, the key take aways are that:

  • Disseminating content is only the first step in good instruction (and, honestly, the simplest step)
  • There are several ways to do it
  • It only addresses learning goals related to knowledge of the subject matter, not skillfulness or proficiency

Future posts in this series will address other key practices.

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In designing blended learning programs, we believe there are three key factors to think through: levels of competency, the learning timeline, and five key learning practices. The first factor is levels of competency: Are you teaching for knowledge, skillfulness, or proficiency? This will guide decisions you make on seat time, types of activities, and levels of required interactivity.

You can go with lots of rather complex taxonomies such as Gagne, Bloom, and their more modern colleagues, but we find that as we explain things to our customers who are not learning professionals, this simple set of buckets works pretty well.

Knowledge is the ability to define terms, explain concepts, and list the steps of procedures and processes.

Skillfulness is the ability to apply defined processes and procedures in standard situations.

Proficiency is the understanding of underlying principles enabling adaptation in novel situations and development of new processes and procedures.

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In designing blended learning programs, we believe there are three key factors to think through: levels of competency, the learning timeline, and five key learning practices. The second factor is the learning timeline – what should be taught in the “training event” and what should be learned applying new knowledge and skills on the job?

As we think of it, the instruction phase consists of the training event – the time-limited period devoted to learning new skills. For instance, a one day class, or a 20-minute eLearning module.

The application phase consists of weeks or months where skills are practiced on the job and feedback is obtained in order to apply and reinforce learning.

It’s important not to confuse the one with the other. Often eLearning modules – perfect for instruction – attempt to cover the application phase as well, because the creators believe they will be used as a stand-alone, sole intervention. But having the “post training exercises” built into the eLearning module cannot compare with creating a blended learning program where we ask participants to engage in a series of stretch assignments with feedback from coaches or peers. The take away? Design blended learning activities to fit the timeline. Teach concepts, vocabulary and procedures during the instructional phase, and allow learners to practice them in a safe environment. Apply learning on the job in distinct, separate, application activities.

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Formal Learning: ILT or Online?

Gary Duffield did a wonderful post earlier this month on Why a great coffee machine is like a great (instructor led) course. While his organization offers a range of training methodologies, he writes:

I fly the flag for training delivered in the classroom, by a subject matter expert. Possibly because Instructor Led Training supported by a quality coffee machine, has many advantages and benefits for learners:

  • Face-to-face interactions with the instructor and real-time discussions are powerful ways to learn. Having an instructor answer questions and validate a learners’ understanding in real time.
  • The instructor can adapt how they deliver the learning based on the learners’ levels of understanding. Even the slowest of learners can be accommodated by an experienced instructor. Although even the best instructors will struggle when a student doesn’t meet the pre-requisites for the course.
  • Classroom training allows for some individual 1:1 attention from the instructor.
  • Instructor Led Training provide the opportunity for learners to make mistakes in a controlled environment, to learn from those mistakes and take the value of that back to the workplace
  • Classroom events provide the all-important “human touch,”  it’s hard on virtual training events to eat lunch with your instructor whilst discussing the merits of ITIL in the work place
  • Group interactions enhance the learning experience and allows for learning from different organisational cultures.
  • Hands on training in the classroom helps in learning kinesthetic skills – technical courses use real servers and routers – imagine learning to swim without access to a pool. (Mind you I learnt to programme without a computer)
  • People like classroom training and see it as a privilege resulting in better motivated learners.

So, if it’s an important training initiative, why would anyone go virtual?

For a lot of organizations, the answer to that question comes down to money.  It can cost an extra thousand dollars per student to transport folks to the training venue and put them up for a night or two.

But let’s, for just a moment, imagine that we could design the optimal learning experience, one in which cost was not a consideration.  I fly the flag for a blend of face-to-face and online activities even when money is no object, because I think online can sometimes more effectively meet our learning transfer goals.

  1. It is great to be able to ask questions, get answers, and have one’s learning validated in real time. Unfortunately, not every learner is comfortable asserting themselves in this way in a classroom, and some people are comfortable taking up the majority of Q&A time!  Furthermore, some questions don’t really occur until after class is over.  Including an asynchronous discussion forum activity in which learners may ask, and have answered, questions which occur later, as they apply what they’ve learned on the job, provides reinforcement, opportunity for reflection, and a place for the shy to speak up.
  2. Adapting the pace of instruction when the class has a wide range of ability and background  is one of the central challenges instructors face.  In the synchronous classroom, absent some prequalification of people into different tracks with different activities,  there’s no way to slow the pace down for the folks at the low end of preparation which does not require those who are better prepared to wait, and possibly lose out on material which is not presented because  time runs out.  Skilled instructors make compromises, because at some point, it’s unfair to the others not to move ahead, even if some are still struggling to understand what’s been presented so far.  Online, it’s possible to individualize the pacing in a way which just isn’t practical in a group face-to-face situation.
  3. Classroom training does allow for some 1:1 attention, but obviously, that time is limited, and again, there’s the issue of allocating time among those who clamor for more than their share and those who are “hiding” in the back of the room.  If we move to an asynchronous modality, in which, say, we ask learners to do an assignment and then give them individual coaching on that assignment, the quality of that individual attention is likely to be much higher.
  4. The opportunity to make mistakes in a controlled environment is where online solutions really shine.  Simulations are one example, but it’s not necessary to use elaborate technology.  In private coaching space, it’s possible to coach a learner on a written response to a case study, and let them continue to improve it until it meets the standard – and only then share it with the larger group.
  5. Ok, he’s got me here. Sadly, there are no lunches or coffee breaks with the instructor in online space. It is possible, though, to structure activities as conference calls in which learners reflect with the instructor on their challenges applying what’s being learned, and give the opportunity for the telling of war stories.
  6. As you’re probably noticing, at Q2, we think group work is important, so we’ve got a bunch of ways to make it work as part of a blended course.   People work with each other via computer in numerous ways these days, so just because a course activity is virtual doesn’t mean it has to be a solo experience.
  7. Obviously, some training really requires hands-on. It may be possible to learn programming without a computer, but nobody would call that ideal.  And if you’re learning how to fix engines, at some point, you need to have an engine to work on, and a coach to oversee your work.
  8. People DO really like classroom. It is indeed regarded as a privilege and as recognition of value to the organization. Plus, there’s coffee!  There is also a non-trivial boost to attention which accompanies being taken away from one’s desk to a place where one is unlikely to be interrupted.

It’s a mistake to imagine that it’s possible to accomplish everything that an ILT Classroom offers by moving those classroom activities online.  People were evolved to learn from each other in full-bandwidth, and we spend at least 12 years training young humans how to learn in a classroom, so it’s smart to leverage that investment.  But by the same token, there are highly effective strategies  we can implement online which are not easily replicated in the classroom.

My personal bias is that if you’re trying to teach people a new way to work together, it’s a really good investment to introduce them to each other in person, and give them some shared experience in a traditional classroom. But once you’ve done that, you can actually solidify those relationships  and deepen the learning by providing ongoing reinforcement activities after the classroom event is over.

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