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…
The blatant^ design team ignored pretty much every suggestion I made for the design of our new Web site.
“Let’s add a lot of animated gifs!” I said.
—”No,” they said. “Animated gifs don’t scale and we want the site to look good on all devices including computers, tablets, and phones.”
“Let’s have music start playing as soon as a person arrives at the home page. That’s so cool!”
—”No,” they said. “We want the site to load quickly.”
“Let’s use a typewriter font! That would be hip and ironic since we’re a technology company.”
—”No. That would just be stupid.”
They then went on and on and on about usability, user experience, design best practices, blah blah blah blah.
In the end, this is what they came up with. (It’s OK, I suppose.)
The Zite app on my iPad served me an excellent post last night from UX Movement; a “user experience blog that’s devoted to improving the way designers and developers design and make user interfaces.” The post, written by Anthony Tseng, is titled Are You Meeting the User Experience Hierarchy of Needs? Included in this post is this nice diagram illustrating the what applications must provide to be usable:
At the bottom level is the need to have the application’s features work. The top-most level is the need for users to be able to perform tasks within the application quickly and accurately.
I applaud Anthony for really nailing some of the key issues surrounding usability:
When most people speak of user experience, they’re usually referring to usability, the highest need of the user experience hierarchy. Usability is the ease of use of an interface that increases user productivity. Interfaces that have a high level usability allow users to complete tasks quickly and accurately. However, most interfaces rarely achieve usability to its full capacity. This is because most interfaces have many user tasks, and there’s always some task that users make errors on or can’t complete fast enough.
I believe the diagram above should have one extra layer added above Usability. That level is Automation. Through automation, productivity is even higher yet risk of user error is low. The user spends time not in repeating tasks but in creating rules to automate those tasks.
We’re seeing more applications adding automation. Hootsuite, for instance, is one of a number of popular applications that allow you to automate and schedule the publishing of content to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. We’re also slowly seeing automation appearing in enterprise software such as learning management systems.
This is the final post in a three-part series. Part one was an introduction to selling learning content to individuals and organizations. Part two examined the most important learning management system requirements to support the sale of training. Part three will show how Absorb LMS meets the needs of commercial course providers.
I’m writing this post on a flight to Seattle where Mike Owens, co-founder of Blatant Media, and I will be meeting with the great team at Adobe to help them plan out their learning management system (LMS) strategy. It’s been 12 years since I was last in Seattle. During my last trip there, I attended a conference on the design and development of help systems for software applications.
A dozen years ago, help systems were all the rage, largely because enterprise software was rarely easy to use. We now expect software and hardware to be intuitive and self explanatory. There remains, however, a huge disparity in the level of usability of enterprise software. In my 11 years as a learning management system analyst, I saw applications that were so horribly designed from the point of view of usability that they’d immediately demoralize any but the most mentally tough user. (No wonder 30 per cent of organizations report that they are looking to replace their LMS.)
Apart from relying on your gut reaction, how do you evaluate usability in enterprise software? Consider the following criteria:
- Basic usability: Each feature is an island onto itself. You use a feature to perform a task and the application returns you to the home screen where you can then use a different feature. If you’re lucky, the interface design will be clean and uncluttered, and the features will be easy to find and use.
- Workflow enabled usability: After performing a task, the application provides you with logical choices for what you may want to do next. In other words, the LMS is designed with workflow in mind. Older readers may recognize the following as Microsoft’s early implementation of this idea.
Absorb LMS and Absorb SMARTLAB provide something similar (minus the little paper clip person.) After adding a new learner to the system, for instance, the software displays the following suggestions:
- Usability through automation: The application contains the ability to automate common tasks so that they do not need to be manually repeated. This is the highest level of usability, where the application does your work for you.
Automation is the holy grail of usability.
Automation frees the user from their natural physical limitations.
Automation creates scalability.
Automation should be a top priority for anyone starting a business.
Absorb LMS and Absorb SMARTLAB have been designed to automate the administration of learning. Here’s how:
- Enrollment keys: When a customer comes to you and says they want 300 learners to take one of your courses, you can send that customer an e-mail from within Absorb that contains a special code called an enrollment key. The customer distributes this code to his or her employees who, in turn, paste it into a registration page. Once registered in the LMS using the enrollment key, learners can be automatically defined as a group and enrolled into a course or curriculum.
- Email automation: Each course can have its own templates for enrollment, reminder or “nudge,” and completion emails. (If you want to really bug a learner, set the frequency of the nudge e-mail to daily.) These e-mails are automatically sent to learners when appropriate.
- Report automation: There’s no need for an administrator to log into the system to view a report (although they can if they want to). Reports in Excel or comma delimited format can be set up to be automatically e-mailed to one or more individuals daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. The client who sent you 300 learners probably wants to know the progress of his or her learners. Make this customer a recipient of a weekly learner progress report and they’ll be thrilled to be kept informed. .
- Certificate management: Certificates are automatically issued to learners upon completion of their training. If applicable, learners will be automatically notified that they need to recertify at a later date. If the content required to recertify is different from the original content, the system will automatically enroll the learner into the correct course or curriculum using a feature called the Post Enrollment Trigger.
In part two of this series, I presented a scenario where you, a commercial courseware provider, receive a call from a customer wishing to have 300 learners take one of the courses you’ve created. This should be a cause for celebration, not a source of stress. If your LMS is designed to automate the administration of learning, you’ll quickly be able to add these learners to your system and ensure they are accessing the content they need. The next time your customer calls, they may want 5000 learners to take your courses. Through automation, the administrative effort will be exactly the same as for a single learner. (The revenues on the other hand, will be much larger.)
As a commercial training provider, focus your effort on growing your business, creating fantastic content, and providing a rich learning experience for your users. Don’t get sucked into the quagmire of manually administering and tracking the experience of your learners one by one.