Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

28 January 2013

Engagement, people!

Clark @ 6:19 AM

I’m working on a project with a partner, and have this really sharp ID working with me.  My role is to be guiding the design, not doing it, and it’s working well.  The thing I see, however, is emblematic of what I’m seeing much more broadly: the dissociation between the designer and the learning experience.

Ok, so not many ID theorists are talking about the emotional engagement.  Keller and his ARCS model is really the only one. And some folks are touting it for elearning.  Michael Allen and his mantra of “no more boring elearning” has been at the forefront for a long time.  Julie Dirksen covers it in her recent book, and it’s also implicit in Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping & Roger Schank’s Goal-Based Scenarios.  Yet somehow the message isn’t getting through.

The output, however, is at arm’s distance from the learner.  It’s got comprehensive coverage.  It’s got stories, and animations (I’m having some effect :), but they’re so abstract. So overwritten. So impersonal.  It’s not the ID’s fault. Where, in most programs in ID, in most settings, do you see a focus on learner experience?  Not clicky-clicky bling bling, as Cammy Bean so aptly coined it, but really engaging learning.  It’s harder to find than you think.

There are several important components:

Making it meaningful: focus on changes that will impact the workplace and help convey to the learner that this is real and really needed.  If it’s not tied to impacting a business metric, it’s probably not the right topic.

Making it personal: this includes several things.  One is writing like you’re talking to the person. Another is having them connect it to their own practices, either retroactively or proactively.  Give them an assignment about what to do in the workplace that they bring back.

Making it visceral: this means introducing and using examples that go beneath the merely informative, and tap into basic instincts. Learners should be connected in a very emotional way, using fear or empathy or other hook that appeals directly to their personal needs in ways that cause them to resonate in their core.

Minimalizing: going through and slashing your verbiage.  Most elearning is grossly overwritten, and can be trimmed at least 40%, and usually can be trimmed down 60% or more.  You want to use rich media (I’m pushing graphic novel formats in the project) and animations, but much less prose and production than you think you need.

Putting it into practice: this means having the learner perform the way they’ll need to perform outside the learning experience.  Get them making the decisions in practice that you want in the workplace.  It’s not about knowing, it’s about doing.  Until they can’t get it wrong.

Making it flow: think about not just the individual bits, but also the segue between them.  What’s the emotional trajectory the learner goes through?  How are they intrigued, and how do we lead them from apathy and anxiety to motivation and confidence?

These are the top level categories, but they map out into more practices. And you should be working on these in your teams. And I can state from experience that just workshops by themselves aren’t sufficient, and what really helps are an exposure to the principles and the practice, then feedback on a series of attempts until satisfied that the principles have been internalized in the practice.  Please, go beyond content, and get into real experience design.  Systematically, reliably, and repeatedly.  For your learners, and for the industry.  We need to lift our game.


  1. Well said Clark. I’ve worked hard at your first three points for years, and am putting new emphasis on your last three. Specifically in using the graphic novel approach. I would argue that a well-drawn and well-written script can make eLearning an experience instead of a ‘course.’ The visual storytelling approach a graphic novel affords covers many of your points – personal, visceral, reduced text, and certainly better flow.

    Good luck on getting a graphic novel approach on your project!

    Comment by Kevin Thorn — 30 January 2013 @ 5:17 AM

  2. Love this Clark! I especially putting it into practice. I am reading Brain Rules by John Medina and he made a point of being able to recall things better if they are done in the same environment. So if we are more ingrained in the business process, hopefully that will make recalling the information much easier for learners. After reading that chapter in the book and reading this, I can’t help but think building the experience has to be the future of learning design.

    Kevin, I am very interested to see further discussions on the graphic novel approach. I think this could be a very interesting approach.

    Looking forward to the possibility of discussing it with you guys at UP2US in a few weeks!

    Comment by Sean Putman — 30 January 2013 @ 9:05 AM

  3. Clark, I love this post. Your three key words seem to be meaningful, personal and visceral. We are natural learning animals and those adjectives tap into ‘why?’. There is only one thing I would add to your list (though I’m sure it is implicit) and that is to test the content you produce to ensure it has the emotional impact you expect. Great work Clark, let’s make the L&D department one of emotional intensity.

    Comment by Ara Ohanian — 4 February 2013 @ 4:52 AM

  4. Clarke, thanks for this post, it resonates with my own thinking. I am currently reading Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. While aimed at marketing there is much here that e-learning can use. I also have an old ‘Eagle’ annual (The Eagle was a comic of the ’50s in the UK) because I like the way they used comic graphics to attract and retain audience interest – sound like a familiar requirement for e-learning! BTW they also included a fair amount of learning in the form of 3D graphics – way ahead of their time, I think.

    Comment by Peter Condon — 5 February 2013 @ 10:46 AM

  5. […] Clark Quinn recently shared some great tips for creating emotionally engaging learning experiences. In short, make it meaningful, make it personal, make it visceral, minimize, provide practice, and […]

    Pingback by Two for Tuesday: Engagement and Prototyping | Enspire Learning — 12 March 2013 @ 8:05 AM

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