Building the best learning & development site ever

WebDesignforLearning If websites are like kitchens, then the best sites are the ones where you can get what you need quickly to get the job done. Perhaps none of the idealized websites as kitchens presented in the image above do that. While the third option is the most clean and organized it requires the user to know exactly where things are kept. If you are like many instructional designers that work in corporate environments, at one point in your career you have maintained or kept a learning and development website that is not unlike that messy and unorganized kitchen where you just can’t find what you’re looking for. Many of us have also had the pleasure of curating large bulky ‘link farms’ that require targeted searching (strategic use of “Ctrl + F”). But targeted searching implies that the user knows what to start looking for from the beginning. What about those users/learners who have no clue where to begin? The technology used for content management for the web can allow us to break out of those old-fashioned static content sites and linky boondoggles. There are several platforms available that allow us to effectively design for our learner’s need to find their content, instead of forcing them to use a contrived or even ad hoc designed and confusing structure that resembles a Dr. Suess building.

Result of building architecture around immediate need vs. actual planning around user needs/goals

This is the result of building architecture around immediate need or whim vs. actual planning around user needs/goals

There are a number of viable options for creating a user-friendly yet flexible web architecture for your learning website that leverages resuable and taggable content (Drupa, Joomla, SharePoint). SharePoint when used as a content management system (CMS) can help provide a vehicle for learner-designed web experiences. However, there must be some administrative and programming customization to your SP platform and some careful planning of use based on well-thought out site usage goals. In the end, good web and user interface design relies on meeting criteria/needs of the end user while fulfilling your business goals. I’ve built a set of questions for sussing out this criteria for my learner/end users.

BIG QUESTION 1: Does your site help the learner achieve his or her learning & development goals? What are the learner’s primary goals? Develop their individual development plan? Seek out learning resources, courses or certificates in their fields? What fields?

BIG QUESTION 2: Does your site help meet your group’s business goals? Or is the content on your learning and development site relevant to helping learners achieve these goals? This is an age old set of questions that L & D groups who wish to stay relevant to the business should routinely and religiously be able to answer. What are your group’s business goals? How is your learning and development strategy supporting these goals? Can users access content for achieving these goals from the home page?

BIG QUESTION 3: Can your site’s content and views be personalized according to the various audiences and learners that visit it? Is your content presented in units that can be tagged by user groups or topics, or types. Are you employing a flexible structure or set of different audience based taxonomies? Or are you using one set navigation structure? Have you identified the specific user groups or user personas who visit your site? If so, have you designed taxonomies based on their specific learning needs?

BIG QUESTION 4: Can your users personalize their use of your site content? Can your learners apply their own personal tagging when it comes to organizing the site content per their needs? Can they organize or bookmark content that they like or find useful for easy reference afterwards? Can they contribute to the site’s helpfulness by rating individual pieces of content?

BIG QUESTION 5: Do you have a handle of your site content and structure? Is there a tracking or monitoring system set in place that allows you to measure usage of the site content? Do you have an archiving system or regularly scheduled process in which you cull what is no longer relevant? Do you have an approval workflow for enabling, multiple Subject Matter Experts to post new content for approval by a groups of site admin who can monitor and approve content based on set quality criteria? Is this workflow user friendly enough to allow less tech-savvy people to post content for review? Can you iteratively design your content and structure to change to meet both your business and user needs? Per Jeffrey Zeldman’s 10 principles. Good designs and web platforms allow site admin and developers to ‘seamlessly’ and gracefully adapt web-content to their users changing needs (or just to make things look and work better ;)) THE IDEA IS TO PROVIDE BOTH STRUCTURED NAVIGATION AND PERSONALIZED USE OF CONTENT If you can provide different ways to get to the content a learner needs without confusing them, then you’ve put together an effective site. I’ve created learning websites with multiple layers of navigation (easily accessible by users) that allow for the following layers. Each layer is presented as a navigation option at the top of the page linked from obvious labeling (“Group X Top Learning Focal Points,” “Most Popular Content,”  “Site Map”).

  • A layer based on business context – what are the group’s business learner goals. For instance if are business driven initiatives for learning (Improve strategic planning, drive use of cost-saving practices, build a more virtual savvy business team). Then the site can be built upon these goals
  • A layer based on usage and user driven popularity of content. This layer would feature relevance driven navigation based on what is most popular (visited or rated)
  • A layer that provides an index of all site content. Kept simple and put in alphabetical order. With proper use of tech, this layer can be built automatically from a good tagging system with set organizational criteria. This is the ‘kitchen sink’ layer

Example: This presentation illustrates the process in which we designed a smaller topic focused website that used user personas to create multiple layers of navigation.

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4 Responses to “Building the best learning & development site ever”


  1. 1 Christy Tucker January 14, 2015 at 9:35 pm

    I really like the example with user personas. I think that’s a great (and underused) technique for many situations. I’ve tried to convince some clients to create personas for their LMS selection and implementation processes, but haven’t had any luck so far. I’m going to keep trying though.

  2. 2 nkilkenny January 14, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    The use of personas is a powerful tool. Most people are not familiar with it. This slideshare provides a great basis for understanding the value of personas in any sort of design. It would be great to create some media enhanced walk through with similar content to help bring the value of user personas home to the lay person.

    • 3 Christy Tucker January 15, 2015 at 3:42 am

      I think that was part of my problem when I last tried to use it for a group that has resisted spending much time on the analysis phases for any LMS or software projects. Looking back at it now, I think I assumed they were familiar with the concept. I should have given them a concrete example to explain how this could help them.

      Then again, this is a company that previously promised one of their clients that they could get an LMS fully up and running, including content loaded and single sign on with their HR database, in one month. I may be fighting a losing battle.

      • 4 nkilkenny January 15, 2015 at 1:59 pm

        Isn’t it funny how so many people want to skip over the analysis phase? I simply merge it in with planning & avoid using the A word. I’ve been wanting to create a story based & entertaining media piece that explains why building the project concept & how it will be received & used by its audience is key to its success.


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