Interviews from LearnX - Using human-centred design to rethink learning with Justin Sterns

Justin Sterns from Allens and Robin talk about using using human-centred design to rethink learning to meet the needs of employees. Part of what they talk about is the difference between human-centred design and design thinking.   


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Transcript - Using human-centred design to rethink learning with Justin Sterns

Robin: Justin, Welcome to the Learning While Working podcast. Can you do a quick introduction as to who you are and where you from?

Justin Sterns: Sure, well, thanks Robin for having me, my name is Justin Sterns, I am the Head of Learning and Development at Allen's Law Firm. We are a national law firm here in Australia and we have an alliance with Link Learners over in the UK. So I head up the learning function there and have been there for a couple of years now and run a fairly exciting journey in building out our offering for our people. We are looking at technology and many different great things on how to do that.

Robin: What have you been talking about today at LearnX

Justin Sterns: So I just gave a talk on--rather long title, Borrowing From Human-Centred Design to Better Integrate Digital Classroom and On-the-Job Learning. And really that was, I guess, me making sense of how with being-- using human centred design concepts to help our learners make sense of all the things out there that they can use to help their learning journey. And the case I used was digital classroom and on-the-job. That's something we are invested heavily in.

Robin: So in the podcast before I've done lots of talking about design thinking. What's your definition on the difference between design thinking and human-centred design thinking?

Justin Sterns: Yes, great question Robin. I must admit there are many definitions out there so I am going to get it wrong and there are going to be people out there that violently disagree with me so hold off on the hate mail. But my personal view is human-centred design has been around for quite a while, some would argue that it has its beginnings in community development around participatory action research which looks at community and overseas development through the lens of the people actually being ‘developed’, so to speak. And uses different methods to get to understand them and their needs from their perspective.

What human-centred design has done is it has taken many sorts of the same concepts but really tried to focus on the empathy element and getting to know the person or who is the subject of the change. It certainly is an ISO standard out there for human-centred design, it's all about interactive systems, ergonomics, and all that kind of stuff. I think 2010 is the latest standard.

It comes from user perspective. Design thinking is an iteration of that, a further advancement of the principles behind the human-centred design. But focuses much more on kind of product design in many ways.

It equally could be service design or learning design and it talks much more about some very specific tools and techniques and has been popularised by say, IDEO and Standford d.school and so forth. It has some fantastic techniques out there and double diamond and convergent and divergent thinking and minimal viable product and some really fantastic tools which could easily be applied to a learning process. For me I think human-centred design probably is a bit broader. It is a broader church, it is a collection of things and is therefore open for us practitioners to borrow from.

Robin: It’s so interesting the way I see it is that design thinking is about the whole processes of design and creativity. The first step of that is that empathy stage and what is really interesting is that design thinking often focuses on empathy. It is really in terms of that, what we've been talking about, you are almost freeing yourself from design thinking.You’re doing a deep dive into what our people need and then build on that without having to have the other things around design thinking like prototypes. What you doing is building a real value propositions for people.

So what are some of the tools that you use to build empathy?

Justin Sterns: So we--in my presentation just now-- I focused on a couple key tools that I personally enjoy using, the first one is building a learning persona using empathy maps. What I spoke on a little was a more traditional approach to kind of learning design, [where you] might talk about a fairly substandard audience in an all associate demographic breakdown, who's who, roles, job titles, numbers that kind of stuff. And then you go and talk to the business and ask them what their opinion of what the problem is, which typically is a skill gap or it’s someone else's fault-- it’s not my fault kind of thing. And that's a traditional approach.

A learning persona based on the empathy map for me at least brings the learning to the heart of what were are doing. It still talks about the demographics and the breakdown of who's who in the zoo and that kind of stuff. But it brings it down to a level of data by asking what is the learner feeling about a particular thing and what do they believe about that particular thing that's going on and what are they doing? What's their experience? And so a learning persona--and usually you kind of generalise it to a group of learners for simplicity’s sake--allows you to kind of address those adult learning principles around connection, around purpose and relevancy. And equally also, neuroscience tells us that it is important to engage people's emotions and it needs to be generative and create new meaning for the person as well. So human-centred design learning in this case, I think allows us to do that.

That was the first technique. The second one we focused on was learning experience, a journey map, basically. This is a concept that I suspect had its genesis in experience mapping and talking about customer experience products and services and just being kind of co-opted in a learning space to map out a learners experience of a particular challenge that they may be facing. You can look at that--you kind of map it out on a time dimension--and you can look at where things are a potentially positive experience and where there is a not so, potentially not-so-positive experience, a negative experience and that allows you to identify whether there are lowest things you might need to leverage and lowest things you might need to address.

Robin: Okay so you are using the learner experience map as a utilisation of the learning experience to figure out where things weren't quite working in seam.

Justin Sterns: Yes, absolutely and you look at it from their perspective. So, that's not really what the business-- it’s not really the manager’s opinion of what is going on; you are getting into the shoes of the learner and you need to do that through observation, you need to do that through things like interviews and workshops and primary research--effectively to do that.

Robin: Mapping those experiences, it’s such a lovely way of explaining them as well. Because quite often even in design thinking they are used to explain designs rather than actually do the analysis side of it.

Justin Sterns: I find-- personally as a learning practitioner I find using empathy maps quite liberating because it’s quite hard having the business come to you with a predefined solution and saying to you, "We just need this. Go off and do it. Be the order taker and go off and do it." It’s really hard I think, as a business, to argue against a really well constructed learning persona and a learning journey map where you've actually gone to the learners and gotten the research and the primary data that tells you that there is actually more to the story than you might realise and maybe there's more for us to address.

Robin: And because that too-- pretty simple to pass on that you've actually seen this going on and we need to do a full thinking process, we just need to do little bit more thinking analysis and people relate to that instead of going and asking because that's what organisations do with their own customers as well.

Justin Sterns: It doesn't have to be timely or costly. It can be fairly straightforward. You don't want to underbake it and that's the most important thing, because you can. This is the great thing about human-centred design and things like empathy mapping, is you want to get up below the surface. So you do need to invest a bit of time in that but it doesn't have to be bigger than Ben Hur. It can be quite practical.

Robin: Check right back at the beginning you said that you actually use empathy mapping to possibly reveal and use digital technology for on-the-job learning? What do some of those approaches to solutions look like, Justin?

Justin Sterns: Yes, so what I spoke about this morning was a fairly traditional approach to a blending learning design. Being a law firm we value human-to-human interactions in our classroom--in a classroom environment--and we find that that is kind of important medium for people to get to know each other, to hear from experts, particularly internal experts. But what we like to do then is the sandwich model. So, you do pre-work, and some post-work after the classroom session. So, the reality is that is not going to work in every context, or in every organisation. I would love to be in a situation where we are in a continuous learning environment and we are in a continuous learning culture and these things are happening naturally and we don't need to talk about pre- and post-work. But the reality is though, that in many corporate environments we are still talking about legacy training that we need to work with, and expectations that we need to work with. So what we have experimented with at Allen's is using micro-learning. Particularly micro-videos of our senior lawyers, our partners, or soon to be partners, talking about a particular topic.

We give that to our people to look at before a classroom session. We give them performance support tools, so a coaching guide. They can go to their manager, their coach, and explore, “Well why are you coming to this module? Why is this important to you? What is it you want address? What is it I can do to help you? What are some of the key questions you want to get answered?” Sp, those are the sorts of things you can do beforehand. You can do some easy motion graphics and games just to get people interested and get their attention which is again a part of the neuroscience. Then, after the classroom session, you then have the ability to give them performance support tool. And this is where, for us, we build a number of quick reference cards, cheat sheets, and coaching guides for the coaches themselves, as well as the employees, and that's for them to take away with them. And similarly further videos, if it calls for that as well, they can then look at them afterwards to help them recall what they heard in the classroom as well.

Robin: That's interesting what you just said, Justin. Because essentially workplaces are structured and you have to sometimes work within the structure of them. And this is essentially a legal example that you can't-- the utopian learning environment-- sometimes you need to sit there and say to people, “Actually you need to take out billable time to do this learning thing and we need to structure it and you need to do this bit beforehand” and that's just the reality of the way most workplaces actually work.

Justin Sterns: Look, I mean, in a law firm as with most professional services firms, we're so committed and focused on our clients that it is a really big investment for our people to take themselves away from client work to attend or address a training type of event. So we need to make sure that it really hits the mark and we invest a lot of time and effort ourselves in making sure that these solutions that we are putting up are real high value because we know every hour that our people are spending in the room with us, or watching a video, or talking about a particular thing, is an hour less that they are working with their clients. So, I like to think of it as a multiplier. If they come to us then it multiplies the effectiveness of their work when they get back on the job then I think that is money well spent.

Robin: And it is actually with the empathy map, if you get the empathy bit right that means you can build the value proposition because you understand pains and gains really well. Just to wrap up, what would be your gem of advice to people getting started in human-centred design and L&D?

Justin Sterns: That's a good question and I heard your other podcasts where you've asked the same question-- I think it's a great one. Look, I often think of my work nowadays [as] kind of consisting of three things. The one is the technical side. So, do you love design? Do you love facilitation or do you love the digital side or whatever it might be-- the technical side of L&D?

The second one is interpersonal skills and being able to consult and communicate and really understand the people that you are working with. And thirdly is the business context and this is really understanding the business that you are working in. And look I'm not a lawyer but I can still use the other two to understand my client base and what is important to them. I don't think you need to be an expert in the business side aspect. I do think you need to have great interpersonal skills, but I think you need to really understand where your heart is and that probably rests in the technical space for me, I love designing. I love the idea of design and meeting people's needs through design. I also love the digital side as well and so forth. So you’ve got to really find what really you love about L&D itself to start with it.

Robin: That is a great way to wrap up our interview. Thank you so much Justin. Thank you.

Justin Sterns:Thanks Robin.