Learning programs: how to employ human-centered design and activity-centered design

Where to integrate human-centered vs activity-centered design in instructional design process, and how to blend both together for maximized learning.


The evolution of designing technology

Over the years, innovation design has shifted from technology-centered or activity-centered to human-centered. Early technological innovation fundamentally changed the human experience, such as the shift from horses to cars. As tech became more accessible and new innovative tools emerged at an exponential rate, the user became the center of design; instead of humans adapting to new technology, technology now adapts to humans. Time, money, and brain power is spent designing tools that are centered on human values.

Both these approaches—human-centered and activity-centered design—have led to monumental technological advances and prove useful to innovation in all spaces, including instructional design. Effective instructional design channels both approaches, creating logical learning structures that build user confidence, knowledge, and problem-solving skills.


Analyzing a learning program’s design

Accordingly, when it comes to instructional design and building an effective learning program, when should creators rely on human-centered or activity-centered design? Let’s break this down by analyzing the four instructional design steps; identify user needs, build processes, build materials, and evaluate effectiveness.

Learning program step 1: Identify user needs

The first step in instructional design is identifying needs–a logical place to center the user. Ask: which learning approach or strategy will best help this audience learn and develop at each stage? As with all human-centered design processes, ensure you are identifying what the user needs vs wants (these can overlap but don’t wander too far into the weeds of user wants, as it can lead to a stagnant, narrow-adopted program). One way to assess user needs using a human-centered approach is to shadow existing operations and conduct interviews to identify knowledge gaps between teams.

Learning program step 2: Build processes

Once you analyze knowledge gaps and learning needs, begin building a learning process fit for all groups involved. Because this part is process-oriented, a logical, activity-based approach works best. When creating a learning structure, consider all elements involved, including the user, tools, people with whom users will interact, other existing processes, and other macro or micro elements affected by the process. This starts with an outline of objectives and ordering learning opportunities into a logical, sequential order that can build knowledge and confidence over time.

Learning program step 3: Build materials

With an effective process or learning structure planned, begin creating materials. In this phase, centering the user is crucial. When you look at the learning process, consider the user’s journey from minimal knowledge to confidence, then address current pain points and tackle future problems. To build materials, start from the user and build back up to the process.

Learning program step 4: Evaluate effectiveness

With a learning process in place consisting of materials designed to fit user needs, it’s time to test the system’s effectiveness. Are learners solving problems more effectively than before? Successful instructional design solutions are built to be editable, repeatable, and scalable. A good point to stop and reflect is after the first iteration, using the learning and understanding principles of human-centered design to gauge user satisfaction and tool integrity. If you are conducting interviews or shadowing, are users still struggling with pre-existing problems? Looking at the whole activity and shifting to a process mindset: is everything logical, do all elements blend, and are tools used effectively?

Summary of activity-centered and human-centered approach to learning programs

Learning structures work best with intentional design, using both human and activity-centered elements. User experience is a key element that ensures your audience feels heard, accurately represented, and understood, while activity-centered design allows instructional designers to let their expertise shine. This is the place to plug innovative technology and help users adapt to new tools.

Instructional design is where they converge, resulting in effective learnings that are repeatable, scalable, and easily adapted to change. Looking to learn more about learning design? Check out what we provide through Learning offerings at Kalles Group.

Written by Katie Schneider for Kalles Group, December 2022

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