The Proxy Problem: Talk To Your Learners, Not About Them

It’s not like we have an abundance of time to conduct massive research projects about our learners, but if you can carve out just one hour each week, it will be worth it.

If training professionals studied lab rats, our approach would be fine. We’d poke them here, feed them there, rearrange the maze, capture data on what happened, and then rework the experiment over and over to find what produced the desired results. We’d never have the opportunity for a conversation with our rats—we’d need only observe, record, and publish our findings.

However, we don’t work with rodents; we work with humans—amazingly complex humans who work in amazingly complex organizations. These learners have different motivations, pain points, and challenges. And nuance can sink a solution without our awareness. I love reading the latest research put out by academics about brain science and human behavior modification. It’s fascinating and enlightening and our industry is desperately in need of more of it—but it’s not enough.

The training industry is under tremendous pressure to satisfy a user base that has a consumer-grade expectation for experiences. Whether it’s the video project a middle-schooler puts together, the newest upgrade to the most mundane app, or the retail experience (my wife squeals with excitement each month when her Stitch Fix and Birch Box packages arrive), our learners have completely different expectations of the universe around them, and they carry that into their interactions with us. This emerging skill set around learner experience is critical for us to master, but it’s not as complicated as you might fear—it may be as simple as asking your learners, “How can I better help you develop?”


I give talks multiple times each month to training organization chapters, internal training teams, and industry conferences, and I ask the same question over and over: “How many of you include your learners in the learning design process?”

In 12 months of giving this talk to well over a thousand people, the answer is two. Two organizations that include learners in the design process. However, when I ask that question, there’s always an epiphany in the room as it dawns on instructional designers, content developers, and even classroom facilitators: “I should talk more to my learners.”

If I were to ask you right this moment who you interview and collaborate with on your learning solutions, you’d most likely come up with three quick answers based on my experience: your peers, your stakeholders and business leaders, and your subject matter experts (SMEs). Those are valid and important parts of an amazing learning solution. Unfortunately, they’re not enough. Your learners have to have an intentional voice in your learning experience.

My experience tells me you got into this industry because you care deeply for people. You embraced this field for light-bulb moments and transformation stories, and somewhere along the way, you spent fewer and fewer days with learners (unless you are still doing front-of-room training, and even then, chances are you don’t ask a lot of questions just to learn about your learners), and more and more days with people who talk about learners—the proxies.

We’ve bought into the concept of proxies, and we’ve traded the people we serve for the industry theories and organizational conjecture about them. There’s a vast gap between assumption and research. To be fair, it’s not like we have an abundance of time to conduct massive research projects about our learners, but if you can carve out just one hour each week, it will be worth it. Talk with your learners (not talk to the customer about your learners, but with the learners themselves). Why did they pick this role? How do they want to be developed? How do they learn when they’re at home working on their hobby? All of those questions may provide you meaningful insights that impact how you design.


After spending the last few years conducting user research across industries, companies, and geographies, I’ve heard users consistently say they want their learning content to be “personalized” and “relevant.” Of course, those aren’t always the words they use—it sounds more like “I want it to relate to the real world,” or “I don’t want to see a bunch of junk that doesn’t matter to me.” We immediately take those words and begin to imagine learning management systems (LMSs) and learning experience platforms (LXPs) with machine learning and contextual rules. Those can be part of the solution that helps us design to the context of our user, but it takes a massive amount of data and technology to implement that— and most of us don’t exactly have the velocity or veracity of data needed for that kind of solution… or the money.

What we do have are learners who want to tell us stories about what happened to them and who would be thrilled to see those kinds of stories show up as the examples, labs, and exercises they experience in their learning solutions. We have to make time to talk to the doers of the work, not just the SMEs who write policy, implement the system, or own the process. We have to add broad questions such as “Why do you do things that way?” or “It seems like there’s a story behind your decisions. Can you tell me about it?” Aside from the content design benefit, including those types of stories and activities in your training will make it more relevant and personalized to the learners you support.


A few years ago, I rolled out what I knew to be an instructionally sound, game-changing set of content to an organization of more than 40,000 learners. I was so excited to see how interacting with that content was going to impact the organization. By lunchtime on the launch day, thousands of users visited the portal with my content…and more than 70 percent immediately left the page without clicking on one thing. I was crushed. Didn’t the learners realize the jewel sitting in front of them? It was micro-content that was instructionally sound.

In a panic, I went back through the notes from a usability test we had conducted (that I had fought against—after all, I cared most about content quality, not user experience) and realized we hadn’t really addressed a navigation problem with our Web design. We changed the page design over lunch, and over the next few hours, the funnel flipped, with more than 70 percent clicking on the first asset on the page. The cheap response is to believe users are stupid and require too much hand-holding. The worthless response was to review Kirkpatrick Level 1s or Level 2s to understand whether my content was instructionally sound. The most valuable solution was to go back to my learners, listen to their input on how confusing the navigation was, and solve the problem.

Chances are, you don’t have time on your project (or in your day) to immediately include learners at all phases of your learning projects, but start somewhere. Find one step in the solution design or development journey and start inviting your users (not just your SMEs, star performers, or executives) to influence the learning experience, and you’re guaranteed to learn something new about them and what they want and expect. In turn, you’ll create more engaging, interesting, and relevant experiences for them.

Matthew Daniel is a learning technologist, consultant, and learner researcher who has worked with companies such as General Motors, Edward Jones, Cigna, and Nike to create amazing learner experiences for hundreds of thousands of learners around the globe. He helps Learning and Development professionals thrive through digital transformation as they deepen their competencies in user research, technology adoption, and experience design.

Matthew Daniel
Matthew J. Daniel is a principal at Guild Education who solves talent development challenges for the future of work. He works with economists, skill data, an education marketplace, and employers such as Walmart, Disney, and Chipotle to identify how corporate strategies are changing and how structuring education offerings can help companies get in front of those needs.