Using nudges to motivate your learners

In my role I talk to clients from around the world, and these conversations always return to the same issues: how do we increase learner engagement in our organization, and how do we make our learning more "sticky?"

Published 23 August 2018
Using nudges to motivate your learners

I'm a strong believer that in the world of corporate learning, the key to success is how you effectively leverage quality content across your audience. In other words, success is driven by marketing your learning. You've probably experienced this yourself. When your organization invests in new tools and systems, the focus is often on the product itself, and little thought is given to how you'll "sell" it. As a result, your learners don't understand why it's there, and this leads to apathy and disengagement. Sadly, it's not just a case of "build it, and they will come!"

Workplace nudging

In my previous blog post, I talked about how you can take a cue from your marketing colleagues, and use a funnel approach to develop learning advocates in your organization. However, it's also important to nudge your audience. Good intentions alone won't lead to behavioral change - just think of all those unkept New Year's resolutions! But giving people subtle reminders at the right times can lead to small adjustments that have a significant effect. There are risks, though. Badly timed or irrelevant nudges could become annoying or overwhelming for the people you're trying to engage. Obviously, this is counterproductive. So how do you identify the right nudge, and the right time? The answer is to stop, take a step back, and define your learner personas first.

Creating personas for your learners

This idea will be familiar to your marketing team, who know that a deep understanding of a client's needs will help them to create a message that achieves the desired result. L&D teams, too, should create detailed learner personas. Think of each persona as a "customer avatar," which represents how that particular audience thinks and behaves. Typically, a persona includes the following types of information:
  • Background
  • Demographics
  • Goals (short-term and long-term)
  • Challenges
  • Attitudes, beliefs and opinions
  • Skills
  • Communication and social media preferences
  • Information sources (where they go to learn, and which sources they trust)
  • The systems or platforms that they use, and when.

When you're considering your personas it's also instructive to think about your learners' situations, or the circumstances in which they find themselves. For example, are they new starters who need to get "up to speed" quickly? Do they need to "upskill" in response to changes in your working practices, or to new technologies? Or are they seeking a promotion or new opportunity? People in these situations will likely respond positively to a nudge - but make sure that the learning you're offering can adequately address their specific needs, or they may come away feeling frustrated or irritated by the intrusion.

How do you create personas?

The strongest personas are based on insights that you gather from your actual learner base, using surveys, interviews, and so on. Depending on your organization, you could have as few as one or two personas, or as many as 10 or 20. If you're new to the process, start with the following steps:

1. Decide how many personas you need (you can begin with a few, and refine them later as your knowledge increases)

2. Develop a profile template document using existing basic data (demographics and job title, for example)

3. Research each persona to understand the goals, behavior and thoughts associated with it

4. Bring your persona to life with a memorable name, image, quote, or tagline.

Each persona should be simple enough to fit onto one side of paper. Personas will make it easier for you to tailor your content and messaging, and to design strategies that address the specific needs, interests, and behaviors of different groups of learners. (You can read more about this in the Mind Tools article, Developing Personas.) 

How do you design your first nudges?

Nudges can take many forms. Think of nudging as an ongoing experiment, rather than a single campaign. You should be able to measure the impact of each test, but don't expect all of them to be successful. And don't expect a single nudge idea to solve all of your learning engagement challenges. If possible, pilot each nudge before you scale it, and assess the outcome. Learn from each test and keep improving the design of the nudges as you go along. For the best chances of success, follow this four-stage process:

1. Define the desired outcome. What would a good result look like? Remember, your aim is to change your learners' behavior

2. Understand the audience and its motivations. Refer to your newly created user personas!

3. Deliver the right content, at the right time, in the right context. (Apply the EAST framework to make sure that your nudge is Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely.

4. Test, learn and adapt.

Lessons to nudge by

Simple messages delivered in an appropriate way at the appropriate time are already having a positive impact across organizations. One tech firm that we work with at Mind Tools conducted a trial in which they pointed their learners toward relevant content via a dedicated Slack channel. This was inexpensive and easy to implement, and it used a medium that the learners were already comfortable with. It caused them to respond in a different way to the learning on offer, and to start recommending learning resources to one another. The organization saw a significant increase in learning. And all it took was a little nudge in the right direction. 

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