Empathy: Next Level Content Development Skill

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the role of empathy in content development. In my experience, the most impactful trainings have been developed from the starting point of empathy. My first training role was developing the technical onboarding program for Support after being promoted from the Support Engineer role. The program decreased the onboarding time by 50% and also decreased attrition. 

In this post I want to address the questions; why empathize with the learner? how empathizing is different than understanding the audience? To conclude, I’d like to share my four strategies for being empathy-minded.

First, having empathy for learners will help you design and create a learning experience that increases understanding of content. The ability to learn new content is greatly affected by the experience. Empathizing with learners will help guide you away from creating a bad experience. For me, if I have a really bad experience, I am more likely to be distracted and forget the content. 

Second, I try to think of empathy as “actively working to understand the users perceptions and feelings during their learning journey”. This goes beyond the immediate learning experience. It’s important to also consider the work environment, both the physical space and cultural undertones. 

Finally, as instructional designers, we are keen to consider the audience, however, engaging in the active process of empathy goes beyond identifying the audience. Audience analysis can often stop at identifying demographics of learners. Empathizing is more than identifying demographics, it the process of trying to understand who the learners are and their pain points. For example, during an audience analysis you may discover that your core audience are seniors citizens. This may help you start to lean on different generational training methods. However, if you go a little further and empathize with the learner you can start to find the pain points. Maybe your audience typically has hearing loss so including closed caption on videos would create a better experience.

My four strategies for bringing empathy into the design process are: 

1. Think about a dreadful training experience. How did you feel? You could have felt angry, alone, frustrated, stupid, tired, or even bored. Wouldn’t it be unfortunate if your users felt this way about your training? Try to list out what was bad about the experience. 

2. Think about a delightful training experience. How did you feel? Maybe you felt energized, excited, or accomplished. List the elements of the training that you enjoyed.

3. Identify your blind spots or assumptions. For me, I tend to get into the habit of assuming everyone enjoys learning and training. Acknowledge them so you can avoid letting them shape your trainings.  

4. Get hands-on. Even if you cannot literally put yourself in the learner’s shoes, try the next best thing of setting up similar scenarios. For me, this means testing the trainings I create. I also attempt to break things, which also helps me catch flaws. This is particularly beneficial when you can improve the product or catch bugs before the user encounters issues.

Like all content development processes, gaining empathy is an iterative process. The more you practice and iterations, the better the end results. After all, we are creating trainings to help others we should try to understand their learning journey to create effective content.


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