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Ask the Experts: Julie Dirksen

Julie Dirksen is a Learning Strategy Consultant at Usable Learning. Julie's work is widely known in the field and her book is a popular go to for L&D professional development and for good reason.

Julie's approach brings focus to the need of the learning and as the book says, designing for how people learn.

Let's take a deeper look into Julie's perspective.

1) Your experience has taken you across designing, lecturing, managing and even authoring your own book. What made you decide to get into learning design?

I often describe my audience as the “Hey, you’re a good customer service representative! We are going to let you train the other customer service reps.” The origin story of most people in L&D is domain knowledge. They know a lot about how to do a job, and they are pretty good at explaining things, so they get tapped to teach their subject. Often while they know a lot about their topic, they know very little about teaching others. I identify with that because it was basically my entry into the field as well. I had done a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language, but was working for a finance company part time as a side job in college. I got offered a training job at the finance company and found that I really liked designing the learning materials, and figuring out how to use technology to support performance. I started taking classes in instructional technology and eventually went back to school full time to do a Masters in Instructional Systems Technology. I always say I’m happy if get to learn something new, and it doesn’t matter that much what the topic is, so instructional design consulting means I’m always getting to learn about new things and that’s fun for me.

2) What areas of academia have proven the most useful or applicable to your work?

Aside from the obvious choice of educational psychology, the academic fields that have most influenced me are user experience design, though it was called human-computer interaction or human factors design when I was in graduate school, and the behavioural sciences, including behavioural psychology and behavioural economics. I’ve also been interested in game design because I think game designers have a very sophisticated understanding about designing for practice and skill development. I also took a graduate course in data management and database design that was hugely helpful.

3) Your book “Design for How People Learn” is considered by many in the industry to be a required handbook. Why did you decide to write a book and how did the process shape your practice?

As I referenced above, most people come to the field because they have domain knowledge, but don’t know a lot about how to teach their topic. Instructional design books were often jargon-heavy and academic, and not really accessible to people who were just getting started with instructional design. I wanted to write a “first book” that would be accessible to anyone. If you want to learn graphic design, people hand you “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” by Robin Williams and when you want to learn about UX, people give you “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug. We didn’t seem to have a current version that book in instructional design. I was very influenced by Kathy Sierra, as well. I learned more about how to actually design from her blog and books than I did in graduate school (though I learned many other useful things in graduate school).

People who are asked to teach things will make it look like classes they’ve attended in the past. There’s a PowerPoint, and the teach stands at the front of the room and explains things. But the things that make that a good or bad experience can be subtle. For example, does the teacher engage the students? Does the teacher use good examples to explain principles? Do they check the students’ understanding? I was hoping to give people enough of the foundations to get them into the neighborhood of good design for learning. One book isn’t going to get you all the way there, but it can help you understand the basic building blocks.

4) Metrics are often considered one of the hardest areas to master in designing. How do you approach identifying solid metrics and applying them in the process?

One of the things I’ve been advocating in recent years is to look for small-scale evaluation opportunities. A lot of L&D people just don’t have the organizational capital or the budgets to do full audience behavioural evaluation, so they settle for something like weak survey data. As a result, most practitioners are starved for sufficient feedback on their designs. The limitations of LMS reporting compounds this. But there are many smaller interventions that most people can do instead.

For example, can you prototype a quick solution and test it with a few users? If you can’t get behavioural data about your full audience, can you track a small cohort? Can you follow up and interview a few people a month after a training intervention? Kirkpatrick has been the dominant model for so many years, but something like remote user testing or Brinkerhoff’s success case model may give more useful information and be more practical to implement.

5) The industry has seen new theories rise and fall over the years. What theories and approaches should every designer know?

I think I might have written a whole book to answer that question, but one model that I think is really useful right now is Michie et al’s COM-B Model, also referred to as the Behaviour Change Wheel. It’s a really useful model for breaking down a behaviour change challenge. You take a desired behaviour and analyze according to physical & psychological capability, social & physical environment, and reflective & automatic motivation. The analysis then maps across to types of interventions and behaviour change techniques.

6) In the same light, what theories and approaches can cause more harm than good and should be avoided?

Be suspicious of anything with answers that are too tidy, and assume you need to test pretty much any intervention in your own environment. Sharon Boller has a great anecdote about testing a tool that supposedly measured project management ability. She gave it to some of her staff that she knew to be strong project managers, and the test results were very mixed. If it seems too easy or pat, then it probably is. If it’s a model with round numbers (10%, 20% etc.), be sure to look into the origins of those numbers. Real data is messy, and even approaches that worked well in the research lab may not translate to your complex work environment.

7) VR and immersive tech are some examples of the ever-emerging tech in learning design. What new technology should we be paying attention to?

Immersive tech is really interesting because it opens the possibility that we can have context-rich practice environments. There are some challenges we really haven’t cracked yet, though. Right now, authoring in VR environments is still quite costly, and VR interventions require a safe, protected environment for people to use the VR technology. My main issue with most technology is that it tends to be about content dissemination. Getting content to people isn’t the hard problem, in my opinion. The hard problem is creating opportunities to practice with good feedback on performance. I tend to be technology agnostic -- there are better people than me to talk to about technology selection and adoption – but I’m in favour of any technology that supports practice and feedback.

8) Neuroscience has been brought up in many articles and conferences as a key aspect of modern learning design. How do you see neuroscience effecting design and how can we apply it?

It mostly isn’t relevant for our practice. I was very excited about neuroscience in the early 2000s, but the awkward truth is that it mostly doesn’t impact our actual practice as learning designers. Daniel Willingham has a great video about why most of the insights of neuroscience doesn’t inform classroom practice, and Will Thalheimer tracked all the so-called brain-based interventions that really came from behavioural psychology research long before we knew which brain mechanisms were engaged. There are a few exceptions, but most neuroscience research tells us more about the underlying mechanisms of education practices that we already knew about, rather than revealing new practices.

9) Your book is considered key for many new learners to develop their skills. How do you keep up to date with your professional development and are there any other authors you would recommend?

I’m pretty reliant on my network these days to stay up to date. If I’m researching a particular topic, I’ll dig into the actual research papers, but in a lot of cases, I’ll rely on my research-to-practice colleagues like Jane Bozarth, Will Thalheimer, Clark Quinn, Matt Richter, Patti Shank, Mirjam Neelen and Connie Malamed. For design guidance, I’ll always recommend Cathy Moore and Don Norman’s books. I also like and Samuel Salzer’s Habit Weekly for behavioural science updates. I mentioned Kathy Sierra earlier and it makes me sad that most newer people aren’t familiar with her, but digging around in her blog archives or reading her book Badass: Making Users Awesome is highly recommended.

10) Lastly, is there any other advice you’d offer new designers coming into the industry?

My three pieces of advice are:

1 – Get a network. There are many ways to do this online or in person, but absolutely get out there and connect with other people in your field.

2 – Say “So, for example…” as often as possible. Most instructional materials need many more examples of how to apply things than they currently include.

3 – Figure out a feedback loop. Always ask the question “How do I know if what I’m building is effective?”. Testing with users has never been easier – have them share their screen over zoom as they go through things. Even if you only test it out with one person by seeing if they can perform after learning, that’s better than no feedback at all.

Thank you, Julie, for this session!

Please check out Julie's site, group and course for more great professional development (I'm a member of the group as well!)

Check out more from Julie at: My website:

Facebook group:

Online Course:

In the next session, I'll be speaking with neuroscience learning pirate, Lauren Waldmen, be sure to check it out!

(Note: I do not gain any financial benefit from these links, They are solely provided for your ease of access).

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