Empathetic learning design enables relevant and maximally effective training

Individuals want to feel heard and understood, at home, at work, and when learning new skills. When designing training, it is vital to understand learner pain points, past experiences, and motivations. By taking an empathetic approach from the beginning of the instructional design process, you can generate higher adoption rates, encourage thoughtful conversations, and facilitate open communication. 

While it may sound simple in theory, in practice, empathetic learning design isn’t always a straightforward process. It involves meeting all of the needs of your learners—even needs learners have not openly expressed or personally acknowledged. 

Empathetic learning considers the needs of a specific group of learners; the organization’s culture and diversity; and recent challenges. Empathetic designs often take an immersive approach that use stories/scenarios to create opportunities for problem solving with a nuanced treatment of content that demands inclusive discussions.

When dealing with sensitive content, it’s rare to get any learning program completely right without input from your target audience. Ask your learners for their honest thoughts and feedback, and show you value their input by responding accordingly. 

What tools can help with empathetic learning design?

Using an empathy map provides a helpful framework for going beyond learning objectives and delving into the learner’s point of view. Empathy maps have long been in use by user experience designers and can be a powerful tool for helping to understand your learners’ needs. 

The empathy mapping process uses a series of questions to put you in the position of the learner as you are designing training. You begin by identifying who you’re empathizing with and what he or she needs to do. While this part is straightforward for instructional designers because we’re used to defining our audience and stating learning objectives, we don’t often delve into next-level questions that are typically included on an empathy map: 

1. What does the learner see…

  • In the work environment?
  • In the learning experience?
  • When he or she is looking for information or otherwise consuming content?

Take a step back and try to see things as they would.

2. What does the learner say…

  • In work-related interactions with peers and leaders?
  • When communicating with customers?
  • Outside of work?

And perhaps even more enlightening: what doesn’t the learner say? Is there tension in what’s left unsaid? 

3. What does the learner hear…

  • From colleagues and leaders?
  • From customers?
  • In a learning environment?
  • Outside of work?

Are you truly listening to what the individual is saying? If so, are you responding in an empathetic manner? Are you strictly sticking to business regardless of what may be going on?

4. What does the learner do…

  • Within a learning simulation?
  • On the job when faced with a situation like the one you’re simulating?
  • When approaching a difficult decision?

What may be the root cause of the gaps between the learner’s current actions and the desired behavior? Are there reasons for that behavior that may not be immediately obvious?

5. What does the learner think and feel?

This is probably the most difficult component of the empathy map to get right, and simultaneously the easiest to get very wrong. While we may think we understand what our learners are thinking and feeling, the exercise of working through the questions above may reveal otherwise. 

  • Does each individual feel included and valued? 
  • Do they feel something should be changed? 
  • What do they worry about?
  • What do they wish could happen? 

In some cultures, you may not even be able to get learners’ true thoughts by asking outright. Anonymous surveys and opportunities for feedback can offer an opportunity to get to the bottom of hidden thoughts and feelings.

Empathy in the workplace is becoming a top priority for organizations that are looking for ways to retain current employees and attract new talent. When employees feel as though they are seen, understood, and valued, they perform at their best. Demonstrating that you understand them through an immersive learning experience can be transformative. 

Struggling with the foundational work required to create empathetic learning designs?

Our time-tested Voice of the Business process is a proven alternative to traditional needs assessment (and a client favorite). It involves employees in a way that secures their buy-in while getting to the root of what people really need to be successful. You gain insights to help you create an authentic learning experience while integrating empathetic learning design. Contact us to schedule a consultation and learn how we can support you.

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