By: Juan Felipe Guerrero C.

Minneapolis, MN, United States

It’s a curious thing that, generally speaking, when someone tells you that they’re an expert in usability and instructional and educational design, it’s tough to imagine what type of person they’ll turn out to be. “The only thing you need to learn how to survive here, is the winter. The city gets really, really cold during those months,” Julie Dirksen tells us, in between laughs, as we settle into her living room.

Julie is an instructional and educational design strategist and a native to Minneapolis, a city she’s completely enamored with for its artistic atmosphere, even although she doesn’t like it quite so much in winter when the temperatures drop well below zero Fahrenheit.

When listening to Julie speak—no matter if it’s about how much she enjoys to spend a weekend strolling along the Mississippi parkway (which is only some five minutes from her home), or her love of watercolor painting and museums, or her passion for instructional design and e-learning—you realize that she is a joyful and passionate person.

For two decades, one of Julie’s biggest interests has been in usability and instructional design. Early in her career, Julie worked as a trainer in a customer service call center. It was only six years ago that she decided to begin her path of independence and take the first steps towards fulfilling her passion. “As you know, my average day is not very orthodox. I have no work colleagues in the traditional sense. I deal with a lot of virtual conferences, many clients whose faces I’ve never seen, emails, and other things.” Julie tells us.

Countless doors have opened up in the field for Julie since she graduated from the Indiana University with a degree in Instructional Systems Technology, making her the figure of authority she is today when it comes to such topics. She believes that there are several problems to be addressed in her field, among these the lack of relevant feedback. “We don’t always know what works and what doesn’t; for example, we might build great sales training, but we don’t really know that’s the reason sales go up, and if there are no sales, we can’t conclude it’s because the training doesn’t work. Behavior is complicated, and it’s difficult to measure the success of our work.” she concludes. And of course, training and learning are not always the reasons behind usability issues. “Sometimes it’s a motivation problem, not a knowledge problem. Also, sometimes it’s easier to fix the system than it is to fix the person.”

Although it’s also an attention problem, her dog—who hasn’t stopped nosing around since we entered the property—would tell us, if he could speak. “I have to take Max out.” Julie tells us, laughing.

Walking a couple of streets away from her home, I truly understand now what she meant about strolling along the river. In just five minutes, you feel as though you have left the chaos of the city behind for the tranquility of the country. It even smells different. It is an enviable feeling.

Julie’s dissatisfaction with the current trends in instructional design is equally evident. “I don’t think there is much guidance for new people that want to approach this subject,” she affirms, with a certain degree of frustration but also a clear desire to change this situation. One of the things that Julie has been working on in the last few years is an effort to put the best practices of Instructional Design into essential guides for people who want to enter into the industry, but have little previous knowledge. Indeed, once we have returned from the morning walk with her four-legged friend and she’s set the schnauzer free from his collar to enjoy a drink of water, Julie moves to her library and shows me a book of her own: ‘Design for How People Learn.’ “One of the goals I had in writing the book was to help people understand not only what to do in terms of instructional design, but the reasons why and what for,” Julie tells us. She shows us the back cover, closes the book and says: “If people can understand that, then I’m sure they’ll be able to make better decisions.”

It’s no secret that a large portion of the the literature on usability and instructional design is highly technical and complex material. There is a lack of accessible books, and that is one of Julie’s objectives: To redefine the way in which people write about e-learning issues. “One of the ways to take this problem on is to use conversational language, despite the fact you’re discussing a highly technical subject.” Of course, there are many technical terms which cannot be omitted, due to cognitive load, but the language and the discourse can be changed. “People don’t use contractions, they don’t directly address the reader… We can speak in a professional manner, but too much formal language is harder for people to process, and interferes with learning,” Julie concludes.

Fortunately, our encounter with Julie Dirksen didn’t take place in winter; the low temperatures would have surely made the visit less pleasant. Although perhaps it would not have mattered much. After all, if we can understand that the language of instructional design doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated, withstanding a little cold needn’t be so difficult either.

*Julie Dirksen – Expert in usability and instructional and educational design.

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