Steve Jobs and Lessons for Designing Learning

Update : With great regret I have to update this blog to include the news of Steve Jobs passing away. – Jeevan

Steve Jobs and his philosophy of product design have some powerful lessons for designing learning “products” that deliver results and effective user experience.

When Steve Job’s resignation as the CEO of Apple made the headline item on ABC news (Australian) I knew it was serious news. The media is replete with tributes to Steve Jobs. And why not? The visionary has managed to make Apple one of the largest company (by market capitalisation just behind Exxon Mobile (Oil & Gas). For a company whose main product is innovation that is mighty impressive.

I must admit I have stayed away from Apple products for as long as I possibly could. I have a Blackberry Storm  as my smartphone and a powerful and slim Samsung NX900 ultraportable  laptop. My resistance was finally breached when I bought an iPad 2. Believe me I have tried really hard to get another tablet but I simply could not find a package as good as iPad2. However when I look at my non – Apple devices I can’t help noticing that they aspire to be Apple products. Blackberry has a touch screen and navigation similar to an iPhone. Samsung NX900 is a response to Macbook Air.  Yes, I admit, despite my reluctance I am an admirer of Apple products and Steve Jobs.

Learning Cafe on ipad
Read Learning Cafe on your iPad

What the lessons we can learn from Steve Jobs approach to product design? Many but some of them are:

1. Less is More.

Have a look at your iPhone, iPod, or iPad. One button does the most frequent and important tasks. Flicking of screens mimics what we have learnt over centuries i.e flicking pages. Of course, Apple did not necessarily invent these features but certainly fine-tuned it and boldly made it the centre piece of its products, changing user experience profoundly.

Similarly, face to face learning and e-Learning needs to be designed so that the learner is not presented with array of buttons (i.e bells and whistles) but allows them to reach the learning in the minimum number of steps or hours or clicks. This may mean sacrificing “excitement and engagement” to give back to the learner the most important most precious commodity for them -”time”.

A project I worked on was the development of online continuing professional development (CPD) modules for specialist doctors. These specialists are extremely busy but need to learn constantly to keep up with medical trends and get the required CPD points for the year.

We started work on two modules. Both included readings and case studies. The first one had flash interactions and pictures (including happy smiley people) to make the course engaging and exciting. We ran out time to build flash interactions for the second one. When the courses went live I readied myself for negative comments from the doctors about how boring the second module was.

Much to my surprise the feedback was more positive for the second “boring” course! They could access and complete the learning quickly and get back to work. They also recommended that we remove the “smiley happy people” from the first module as it did nothing for them.  That was a bit of a reality check for me. The rest of the modules were based on minimalistic design and they continue to get positive feedback. Saved some money for the project in the process.

Let me not give you the impression that simplicity is design is simple to achieve. It takes extreme focus on customer needs (see next point) and the ruthless elimination of that which does not add value to the learner experience. The effort will be worth the pain. More on this in another blog post.

2. Customer “Centricness”

John Scully (ex-CEO of Apple) in an interview talks about Steve approach to customer centric design.  Steve always put himself in the shoes of the customer and even takes the lift down to the customer’s level understanding and more importantly, ignorance. Then he probably wonders “how can we make sure that they use my products and use it well”?

Any learning needs analysis should include learner analysis. I however believe that learner analysis needs to be more intimate. Often we take into account what and how the organisation wants the learner to learn but not necessarily what and how the learners want to learn.

However unlike Steve the CEO, we are likely to be constrained by the limitations and inflexibility of the tools and frameworks available in our company. For example it may be the opinion of the senior leaders that induction should be run as five day classroom training or that the only option available is to develop a “page turning” compliance course to be deployed on an underwhelming learning management system.

However even within these constraints, it is possible to design more customer centric learning. In my humble, opinion some are not “real” constraints but rather a lack of understanding of or comfort with the tools available to us. A blog on why L&D folks including class room trainers need to be comfortable with technology based learning tools coming up soon.

3. Think about connecting to the bigger ecosystem and context.

Buying software, music. movies, ebooks from the Apple on-line store on my iPad is one of the most intuitive and easy on-line purchases I have ever made. I have a plethora of choices at reasonable prices (US prices are even cheaper). Apple has make this possible by designing an ecosystem and commercial model for application developers that encourages them to learn the skills to build applications for the on-line store. This resulted in some breathtakingly clever applications which provide revenues for Apple and the developers. When you buy an iPad, you buy the device along with access to these useful and creative applications. This combination is not currently available with any of its competitors.

The lesson for designing learning is the need to create the mechanisms to support the learning beyond the classroom or the “finish” button on the on-line course. This of course is easier said than done in the face of meagre resources and need to move on to the designing or delivering the next training course.

I do believe that some of  these support mechanisms and tools are available if you look outside the box or as in the previous point spend some time getting to know the know the available technology enabled tools (LMS, discussion boards, portals etc.)a bit better.

I also say this because you may be surprised how accepting and engaged our learners are with well designed technology enabled tools. The credit for that goes in large part to a man named Steve Jobs and his creations iPad, iPhone, iPod…..

4.Making vision a reality.

Lastly, the one that impresses me most. Steve makes his grand vision a reality through the tight coupling of strategy and execution, something all experienced practitioners know is difficult to achieve. Many a times my end product e.g a workshop design is a compromise on the original vision and design for various reasons. I am currently designing an experiential blended learning workshop for Pharma Territory Management with an innovative design. Thanks to Steve I will be a bit more persistent with my ambitious design even though my audience may not be ready for it. I wait for the seats to fill and if I believe in my design and I have done my job well enough, they will.

Steve Jobs take a bow.

Your comments are most welcome.


  1. Good points and article. When writing about attention to detail in design, please take the time to look at the Apple website for product names. It’s MacBook Air – not Apple Air. It’s iPad, iPod, iPhone – not ipad, ipod, and iphone.
    Sent from my iPhone

  2. I enjoyed reading your article Jeevan, and liked your points of “going the extra mile” to find out what the end customer wants/needs, and that it really is worth the extra effort – whether it being by making it simpler, and more targetted to their needs. I agree, I think its exciting times ahead with the technology available. Thanks!!

  3. Hi Daniel – I am glad you liked the blog. The challenge is to get the support (and budget) of the organisation to spend time on understanding the user and targeting the solution, Ideally it should be an embedded process or approach, rather than the initiative an individual. However in the absence of processes, it is worth thinking out side the box (and sometimes bending the organisational rules) to get closer the learner.

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