User experience is essential to improving talent development. It doesn’t need to be complex. In this post, we explore the options, user needs and design approaches to get a great solution. Learning management systems must focus on user experience if they are to play a role in modern training departments.

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The Essence

We are reaching a crossroads where the capabilities of technology can provide a rich, engaging and interactive experience which appeals to all. Skills development is a complex activity which can’t be solved easily. It requires the thoughtful use of blended technologies to nurture, coach and train an individual – the failure of any component results in a broken chain. This case study focuses on a recent project to remove technical barriers, rethink the training system experience and align it to user needs and the company culture. Doing so dramatically improved participation, satisfaction and engagement.

The Challenge

We were engaged in improving the design and user experience of the Learning Management System (LMS).  The brief was simple: the existing experience was too complicated and cluttered, it didn’t work well across web browsers and users reported being unable to access the system or find what they needed.

Our objective; to ‘Create a service that is simple and intuitive enough that users succeed the first time’.  Fair enough, you might think, don’t all businesses want this?  As we’re sure you are aware, wanting it and achieving it are two very different things, particularly where third-party software is concerned.

Create a service that is simple and intuitive enough that users succeed first time

Our Solution

After a short consultation, we created a portal for users which hides the LMS from them.  The portal becomes the interface for the user accessing it from a desktop or mobile device using an adaptive response to deliver an optimised experience. For more on this check out Responsive Vs Adaptive 

Hiding an LMS is a common challenge faced by many businesses who want to provide a first class user experience or deliver a unique requirement. In fact, we’ve done exactly that for automotive, consulting, health and public facing sites. But before we go into the details lets explore the choices and pros and cons.

Option Pros & Cons
Customise the core product Quick & cheap (in the short term) but prevents upgrades, or requires extensive manual regression testing and maintenance and can expose security issues. This approach is often limited by the freedom provided by the chosen product.
Develop or extend a plugin or theme It should be forward compatible allowing product upgrades to be installed without breaking the plugins. However, this depends on the quality and design of the plugin architecture. It’s worth have a sandbox environment to test upgrades before releasing these into production.

The level of flexibility can vary as it depends on the design and maturity of the plugin structure. Typically, a plugin allows you to override (replace) and feature or to extend (add to) and existing feature.

Our preference is to consider this approach first as it allows a new design (theme), modifications to existing functionality and processes and to adapt features in a light touch way. WordPress as a blogging and content management system (CMS) is a great example of the flexibility which can be provided through this approach.

Light Weight Portal (LWP) The most sophisticated allowing the greatest personalization and full control of the design, features and functions. A LWP is in effect the shop window which the user sees moving the LMS into the back office space. This provides full creative control and allows all manner of options to be developed and presented to users.

In order for this to be successful, you should expect it to be the most expensive and complex route. Not only do you get creative freedom there is also the need to deliver standard functions which would have previously been taken care of by the core product. With the LWP acting as the users’ interface these have to be recreated.

Additionally, it relies critically on the system provide APIs which allow the LMS functions to be exposed as method calls and data objects which are manipulated by the LWP.

It is critical to ensure a comprehensive suite of APIs are available before work starts. Ask your developer to assess the quality and maturity of this before starting. A great validation list can be found here: Web API Design

Since our client wanted to provide a clean, intuitive and fuss-free social platform we recommended a Light Weight Portal integrated with the LMS.

Our Design

Through consultations with users and stakeholders, a set of 8 design principles were established to be able to test each new feature against.

Design principles

  1. KISS: it’s a cliché but every feature and function should be intuitive, processes should be clear and supported with call-to-action guides. We expect to get this under the nose of real users and get actionable feedback.
  2. Design for consistency, not uniformity: mitigating the variability of cross-browser features and functions.
  3. Measure and learn: evaluate usage of features and functions to continuously learn and improve. For example, tuning and optimising the search system to make it effective. When there are over 1,200 courses this becomes incredibly useful and quick to do.
  4. Display social information which encourages usage and credibility; rating from peers indicates value.
  5. Anticipate users needs: Use recommendations and associations to predict information and resources needs
  6. Be helpful and personal: remember me, my choices, future (to do/aims) and past (completed) actions and my position in the learning path.
  7. Encourage the community: learning happens all the time and collaboration can encourage, nurture and reinforce this.
  8. Speed: Don’t compromise performance for features. For many the business IT bandwidth are behind domestic ones and there are critical services consuming a significant quantity of this precious resource.

The design of the portal was kept as intuitive as possible.  It was composed solely of the following elements:

Project requirements

  • Single page application (SPA)
    It’s not appropriate for every situation but is a great fit for a lightweight portal offering a great user experience (see examples here at one-page love), and performance improvements.
  • A carousel animation which enabled users to navigate to courses of interest to them
  • A course search field that filtered results by title and description in real time, as queries were being typed
  • A widget displaying the ‘Top 5’ courses
  • A widget displaying the 5 latest courses
  • Single sign-on such that users visiting the portal were automatically recognised by the LMS simply by navigating to the portal – no further login was necessary

The carousel animation, search field and widgets presented a ‘deep link’ to the associated course. Deep linking to programmes, content and courses are a great win for users and our portal. A deep link allows people to share materials between one another in an email, social media or intranet sites securely. If a user follows a deep link and is known to the LMS through single sign-on they are taken directly to the content. However, if they are unknown they are taken to a login page and then (on success) to the content.

We created a lightweight portal using AngularJS, HTML5, JavaScript and NodeJS; technologies which almost certainly exist within your enterprise today. Using these technologies allows rapid development and exciting possibilities.

In this project we employed the following:

  • Single page application: a technique which allows users to complete actions and for resulting changes to be loaded asynchronously in the background. It just makes the web suck less!
  • Responsive design: adapting to mobile, tablet and desktop screen sizes from a single code base
  • AJAX driven data updates: these add life to user experience as elements within a page change without the need to reload the entire page.
  • Browser integrated notifications: great for notifications of upcoming sessions and reminders.
  • LocalStorage: working offline, changing WIFI or going out of signal range used to cause the loss of data. Using localStorage ensures your users’ data is always captured, synced and stored.


Ironically, the most successful aspect of the portal was the least visible – single sign-on.   Before we implemented the new LMS the most common user complaint was that they couldn’t access training because they couldn’t remember their password.  After implementing the portal, the requirement to remember yet another password disappeared altogether.

Key measures

  • Monthly engagement increased by 26% unique monthly users
  • Users reached 19,000 (via single sign-on) in 5 months
  • Dwell time (the duration on the site) increased 53% to 3:14 secs on average
  • Search accuracy (correlation of search term to first listed result) 82% across 73 courses in 17 languages.

Next on the list of user needs was that they couldn’t find the course they were trying to take because they didn’t understand or remember how to get to it. Focusing on this issue and applying our design rules to improve the design and focusing on search improvements and the personalization made significant improvements and delighted users.

In summary

In this article, we’ve taken a tour of the options available to improve the user experience and bring a fresh, up to date and engaging experience based on 2 recent projects we’ve been engaged in.

We hope it’s introduced and explained a few of the technical jargon in a clear way to help you ask the right questions and judge the responses you get back from your technical team. We’d love to help drop me an email if you’d like further advice: [email protected]

Technology has a key role to play in talent development, however, striking the balance is both a science and an art. How are you embracing new technologies and addressing user needs? We’d love to get your feedback.

In the near future, we will share our design on how we are transforming knowledge management and offer a new personal approach which connects directly to users needs and interests. We can’t wait to share more, but for now, that’s all we can say. Sign up for our newsletter if you’d like to see more.



Featured Image: Thanks to Caroline Methot for Abandoned Control Panel