More than just a pretty face…
Our company motto is, “Make software that feels right”. A simple and somewhat vague message perhaps, but it has served us well, based on the feedback we consistently get from clients, potential clients, and industry pundits. The visionaries who guide the evolution of Absorb, founding partners Mike Eggermont and Mike Owens (“The Mikes” as the team calls them) have been kicking down the walls of convention in the LMS industry for 12 years now. One of the many examples of this outlier thinking is the multi-award winning Absorb learner interface.
The Mikes unique approach to how the learning audience interacts with the software is one of the key differentiators between Absorb and the rest of this overcrowded market. The aforementioned feedback invariably includes adjectives like clean, sleek, beautiful, and easy which as we’d hoped, feels right.
In most environments, there is a range of comfort with software in general. On the one hand, you have individuals who only occasionally use computers, and only when they have to. This type of user often has little or no patience, and the end goal must be placed directly in front of them, or at least not more than a couple of clicks away. On the other hand, you have a whole new generation who have grown up constantly plugged into technology. They have much more sophisticated tastes and can spot a dated interface immediately.
So how do you make an interface that “feels right”, accommodates all level of computer users, and yet offers a positive learning experience? The answer is in the old cliché; “less is more”.
Many other systems out there want to “wow” learners with all of the cool things they can do in the LMS. In order to showcase these features, they tend to cram them onto the landing page. The problem is, most learners don’t give a hoot about all of this stuff. I call it the 90 cubed rule; 90% of the time, 90% of the audience doesn’t touch 90% of those features. Learners are far less in love with your LMS than you are. They want to get their training done and get on with their day. All the superfluous bells and whistles get in the way of that. They end up serving only to overwhelm people and discourage learning. Absorb has stripped away the clutter to present learners with a welcoming environment.
I won’t use any examples, because each environment is unique, and what may be clutter in one learning program may be critical to another. The point is: cut to the chase. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience. What do they want/need out of the system? Once you isolate those requirements, get rid of the rest. The Absorb learner interface is highly customizable. Clients select the functionalities, in the form of “tiles” they need to support their learning strategy. In some cases as few as two or three tiles can accomplish this, as our client “Aftermath” configured their interface:
Nobody likes an interface that is text heavy or crammed with info. Images and open spaces actually serve as a navigational tool and allow the eye to spot what is relevant.
Absorb brings more to the table than simply offering the advice of putting less in front of the audience. Workflow for your learners is as important as the tile selection. A great example of this is our “Resume” tile. This has been a fantastically popular addition to the interface. One of the biggest pain points for learners that we uncovered in our 12 years in the business is the situation where a person is searching for where they left off with their training. Online learning is typically self-paced, meaning people get to it when they have a spare moment. The problem is, those spare moments can often be days or weeks apart. The ingenious “Resume” tile takes the individual back to the launch page of the course they were last undertaking. This, coupled with Absorb’s clear tracking of progress through a course allows someone to return to the exact point where they left off within two clicks of arriving at the dashboard:
The space allotted does not allow me to go into more examples, but hopefully you get the idea; Absorb is not just pretty, it has loads of functionality built in to speed up navigation and put the focus on what is important. Your training.
What else is important? Your branding and your culture. These are two things many organizations have invested heavily in. Absorb lets you tie those into your training to not only maintain a theme, but to reinforce them. Your images and your company vernacular can be clear and present throughout the interface. Maybe in your world, they aren’t a series of courses, they are an “Integrateducation” as our customer Dialog chose to call them:
In many cases, this is the face of your organization or at the very least, of your entire training program. In either event, you want an interface that lends credibility to your training.
Just because we preach “Less is More”, this isn’t to say you can’t add value to your audience by presenting them with more than just course material. The trick is, it must be of interest to the person navigating the interface. That is where Mercury comes in. Mercury takes advantage of the same powerful rule engine that Absorb uses to control enrollments and resource access, build reports and learning Groups and so on, to deliver peripheral content to an individual that is relevant to the individual.
The addition of our Mercury Module lets you manage contests to encourage quick course completion, targeted news stories, and polls and the extremely powerful scrolling billboards (below) allow you to slip in additional self-promotion focused on the person viewing the screen.
Let’s not forget where the learner is accessing their learning from can be a detriment if your LMS interface can’t accommodate the tiny real estate afforded by mobile devices. Simply shrinking down the interface, even a three-tiled configuration, is not the answer. The HTML 5 masters on our team have designed state-of-the-art responsive design into the Absorb interface meaning we don’t just resize your interface but the interface restructures from a horizontal to vertical layout to allow for thumb-friendly, north-south navigation. Brandon Hall and Deloitte Bersin both felt this innovation was award worthy and bequeathed their Advancement in Learning Technology prizes to Absorb in 2013.
A great admin toolset is important no doubt, and Absorb delivers there too. What often gets left behind however is the learner who, at the end of the day is the most important piece in all of this. Something to consider when selecting your LMS…
1. Absorb LMS has a fancy new look and feel!
2. We are no longer talking about Smartlab
3. We are now talking about something called “Mercury”
Absorb LMS is rapidly evolving, right along with the entire learning technology industry. The rise of mobile learning, and specifically, the success of the Apple iPad and iPhones, have created new challenges – and new opportunities – to rethink how we deliver online learning.
It’s been more than 10 years since blatant^ was founded on the principle of building a better Learning Management System. Over time, we have added many new features, mostly at the request of clients and sometimes because we’ve anticipated what’s to come and tried to lead the market in that direction. We’ve always aimed to implement these new features so that they will be both useful and easy to use. We also try to ensure that we maintain a high-level of design standards. The user experience is tantamount.
A few years ago (a lifetime, in the technology arena) and as part of this ongoing product evolution, we created a completely custom platform that sat “on top of” Absorb LMS. It provided some of our clients with a completely custom HTML5 interface, and added some additional functionality to support increased marketing, learner messaging and learner engagement requirements. This platform – Smartlab – also ran on iPads (where the old Absorb FLASH interface would not) and it offered all of the Absorb functions plus some new features and widgets: FAQ, Quick Polls, Twitter Feed, News Feed, Rotating Banner Ads and Contests. All of which could be targeted at specific groups of users with the standard drop-down audience filters that Absorb provides for course and resource targeting.
For the clients that adopted Smartlab, this was great. For a while. We all learned some things and thought long and hard about how we could make Smartlab even better.
What we learned:
1. HTML 5 is great for iPads but an IDEAL user interface should scale in size and layout regardless of the size and type of device that the learner is using.
2. Custom is great, until you want to change it. Then it can get expensive and time consuming.
3. Custom does not like upgrades. Having a custom anything kind of defeats the purpose of the SaaS model, where all users get all new features at the same time.
4. Custom can get very expensive and requires tons of planning and review work. If many people are involved in the decision making process, this can drag on for some time.
How we improved it:
1. We took the best features of Smartlab (Polls, FAQ, Contents, News, Twitter, Banners) and made them available to all of our Absorb users (current and future).
2. We renamed this ‘Absorb Mercury Edition’. Smartlab was a weird name anyway, and besides, it was still 95% powered by the core Absorb LMS.
3. We changed the entire product to have a slick new “responsive design” that detects and adjust its layout depending on the size and orientation of the browser/device being used.
4. We dropped the design fees for the (formerly Smartlab) Mercury options by over 80% and eliminated 6 months of project management effort.
5. We recognized that only some of our clients would be interested in Mercury’s bells and whistles and so made it available as an easy add-on module that can be purchased and turned on at any time.
Our clients think this is great. Whether they upgrade to the new Absorb Mercury Edition or simply migrate to the new Absorb LMS responsive interface, they will still benefit from complete cross-platform/mobile support in a beautiful user interface. In other words, you don’t need to use Mercury to take advantage of the adaptive features in the new learner interface – this is now standard to the Absorb platform.
So to recap, Smartlab has been improved and renamed Absorb Mercury Edition (or “Mercury”, for short); the price and implementation time were reduced dramatically, and Absorb now scales perfectly across different types of desktop computers and mobile devices, thanks to the new responsive design.
Since it is part of the core Absorb LMS platform, Mercury also gets regularly updated as part of our standard development cycle. And for clients that want or need a custom interface, we still offer that service too, and at a much lower cost due to the new Absorb Mercury Edition architecture.
It’s an interesting and dynamic time in the learning technology industry, and we’re excited and inspired by all the change.
A client recently asked if I could help him prepare a presentation he’ll be delivering to colleagues within his organization. The aim of the presentation is to provide an overview of workplace learning technology in 2012. So far, he has a very impressive slide deck that covers:
- An introduction to e-learning
- Learning modalities and content types (simulations, games, video, etc.)
- Formats (Flash vs HTML 5)
- Social learning
- Tools and technologies (authoring tools, learning management systems, etc.)
He asked if I could lend a hand in clarifying how learning management systems fit into all this. I sent along the following.
Learners today are presented with myriad opportunities to engage with learning content. They can turn to Blogs, Twitter, wikis, social networks, video sites, etc. to find valuable information about any subject.
The problem learners face today is not paucity of content, but rather that so much content exists that it can take significant time and effort to find the many gems in a world awash in funny cat videos, political memes, inspirational quotes, deliberate scams and inadvertent falsehoods, marketing copy pretending to be impartial content, and Justin Bieber (who, depending on your sources, may or may not have just broken up with Selena Gomez) musical covers.
How much stuff is out there? YouTube alone experiences 72 hours of video uploaded every minute. This source estimates that there have been 163 billion tweets since the dawn of Twitter. According to the American Library Association, by 2020, information on the Internet will be doubling every 15 minutes.
The bottom line is that, faced with so much content, learners can benefit from digital content curation. This means that the role of learning professionals such as instructional designers and instructors expands beyond creating and delivering courses to finding useful content and vetting potential authorities and subject matter experts.
A learning management system, then, provides a centralized on-ramp to relevant learning content located within the LMS but also found elsewhere on the Web. Learners can be encouraged to:
- Watch relevant YouTube videos embedded into courses or added to the system as resources
- Follow and participate in discussions with experts on Twitter and in forums
- Read and comment on blog posts written by authorities on specific topics
- Contribute ideas with colleagues using wikis
- Attend live virtual events such as Webinars
- And much much more
Some learning gurus are vehemently opposed to the very idea of curated content. The learner, they say, should be free to roam the Web and discover content he or she finds relevant. These gurus should learn to relax. A learning management system doesn’t restrict learners from discovering content. This is curation, not censorship. A LMS simply provides an on-ramp to content someone has concluded is potentially valuable in learning new skills or information.
Last week, Tony Bates wrote a Blog post titled “Why learning management systems are not going away.” He cited the following reasons for his conviction that LMS are likely here to stay:
- Most instructors and students need a structure for teaching
- Instructors and students need a private place to work online
- The choice is not either an LMS or web 2.0 tools. Web 2.0 tools can be used not only outside an LMS, but also with an LMS (through links) and can even be embedded within some LMSs
- …institutions are becoming increasingly reliant on LMSs … to integrate data from teaching with administration, to provide data on student performance, for appeals against grades, and for reporting and accountability purposes
David Jones presented a rebuttal in a post titled “Why learning management systems will probably go away.”
David agrees with Tony that there’s a need for structure in learning…
But there’s debate to be had around whether the LMS is the tool for this structure to be provided. The diversity of learning is going to push against the constraints of the LMS as we currently know it.
Regarding a need for a private place to work:
…the LMS is not the only private place on the Internet. Any number of spaces can be private.
Regarding the LMS versus Web 2.0 argument, Tony and David are in agreement but David believes that a LMS will no longer be a LMS once the learning technology has truly embraced Web 2.0:
Based on this experience, however, I do believe that when an “LMS” really starts to work effectively with Web 2.0 tools, then the very nature of the system and how it is supported also needs to change
Lastly, regarding the argument that organizations are increasingly reliant on LMS, David writes:
…there are just as good, if not better, methods for accountability/analytics available for use with Web 2.0 tools as with the LMS.
Kudos to Tony and David for their excellent analyses. Please read their full posts.
Here’s what I think:
First, we need to define learning management systems. Otherwise, we’ll in a few years be in a situation where Tony is saying “I was right, LMS are still around” while David says “I was right, LMS went away; replaced with new technologies.”
Removing the hundreds of bells and whistles, a learning management system is a software application that:
- Provides targeted learning content and events to learners
- Tracks learners’ interactions with learning content
- Generates reports on those interactions
It doesn’t matter what the application looks like. That’s important because we’re already seeing learning management systems that don’t look at all like traditional LMS. If you asked someone spending time in such an environment whether they are in a learning management system, they’d almost certainly say `no.’ But, based on the definition above, they are.
Reason # 1 LMS are here to stay: Collectively, LMS are not static. They are evolving, adapting to new trends, integrating with new technologies, embracing new ideas about learning.
When you think of a word processing application, do you think of the latest office suites or do you think of text editing in reveal code view on a monochrome monitor as you did in the 1980s? Surely the former. And yet, many critics of learning management systems have a very static and dated view of the technology. LMS evoke images of rigid systems that became popular more than a decade ago. The reality is that LMS evolve the way other software applications evolve. Individual products disappear, but the technology changes.
Reason #2 LMS are here to stay: The needs driving the use of a LMS will not go away.
Managing a learning project using e-mail, keeping progress records in spreadsheets, printing and mailing transcripts is time-consuming and inefficient. It doesn’t take long before people working this way start looking for ways to make the process easier. Consequently, there’s strong motivation for adoption of LMS technologies from people working in the trenches in learning and development.
Reason #3 LMS are here to stay: We continue to see an increase in the number of LMS available. The pace in which new systems are appearing doesn’t even seem to be slowing.
When I began writing about learning management systems in 2000, there were likely fewer than 50 commercial systems. The number of systems available today is much greater. Some analysts peg that number at more than 300. Every year, some LMS go away due to acquisitions, lack of resources, obsolete legacy code, etc., In the end, however, each year shows a net increase in the number of systems. This reflects growing demand for LMS technology, not a shift towards alternatives.