Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Amazon would make a good Instructional Designer

By Jay Lambert

As you likely know, Amazon's software is amazing. Whenever I sign on to the site (which is fairly often), they suggest a variety of things for me to purchase that are typically right on target. I see books on instructional design and eLearning, books and music that my kids will like, travel guides for my wife, the list goes on and on. And I also get emails from them every week advertising new arrivals--things that I absolutely must have. (That's why Visa knows me well, too; but that's another story.)

In other words, Amazon knows me and knows me pretty well. And it's not just me; they know their audience. No wonder they're so successful.

Amazon's approach fits really well with instructional design. Don't just trot out your content and go home. Get to know your audience.
  • Observe the training audience in action
  • Do some surveying and analysis
  • Tailor your learning delivery to a format that will engage them
  • Offer up what they feel they will need to bring about your learning objective successfully.

Knowing your audience impacts so many pieces of a learning initiative--the content itself, the format, the delivery mechanism, what might grab the learners' attention and what might not.

Does your audience need to know the content inside and out? Or do they need to know where to find it if they need it? (For more on this, see Pointing to the Five Moments of Learning Need.)

Does your audience have time for training? Company culture is an important consideration. For example, one of our clients has a very mobile and busy workforce; they respond best to short, very targeted modules, typically 10 minutes or less (learning theory says most do). Another client gets only a set amount of training time each quarter, so they opt for a much more immersive experience to gain the most they can out of each session.

Will your audience access the eLearning course from a desktop, a laptop, a mobile device, or maybe something else? What are the capabilities of their device? Be mindful of building eLearning that your target will be able to view. Not doing this would pretty much defeat the purpose right out of the gate.

And also be aware of the difference between attention getting and potentially objectionable. Amazon never pitches certain things to me and I appreciate them for it. How does this relate to instructional design (besides avoiding certain shock tactics)? The answer to this might sometimes surprise you. A friend of mine recently designed a somewhat cutting edge course with avatars, scenario-based learning, videos, and more--exactly what many companies wish for. And yet his audience, Baby Boomer engineers, hated it. In a post evaluation, they invariably asked for a less engaging, more straight-forward delivery, so that they could get back to work faster. Not what he expected at all. His audience was so irritated by the avatars that they missed the point of the content.

As you design your next course, think of Amazon. What clues of behavior have you observed or been told that will help you target the experience for your learners?

Be an Amazon, not a Webvan (which by the way, seems to be a part of Amazon these days).


  1. Comparing a training audience analysis to Amazon's targeted marketing techniques is a really clever angle! Amazon also makes effective use of social media - reviews, ratings, etc. - which, when used appropriately, can also be a great asset to an eLearning course. And the analogy goes on...

  2. Excellent post, not only because of the interesting comparison to Amazon, but also because the comments about knowing your audience.

  3. Good article, but where does the ". . . typically 10 minutes or less (learning theory says most do). " come from?

  4. Anonymous, I was thinking of chunking and cognitive overload theories. I suppose I should have said 9 minutes (for the 7 plus/minus 2).

    Here is some brief info on Miller's chunking theory, http://www.lifecircles-inc.com/Learningtheories/IP/GAMiller.html. And here is an interesting academic paper on Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning, of which two are segmenting and coherence, http://chua2.fiu.edu/nursing/anesthesiology/courses/ngr%206715%20insttech/slides/reduce_cognitive_load_in_me_mayer_moreno2003.pdf.


Thank you for your comments.