More and more often, a website is part of the blend for a successful change campaign. The most obvious example is a learning programme which engages with a wide, public, audience. This will require a place to host elearning which also performs a few other functions: links to resources, news updates and contact details. A website is the logical solution.
Websites are also invaluable for internal campaigns if you need to host a repository of resources and make it easily searchable. This is particularly important when users will be accessing learning resources on a bitesize basis, as and when they need them, rather than completing an hour of elearning. Most companies nowadays create portals on large and complex topics, like diversity, sustainability and leadership, for example.
Above all, websites are great when you have a clear call to action that you want to build a community or movement around. An effective site allows you to gather pledges of support, and it also makes it easy to gather comments and drive social sharing.
It’s more than likely that you’ll be involved in building a learning website of some kind in 2014. To help, the Saffron team has drawn on its hard-earned experience to put together 10 tips for building a learning website in a reasonable timeframe… and on a reasonable budget!
1. Decide on the content first
You need to understand more or less exactly what is going on the website before you start thinking about the technology or the design. If there’s lots of content to be created, get your production line in place before you even consider the build. Make sure to have a complete site map before starting the wireframes and the mock-ups. Otherwise, don’t expect anything meaningful from your graphic designer!
2. What’s your call to action?
To make sense of your content, you need to understand what the user is expected to do as a result of visiting your website. Do they need to access a resource, submit some details, or share with others? Understanding the potential call to actions will give you an understanding of the structure and scope of the site and its supporting technologies. The more potential actions, the more difficult the build will be.
3. Use an open source CMS
Just as Moodle provides provides a great starting point for an effective learning management system (and can be used ‘out of the box’ for hosting one or two courses), open source content management systems such as Drupal, Joomla and WordPress are the place to start for most website requirements. At Saffron we love WordPress! It’s extremely well-supported, and provides most of the admin functionality required ‘out-of-the-box’.
4. Buy a theme
For a project with a moderate budget, there really is no point in creating a bespoke theme when so many fantastic themes are available online. Themeforest.net is a huge repository to try out. There are free options, but for less than $60 you’ll find yourself in possession of a powerful set of templates to perform most of the key functions for your website. Get to know its features and how much can be customised from the front-end before you start producing mock-ups. Avoid custom development unless you absolutely have to!
5. Make it mobile responsive
If you want your website to reach the biggest audience, it’s inexcusable not to make it mobile optimised. Many WordPress themes are responsively designed straight out of the box, so it needn’t be a development challenge. But you also need to test your website with a smartphone. Does the flow make sense? Is your call to action clear?
6. Don’t reinvent the wheel
Once you know what you want the website to do, look for plugins or add-ons which are already available and suitable to your requirement! If you need to get people to sign-up to a mailing list, use a free service that generates the form for you, such as Mailchimp.
7. Create a pixel perfect website
For a polished and professional result, always apply the basic rules of typography to make the website look clean, professional, user friendly and easy to read. Make a clear distinction between the different areas of a page and follow the principles of Consistency, Repetition, Alignment and Proximity. Think usability before design, and you’ll be on the right path.
8. Follow accessibility standards
Make sure your website adheres to W3C accessibility guidelines, so it’s works available to screen-readers and to those with visual impairments. This includes including sensible alternative text for all images and allowing keyboard navigation. Following these standards will ensure a better user experience for everyone! Find out more here.
9. Don’t design it for yourself, design it for the audience
Your audience knows the websites they like and is familiar with how they work, so there’s no point in doing something that’s totally different. Reinventing the web is a risky business, so leave it to the professionals. Instead, ensure the design makes sense for a completely new visitor with very simple navigation. Every extra click required will lose your visitors, so avoid nested pages and menus.
10. And finally, don’t forget to…
- Turn off search engine indexing and restrict the website to your IP address whilst it’s in development, – you don’t want others to view your website before it’s complete.
- Be aware of the latest technology on the market (e.g.: responsive, retina display) but also make sure it is compatible with old technology (Internet Explorer 6, 1024X768 resolution.
- Make sure to have smart keywords in your metatags for the best Google results.
- Give meaningful names to pages and URLs to avoid confusion when you want to edit it after few months.
Hopefully these tips have made your learning website idea less daunting and more like any other learning technology project. And, of course, many of the same tips apply to building a simple smartphone app. So what change are you hoping to achieve with a website? We’d love to hear about your next project.
Happy Easter everyone!
In February I reflected on the Learning Technologies Exhibition 2014 with a post called ‘Design the complete experience’. Thinking about the end-to-end learner experience was a major theme of the show, and my title was inspired by the continuing relevance of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning, which was first published in 2006 and republished in 2010. The idea behind this book is to provide a toolkit for learning professionals who want to design programmes that make a genuine business impact, summarised in the six ‘Ds’:
- Define Outcomes in Business Terms
- Design the Complete Experience
- Deliver for Application
- Drive Follow-Through
- Deploy Active Support
- Document Results
Today I want to draw attention to the first ‘D’, looking specifically at how we define the problem which we are trying to solve with training. In an excellent, often searing, chapter on the necessity of defining outcomes in business terms (yes, that means monetary terms!), the authors remark that ‘in most fields of human endeavour, half the solution is defining the right problem’ (p. 34).
This is an insight which many of us would do well to remember. In an industry focussed on ‘solutions’, it is not surprising that few of us challenge some rather fixed notions of what the ‘problem’ is. We tend to assume that most organisational ‘problems’ can be aligned to one or other of the established ‘genres’ of training. Revenues dropping? You need some sales training. Negative media coverage? Better roll out some more D&I training.
Typically, a lofty initiative or management vision sits behind well-funded programmes. Yet, however well-intentioned (and however specific it sounds) such an imposed ‘vision’ is often part of the problem. There’s no doubt that vision is hugely important, but the day-to-day realities of problems in large organisations can be obscured by a focus on the big picture.
What we forget is that problems are specific to circumstances and organisations. Whereas it is a truism that best practice looks boringly similar, dysfunction is unpleasantly diverse and varied. Why, then, do we expect the same (often generic) training content to solve a different problem every time? Prioritising content over tangible behavioural outcomes is the original sin of elearning developers. And as long as we refuse to distinguish one problem from another, this waste of effort will continue to be richly rewarded.
Take mental resilience, for example, which is a key training theme of 2013/14. The cost of stress, depression and anxiety is a growing issue, and there are many managers who would like a ‘quick-fix’: some off-the-shelf content which they can roll out to solve the ‘problem’ of stress in their organisation. But to assume that the problem of stress is similar is a fallacy. The causes of stress are rooted in circumstances. This means they are different in every organisation.
Explaining to middle managers at a global firm that working 14-hour days is actually less productive and more harmful to their mental health than the alternative is distinctly do-able. But providing a similar kind of resilience training to social carers who work alone, face difficult conditions and are paid the minimum wage is unlikely to be as effective.
The latter, as a group, face a set of very specific pain-points. To boost resilience in a measurable way, what you really need to do is ask them what the problem is and try to fix it. It’s rarely the case that a problem can be solved only by training. We know that, to a surprising degree, the right behaviours can overcome most obstacles. But behaviour must also be facilitated by the environment in which it takes place.
In this context, the kind of systemic issues – even crises – that training is expected to solve are simply astonishing. It’s not surprising that most employees are inherently sceptical. We have blurred the distinction between identifying a problem and inventing one. Wick, Pollock, Jefferson and Flanagan highlight the importance of asking. That is, the importance of conducting serious internal market research when designing a new training product.
They point out that successful companies do not define a customer by his or her demographic profile. Instead, they target products at specific circumstances or moments of need which are common to large groups. People may be incredibly diverse, but the situations and pain-points which they face on a daily basis in a given situation are consistent. Especially when it comes to technology, we’ve found that circumstance trumps demographic every time.
Tablet computers and big-screen smartphones seemed initially like a solution to a problem which didn’t exist. Actually, the majority are now mainly used for browsing the internet whilst sat on the sofa and watching TV. It’s not exactly inspiring, but I remember, pre-2010, sitting in a living room where everyone was watching TV at the same time as balancing a bulky laptop on their knees. Tablet computers wouldn’t have taken off if they weren’t a specific solution to a specific, albeit rather mundane, set of consumer problems. It doesn’t matter whether you are fifteen or fifty-five, you’re likely to face the same problem.
Conducting internal market research enables us to identify the highest-value needs in an organisation. The authors provide a solid methodology for interviewing line managers in order to ascertain the problem – which I thoroughly recommend. However, in the recent years, we’ve gained increasingly powerful online tools to help us define the right problem. Survey Monkey collates data in seconds that used to take days. Internal social networking platforms will highlight pain-points and concerns in real time.
Most importantly, head offices now have access to a mass of business data which is yielded by the CRM and ERP systems now in place at almost every company. It’s not always clear to decision-makers how to use this data, but this is a chance for L&D to demonstrate some serious value. Data yields insight into behaviours, and training should be able to alter those behaviours in a specific and measurable way. Combine those two, and you’ll find that your training spend goes a lot further than it did before.