Workplace Culture

Five Ways GE’s Design Principles Can Create Better Learning

By Kate Everson

May. 16, 2014

E-learning can be made quickly, but sometimes design falls by the wayside.

“Most e-learning fails to live up to its promise,” states the “Serious E-learning Manifesto,” a document supported by groups such as the Association for Talent Development and the E-learning Guild. “We further believe that current trends evoke a future of only negligible improvement in e-learning design — unless something radical is done to bend the curve.”

Manifesto, meet General Electric Co., a 122-year-old engineering organization with a software branch looking to reintroduce design.

GE is known for its engineering — after all, it makes everything from jet engines to dishwashers. But only about 10 years ago did it consider design when producing software to help people understand how to use its machines.

Greg Petroff, General Electric Software’s chief experience officer, described five design principles that can make e-learning and other development programs more effective:

1. Design for context. “Recognize where people are, what their goals are and what they’re trying to accomplish in the temporal moment,” Petroff said. Employees at their desks with a task to finish would probably need a program designed for a laptop, while a field engineer walking up to a piece of equipment would need a mobile device.

But context goes beyond technology. Knowing an employee’s purpose, location and goal can provide on-demand content and reduce the time users spend looking for it so they can focus on learning.

2. Design for connection. Similar to context, connection allows people to access their workplace social networks to get help. For example, Petroff said that same field engineer is walking up to a piece of equipment that’s been in the field for 20 years. If employees take photos and video and share them, they can all learn from their co-workers’ experiences.

3. Design for operations. As operational information and big data are increasingly broken down into readable measurements, design ensures dashboards are meaningful to the people using them.

“We have to understand design for operational awareness at a systems level,” Petroff said. This means being aware of how one concept, such as a war room facility, may work for one industry but not another.

4. Design to make us smarter. Rather than have a system that tells human beings exactly what to do and excludes them from the decision process, Petroff said technology should allow them to have options.

“Interfaces have to be designed around crafting and creating, making us smarter along the way,” he said. “Think about a Fitbit. You run while wearing it, and it gets you to exercise more. You learn more about your exercise behavior, and it changes your behavior because you’re getting smarter in the process of using that tool. That kind of feedback loop is something we’re interested in. It gets technology to work for us, not us to work for technology.”

5. Design for self-customization. Learning systems can incorporate customized dashboards to organize content in ways that make sense for each individual. For instance, they might include what the users need to excel at their jobs and overall career as well as what type of learning they need.
“We’re in an environment where the tools are easy enough, [so] why not create a view of the world and make it meaningful for me [individuals]?” Petroff said.

This story originally appeared in Workforce's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.

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