e-Learning projects: Understanding a client’s needs

Imagine that a group of people each have a box with something in it. Let’s call it a ‘beetle.’ No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says they know what a beetle is only by looking at their beetle. It would be possible that everyone has something different in their box. Maybe the box is even empty.

This is the same problem that we, as project leads, face every time we start a new project with a client: how do I know that I’ve understood what the client wants?

With some things it’s easy. How long do you want the course to last? 20 minutes. What data do you need the course to track? Completion status, name and job title. But questions such as ‘How faithfully should I follow the content provided?’ won’t necessarily get you a definitive answer. And force feeding these answers through the Jeremy Paxman quiz maker isn’t yet an option available to the contemporary e-learning designer.

For instance, how do you know whether your client understands the technical limitations of rapid development tools when they opt to use them to build their company’s e-learning? Maybe you thought you’d explained it to them during the kick off meeting, and they made all the outward visible signs of understanding, but when you sent them the end product they asked you to add in a flashing button.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes a project lead can make is to make assumptions about what a client knows. You don’t have to err too far on the side of caution and assume that your client knows nothing. But you do need to know whether your client’s understanding of ‘highly animation based’ is simply your default Flash course or an ultra hi-tech, multimedia-intensive learning extravaganza.

So, how do we solve this ‘Beetle in the box’ problem?

Improve your communications pattern.

If you’re concerned that you may not be able to deliver what a client has asked for, then it might be worth spending a bit more time liaising with your client. What clients expect at the beginning of a project may be radically different from what they expect mid-way through or even towards the end of the project life cycle. This is particularly true if your client is new to e-learning. After a couple of storyboard and interim releases, their understanding of the possibilities grow and so too can their demands for the course. You can then find yourself having to manage the expectations of an overzealous client.

Have regular conversations with your client. We find it helps to hold weekly teleconferences with project stakeholders to plot the project’s progress against the evolving expectations of our clients. Taking meeting and call notes helps because it gives your client the opportunity to confirm your understanding and ensure that you’re on the right track.

Meet your client’s needs and manage their expectations.

Not all projects that fail to meet client expectations do so because of a breakdown in communications. Sometimes a client may be unrealistic with their own expectations; they ask for their course to be built using a rapid development tool, fully aware of its limitations, but on seeing the end product change their minds. Ultimately, this client had something else in their box. And it’s our responsibility to make sure we manage expectations.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to focus more on what you believe an organisation needs. After all, we’re e-learning consultants as well as service providers. Expectations are sometimes based on personal opinions rather than on what the course needs to achieve; so whilst I may not be able to visualise the look and feel that my client has printed in their head, I can recognise that if my client wants his staff to comply with the UK Bribery Act then they’re going to have to be taught how to complete an expenses form.

We’re always looking for ways to become better at identifying what our clients expect of the learning solutions we design for them. Understanding a client’s expectations will help to minimise those last minute change requests that can throw a whole project off schedule, and it will also help to ensure that you deliver high quality products that meet the needs of the company and its learners. A course that cannot meet its learner’s needs really is no better than an empty box.

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About the author

Moira Nicolson - Instructional designer and Project lead

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