Learning Vendor, Here's Why I Ignored Your Email


Sometimes I put up a post on LinkedIn that gets a little more, ahem, attention than I expected. This would be the case last month when I posted the following:

Learning Vendor: We are a creative, innovative, design-thinking, company! We are learner-centric and agile!

Me: Sounds great - can I see some of your work?

Learning Vendor: Sure! Here's a 17 minute GoAnimate video

Me: **sobs uncontrollably**

It garnered a LOT of views. As in 41,000…which initially made me a bit queasy, until I realised the comments were more than just people agreeing with my frustration. There was a healthy debate on how the standards of innovation have dropped and the perils of mass-produced content. It signalled to me that I am not alone with my cynicism in the learning industry.

Like most L&D folk, I get a dozen emails a week, and probably more than twenty InMail requests from vendors pushing their wares. The email opens with some sort of fuzzy science statistic to illicit shock (note: it does not), followed by an impressive list of clients, and then some more blah, blah, about how wonderfully bespoke and innovative they are and when is the best time to meet? (because: presumptive close!).

This is not an article about sales. Yes, I get annoyed when business development folks do not take the time to find out about my pain points and spam me. Why? Because you are wasting my time and your InMail credits. However, I doubt this practice will change any time soon and in passive-aggressive protest, all these emails go straight into the recycling bin.

So, Learning Vendor, why am I not impressed with your GoAnimate video? Precisely because it is a GoAnimate video. It is something that with a cheap license, I could build in-house. However, I would not build something in GoAnimate. Sure, it is an intuitive, rapid development software, but a) the graphics are very quickly dated; b) it looks like everyone else’s videos; and c) I get insecure when I see the impossibly tiny waists on their avatars (seriously, what happened there?). My expectation is that a vendor brings something unique; something I cannot readily develop internally. Oh, and if you are peddling VideoScribe content, you are marginally better…not by much.

I know Learning Vendor, you are trying to cut costs and keep margins low. There are other ways, my friend.

For example, we used stock video to produce vignettes on money laundering. A few people asked where we got the budget to fly to South America with a film crew. We didn’t. Using Camtasia, we threaded together purchased footage and built a narrative. Cheap? Yup. Cartoons? Nope. It also won a Brandon Hall Award, which was a pleasant bonus.

Video is not the only delivery channel where the bar can be raised. These are just a few of the sins I still see in learning content from vendors:

a)      Woman with clipboard or iPad introducing module. Okay, so points for diversity, but beyond that, this is a relic from the days when elearning was supposed to mimic the classroom. We have moved way beyond. Your content should not require an avatar to direct navigating. Instead, learning must have an intuitive UX and be written to engage. If you do not believe me about the woman, do a Google image search of Storyline+Articulate+Woman (again note the impossibly small waists – if Paris Fashion Week can ban tiny models, can’t we?). In fact, most avatars should quietly retire.

b)     Any of the following types of interactivity: spinner, Jeopardy Game, memory matching, or dice. There is no science that proves gratuitous interactivity increases retention. Secondly, branding these as gamification is false. Lastly, these are interactivities I can download from Articulate or eLearning Heroes and build internally. Admittedly these are not particularly my taste but it still comes down to a vendor bringing new ideas and skillsets. Hence why you are being engaged for work.

c)      Green screen + bad actors. These have made a comeback in the past few years and much like shoulder pads, they are not a good idea. Stilted dialogue and superimposed backdrops are simply poor experiences. There is no context for a learner to relate to, only snicker at. Likewise, if you are complaining about keeping costs down, hiring actors and renting studio space IS expensive. You would do better with a candid clip from a SME recorded on a mobile device; more authentic, less canned, cheaper.

I could go on and on with examples, but those are not important. I am also aware of the many vendors who have told me the clients are the real problem – we want high quality at a low price and quickly. I assure you I do not have expectations of Givenchy on a WalMart price tag. I want simple, well-written, intuitive, learning content.

So, what does this look like? Well, that can vary depending the content but one that I share often on the blog is www.playspent.org. This was a piece developed by an advertising agency, but one of the more effective modules I have seen. The copy is clean and engaging. The interactivity contributes, not distracts, from the learning. Lastly, the learner is at the centre of the experience. Had this been put in the hands of an L&D shop, there would have been downtrodden avatars and dozens of Next Buttons, because that’s how rapid authoring tools work.

Another favourite of mine is the “Ryan Learns Something” series by Degreed. Now, before anyone says anything, I know these were high budget and slick to produce. However, what is intriguing about these examples is the simple concept of watching someone else learn. It is the ultimate way for a learner to contextualise the content. Rather than a passive viewer, you are constantly thinking, “what would my reaction be? Would I be like Ryan?”. That is damn powerful and can be done on a smaller and more cost- effective scale. Also, with all the hype around microlearning (keep it SHORT), these videos weigh in at an obese 10-15 minutes…yet they have been viewed more than 250,000 times. EACH. Mic dropped.

Wait? I am not going to give you more examples? Nope. Mostly because I do this in other parts of the blog and because I do not have all the ideas. When I do have them, I use them to keep me employed. Also, the more I provide, the more replication. There is no magic formula or template to follow for good learning. Design is independent. You can be inspired, but also need to create.

You would think I learned my lesson after my initial viral rant, but L&D folks are the worst students. That said, I do hesitate to put up this post. I know it will result in dozens of vendor emails and calls. I am currently on contract and therefore not able to engage anyone. Translation: I am not a good lead. For real.

With that out of the way, if you still think your learning cuts the muster, then here is a challenge: share it in the comments, not via InMail. Let’s have an open and honest feedback loop with our networks. It might sting at first, but it could improve us all. Are you up for it?