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Information Design Is Key to the Future of Soft-Skills E-Learning


Mon Oct 13 2014

Information Design Is Key to the Future of Soft-Skills E-Learning

When it comes to hard-skills training, such as teaching Excel, Photoshop, or SQL Server, e-learning has succeeded. Just look at sites like Lynda.com and Pluralsight—both boast thousands of users and millions of dollars in venture capital.

Soft-skills e-learning, which covers such fields as sales, management, and leadership, is a different story. Plenty of organizations have invested in online soft-skills training, hoping to develop their talent. But historically, they haven’t gotten a good return on that investment.


Legacy e-learning

Learner utilization in what we call “legacy e-learning” has been disappointingly low. Learners didn’t watch; they didn’t learn. The people paying the bill didn’t receive much ROI and, frankly, probably were left with a bad taste in their mouth about e-learning in general. What’s the solution?

Legacy e-learning tended to be dominated by instructional designers. Modules were long. Courseware tried to convey too much information. And programs were focused on being linear, logical, and complete—rather than on being interesting and engaging.

Here are three things instructional designers misunderstood when creating legacy soft-skills e-learning, but that modern information designers recognize and act on:

Soft-skills learning is an act of persuasion. Hard-skills training is algorithmic. You don’t have to persuade someone to crop an image correctly in Photoshop, but transfer of most soft skills couldn’t be more different.


When teaching, for example, leadership or selling skills, we’re almost always trying to change behavior that people often don’t want to change. As a result, we need to present learning content in a compelling, persuasive way that lights a fire under people. Soft-skills training needs to give learners a sense of urgency to try new things and achieve better outcomes.

There’s nothing sacred about interactivity. Legacy e-learning instructional designers believe that creating an e-learning module without interactivity was unthinkable—like making chicken soup without a chicken. The thinking goes like this: “Because e-learning doesn’t use humans, we need to simulate the presence of humans. Because e-learning technology makes this so easy to do, it must be a good thing.”  There are a few reasons why this sort of thinking is flawed.

First, when you interrupt the flow of an e-learning module with some sort of interactive activity, you run a huge risk of losing the learner’s attention. I think we’d all agree that a marginally relevant, irritating interactive element can cause a spike in abandonment. And while some might not agree with this theory, I’ve personally watched hundreds of soft-skills e-learning modules, and I’ve never seen a single instance where interactivity wasn’t irritating. I know it loses me every time.

Next, keep in mind that the main reason for interactivity—giving people the opportunity to practice a skill—is impossible for most soft-skills training. You can’t tell a manager to go practice giving negative feedback, or a salesperson to go try to get past a gatekeeper. In hard-skills training—at least involving software training—interactivity works because when you interrupt the module, you can have a learner, say, create a chart in Excel. The person can actually perform the task you’re teaching.

If this isn’t enough to convince you, a recent study suggests that many interactive features don’t improve learning. And another study shows that “click-to-advance,” a popular interactive design feature, actually inhibits learning.


E-learning designers didn’t realize they were working in video, specifically online video, a medium that operates under rules very different from those that drive traditional learning formats, such as instructor-led training, books, manuals, and classroom courses. Legacy instructional designers were in a tough spot. They were trained on traditional media.

Then during the heart of their careers this thing called digital media came along. It also became clear that a new generation of “digital natives” were entering the workforce. Legacy e-learning failed because the people making it simply hadn’t yet grasped the changes that were influencing all forms of content creating, including training.

Enter information design

New e-learning is about short modules that are typically five to eight minutes in length—more like YouTube videos. In addition, new e-learning is intentionally incomplete. It doesn’t ask, “How can I tell the whole story?” It asks, “How can I trigger what Salman Khan of the Khan Academy calls a ‘short burst of intuition.’ ” Finally, new e-learning has instructional design partner with something we call “information design.”

Information design focuses on making any kind of content compelling and engaging. Combine it with good instructional design and you have a powerful engine for creating effective soft-skills e-learning. Basically, it was the missing ingredient in legacy e-learning.

Now, it’s obvious to most of us that e-learning modules need to be short. That clunky interactivity kills engagement. And that the same rules that drive video development need to drive the e-learning—particularly soft-skills e-learning.  Today, successful e-learning understands all this.

In our next post, we’ll dig deeper into what new e-learning means to content creators, and what it means to be an effective information designer.

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