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Learner Empathy Can Save Your Course Design

Where do you start with instructional design? Sifting through folders of content? Meeting with SMEs to capture what they think is essential to the training? Maybe you turn to Google to get the latest information about the training topic? If this is your approach, you may want to refocus. Information-sharing is not training. Since all learning is designed in some way to change learner behavior, it makes sense to think about the expected change from the start of the design process. Proactively using a learner-centric approach, one that puts learners at the heart of the design, motivates and engages learners, and ultimately delivers successful outcomes for your organization.  

Many experts in the learning field believe empathy is an essential first step in instructional design. I agree. It’s part of Design Thinking, which mirrors the SAM process at Allen Interactions. During our Savvy Start meetings, we identify the learning audience and begin to get to know them better. Here, I introduce the concept of empathy and facilitate activities that help stakeholders walk in the learners’ shoes.

SAM Methodology

Recently, at an employee onboarding design session, I assumed the role of a new hire and began demonstrating the raw emotion around my first day at work. “I’m really scared. What if they don’t like me? What is my job, anyway? I’m not even sure I want to be here.” I even managed to whimper a bit. Acting. The room was quiet as everyone connected to the feelings related to the first-day jitters. I then followed with, “You’ve all been new hires, right? After all, you’re sitting here in this room. Now try to remember what that felt like.” And I didn’t say a word for what felt like a long time. I could see the participants in the room truly go to their “I’m a new hire” place. Some became visibly twitchy, and some even became emotional. That’s the place where great design starts – where managers, owners, stakeholders, and designers can see the world through the new hires’ eyes, to feel and experience things the way they do.

Mapping Empathy

Once participants were in the learner zone, we could take the next step to empathy mapping to gain insight into the learner’s situation and perspective. For the mentioned onboarding session, we organized the group into five teams – one for each milestone during the yearlong onboarding experience. Each team completed their map using this template and addressing these questions:

Empathy Mapping

When we finished the activity, we had five learner personas – the learner starting on Day 1 and progressing at each milestone throughout Year 1. In one large group, we literally walked through the year in five big learner steps – starting as a fresh face on our first day and ending as a more seasoned employee completing our first year at the company.

Empathy Saves Design

You might be thinking, “That was a fun activity, but so what?” Good question! The information we captured from this empathy mapping activity helped inform the overall design of this very large onboarding project. Besides looking at each of the five empathy maps as a snapshot of one point in time, we also looked across the five empathy maps to envision the design for each map component. This example illustrates the Think and Feel component across the milestones:

Learner-centric Design

Analyzing the empathy maps horizontally and vertically helped us identify, organize, and prioritize learning and performance outcomes that:

  • Link organizational competencies and personal goals, and ensure that new hires are clear about how they are expected to perform on their jobs
  • Ensure that the organization’s expectations of its new hires are articulated and that development focuses on achieving these expectations, making the most effective use of staff development budgets
  • Help new hires prioritize performance goals and concentrate efforts on the things that matter
  • Communicate the overall priorities of the organization to every new hire to bolster involvement, engagement, and agreement
  • Define the culture of the organization and support new hires in growing into the new culture more effectively

Hopefully, you can see the importance of empathy, and how using it can save your course designs. There are many variations of empathy maps, so it’s important to find one that you like and works for you. Once you begin using it consistently, empathy mapping will become an essential first step in your instructional design practice.

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About Author

Ann Iverson
Ann Iverson

Ann is an instructional designer for Allen Interactions who’s consulted for many years with a variety of clients, industries and projects. She learns best by making mistakes!


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