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eLearning Learning
May 5, 2022

Using Empathetic Principles in Instructional Design

Keeping the learner in mind when designing eLearning courses is key to engaging them and driving organizational success. Highmark Health's Learning Architect Angela Sample, Ph.D.  discusses best practices for using empathetic principles in instructional design.


Show Notes:

  • Empathetic principles can be complementary to learning experience design principles 
  • Focus on the importance of designing a solution that's human-centered to truly engage learners.
  • Create learner profiles that consider the learner's feelings. Then, be willing to pivot your training approach to align with their cognitive and emotional states. 
  • Communicate to management that creating training with the learner in mind will actually yield better ROI.

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Learn more about Learning Experience Design referenced in this episode. 


Voiceover: [00:00] This is Powered by Learning, a podcast designed for learning leaders to hear the latest approaches to creating learning experiences that engage learners and achieve improved performance for individuals and organizations.

Voiceover: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at d'

Susan Cort: Hello, and, and welcome to Powered by Learning. I'm your host Susan Cort, and today I'm joined by d'Vinci Client Solutions Consultant, Angeline Evans, and our guest, Angela Sample. Angela is an award-winning instructional designer and works as a learning architect for Highmark Health, a large healthcare system based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. [01:00] Angela holds a PhD in Instructional Design and has a passion for enabling learners to be successful by applying research to educational trends. Today, we're going to talk to Angela about using empathetic principles in instructional design. Welcome, Angela.

Angeline Evans: Thanks for joining us, Angela.

Angela Sample: Welcome. Thank you so much for having me today.

Susan: Angela, let's start off by giving us a little background on you and your current role.

Angela: Sure. As you mentioned, I am a learning architect at Highmark Health. I have been there for close to eight years and in that role, I have played instructional designer, senior instructional designer, as well as, of course, moved into the learning architect role. Prior to that, I have always been in the design space in some way, shape, or form, working for small and large software companies, and always at the core of that is my love as instructional design. I always laugh and say I love it so much, but that's why I ended up with a PhD in design.

Susan: That's great.

Angeline: That is. [02:00] I'm so excited to chat with you today, Angela, but I feel like there's a lot to cover, so I'm really excited to hear what you have to say, but I thought for some listeners that might not be familiar with the empathetic principles, if you could just start us off and tell us a little bit more about the theory behind it and give us a little 101 that might help guide us tee things off.

Angela: Absolutely. I think what's really important is to level set what it is not and what it's. What it is not is it is not for us to go in and change a learner's entire world because we cannot change the fact that their systems change. We cannot change the fact that their org has changed multiple times or that they're working remotely. What we want to do is we want to make their world a little a bit better. Again, we can't change their entire world; it's just us making the world a little bit better.

The first step in doing that is to shift the focus from a client-centered approach to a learner-centered approach. [02:58] Instead of us always meeting those client needs, which of course we still do want to meet those client needs, we are going to make sure that we're partnering with them and become the trusted advisor to them, and we're actually placing the learner at the center of all that we do. When we do that and we shift the focus, we are actually going to be creating something that meeting the learners' cognitive and emotional needs, so it really is taking care of that learner as a whole.

How we're doing that is we are going to marry a couple of different principles together. We have our user design principles, which are taking care of the learner, learning about the learner. What are the learner's needs? What are the learner's emotional needs? What is their emotional state? Then we're taking that and we're marrying it to instructional design principles.

We're not throwing instructional design principles out the window; we are going to still do task-based analysis. We are going to still do all of our design work, but what doing is we're [04:00] taking what we learned in that user center design process, so again, how is the learner feeling? How do we want them to feel? How are their clients feeling? How do we want their clients to feel? We're taking that whole picture as part of our analysis and then continuing on with the design process.

A very critical point is to ensure that are using the correct design theory or the learning theory to apply to our learning solution. For example, if our learners are feeling very, very anxious and they're nervous, and they're worried about making mistakes, the last thing that we would want to do is make their world worse by creating something that is going to make them more anxious. Something like a conditioning type approach may make them more anxious and make them feel rushed. We would take a different type of learning theory, maybe something constructivist space, for example, that would allow them to take risks and to feel good and feel confidence rather than increase anxiety.

Again, that is the basic theory behind it is marrying, again, user design principles and our instructional design principles, putting the two together to make a learning solution that is going to really enhance the learner's experience. [05:03]

Angeline: Thanks. I really love it's truly holistic, which is really how my beliefs as an instructional designer are. I'm very grounded in this concept that it should be a holistic process. It's so often we hear people talk about content. We say it all the time, people say content is king, but it really should be about the learner at the center. The content, yes, you need to get it to them, but it in order to get it to them in the most effective way, you really should dissect their feelings and create a profile around them.

It's interesting how much you discuss their truly their feelings, their possible anxiety or worries related to a training where oftentimes, I think we see people just look at their demographics, consider maybe [06:00] what technology they use, those top-level traits, and really don't get down to the nitty-gritty of what is this person thinking or feeling or behaving, so thank you for sharing that.

Angela: You're very welcome. That's absolutely true is that when we look at that learner as a whole, especially in 2022, the way that it's progressing is we're wanting really to make it so that it's, again, the best possible experience for them while also, of course, making sure that our client is satisfied.

Angeline: That's going to get-- Ultimately you want to make learners feel empowered and have them be excited about what you're training them on because then that's going to be reinforced memory retention and get them excited to bring it into practice so it makes sense. We should all be doing it, right?

Angela: Yes

Angeline: How did you find yourself, I guess, immersed in this type of research and education around empathy and learning as a learning and development professional? Because I feel like it's a little niche and it's not something that everybody dives into when they're studying this. Tell us your origin story. [07:02]

Angela: I actually have a really good example to share that really sparked my interest. We all have to take those mandatory training, that's a given, and I found myself on a receiving end of a mandatory training that was describing a change. Now, prior to that change, the rumor mill is going, and me included, I'm hearing, as well as my coworkers, we're hearing bits and pieces, so you can imagine. We know a change is coming, we are hearing rumors. Some things are true, not true, not sure. The anxiety is building.

I am taking part of this mandatory online training that e-learning opportunity and I was finding myself getting even more amped up during the training because it was just throwing all these changes at me. I wasn't able to ask questions. I didn't quite understand what it meant for me. [08:00] Why is this happening? What is this really going to mean for me? Then what really, really took it over the edge is that, in order to complete the training remark that I took the training complete, is I had to pass a graded assessment.

It was just a knowledge assessment and it was a way for us to really just regurgitate that we had obtained the information about the changes. It wasn't system-related or anything like that. It was mostly organizational changes. I left that training, I closed out of that training thinking to myself, "Wow, I feel a whole lot worse, first of all, and also, let me reflect and say, well, I create training. I hope I'm not making my learners feel this way."

Angeline: Right?

Angela: Exactly, and what can I do to prevent that? Again you always-

Susan: I was getting anxious just listening to you explain it.

Angeline: I know.


Angela: Yes. It happened to be in my master's classes at the time that this happened. I started doing some research, just say, what are some other ways that we can incorporate? That research just kept snowballing and snowballing. Eventually, I committed myself to say, "I want to do this is my dissertation." I love this topic, I'm so passionate about it, and I'm building this up to say I wasn't able to do my dissertation on this topic.

It was for logistical reasons, not for lack of research or value or anything like that, but I think of it as a blessing because now that I have passed the dissertation process, passed school, passed graduation, and have been through multiple research projects, I can now confidently go in and start to do this type of research at my pace. Not at an academic level pace with professors [10:00] and timestamps and I can actually go and do that. Again, it's a blessing in disguise because now I have that freedom to go do the research the way I want to do it.

Angeline: That is very cool, and that is a good point. Now that we're up to speed on the theory behind everything, let's get tactical. For our listeners that are thinking how can I implement this? It's a great concept, but truly, what steps do we take? Let's consider a scenario. Say a client comes to you and they want to create a training on X, like truly, like on X, Y, Z, what are the first things you do with that client to start creating a training with empathy? Because you had mentioned you still follow the instructional design for process. What additional checkboxes or considerations do you weave in that our listeners could potentially apply tomorrow in the training that they're building?

Angela: Absolutely. That's a great question. The first thing that you have to consider is when working with your clients is that they're going to be a little more cognizant [11:00] of time, value and money. We have to make sure that we head them off, and we talk to them a little bit about the reasons why we are taking this type of approach, and to let them know that it's not going to drag the analysis out for weeks and weeks and weeks, but we do need to obtain this information as part of the analysis process.

As far as what steps would we take, just to reiterate what you said, is we do make sure that we're still doing our regular design duties. We would still do our task-based analysis and our regular learner analysis to find out the context and the situation, the environment. We are going to just add on the user center design principles, which is finding out what is going on with our learners and how can we construct our view to ensure that we are designing for them in mind and making sure that we're meeting those cognitive and emotional needs. [12:00]

As part of our analysis, we need to find out some very simple questions. They go from the for the manager level, the learner level, and of course, the client level. What we would start at with the learner level is how are the learners feeling and how do we want them to feel? Remember, we're not changing their entire world, we are just trying to make their world a little bit better.

If they're already coming in and they're feeling anxious, we know that they're anxious about a change or maybe they're already feeling confident. Then we need to make sure that we're either staying on the right track and making sure that we don't decrease their confidence, or if they're already anxious, how are we not piling on and amping them up and making them even more anxious at the end of that training. We have to make sure that we're understanding that viewpoint.

From the manager viewpoint, we need to understand how are their managers really feeling and how do they feel about their managers? With retention and all of those things [13:00] going on right now because of the pandemic, sometimes there's a disconnection feeling between managers and team members. Sometimes there's a feeling of no trust, especially with a lot of org changes. What can we do to make it feel less of something or more of something, and then finally, looking at the client, how are their clients feeling and how would we want them to feel?

A very easy example, of course, is healthcare. Of course, we want our clients to feel very cared for. We want them to feel like they're empowered and so it really trickles down. If our learners are very anxious and very uptight and they're not feeling cared for, it's going to eventually trickle down into the client level as well. We wouldn't in the healthcare setting, of course, want our clients to feel that way. We wouldn't want our patients to feel that way. We have to really take that into consideration.

When we have all that information, then we make sure that we're, again, constructing our point of view [14:00] from our learner perspective, what their world is, and then we're going to take it and then understand how we can make our world a little bit better. Again, that's really where the learning theories come in as well because we have to make sure that we're looking at the whole package so that we apply that correct learning to make the correct learning intervention. Because we've heard it a million times, training is not always the answer. What if it's just a peer pod-type thing? What if it's a huddle? What if it really is a new learning? We have to make sure that we're constructing the correct type of training intervention using the correct learning theory.

Angeline: When you're establishing, how these learners feel and how their managers feel, organizations come in all shapes and sizes, so what's the best way to go about gathering that data? Like, is it through truly one-on-one surveys with a subset of that population? Or is it through-- I'm sorry, one-on-one interviews I mean, or is it through surveys? If you're doing one-on-one interviews, [15:00] is it better to come from an external source? Do you feel that people are honest during the interviews? Because sometimes it can be uncomfortable when people share feedback. What has your experience been?

Angela: That is definitely a twofold question.

Angeline: Yes. I'm sorry. All my questions are always a little twofold, so I apologize. 

Angela: So are mine, so… There are many ways that you can conduct this type of analysis, and as you intuitively mentioned is that, when you're doing one-on-one interviews, it can feel like there's a trust issue, and so my solution to that is because it could go either way, either you coming in as a designer can be seen as a stranger, or you can be seen as an ally. It depends on the situation and what's going on at the time.

You may need to bring in an external party to conduct some one-on-one interviews, but if you have a group of 1,000 people, one-on-one interviews are not always going to be-- [16:00] That is when it would probably take a couple of weeks to get through that. You can do things like your group sessions, where you're really taking a subset or a set of the population who best represents the population themselves and do some group interviews.

You can host, I've done this before, I posted the sessions when you're really getting in there, and making everybody feel comfortable, and just plotting out your ideas so that everybody feels a little more natural than just having these types of Team or Zoom calls. You can also take a look at survey data. We have some surveys, we have annual employee surveys and data that we put out every single year. We would need to take a look at that because you can usually get a general picture of, how are people really feeling?

You can also ask for client data. Again, in the case of healthcare, for example, that type of data may be a little easier to obtain because we have certain surveys [17:00] and patient satisfaction surveys that we're sending out, so we can really get at a good look. Now, if it's an internal client that we would have to go to the internal client to take a look at how they're really interacting and how they really are feeling about a particular group.

There's multiple ways that you can do that, but again, the key with really, really large groups of populations, really large groups of learners, is you need to make sure that you are finding correct representatives or representatives that would represent the population as a whole.

Angeline: As you've done this, you had mentioned, it shouldn't take extra time. As you've been striving to implement this within your organization and throughout your work, what resistance have you received and how did you overcome that?

Angela: I'm very lucky, telling you the truth is that I have not encountered any resistance, but I do think that--

Angeline: That's awesome.

Angela: It is. Our group is really very, I feel very empowered to do what I need to do within my organization. [18:00] I have some really wonderful management directors that they love learning as much as I do, and so they always back me. The other key to that is that upfront, I am making sure that I let the client know that I'm partnering with them, that it's about the value time, money situation, and make sure that they're very aware of those things and then also letting them know, again, that value that this is going to bring.

We really talk through some of the issues that they might be noticing and saying, "Okay, well, if they're feeling disconnected, then I want to let you know that this training is not going to make them feel even more disconnected." To them, that's value. It's not setting off alarm bells. I would say for anyone who is listening and wants to implement this and thinking, "Oh, well, my clients would never let me do that." Just think of it the angle of time, money value, and how you can make sure [19:00] that you can proposition it as a value to the organization, especially when you're playing on retention. We're not being manipulative, we're being honest. If people are wanting to leave or they're feeling anxious and we're worried about them leaving, let's see what we can do to make them feel less disconnected and less anxious and less inclined to leave.

Susan: Certainly, that ROI has to be very compelling.

Angela: It does.

Angeline: Yes, and I know before we brought you on the podcast, we had asked you to just, because you have tons of examples I'm sure to pull from, to just think about one that would really resonate as we talk today about how you applied empathy to your instructional design approach and what difference you felt you made to the learner. Would you be able to share that before we wrap up today?

Angela: Absolutely. I have an example that I'm very excited to share because it exemplifies how important it is to make sure you put the learner at the center and that you really are choosing the correct learning theory. [20:00] A few years ago, I was approached to create a training that would ensure that a population of learners would meet a certain metric, and so easy enough, right? We just create that training and our learners are going to take it and they're going to magically make that number soar. They're going to meet that metric.

Sounds great, but then, as I did a little more deep dive into the situation, what I learned is a couple of really interesting points is, first of all, the learners knew what the metric was. They knew the process on how to make sure that they met the metric, so what exactly would a training do for them? Not much. Instead, what I took a look at is how are they really feeling, what's really going on here? Now, at this point, some designers would just walk away, and they would say, "Well, it's a performance issue, walk away." I wasn't able to walk away. I said, "Okay, let's find a solution to this." [21:01]

What I found is that the learners were feeling demotivated. They were feeling like, "This is just all that mattered was this metric?" They just felt very amped up, very anxious, unconfident. You can imagine all the feelings that were going with this. They wanted to meet it but they felt so demotivated. "We can't do this. Again, we know the process, we know what we're supposed to do," but they're just shrinking back so much. I said, "Okay." What I did is I made a yearlong program that had really nothing to do with training, which is shocking.

Angeline: Wow. 

Angela: [unintelligible 00:21:39] had learning principles in it. What I did instead is I had, again, a year-long campaign, and it was themed. I ended up making large posters, which is, this is really crossing away from the design world, but again, I do what I have to do. I created posters and postcards that were all themed and would create [22:00] tips and tricks and have some huddle information that managers could pass on, some coaching tips because that's what they needed. They needed to be built up.

What was the foundation of that was social learning. They started to learn from each other but the coaches were their managers as coaches would not only model behavior, but also they were able to listen to exemplary phone calls so they could start to model that behavior. Again, we're not going to rehash all the steps, instead, we're going to try to get them to where they need to be.

I also implemented as part of social learning, implemented badges, and inputs that they could see the badges and they could say, "Look what everything I have," and of course giveaways. That's an example of something that we thought was a learning and that completely went in another direction, [23:00] and a completely different type of educational experience, but it really went well because of the theory that was selected.

Angeline: That is very cool and a great example. It sounds like it really brought a lot of positive energy to the topic as well, which is awesome. Before we close, can you share what's next at Highmark Health for you?

Angela: Absolutely. I am in the leadership space now, which is a very exciting space to be in. We can really empower our leaders to ensure that our team members are happy and to help with retention and make sure everybody feels valued. One of the projects that I'm working on now is really impacting our leadership as a whole. I am ensuring that as part of the design work that I'm putting forth all of the empathetic output, that impact we could say, that will be a [24:00] result of this particular project. It's really exciting to see the connection and show the connection to some of the upper management of when our leaders are feeling this way, this is how our team members are going to feel.

I'm really excited about that again because I think it's just going to make a huge difference in one particular part of the organization. I hope too, that it branches out and can also become a value in the rest of the leadership space.

Angeline: Absolutely. I think it's going to be really meaningful.

Susan: Thanks so much for joining us today, Angela. Really nice to listen to your talk. You're so passionate and I think your insights are inspirational but they're also really actionable. I think a lot of people will have some great takeaways listening to you today. Thank you.

Angela: Thank you.

Angeline: Thank you so much.

Angela: Thank you very, very much for having me. I really do appreciate it.


Susan: Angela definitely had some great practical approaches to using empathetic principles and learning to get better results. What are some of your key takeaways, Angeline?

Angeline: Yes. Oh, my gosh, I loved hearing from her today. I think my biggest takeaway is that it's just critical that we dig deeper when we're creating learner profiles and really just go beyond the characteristics that are just surface level and actually think how they feel, and then having that willingness to pivot our training approach so we're aligning with their cognitive and emotional states.

Susan: How do you use this kind of thinking at d'Vinci, Angeline?

Angeline: As she was talking, I was giggling to myself. The empathetic principles really feel complimentary to learning experience design principles. At d'Vinci, we've been providing more and more learning experience design services over just our content development services and learning experience design really recognizes the importance of designing a solution that's human-centered, so we're always striving to create a positive learning experience like Angela discussed with us today. To get there, that means hearing from your learners firsthand and getting their input so you're really [26:00] developing that holistic profile. I feel like they go hand-in-hand and it's really, I wouldn't say one and the same, but they're part--

Susan: Complimentary. Yes.

Angeline: Yes.

Susan: Thanks, Angeline. Many thanks to Angela Sample of Highmark Health for joining us today. If you have any questions about what we talked about, you can reach out to us on d'Vinci's social channels, through our website, d', or by emailing us at poweredbylearning@d'


Voiceover: Powered by learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We can collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at d'


Angeline Evans

By Angeline Evans, Client Solutions Consultant

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