Tag Archives: learning

Marketing = meaning

3 Aug

A while ago, @shackletonjones tweeted:

GemStGem twitter Gemma Critchley marketing learning innovation nick shackleton-jones


I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. The ‘somehow’ in that tweet has been under my skin for weeks. I agree wholeheartedly with Nick that marketing is the bridge, but how? Why?

I’ve seen it work. I’ve put marketing in place for ‘performance support‘ or ‘informal learning solutions’ (otherwise known as useful stuff that helps people do their jobs better). I’ve seen the things our team creates illuminated when cast in the glow of a clever campaign, but for ages I couldn’t articulate why.

It recently became crystal clear.

I’ve worked on quite a few projects to deliver performance support using our ‘resources not courses’ approach over the last few years.

A chap that I worked with recently on one of these projects said that very few people in our audience understood what performance support is and how it works, or what’s in it for them. Fair point, I thought.

All of a sudden, the answer was so clear: we needed to translate what we were doing in a way that would be meaningful to the audience.

We knew the resources that we were creating would be useful (thanks to the 5Di process), but if people weren’t into what we were doing – if they didn’t see what was in it for them and choose to pull on the things we created, then we would have only done half a job.

So we decided to tell a story, to show the benefits of what we’re doing, to share some examples and to give a strong call to action for people to find out more. In essence, we decided to do a marketing campaign.

The penny dropped.

Beautifully simple, blindingly obvious and laced with common sense in the way that most decent ideas usually are.

GemStGem twitter Gemma Critchley marketing learning innovationGemStGem twitter Gemma Critchley marketing learning innovation


By putting what we call ‘performance support’ into a marketing frame that speaks directly to the audience in a way that matters to them, we translate what we’re doing. It makes sense.

Marketing is tailoring.

Marketing is translation.

Marketing is sense-making.

Marketing = meaning.


Through marketing, the audience can easily engage with something that seemed foreign before. Heck, never mind just being able to engage with it; they might even actually want to.


I am the spirit of dark and lonely water 

14 Apr

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a real and quite irrational fear of what I call ‘organised water’. This is basically water which has pooled or been channelled somewhere it shouldn’t be: a quarry, an aqueduct, a construction site, a canal, a reservoir. There’s no reason for it, I’ve never had a bad experience with water or known anyone who has.

ladybower sinkhole sink hole reservoir scarfolk. gemma critchley. blog

This fills me with dread. Image: FlickRiver.com

I suspect most people will have their own irrational fears. You might have stayed up after watching horror films, scared to go to sleep, listening out for noises that aren’t there. Maybe even years after watching, you remember feeling frightened and won’t revisit that particular film.

Turns out it’s not just horror films that do this. I recently discovered the BFI’s public information films collection: a treasure trove of sinister warnings, glittering darkly and crackling with the threat of doom.

One of the best examples of this is Lonely Water, a film that was designed to warn kids away from playing in unsafe water. I wasn’t even born until almost a decade after it was made, but I (think I) remember seeing this, or a variation of it at primary school as a kid.

The film was made in 1973, but it has all the hallmarks of what I’d consider to be an effective video for learning today:

  • The film’s approach is rooted in the Affective Context model. It makes you feel something; the Donald Pleasence voiceover is straight out of a Halloween film and the use of the hooded figure is just disturbing enough to jolt you out of your reality.
  • It has a clear objective: to stop children from drowning by showing the dangers of ‘lonely water’.
  • It understands its audience and appeals to their fears to make the message stick.
  • It’s short – under two minutes long: something many people forget the importance of today.
  • It has a compelling narrative and sub-story, separate to the voiceover: you want to know what happens to the boy who goes swimming.

In a time when filmmaking has never been more accessible, it’s good to take a step back and look at what makes a compelling, effective film, especially when it comes to creating film for learning. It’s refreshing to see that the stuff that was terrifying in 1973 works just as well at scaring the living daylights out of me today; and that somewhere along the line, the message from the film stuck with me. That’s Affective Context in action.

It’s hard to believe it wasn’t made by Scarfolk Council, but was instead produced by the UK government.


scarfolk council BFI public information film lonely water gemma critchley

Image: Scarfolk.blogspot.com


If you want to see more, the whole collection is available on the BFI Player.

Warning: may contain scenes that some viewers may find disturbing…

Putting the X into L

4 Apr

Forget bite-size learning; it’s time to go XL: design with the eXperience of the Learner in mind.

I’ve blogged a few times about user experience (UX) design and how important this is to anyone making anything for other people to use; particularly when it comes to creating stuff that is designed to help people perform at work. Learner Experience, or LX, is part of this growing trend for being more audience-focused. It’s a more specific version of UX design, but the principles are the same. This is one bandwagon I don’t mind people jumping on: it can only make things better for users, right? 

There are a few simple things we can do to make sure our learners/users are at the heart of everything we do: exercises like card sorting, user observation & learner journey mapping. Even just asking good questions, listening and having meaningful conversations about what people need help with and how they do things at the moment is a start.


user experience vs design, learner experience, UX, LX, Gemma Critchley

Image: guycookson.com

This is a useful presentation that’s packed with practical things we can do to improve the Learner Experience.

Being a learner experience designer starts with a commitment to the user: a focus on crafting experiences that are useful, simple, delightful, seamless & helpful. If that’s our starting point, we’re on the right track to making a difference. 

Let’s commit to using LX design as a way to go beyond traditional learning and towards something that really helps people.

(U)X marks the spot

2 Mar

User experience (UX), customer experience (CX), employee experience (EX): we’re living in an X-rated world; where the focus is shifting to holistic eXperiences as opposed to individual actions or interactions with pieces of content.


Image: heartshapedhome.co.uk

This is moving us beyond digital. In the olden days (like, two years ago) this was called Integrated Marketing. You’d sit and look at all of your channels and customer touch points and try to join these up and make a frictionless journey for your customer. Now, we need to start taking it a step further. We need to understand where, when and why someone uses a product and what they’re feeling like when they do it.

It’s time to think not only about a user’s journey and their interactions with your brand/product; but to also understand the context in which these interactions take place. Data will help, but it will only get us so far. We need to really focus on what users are concerned about, what they have to do to alleviate that concern and then to guide them though a seamless journey to a solution to their concern.

Inspired by a point in this post.


Sandcastles, work and meaning

25 Feb

There’s been a lot of talk lately about sandcastles. About how the things we spend time lovingly creating, like kids on the beach with buckets and spades, could be swept away in the tide one day in the near future.


Image: Priuschat.com

It can be tempting to play the cynic and say ‘Ah, what’s the point in caring? It doesn’t really matter and it’ll be gone in a year.’ But isn’t that point about it being gone soon true of lots of things that are worth doing?

Everything will be gone, eventually. That’s how life works.

Knowing this, we carry on building, regardless. The certain darkness at the end of it all doesn’t stop us building sandcastles or regular castles or relationships or careers or families or amazing record collections, does it?

There’s meaning everywhere, if you look hard enough or if you create it yourself.

Why should work be any different? We don’t have to look at what we do as a waste of time because of its inevitable demise. We can choose to find meaning in whatever we’re doing. A beautiful sandcastle is still a beautiful sandcastle for a while. You enjoyed making it. At the time, it seemed important to finish it. And even after it’s been kicked down or swept away, people will have memories of that sandcastle. They might have been influenced by the way you arranged your shells, or thought your moat was pretty cool, or admired your daring three-turreted approach, or loved the fact that you really believed a princess was about to move into the castle. It matters. Find out why it matters, and keep creating.

Knowing it may all be washed away tomorrow doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter now.

So what if the sea is coming in to sweep away our sandcastles? I’m not bothered. I’m still going to make those shells into a pretty pattern. I’m still digging the deepest moat I can.

I know the tide is coming in, and I’m okay with that.

7 trends spotted at #LT16uk

10 Feb

What does learning look like in 2016? Plenty was said on the subject at Learning Technologies 2016.


Don’t be a meatpuppet, kids. Image: @charliekneen on Twitter

Here are 7 trends that I spotted at #LT16uk. I’ve turned them into handy calls to action, so get busy…


1. Get strategic


Image: neurogadget.com

We don’t need to align with the strategy of our organisation, we need to BE the strategy. Andrew Jacobs talked about how to weave learning into everything we do, and how to use the right tactics to get stakeholders on board. I often see learning as an afterthought so I see where Andrew’s coming from, but I think it’s less about creating  learning as a ‘thing’ that’s part of the business and more about building good, useful, simple experiences into what work is.

2. Collaborate with purpose


Come together, right now… Image: socialplanningtoronto.org

‘Start collaborating right now, using whatever you have’ was the message I took from Jane Hart‘s session. Jane focused on enterprise social networks like Yammer, and also gave a nod to platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp & Slack: whatever you have. For me, it’s important to give the tech a purpose and let the users see the benefits for themselves. Don’t just say: “Here’s Yammer, use it to collaborate!” Instead, say “Here’s a space to share documents, collaborate and have conversations as you go: why not give meetings, calls and emails a miss on your next project and give this a try?

3. Modernise

dilbert change

If it’s broke, fix it. For the last couple of years, our team has tried to bring learning in line with what people use outside of work. YouTube-style videos, checklists and apps have all been part of this, and the user feedback is encouraging. It was interesting to hear Emma Pace from PA Consulting sharing how she led a project to modernise learning at the firm from the ground-up; it’ll be exciting to see what happens as more organisations look to do something similar, realising that courses aren’t the answer.

4. Put everything in context

3d printer with cheese motherboard vice.jpg

Yes, this is a 3-cheese printer. Image: Motherboard.com

Contextual computing is revolutionising our lives. Ben Hammersley talked how we can apply a learning lens to this by taking cues from the internet of things. I think we need to take that one step further: by designing performance guidance to be smart enough to understand the context of the user, we’ll be creating useful, relevant, timely stuff at the point of need. Need is the important part. Don’t be like these guys from The Stupid S**t No-one Needs and Terrible Ideas Hackathon.

5. Tell a story

cool story bro

Cool story, bro. Image: MGOblog.com

Affective Context, a theory developed by Nick Shackleton-Jones, has been applied to what we do in our team for a while now. It was good to see David Guralnik and Julie Wedgwood exploring this in detail, and looking at ways to add meaning to information to make it stick through emotion and storytelling. I had a bit to say on this last year; you can watch the video here.

6. Continue? 3…2…1…


arcade-museum dot com

Mindfulness for work: v 2.0. Image: arcade-games.com

You can’t move in learning now without hearing someone mention gamification. Pete Jenkins asked us to go and explore how we can make learning more compelling by using gaming mechanics in a real-world context to improve performance. I think the industry needs to go a bit deeper than this, and to define the difference between games and gaming, because at the moment there’s confusion and they’re two very different things with different applications and outcomes.

7. Use your users


Get involved, but please… Don’t be one of THOSE people. Image: mashable.com

Video for learning is ubiquitous. Yet so many times I see it used in ways that people would never engage with ‘in real life’. When was the last time you did an interactive e-learning video on YouTube? So, it was refreshing to see Stephanie Dedhar chairing a session by Ian Slater from GE talk about the way they’ve put how to videos at the heart of their approach, and are focusing on user generated content by kitting-out their engineers with GoPro cameras, capturing how-to videos on the job, then sharing their short films on line.

And here are a few things I would’ve loved to see covered at Learning Tech, but didn’t:

  • Audience/user focus
  • User interface design
  • Experience design
  • Applying lessons from marketing to learning
  • Performance guidance

Did I miss these? What did you take away from #LT16uk? What do you think to my key trends? Holler at me on Twitter and let me know.


Designing with the user, for the user

11 Jan

Today in a meeting, our team was explaining our approach to digital product design for learning.
One of the phrases that came up was:

“We design with the user, for the user.”

That’s what I try to do. It’s one way to make really useful stuff that people want to engage with. Everything we do is in service of providing something useful, timely and relevant that helps to improve performance or improve an experience.

I know user-centred design has been around for ages, but in some organisations the user can often be an afterthought. I wanted to share this in the hope that it might help somebody who’s trying to get folk on board with this approach, in the spirit of one of my favourite ads of all time…

In the meeting, we were asked:

“How do you know what you make will be useful? Why would someone use your product?”
This resulted in a chat about communication, analytics, testing and signposting, which is something for another blog post. It’s worth mentioning though, as my colleague Charlie Kneen made a good point that if a product adds value for the person using it, they will use it (providing they know it’s there & it fits into their life).

If you’ve designed your product in collaboration with the end user and you’re asking the right questions along the way, then chances are, you’re on the right lines.

So, how do you design with the user, for the user? I find one of the simplest and most effective ways to do this is to use the Concern Task Resource model, created by Nick Shackleton-Jones. In a nutshell, this asks us to:

  1. Find out what the user’s concern is. What – on an emotional level – is important to them?
  2. Find out which tasks the user has to do. What are they doing every day and in what environment? What tech do they have access to? How are they doing their job at the moment?
  3. Use the findings from these two discovery sessions to plan out what kinds of resources might be useful in addressing these concerns to get tasks done, and improve performance. Develop these resources and keeping checking back with your users to find out if they’re useful. If they’re not; change them.

You can read more about the Concern Task Resource model here, on Nick’s blog.

Sharing stories to support learning

3 Dec

I’m speaking today at Online Educa Berlin about how to capture and share stories that stick with people to support learning.

Why not pick up your smartphone and capture some stories of your own? Share them with me on Twitter.

Here are some tips:


  • Uncover the learning need by speaking to your audience
  • Find out what their challenges and pain-points are and turn these into interview questions
  • Select the right person for the interview – not the most ‘PR-friendly’ person

Connect & prep

  • Before the interview, connect with your interviewee – even if just a phonecall
  • Build rapport
  • Ask them to think about stories and examples
  • Share an idea of the kinds of questions you will ask
  • Explain exactly what will happen in the interview
  • Cover off questions – what to wear?
  • Building the groundwork to gain permission to share


  • Allow plenty of time for your interview – 90 minutes for 15 questions
  • Aim for 30 mins getting your subject settled and briefing (5 warm up questions)
  • 60 mins of core interview (5 key questions)
  • 30 mins to go back over questions for in-depth points
  • Ensure the interviewee frames the question as part of the answer

Questions to ask to uncover stories

Think about this example: “Tell me what a good leader is” vs. “Tell me about the best leader you’ve ever had.” The latter will uncover a story, not just a list.

Ask structured, open questions. Think www: Who? What? Why? Then build in the detail buy asking: Where? When? How did you feel?). Try asking people to tell you about a time when ‘X’ happened. What was the situation? What happened? What was the outcome? How did they feel?

Example questions

What’s been your most challenging moment?

Tell me about your most proud achievement – what happened? Why? What was the outcome

What was the most frustrating thing that happened on this project?


Let me know what worked for you and if you have any tips of your own to share!


29 Oct

It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.

Same goes for designing compelling, useful, helpful experiences; whether these are for customers/learners/shoppers/whoever (read: users).

We need to design experiences around what people need to do, when & in which context, rather than giving people stuff that might be useful but that might require so much sifting, sorting & sense-making that it renders it useless.

Context > Content. Every time.

I read a cracking piece on this from Dave Trott, who writes for Campaign magazine. The focus is on marketing, but the line between what we do in learning & what marketeers do is so fine, that it’s a must-read regardless of your job.

What do you think? Should we be designing content or experiences? Or both? How should this play out?

Let’s see what the users think

21 Oct

I was in a meeting today (as most of my stories start these days), talking about how we thought a game we’ve been working on might be received by users. Was it too difficult? Was it difficult enough? Had we got the balance right? What about the tutorial? Did it explain the game properly? Should we change it?


All of a sudden, like the clear ping of a well-timed bell ringing out to a particularly hungry classroom before lunch, a colleague of mine said:

“Let’s not make any assumptions. Let’s see what the users think.”

And everyone stopped hypothesising and questioning and wondering and agreed.

I’m lucky to be part of a team that works in a collegiate, collaborative and creative way and so it wasn’t a surprise that we all wanted to put our audience first. This approach has made developing the game together a real pleasure. The questions and concerns being raised on the call were genuine ones in service of wanting to deliver a good user experience and for that, I wish my laptop could do the high five emoji (go team!).

However, I know not everyone is as fortunate when it comes to having everyone on the same ‘user first’ page. So, I captured some brain snippets I find useful when trying to bring people along on an audience-centric journey. Hope you find them handy, too.

We don’t have all the answers and that’s okay

In a time when Twitter is sagging under the weight of ‘experts’ and ‘gurus’, it can be tough to hold your hands up and say “I don’t know how this will work, so we need to test it.” Especially when you’re billed as a Subject Matter Expert in meetings. But a bit of humility is not only admirable, it’s essential to ensure you’re doing things right by the user. A lot of what we do in learning, innovation, tech & digital is brand new. It’s never been done before. So we need to try things and to explain to our stakeholders that only by trying them (and potentially failing) will we ever be able to make things better.

Show, don’t tell

Okay, this is an oldie but a goodie. People spouting theory about learning innovation (some of it very decent, I grant you) are ten a penny right now. But not everyone can show how this is applied and why it works. So start small. Create a minimum viable product that shows your idea in action. Go DIY and build it yourself if you have to, or find someone else who can help. Or just find something that’s as ‘near-to-damnit’ as you can. Innovation by its nature means a lot of what we talk about hasn’t been done before, and not everyone will find it as easy to grasp as a concept as the person who had the idea will. Find a way to bring the idea to life, and then let your stakeholders see it – or even better, let them have a play. Then ask them for their feedback as users, not stakeholders. Better still, take it up a notch and invite them to see your target audience using your product and get them to gather the feedback with you. Making them part of the process rather than a passive observer can be a great way to get them on board with a ‘user first’ mentality.

You can’t argue with facts (well, you can, but it’s harder)

One of the reasons we take the MVP approach is so we can make data-driven decisions. Tracking and analysing usage data will always present a clear set of facts about how people are using our product. this can then be used to inform future decisions around changes and iternations. Tell your stakeholders this. Don’t assume they know why you’re working in this way! Working to deliver minimum viable products and then iterating on them isn’t something everyone is used to, but if you can suss out who in the room is into facts and figures and then engage them with this, it’s an in-road to get them thinking about usage and user data and how powerful this can be.

if you have any tips of your own, please feel free to share in the comments or on Twitter, I’d love to hear!

Jeremiah Gardiner has some good thoughts on how you can do quick user tests as part of his Lean Brand Lab. I’d definitely recommend having a read of his blog for some inspiration.

(Image from Gamesthatrocked.com)

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