Engaging Hearts and Minds: A Conversation about Learning Experience Design

Four seasoned practitioners share their perspectives on crafting immersive, learner-centred approaches that may lead to more enduring outcomes in and beyond the workplace.

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Martin Hang is Principal L&D Specialist at the Institute of Public Administration & Management, Civil Service College.

Daisy Koh is Manager/Senior L&D Specialist at the Institute of Public Administration & Management, Civil Service College.

Lau Teh Wei is Principal L&D Specialist at the Institute of Public Administration & Management, Civil Service College.

Lim Ee-Lon is Deputy Head at the Office of Learning Technologies, Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

What is Learning Experience Design (LXD)? What does it mean to you?

HANG: Design is an enabler of the learning experience. It is the ability to create an environment for learning which is impactful, both from a cognitive and an affective standpoint. When we are in a learning situation, the most powerful learning experience happens when our emotions are engaged. And we often do not forget the moment when that learning takes place.

I remember attending a certification programme in the UK where the facilitator took us out in the open in a labyrinth in rural England and encouraged us to walk around it to reflect on our role as an instrument of change in the facilitation process. To this day, I have not forgotten the experience because it was something that engaged all my senses: just traversing the labyrinth and getting lost was a learning experience, with some ‘aha’ moments I derived when walking by myself.

Of course, LXD has to have an end objective, which is for the learning to impact one’s viewpoint, one’s mindset, and also one’s skillset.

KOH: If you look at the term itself in the most literal sense, you have ‘learning’, ‘experience’ and ‘design’. So, there must be some form of learning to be achieved. Experience refers to the whole learning process. And design is how you shape that experience to achieve the learning. From my perspective, this means it has to be a lot more learner-centred.

The more traditional approach is that you look at the learning outcomes to be met, the content and resources you have, and then you design the learning experience from there. But when you shift the whole focus to the learners’ experience, you come to include learners in the whole design process. You empower them with choice and control.

At INN x CSC—an innovation sandbox created by Civil Service College—we have experimented with a few things, including the physical setting.1 For a few programmes, we even let the participants set up their own learning space. We also explored different approaches such as breakout groups or the world café where participants can go and choose what sort of topics they want to discuss.

Another thing we have tried is creative presentation beyond just PowerPoints and flipcharts because these objects are reminders of work. Instead, we offer learners craft materials, LEGO bricks or a video green screen: we give them choices on how to present their ideas, so even as they are learning, they are having fun. And that makes them feel more engaged and present.

At the end of the day, it is not just about meeting the learning outcomes of the programme, but participants’ own learning needs as well.

LAU: For me, it is about designing an experience to help the learner achieve the desired learning outcomes. The experience has to be one that is relevant, meaningful, and also engaging and enjoyable for the learner. The emphasis is on human-centredness and on learning goals: so you have to understand the people you are designing for. What are their needs? What drives and motivates them? That’s the basis of LXD.

In addition, there’s also the dimension of user experience design, where we take into account everything that our target audience sees and interacts with. This means we need to look holistically at the end-to-end experience: not just what happens to the learners in class or during learning. We need to pay attention to the realities of what the learners experience, from the moment they start searching for a course to when they are attending a course, and after the class.

You have to understand the people you are designing for. What are their needs? What drives and motivates them?

So in the CSC context, the pre-learning experience might actually begin from the moment they receive communications from us, or when they arrive at College for a class. If it’s a virtual class, you have the user interface experience of the learning platform. And post-class, it’s thinking about what kinds of interventions we design to strengthen their learning and its application to the workplace, or even to engage them so they come back for further learning.

LIM: In essence, LXD goes beyond just designing and delivering a piece of learning content.

In a learning institution like Ngee Ann Polytechnic, end-of-semester module and learning experience surveys are typically administered, spanning the areas of curriculum, learning resources, learning environments, student support services, and technical support, among others. So, learning experience in our context would be an amalgamation of all these various elements from pedagogy to content to activities and interactions that take place during the process of learning.

As a learning designer, to help adjust my focus away from a content-based idea of learning towards attempts to create learning experiences, I prompt myself with questions such as: “Would the learning make my learners feel engaged? Would it be fun? Would it be inspiring? Would it elicit ‘aha’ moments?” So, the field of LXD is also about considering and embracing the ‘touchy-feely’, affective aspects of the learning experience.

So LXD is about engaging the learner’s whole person, including cognitively and emotionally. In what ways might LXD enhance learning?

HANG: When I taught in a polytechnic business school 15 years ago, this idea about engaging both hearts and minds was really quite out of place. My colleagues thought I was mad, throwing balls and playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire in the lecture theatre. But in the end, I was invited to share what I did to create those experiences in class just before I left the polytechnic. The idea wasn’t to do it just for fun, but to help review learning and illustrate important points.

Another example of engaging the affective domain was when I used it for National Education, which students felt was just brainwashing. I completely revised the curriculum from a lecture-based approach to something more project-based and personal to draw out aspects of Singapore’s identity, culture, and constraints: for example, interviewing a classmate’s grandmother who lived through the Japanese occupation, or learning from someone’s aunt about Peranakan cooking. In the end, my approach consistently yielded much better feedback scores and results than the previous one.

KOH: I feel that the emotional aspect is a hook to get the cognitive aspect to work. You have to hook the heart first, get their attention and energy, before you present the content to the learners.

We know that some of the more engaging sessions at CSC that work well include leadership dialogues with senior government figures, who often share behind-the-scenes or personal stories. These conversations help future leaders to better understand and relate to the tensions they are facing, and the difficult decisions they have had to make.

The emotional aspect is a hook to get the cognitive aspect to work.

LAU: In our leadership programmes, we have been seeing more and more affective elements coming in, and we have been designing to engage with these more effectively. We see these as important because it helps our leaders to open and reframe their mindsets before we go into the cognitive stuff.

Sometimes, technology can help to engage learners both cognitively and affectively, hand in hand. For example, we used virtual reality (VR) in a CSC programme for enforcement officers, putting them in an immersive, real-life scenario where they had to practise risk assessment. They were making ground assessments on the spot and, at the same time, picking up on things they needed to do or take note of in a high-tension or emotional situation.

LIM: In the past, we used to think that content equates to learning. These days, we generally recognise that learning increasingly involves a blend of content, activities, and interactions. Where knowledge and skillsets are increasingly dynamic, as LX designers, we are not only designing content for our learners to consume, but also designing and facilitating activities and interactions that engage learners, in aspects such as research and discovery, co-creation, participation, and collaboration. So the process of LXD involves fusing many of these different pieces into a purposeful mix. Invariably, this also leads to learning that is slightly messier and often non-linear, in contrast to content-focused learning with structured learning pathways.

Additionally, as part of stepping up engagement and interactivity of online learning, areas that we have been exploring and designing for are gamified, immersive learning experiences, where learners are offered greater interactivity and choice in making decisions through interactive narratives that unfold in non-linear ways in virtual environments.

In the past, we used to think that content equates to learning. These days, we generally recognise that learning increasingly involves a blend of content, activities, and interactions.

On the flip side, with such high levels of interactivity in learner agency and freedom of decisions, we as learning designers will not have full control over what the end user experience is going to be like, say in terms of where learners navigate to, what they interact with, or the choices they make.

So, this is one of the inherent challenges we face in designing for more open-ended, non-linear, highly interactive forms of learning experiences whilst ensuring that objectives are met—compared to producing the more conventional, structured, linear learning content forms such as explainer videos, presentations and quizzes.

How can LXD contribute to better outcomes in the workplace, and how might we evaluate its impact?

KOH: Right now, organisations still focus a lot on outcomes-based learning; on measuring results and deciding where to apply training. But a more progressive sense of LXD is when learners themselves have control over how they experience the learning and what they take away from it. This is agency we have to give them. Whether they apply or retain the knowledge learnt depends on the individual learner, and is not something we have a lot of control over.

Some things that we do constantly think about include: how do we measure things like engagement in class? How do we measure the depth of thinking or the quality of conversations; mindset change as compared to behavioural change?

Some of what we look at includes things like knowledge application on the job, which I personally feel is quite difficult. We could say that we have the intent to apply what we’ve learnt; we can have the intent to do so further down the road. But most of the knowledge we apply relates to things that come to us just in time: if you get promoted to a new position, you might immediately go for a relevant course and apply it right away. Otherwise, you may need to find the right situation in which to apply what you have learnt.

So the challenge is how to make learning easier for people to remember, how to create a cognitive and emotional hook, and then give people the agency and autonomy to apply their learning, where and when it is most relevant to them.

LIM: So, in the experience economy as we know it, the priority for businesses and organisations is to create value for their customers to succeed, which leads to better business outcomes. Where the field of LXD can impact business outcomes is through engaging users with a broader surrounding suite of more engaging, dynamic interactions and resonant experiences.

In addition to providing information resources, LXD can offer opportunities for engaging with experts and resources from third-party sources: blogs, videos, e-books, open resources, learning communities and forums, etc. Thus, the value that LXD brings is a more dynamic, personalised, contextual learning and performance support experience across a range of modalities, which would then positively impact workplace outcomes.

LAU: In LXD, we look quite closely at giving learners what they need at the different moments of learning need. The key is whether—when they face a problem at work—they can find a solution for themselves. So when it comes to workplace learning (WpL), it’s looking at whether we could design better interventions based on the critical tasks that the learner is performing back at work, so that the learning happens naturally in the flow of work.

If you get more engaged learners, more meaningful learning experiences, we hope that it will translate into impact in terms of, for example, greater confidence to perform; hopefully better actual performance on the job; better attitudes and behaviour, and thus business outcomes. In this way, we are creating greater value for both the learner and the learner’s organisation.

And that is where we need to engage supervisors and other colleagues so that their performance and the learning impact can be observed in the actual workplace.

HANG: I think adult learners are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Getting them to acquire a skillset is not an issue. It’s getting them to apply that skillset that is the real challenge.

The end goal of learning is often change. If we want to trigger the change, we need to engage their mindsets. Hence, the focus of learning these days is not so much the skillset as it is the mindset. In the past, we thought that people look at the data, they analyse, and then based on that, they make a decision to change. Now we know that mindsets are only shifted if people experience something that is, for lack of a better word, life-changing. They are confronted with certain things they have taken for granted and have the desire to change.

The end goal of learning is often change.

I feel that LXD plays an increasingly important role in this regard. We are not taking away content. Instead, we are presenting content in such a way that people are engaged at the right points: the head, the heart, the mind.

That said, I think mindset change can only be noticed through a person’s behaviour. And that also depends on their peers and bosses. We need to better understand the role of supervisors, who themselves need to think about the role they play in enabling the application of learning and resultant behavioural change in their officers.

Where do you think LXD is going next? And what should we always bear in mind when designing the future of learning?

KOH: I think we will be focusing less on the instructional design aspect (i.e., what sort of content to put into an experience) and more on learners’ needs.

I always believe that a good LXD design is something that is simple. If you want people to absorb content, complete a learning task or even use a particular technology, keep it simple so people understand how they can consume and participate in the experience.

LIM: In LXD, the focus shifts beyond the production and delivery of content materials, to actively engaging our students in sharing, discovering, engaging, connecting, collaborating and so forth. Learning experiences will therefore be increasingly non-linear, iterative, and messy, oftentimes extending beyond the initial designs of the subject matter experts or content providers. Some would argue that LXD is not merely the design of artefacts or experiences, but rather, a broader shift in belief systems and mindsets in how we approach learning design.

As we venture into exploring new experience designs, technologies, and mediums, I reckon it’s always important to begin with needs assessment as a tool (and an instructional design first principle). This means reframing the training request or development request from a ‘content focus’ to a ‘results and outcome focus’. We should approach the field of LXD not from the narrow standpoint of designing a piece of learning content, or even an experience, but ultimately as addressing and solving a broader learning and performance challenge.

LAU: For me, the fundamentals don’t change: it’s about learner-centricity and learner outcomes. Moving forward, it is a question of how we weave in the elements: including user experiences, design, analytics, learning platforms and so on, to enable us to focus more on these goals. We will need to be curious about new methodologies out there, whether they are for WpL, social collaborative learning and so on.

At the same time, we also need to pay attention to our trainers’ needs, as well as to the needs of our content creators, subject matter experts and other stakeholders, including peers and supervisors, so that when we roll out a learning experience, they are actually all part of—and contributors to—the journey.

HANG: I think LXD is going to be increasingly embedded into the way we think about learning. It will increase in sophistication, with digital approaches adding a further dimension. But one thing we need to always remember is not to neglect the learner in the process. Don’t get caught up with the latest technology or methodology fad. At the end of the day, these tools have to serve the learner, not the other way around.

We should never stop being curious about what excites our learners, what causes them to be moved. Every learner is different: some are more engaged cognitively, others affectively. Let’s not do one at the expense of the other.


  1. INN x CSC is an innovation and experimental sandbox, located at Jurong Town Hall, where we create the space for officers to try new ideas and learning experiences in CSC. INN adopts a “Dream big, test early and fail fast” approach to create timely and improved solutions. See:

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