Why human-centred design is critical for learning


ave you ever heard of a Norman Door?

Probably not, but I’m sure you would have experienced one. A Norman Door is one that you instinctively push, when it’s actually meant to be pulled, or visa versa. In other words, the design of the door implicitly indicates that you should do the opposite of what you actually need to do. As you’ll know, they’re very frustrating, and plenty end up with little “push” or “pull” signs to try and fix the issue.

Norman Doors were named after Don Norman, professor of cognitive science and author of the seminal book, The Design of Everyday Things (1988). In his book, he advocates that all design should be human-centred, also referred to as user-centred design. Terrible door designs were one of his keep examples of what not to do when it comes to human-centred design. Ironically, a Norman Door is the exact opposite of human-centred design. 

The following short video from Vox gives a great introduction to Norman Doors and human-centred design:

What is human-centred design?

Norman defines human-centred design as “The process that ensures that the designs match the needs and the capabilities of the people for whom they are intended.” At its heart, it’s about designing interactions that are so effortless, they’re barely noticed by the end-user. This is achieved by considering and prioritising the needs of the user at every stage of the design and development process, coupled with ongoing cycles of refining the product based on user feedback.

Our CEO Lisa Vincent is passionate about human-centred design. She describes it as “a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are purpose-built to suit their needs. Human-centred design is about cultivating deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually, putting your innovative new solution out in the world.”

Her favourite example of poor design is the humble television remote. Most remotes have too many options, with too little clarity around those options. The result is that it takes forever to find the right button, and we often only use a fraction of the buttons on the remote. Others may prioritise aesthetics over usability, leading to designs that look slick, but are just as difficult to use.

Human-centred design focuses on invisible interactions.

How can human-centred design be used for learning?

The short answer is that the learner’s experience should be the number one priority in your learning projects. Not branding, not flashy interactions or even the content you think the learner needs to know. Set aside the temptation to create the most impressive or comprehensive course ever seen, and instead come back to what will actually work for your learner. 

1. Define the problem

Lisa’s advice is to start by defining the problem. “Sometimes, you can find a great solution to the wrong problem.” If one of you teams is underperforming, it can be tempting to assume that more training is the solution, when the problem could actually be resource availability, team structure or stress management. By placing the humans in your teams at the centre of your design process, you properly identify the problem and appropriate solutions.

2. Be aware of cognitive load

Cognitive load refers to our working memory, or mental real estate. A simple way to think about it is: how much information is clamouring for attention at any one time? On a single page, how many images, videos, sound bites, interactions or text chunks are there? If there are more than two or three, you’re in danger of exceeding the cognitive load of your learners. In other words, they won’t know what to focus on, and the more they try to remember, the less they’ll be able to.

Instead, work on stripping back your content to the need-to-know only and focus on engaging your learners with questions and stories instead of an excess of clickable items.

3. “Fail often, fail fast.”

That title is another great quote from Don Norman. Here, he picks up on our fear of failing, and how that often tempts us to commit too heavily to poor designs because we’re afraid to discard the time and hard work we’ve invested so far.

Instead, he argues that we should work to produce multiple, quick drafts of a project so that we can gather feedback to see what is and isn’t working before committing to a design. Even once you’ve chosen to move forward with one design, continue to test it with your end-user at every stage and continue to refine your design based on their feedback

4. Above all - keep it simple

Simplicity is often the key to good, human-centred design. In the process of developing HowToo, our team went through many cycles of testing and redesigning and each time, our product grew a little simpler and more intuitive until we knew we’d landed on something brilliant. We knew we needed a product that could be navigated quickly and easily, without a product manual or special tutorial.

Don Norman puts it, “good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible.” It’s not easy, but if you want a truly engaging and effective learning course that your workforce will love, it’s absolutely worth it.

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Nov 19, 2020
Learning Design

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