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Training with heart: 3 strategies on how to build user empathy

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As a learning professional, you know that effective learning is more than just ADDIE, tight copy, and picking the best authoring tool for the job. You know that you also have to understand your target learner in order for your content to land. But understanding your learner goes deeper than just knowing their role and what tasks they need to accomplish. You have to have empathy.

The best learning professionals also take into account what their learner is thinking, feeling, and doing. In short, the best learning professionals know how to build empathy.

What does it mean to have empathy?

According to Merriam-Webster—the preferred dictionary of Maestro’s instructional designers —empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

When it comes to learning design, to have empathy means doing the work required to understand how the target learner is feeling about their reality and the problems they face on the job. It’s different from relying on facts from market research and demographic insights. It means literally speaking with your learners and building empathy by finding out their thoughts and motivations.

Why does it matter for me?

The most impactful training is focused on getting people to do something different than what they’re already doing — in short, it’s about prompting a behavior change. If you’re a parent, a team leader, or have ever attempted to implement a new health and wellness routine for yourself, you probably already know that prompting a lasting change in behavior can be incredibly difficult.

You can’t change someone’s behavior with data alone. You need to understand your end learner’s situation and motivations as closely as possible in order to craft a successful learning experience. You need to know how to build empathy for your learners. And in order to do that effectively, you need to get inside your learners’ heads.

“Understanding” is a verb. You don’t build empathy for others by studying or thinking about them, you do it by interacting with them. There are a few tried-and-true ways to do so.

But… what if I already know my learners?

Stop! Any time you hear yourself saying or thinking that you already know your learners, it’s important to check yourself.

As learning professionals, we sometimes get so close to our users that we don’t even notice when we’re making assumptions about them, and we call them “facts” without verifying them. The best way to avoid this? Always assume you know nothing, and practice building empathy at every turn.

How to build empathy for your learners

Strategic SME interviews

Our team’s number one key to understanding our target learners is to practice empathy in interviews. Asking the standard SME questions—What do they need to know? Will you send me the source content?—will not get you any closer to knowing your learner’s thoughts and feelings. 

At Maestro, we use an empathetic interviewer’s guide to make sure that empathy is always our primary lens during the interview process.

Focus groups

In the advertising world, focus groups are the gold standard for building customer empathy. The same is true in the training world: focus groups are a great way to get a variety of perspectives, opinions, and input on the topic you’re seeking to train on, which will help you practice empathy as you develop training. 

While you don’t want to enter with assumptions, it’s a good practice to plan the session ahead of time, including a testable hypothesis and clear objectives. In the session, ask clear, unbiased questions that encourage discussion and respectful difference of opinion between participants. Your job should be to moderate and listen. Set clear ground rules to help your participants feel at ease—you’ll get more honest answers that way.

For the comfort and safety of your participants, make sure to get their written consent before collecting their information, including their demographics and input. Ensure that this information will remain anonymous.

people standing and talking around a table with abstract shapes overlayed on top
Let them do the talking. You do the listening.

Observations

Make it a priority to meet your learners where they’re at—literally, meet them where they work—and watch them. This might feel uncomfortable at first, but you’ll settle into it after you get some practice. If it’s awkward, it might help to acknowledge the awkwardness right off the bat so you can laugh about it together.

Once you’re both feeling comfortable and settled, take notes. Notice how they use their tools. Notice who they ask for help, and why, and how. Leave your assumptions at the door. Get curious and ask questions.

The more context you have for how the job is actually performed, the more impactful your training will be. When you sit down to write, you won’t be imagining a hypothetical user; you’ll have a wealth of real life observations at your fingertips, which is a gold mine for building empathy.

Tips for interviewing and observing learners when building empathy for users

Interviews and observations aren’t as simple as asking questions and taking notes. To make sure you get the most of it, you need to be thoughtful and strategic about your approach.

No assumptions

Do thorough research prior to the session, and then enter it assuming you know nothing at all. Because, the truth is, you don’t—you’re doing the session to gather insight into the learners’ thoughts and feelings, which you genuinely don’t know. If you did, you wouldn’t need to do the session!

Focus on feelings

Any good journalist will tell you that there’s no such thing as objectivity. That’s true for user interviews and focus groups, too. Rather than honing in on data alone, you should also pay close attention to how your learners feel: What frustrates them? What makes them feel relief? Does the learner feel differently than their manager? When it comes to building empathy, the answers to these questions matter just as much as the data—sometimes, they matter more.

Hunt for the “why”

The goal of good training is behavior change, and if a behavior change is needed, that means the current behavior is different from the desired behavior. Why? That “why” should always be your north star throughout the interviewing and observation process.

Not sure where to start? Check out our empathetic interviewer’s guide for tips on centering user empathy in your SME interviews.

P.S. We also put together a checklist on how to select great stock photography for your learning! Check it out if that’s something you’re into.

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