Human-Centred Design in Learning Father helps his son learn to ride a bicycle

The meeting had been going for almost an hour. The employees from Operations sat cross-legged in a circle. I sat cross-legged, too, albeit with a lot less comfort. We had started to describe the changes we wanted to make to the way we carried out our operations. However, we had by now had contributions from all the employees.

As we started to explain, the changes included new ways of working and new responsibilities. The mood of the circle remains calm and positive. I admit I left that enclave not knowing if what we have discussed would be implemented. What I did know was that no one came away from the meeting unhappy or looking challenged visibly.

What I had witnessed and been part of was typical for making change happen in Fiji. Fijian, until the English arrived, was always a spoken language. Change was not a matter of doing as I say. Change was a matter of discussion, of understanding and commitment to the principles of the change.

What I just engaged in was human-centred design in learning. By respecting the traditions of Fiji by sharing a bowl of kava, by talking and listening and sharing, we enabled our employees to learn the way they were used to learning and the way they wanted to learn. I benefited from having a wonderful Fijian as our operations manager who could advise me on traditional learning methods and coming to an agreement. I did not have to go through the process of designing human-centred learning. However, I realised that the principles we applied that day were very useful in all other situations where we want people to learn and transfer that learning back to the workplace.

The result of that afternoon was a trouble-free change to the way we worked. The benefits of improved safety and efficiency came without resistance or misunderstanding.

In today’s technology-enabled world, we see many examples of what I would call an accidental human-centred design. Foremost, in my mind, people search for a topic on YouTube and discard the videos and presentations that do not fit well with their way of learning. So how do we make human-centred design and learning a deliberate act rather than a random act?

I recalled some 30 to 35 years ago; a brilliant equipment designer demonstrated the process before human-centred design in learning was a thing. He was building a machine to fill grease into cartridges. Not a very absorbing topic for many, but it was for him. He sat and observed employees filling the cartridges to understand what actions he might have to replicate mechanically.

He noted that a couple of our people on the filling line twisted the cartridge as it became full. This twisting resulted in a shearing effect that left a clean break on the surface of grease precisely at the level required to have a consistent amount of grease in the cartridge. Of course, this was necessary to fulfil the regulatory requirements regarding weights and measures.

So he went away and developed several ideas for replicating what he saw. He turned those ideas into prototypes. He showed those ideas to our people on the filling line and discussed whether any of the prototypes would be more or less advantageous.

Then he went away and built a single version of what was regarded as his best prototype. Then he got our filters involved in using the prototype and giving feedback. He would then tweak pressures, the rotational speed of the filling head and other variables.

The result was a group of employees using a 4 to 5 times faster machine than manual filling with a degree of pride in their contribution to the design and a full understanding of why the procedure was what it was.

The process of designing human-centred learning is simple. It comprises:

  • Observation of the way people learn and act,
  • Creation of ideas; or ways to mimic the way people learn and act,
  • Prototyping, and;
  • Testing of those ideas with users,
  • Iterating the design and;
  • Implementation

In a more conventional learning environment, we have to observe the way our people prefer to learn. For some people, this will be self-directed learning. For some people, this will be by an I do, we do, you do practical method in the workplace. Others will enjoy the visual stimulation of well-designed e-learning.

An observation I have made over the years I have been working is that often people will remember things better when there is a shock to the system or some other emotional attachment to the learning. It may not be their preferred way of learning, but it indeed is an effective way of learning.

When we take the time to design our learning to how our cohorts of learners learn, the result is usually high retention and high transfer that learning back to the workplace.

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