Rethinking Learning Management Systems

In my decade long career in technology-enabled learning, I have spent a lot of time using, managing or implementing learning management systems (LMS). I first used them as a student – we used Blackboard at Grad School and then at each of the companies I worked at – GreenPoint (Docent & SumTotal), Bechtel Corporation(SumTotal & SuccessFactors) and now at LinkedIn (Cornerstone On Demand). At some point right after Grad school, I even designed an online course on how to use a feature in an LMS (Plateau) (Now that just doesn’t sound right- a course on the LMS on how to use an LMS!)

Everyone in corporate education complains about their LMS – in fact my favorite quote about LMSs is from someone I met years back who said he selected the LMS for his company because he hated this particular LMS the least and liked the people representing this vendor the most. But I know this is harsh particularly for all the smart people I have met who work for these LMS companies.

So what’s going on here?

In my opinion, the issue with most of these systems (and many other enterprise systems like CRM, ERP etc.) is that they eventually become so feature rich (ok- so bloated) that often these complex features designed to serve a few, start impacting the very basic features that every user needs to use these systems. Very simple transactions that users perform effortlessly elsewhere, in other content consumption platforms like Websites, Blogs, or YouTube, become mired in complexity in an LMS. A few examples – multiple steps to launch online courses (which after all that effort typically load in a pop-up window that the users browser suppresses.), the inability to launch content on mobile browsers from an email deep link or completing a course evaluation right after taking a learning event. The ‘friction’ in these experiences is not solely the fault of LMS vendors who design these systems – requirements from compliance training and certification organizations dominate how these systems are designed (features such as five-step training approvals and sign-off requirements). These requirements seem to consume most of the time that product teams at LMS companies spend their time on.

But I believe the tide is turning – in the past 2 years, I have attended two conferences hosted by two large LMS vendors and I am heartened by the focus on user experience & user interface design during their CEO keynotes and product demos. Of course these vendors are not starting from scratch so they have to craft an elegant user experience over a system that is already being used by millions of users and a software stack that was written years back. But as these vendors do these makeovers and as new entrants come to this already crowded market, I’d like to propose a simple conceptual framework to think about these systems:

Be Invisible and Frictionless
LMSs should be invisible – users should be able to get to the content they need to get to gain proficiency or mastery without encountering any friction – login windows, register buttons, pop-ups – Is their team intranet or the product they are using the most natural setting for them to need training – let them launch content from that location. Let them launch a webinar directly from the confirmation email or the calendar invite.

Be Visible and add Value
LMS should be visible only when they add value – Course landing pages that explain why users need to take the courses they’ve been assigned (MOOCs do a really good job with this), how much progress have they made towards completing an assigned curriculum, what are others saying about the course or what other courses should they take if they indicated that they liked the one they just completed. Even well-designed easy-to-print transcripts that they can print and mail to their licensure organization.

I am eager to hear what others (particularly those who like me spend a good portion of their time managing an LMS) think of this framework – what features would you want to make invisible or how would you improve a feature that’s currently visible? So chime in – Maybe a few product managers from your ‘favorite’ LMS vendor are reading this post!