What Unintended Messages Do Your Learning Solutions Send?
Wednesday, January 16, 2013

This is where you stop thinking that I'm cool, if you ever did.

Here it goes: I read Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People when I was a teenager. Yep, I did, and I'm not too proud to say that it had a profound effect on me, even to this day. The anecdote that I remember most is the one about one of his sons learning to play baseball. Covey and his wife realized that by jumping to defend and shelter him, they were actually feeding his weaknesses, completely unintentionally, by sending the message that he wasn't strong enough to withstand criticism.

This lesson of unintended messages still affects how I communicate, how I parent, and how I design. And it's that last part that I want to talk with you about, because being sensitive to unintended messages can be very helpful as a designer. And everything about the design of a learning solution sends messages, from the delivery modality to the writing to the interaction design to the graphic design.

Take a second to think of the (good, bad, and indifferent) messages sent to learners in these situations, all of which I've seen:


- You walk into a training room where upbeat music is playing, the tables are stocked with ice water and glasses, and each place is set with a slick, high-quality printout of the agenda.
- You open an e-learning module and the company logo on the first screen is stretched and pixelated.
- The questions on a final exam are so easy that most learners could answer them on common sense alone.
- Simple content that could easily be mastered with a job aid is instead put into a course with audio narration and locked-down navigation, forcing learners to sit through twenty (or more) minutes of content that they could read on their own in five.

There aren't any right or wrong responses to these situations, but there are more common ones than others. For example, most people in the first situation would feel valued and get the message that the company cared about the training; some might perceive the situation as inauthentic. That's one reason that designers need to be in tune with their audiences: to be able to predict how they will interpret the messages sent by the content and structure of the design.

In my conversations with instructional designers, I've found that we tend to be very aware of negative messages communicated by the look and feel of the content (for example, by pixelated or stretched images and ugly clip art), but we may not be as in tune with what we're communicating by the structure of the solution -- for example, by wasting the learners' time or not letting them freely navigate the content. So let me spell it out: When we do those things, we're communicating that their time isn't important and that they aren't capable of directing their own learning. And in the information age, companies should be more interested than ever in workers being concerned about their own productivity and self-directed to learn and find solutions.

Did you hear that? Companies should be interested, not just designers. So my challenge to you is more than to be aware of unintended messages as a designer; I challenge you to push back on your clients who arbitrarily want to make bad design decisions for you. In fact, I also challenge you to push back on clients who want to make bad design decisions for reasons that they feel very justified in. Don't be afraid to bring your expertise as a designer into the conversation.

But that is a conversation for another post.

About the Author

Judy Unrein makes stuff that helps people learn. She is a senior instructional designer for NIKE, Inc. and a frequent speaker and writer about learning design and technology. 

She specializes in investigating cutting-edge technologies, evaluating their potential to support meaningful learning experiences, and communicating about them within the workplace learning and performance community. She holds an MEd in instructional design and an MBA, and she blogs at and tweets @jkunrein.

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