Is this useful?

​Hello friends!

After days and days of trying to come up with the perfect name (and coming up with some great names for metal bands - maybe that will be our next project), we’re thrilled to welcome you to the first issue of Useful Stuff!

Every issue, we’re going to go deep and get honest about L&D.

We chose the name Useful Stuff because we kept coming back to the idea that what we do in L&D should be meaningful, relevant, and useful. In future issues, we’ll have even more resources, but we wanted to start things off in this first issue by explaining our core philosophy:


Something, or someone, is useful when it helps you achieve what you set out to do.

That's our job in L&D, isn't it?

It's our job to help businesses, and their people, do what they need to do.

Usefulness is critical for any successful L&D department, agency, or freelancer. The things we create, the services we offer, the technology we buy, the actions we take – everything needs to be as useful as possible. Otherwise, we’ll find useless things buried deep within the bowels of the LMS two years from now – or worse, our solutions will never be used from the start.

At this point you may be thinking, "Sure, sure. Of course what we make is useful! Why would anyone make or do anything that's not useful?"

Well, look at the world around you. Think about how many things you encounter that aren't helping you achieve your goals. Processes that slow you down, technology that crashes, confusing content... the list goes on. Sometimes it can be impossible to avoid.


To best appreciate how we can be useful, it’s good to discuss some of the many reasons why we might make or do stuff in L&D that isn't useful:

We don’t have a goal.

Maybe we haven't figured out what we're actually trying to help people do. Perhaps we chose a solution without considering the problem. Maybe we've rationalized analysis away because we don't have the time, or we’re simply following orders because we lack the confidence to stand up for our ideas. Whatever the reason, it's very hard to help someone achieve a goal if you don't know what that goal is. We need to identify the real problem and come up with a useful solution.

We have the wrong goals because we don’t value the context.

We can get caught up with awareness and understanding. Awareness of an idea or concept isn’t enough to get someone to change their behavior. For example, if we roll out leadership training and tell managers what a good leader looks like – that doesn’t help them to become a good leader. They need the opportunity to assess what they’ve been doing and to practice what they’ve been taught. Knowing the goal and understanding the target audience isn’t enough, the goals of learning should explain what we want those people to achieve, in what context, to what extent, and why.

We default to training.

Words like learning or training might be in our job title, but what if training isn’t the most useful option? Sometimes it’s our job to help stakeholders understand their own goals first and how to achieve them. It can be difficult when we’re new on the job or lack confidence with certain stakeholders, but it’s up to us to convince them that training isn’t always the answer – we’re not a pizza shop – we shouldn’t make training to order.

We don’t understand the people we're trying to help.

Sometimes we get goals to achieve or problems to solve from people who aren’t our target audience. Without talking to our audience to find out what they do or what they need, how can we make sure we’re actually helping them? This is how we end up with training that people race to get through, use terminology our audience doesn't understand, or make them go through processes that seem great theoretically but don’t work in the real world. We should talk to our target audience and get their feedback to make sure our solution will be useful to them.

We’re acting based on our preferences.

This is hard for some L&D folks to hear, but we don’t always have all the answers, and just because we prefer something doesn’t mean our audience will. We’re not the target audience. Even if we're part of the audience, like in company-wide compliance training, we're only part of the audience. We need to remember to design based on the whole audience, not just those who share our preferences.

We make something that doesn’t include the whole audience.

It’s easy to spot something that’s broken or unusable when no one can use it. However, it’s much harder to notice when it doesn’t work for only part of our target audience. This is where accessibility and inclusive design comes in. We can come up with the most effective learning experience in the history of mankind, but it’s worthless if we exclude some people because their needs or experiences are different. We should make sure everyone in our audience has equal access to learning.

We default to what we’ve always done because it worked before.

This is an easy trap to fall into. It may have worked before, but are you sure it'll work now? There is nothing wrong with doing what works, as long as you make sure it will be useful. Is the audience, the goal, and the context the same? “This worked at my old company” or “this is how I’ve always done it” are slippery slopes to useless learning solutions. If we’re drawing from prior experience, we need to make sure it still applies in the situation.

We execute poorly.

Of course, this won't apply to anyone reading this, but it had to be included. Even when we have a firm grasp of exactly what needs to be done, we may fail in the execution. When determining a course of action, we need to have some self-awareness and reflect on our ability to get the job done well enough for it to be useful.

How to be useful

Now that we know what not to do, how do we start being more useful?

  • Get to know and respect our stakeholders, our target audience, and our organization.
  • Understand the goals of every project, task, and interaction.
  • Identify not only what people should do but also the where, when, how, and why.
  • Realize that learning isn’t synonymous with training.
  • Think about performance first.
  • Learn about accessibility, so we can include everyone.
  • Find ways to evaluate the effectiveness of our work.
  • Develop the skills we need to be as useful as possible.
  • And keep asking throughout the process: Is this useful?

All of that and more is what we’ll be covering in future issues of this newsletter.

Have a wonderful day,

Heidi and Matt

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