The Emotional Future Of Instructional Design

More than hearing, I want to feel what my learners are feeling. For me, empathy is the key to designing better learning experiences.

A recent New York Times article, "Welcome to the Post-Text Future," stated that reading text on a screen rapidly is being replaced by audio and video. The article goes on to foresee an online culture of the future in which a universal language will consist of only sounds and images. What does that mean for the future of learning and development, and how do we design for that future?

I like to think I can glimpse into that future, or at least that in some sense I am future thinking. But as I look to the future of instructional design, my Magic 8 Ball keeps serving up "Reply hazy, try again."

As learning theories evolve alongside learning technologies, our instructional design practices have remained much the same. We analyze needs, establish objectives, and design learning experiences that guide our learners through content, interaction, and some sort of assessment. Whether we're using ADDIE, SAM, Agile, or any one of the thousands of instructional design models, we are creating experiences that scaffold learning—helping our learners acquire skills, gain knowledge, or change a behavior.

From Hearing to Feeling

Another line from that same New York Times article struck a chord with me and got me looking to that future again:

"An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality."

Hmm, emotion over rationality? I went back to my Magic 8 Ball and shook again.

There has been a lot of talk about Design Thinking these days, a framework that knits together classic problem solving with art and design methodologies. Key to this iterative framework are five phases to work through: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. These five phases ideally help us better understand our audiences, challenge any assumptions we (or our audiences) might have, and reframe problems in order to find alternative solutions.

Many years ago, before Design Thinking became a formal process, I integrated user-experience design practices into my work. I started treating my learners as people—people with feelings, preferences, opinions, and misconceptions. Yes, I had always listened to my learners, and explored their learning needs (and moments of learning need), but I had suddenly added empathy. More than hearing, I wanted to feel what my learners were feeling. For me, empathy was the key to designing better learning experiences.

Empathy Mapping

Some call Design Thinking a passing fad, and others have even stronger opinions. I'm still on the fence about all of the hype, but since Design Thinking has had much exposure (and so many supporting tools are available), I have been able to more formally introduce empathy mapping exercises into my instructional design practice.

I use empathy mapping to:

  • Explore what my learners are thinking, feeling, saying, and doing.
  • Gain a more in-depth perspective on their emotions in the learning space.
  • Move beyond what my learners "think" they need toward what they feel.

This sets up a considerably different lens through which I can design, develop, and deliver more authentic learning experiences.

As we shape the future of instructional design together, take some time to explore empathy mapping and determine how it might fit into your instructional design practice—especially if the universal language of our future will be an emotional one.

As we evolve alongside our technologies and move away from text toward images and sounds, I will continue to stop and ask my Magic 8 Ball about the future of instructional design.

Outlook good? I think so.

Phylise Banner is a learning experience designer with more than 25 years of vision, action, and leadership experience in transformational learning and development approaches. A pioneer in online learning, she is an Adobe Education Leader, Certified Learning Environment Architect, STC Fellow, performance storyteller, avid angler, aviation enthusiast, and currently training to be a private pilot.

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