Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Defining learning experience design

I'm finishing up my book, Immersive Learning, and its by far one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Not just because writing a book is hard (it is) but because its been the perfect storm of personal and professional chaos, transition and shifting of responsibilities in my adult life, and all the while I'm trying to balance these things with writing a book...its been a challenge.

Today I got wrapped up in a conversation with some of my professional peers about experience design. I thought, hey! this is what I'm writing about! Except, it really wasn't.

The problem is that the word "experience" is used a lot lately to refer to lots of different things. When I talk about experience design, I'm talking about designing FOR experience, to provide opportunities for learners to apply their knowledge, fail, try again, see the outcomes of bad decisions, and try again, and again, and again. When I talk about experience design, I'm talking about designing for authentic practice, designing for failure. I'm referring to designing to help learners get more experience.

Where this gets tricky is that many people use experience to talk about what its like to go through training. Think of it as the roadmap, or the designer as an event planner. Think about creating a seamless experience for your audience, in our case, your learners. In this case, the hard work is shouldered by the designer to anticipate what would facilitate a better "experience" for the learner. This is commonly called User Experience Design, or UX Design, and believe me, its important, vital, to the success of learning engagement and usability of, well, anything we engage with digitally (and analog as well, but let's stick to e-learning for now).

I'm not valuing one over the other, but there is an important difference between designing a seamless experience for a learner and designing to create opportunities for learners to gain experience doing something. Its why I typically refer to what I do as immersive learning, not experience design (even though I AM designing learning experiences). It might be semantics, but these delineations are critical to talking about the different motivations and intended outcomes of how we engage in the design process.

Think about what YOU mean when you talk about experience design. Are you talking about the usability and engagement path for the learner, or are you talking about creating opportunities for practice and failure to guide learners towards performance improvement and behavior change (ie, immersive learning)? Let's define these goals and design practices clearly so that we can speak the same language even in our own field; if learning professionals can't articulate the differences amongst ourselves, what hope do we have of describing our skills, "experience" ;) and design expertise to the rest of the world?


  1. Great point, Koreen. I've thought about this as well and I think it's both but different facets of the same output. The way the we design for participant engagement in, and interaction with, the learning experience affords concerns similar to UX. To me, the primary concern is creating a meaningful experience with real performance outcomes that lead to real mission or business outcomes. Without that chain, experience > performance > outcomes -- we're just wasting our time.

    Clark Quinn presented something at UTAOU a couple of weeks back. I re-envisioned his model here:

    This focuses on the creation of activities that link directly to real work and encourage reflection. There's more to it than this but you have the idea already, I think:)

  2. Oooh, love the Clark-inspired diagram, thanks for the link! Now to deconstruct true Dr. Quinn fashion, every time he reads something of mine, he always comes back with lots of notes. And yes, absolutely agree that the piece I left out of the post was the connection to business issues/outcomes; without what we do coming full circle and impacting the success of the business, we're just keeping ourselves busy :)

    Let me know if you'd be up for me including the diagram in my book, with attribution, of course!

  3. Of course. I'd be happy (ecstatic) to see this in your book, provided you also credit Clark as the inspiration for the work:)

    I have it in an Illustrator format if you decide you want to add it.

  4. Great points. I generally feel some good "maps" to help folks design experience vs UX are:
    Cathy Moore's Action Mapping
    Smashing Magazine's article on designing flows: (it is much more "funnel marketing" focused, but the lessons can translate to shaping user actions toward a goal- even a learning experience goal)
    A List Apart's Designing for Flow: (where feedback loops and allowing for discovery are much more explicit and aligned to what I hope folks are doing in allowing users to experiment, fail, reflect, adapt- or in short, learn).