Stop in the Name of Attention Theft!

I remember my first experience with theft. It was over twenty years ago and I had just landed in Germany, en route to my second year of teaching in Poland. To be truthful, I flew into Frankfurt to visit my then-boyfriend in Bonn. However, as far as my parents were concerned, it was “cheaper” to land in Germany and take the train to Gdansk. Ah, the days before widespread internet and a very trusting mom and dad.

After getting my luggage, I stopped to use a pay phone (yup, it was a long time ago). When I hung up, I noticed that my wallet was no longer in my backpack. My first reaction was anger. My second reaction was, I need to cancel my credit card and fast! Fortunately, I had already bought my train ticket to Bonn. Unfortunately, it was leaving in less than five minutes and without the credit card, I could not change my ticket. There was no time or means to sort the situation out, so I legged it for the platform and boarded. 

Two hours is a very long time to sit and hopelessly contemplate that your credit card is being charged to the limit on imagined first class tickets to Spain. I tried to relay my situation to the conductor in my pathetic German (Spoiler alert: my German is still brutal). He did his best to understand, but I had no success. Instead, he took generous pity on me and asked, “Rot oder Weiss?” repeatedly. Confused I said “Weiss” (white) and he promptly returned with a bottle of white wine. Let’s just say I tumbled off that train in Frankfurt 90 minutes later definitely less worried and angry!

So why the story? Well, I have been thinking a lot about theft lately. Mainly, my thoughts are around “attention theft” when ads are pushed to captive audiences who have not given consent. For example, you are stuck in a lift and there’s a TV playing a commercial. You have no interest in the ad, but when in a 6’x 6’ box suspended by cables with twenty other people you do not want to make eye contact with (because I am an urban Canadian), you are a slave to the message. It is maddening and disruptive, but part of our lives.

How many times do we commit attention theft when we design learning? From my experience, an awful lot. From designing to the lowest common denominator so the majority is sitting through content they already know, to spray and pray learning interventions that push modules that have little specific relevance to the learner but cover a broad swath of topics. Sure, we can do a fancy ROI to “prove” our learning was effective, but here’s an interesting little experiment I once did (location to remain anonymous): We took a data-sanitised list of top performers based on end-of-year ratings and compared these to their learning histories. Over 90% had only done their mandatory compliance training and never touched another object in the LMS in the past year.

It would be wrong to say these people did no learning all year, because obviously they were able to perform extremely well. When we spoke to a few of these people, they said they could get the content they needed quicker via their own search skills. Our courses were simply too slow or broad for their needs. Our content was simply attention theft.

Yes, these revelations certainly felt like a punch to the ego gut, but I have paid serious heed to this feedback. Consider the current rise of micro- and nano-learning: we all know learning needs to be shorter. That said, I get really twitchy when I hear these terms bandied about.

It is not about the length of the video or module. A poopy video is still poopy even if it is only 90 seconds long. Making content under five minutes does not magically render it immune to bad design.

Oh, the crimes against humanity I have witnessed committed with GoAnimate! To truly stop attention theft, we must design beyond length and look at the data.

It is no secret that I am in a love affair with xAPI. As a tool, it is built to track all learning experiences on and offline, and beyond the confines of the LMS. Bonus round: use it for detailed reporting on exactly how an audience is interacting with a piece of learning. Did they bypass the drag and drop? How many seconds did they spend on a page? Did they repeat an exercise? This gives you intimate knowledge on what is, and is not, important to your learner. It is then your job to revise based on these insights. If a page is often skipped, look deeper to see if you are committing attention theft and delete. If that content is critical, then present it in a different way. Then run it with xAPI and see if you increase engagement.

Not ready to use xAPI? (I would seriously question that decision) Simply pop your videos onto YouTube or Vimeo. Both will give you detailed analytics on how long your viewers are watching (Another spoiler alert: average watch time of short videos is 2 ½ minutes). Also, pay attention to the metrics of your peers in this space. I see a lot of microlearning being shared on LinkedIn with big hype, but when you look at the number of views on YouTube, sometimes the number is less than stellar.

Digital content providers and marketers have been in the data game for nearly a decade. There are thousands of articles on how to increase viewing times on YouTube to what attracts audiences in a headline. L&D has a lot of catching up to do for us to truly understand and design the way our learners want content, but with tools like xAPI, there is absolutely no excuse not to. I truly believe that in a few years time we will look at learning metrics as less about completions, and more about maximising engagement. I am excited for that paradigm shift.

I did get my credit card replaced without damages, which was a great relief. As for the then-boyfriend in Germany, I married him a decade later. Thankfully I did not meet xAPI until a couple years ago or he would have had some competition. As for my parents, I think they figured out my alternative travel plans but we never discuss it.

Note: photo for this article was taken from graffiti outside our local high school. Some things never change…