Thursday, September 10, 2020

Learning Experience Designer... Who are they, what do they do?

Job titles 

Job titles in the world of online learning have been rather fluid over time. This is to be expected in a new field, where the technology moves at a fair clip. Technology is always ahead of sociology, so we find ourselves always in catch-up mode, or as some say, perpetual-beta. 

What do you call yourself?

Interactive Designer
Instructional Designer
eLearning Designer
Learning Designer
eLearning Instructional Designer
Online Learning Designer
Learning Engineer
Blended Learning Designer
Curriculum Designer
UX designer
UX & UI Designer
Learning Experience Designer 

To be fair, the roles vary in context, scope and responsibilities. In an organisation with just a couple of people delivering the whole online learning service, one person may have to handle everything including design, develop and deliver entire projects. This can involve client and stakeholder liaison, project management, solution design, writing, graphics and development. At the other end of the spectrum is the person who sits , say in a large online learning development company. When I ran such a company LXDs sat within a large team and could focus on what the learner saw, heard and did, as they had a highly differentiated team of writers, graphic designers, animators, video producers, audio producers, developers and testers. Between these two extremes, of DEY (Do Everything Yourself) and DIY (Do It Yourself), you have everything in-between. 

The titles have also changed as the vocabulary has changed, across time. The term e-learning has given way to online learning. Some object even to the use of the word e-learning or online, referring just to Learning Design. UI and UX have also come across from the general world of web design. The word ‘Engineer’ has also emerged from the learning engineering movement. It’s all got kind of messy. 

The technology has also changed. Over time, tools have been developed, that are usually template driven. This is a double-edged sword, as the tool frees the designed from having to build from scratch but also locks them into fixed structures. Some argue that this fossilisation has led to too much dependence of multimedia production and not enough on meaningful and effortful learner participation. There is a sense that everything is stuck in multiple choice, drag and drop and so on. More recently the LXP and LRS have emerged, giving rise to the obviously sympathetic term LXD. The job may have to change again, as more contemporary techniques such as AI and data are not possible in these environments. 

These linguistic spats are always on the go but there is a fundamental force at work here. Meaning is use. It is pointless trying to change the language, as it evolves through actual use by actual people over time This is why it is so varied, drifts and changes. So I tend to be relaxed about job titles, they will be what they will be. For the rest of this book, I’ll use LXD, short for Learning Experience Designer and Learning Experience Design. 
Whatever the job title, I tip my hat to anyone who does this work. It is a complex amalgam of art and science, head and heart. A curious mixture of organisational demands, learning demands, learning psychology, media mix, media production and technology. You must try to satisfy everyone, as everyone has a view on learning. They’ve been to school after all! Well, I’ve been on many aeroplanes but I wouldn’t pretend to have the skills to design or pilot the plane. 

Project management 

There is an illusion that LXD is purely a design activity but it is a much more complex role than many imagine. All design is in a context of an organisation and project. Sure the focus must always be on the user or learner but you will also have other internal and external stakeholders. You will also have some constraints such as budgets, schedules, resources, technology and organisational culture. 

There’s always a lot more of this project management malarky than you think. Any LXD project has to juggle people, costs, time, quality, resources and technology. With all of these balls in the air, one or two will fall during the project. The trick is to know that they will almost certainly fall, so expect it, stay calm and manage the situation. You may not be the project manager but you will, to some degree be managing your portion of the project. I have always preferred the job title ‘Producer’ to ‘Project manager’ as the role is a project that demands fiscal, creative and stakeholder management, similar to that of a Producer in the film industry. People You may think your sole focus is on users but there will be other people to think about; Shareholders, Board of Directors, Executive Management, suppliers, standards bodies, unions, subject matter experts, project managers, graphic artists, audio engineers, video teams, developers and testers. People run projects not designs. So you need to know who runs the project externally and internally, who signs of the various stages of the project. You need to know how to communicate with the relevant people in an appropriate way, knowing who to copy in. A lot of friction is caused by inappropriate communication. Communications with stakeholders has to be managed. You can’t speak to a client in the language you’d use online with your friends on Instagram. You may be asked to formally present to client, which needs careful preparation. You may even be asked to facilitate meetings with stakeholders. You will almost certainly have to troubleshoot and solve problems caused by the natural friction between stakeholders. This is perfectly normal. In this business, the learning business, everyone thinks they can do other people’s jobs. 

Iterations 

Iterations are normal in LXD. The aim is always to minimise these iterations. Some are necessary, such as further input from subject matter experts and clients, then there’s useful input from users. Some, however, will cause friction. These tend to be small, avoidable errors, such as spelling, punctuation and grammar. For some reason, people reviewing learning experiences are particularly sensitive n this issue. They will happily make mistakes in print but god forbid that you may make a spelling mistake on the screen. A particular source of such errors is on graphics, where someone whose background is not in writing, types in text. I used to demand that graphic artists never typed in text, that they only ever cut and paste. May seem harsh, but it saved a lot of potential aggro. Similarly with glitches on graphics, audio and bugs. Try to eliminate as many obviously avoidable error was possible. A good rule is get it right first time. You should feel responsible for quality control and not see others, like the project manager, QA folk or client as picking up the slack. 

Costs 

Commercial awareness matters. There will be a budget that determines the envelope in which you design. The budget has allocated resources in terms of people and just as you depend on people supplying your with the necessary information and resources to do your job, so there will depend on you. It is often useful to have a sense of the financial content of a project. The project manager and client will appreciate that you understand the pressures they are under on costs and margins. Coming back to the role of a LXD, cost restraints are usually expressed as time restraints. So you will have to manage your own time and outputs, so will need some project management skills around time, whether it is yourself or others, especially around estimating the time taken for tasks and being firm on extra tasks being lobbed into the project with no extra time given. That’s why contingency time is important.

In my next post on LXD I'll be looking at Emotion and Motivation as drivers behind Learning Experience Design...

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