Today we are joined by Janelle Allen, a learning designer, who talks to us about backward design, how she grew into her role, the increase in quality of online courses, the importance of contact with users, and how to grow your audience.
Teaching provides a learner with more information, but the information isn't the only thing that is required to teach effectively. Doing is almost just as essential as the information itself for the learner to solidify what was taught. Creating an effective learning path is challenging, and we tend to start from what we know and take it from there. Janelle challenges the tendency to start from our knowledge, and instead, we should start from where we want our learners to end up being and work backward from there, this is called Backward Design.
Backward design doesn't just apply to education, it applies directly to software development. As developers, it's essential that we get out of our head and start with the user.
How do you start teaching if you have no one to teach? Janelle says there are three critical components to building your audience, having an email list, providing valuable content, and consistency. If you stay genuine and provide value you'll filter out anyone who doesn't resonate with you and what you offer.
"Get out of Your Head and Start with Your Users - with Janelle Allen" Transcript
Joel Hooks: Hey Janelle.
Janelle Allen: Hey Joel.
Joel Hooks: How are you doing today?
Janelle Allen: I'm doing really well.
Joel Hooks: I got to tell you my new thing, my new favorite thing, and we have to run in an education business the last five years but I've never got into this topic, but my favorite thing is instructional design. Right now I feel like I've opened the Pandora's box of wonderment and you are an expert in instructional design, but you prefer to call it learning design, or call yourself a learning designer. And I want to start there and get you to tell me what is a learning designer to you and how does that differ from being an instructional designer?
Janelle Allen: Yeah, that's a great question. That's a great way to start. It's not different, it's just a preference because instructional design is a pretty, I say old, but it started around World War Two with the military and computing and all of that. And I think that the focus was on instruction. And the way that I view it now is I'm not just, I see instruction, that word is like I'm standing in front of people and I'm telling them information, right? And I changed it, or I prefer to be called a learning designer and you'll see that wave changing in the field because what we're really focused on, what I'm focused on is improving learning, the experience, the results, etc. So that's really the focus for me. It's not so much just giving instruction.
Joel Hooks: Yes, and not the material, but the people that need to use that material and their outcomes is what's really the focus.
Janelle Allen: Yeah. We're focused on learning. I'm not focused on instructing you. I'm focused on whether or not you are learning and how I can facilitate improving that.
Joel Hooks: When we're building courses and we're doing that kind of thing, how do we look at information versus outcome? What's the key there?
Janelle Allen: I've written about this. One of the things that I've noticed, we're all guilty of this, is we tend to default to thinking, when it comes to teaching that we need to give people more information. Right? You don't know how to do this thing so let me give you all this info and then go do it. You're good? Okay, great. And at the end of the day, information is not the only thing that people need to learn. You do need to know certain things, but you also need to be able to do things. And so that's where outcomes come in is where we ask us, and you and I have geeked out about backwards design, right? So what is the goal of this course or program? What are the things that the learner needs to know and do in order to achieve that goal? And what does that look like? How do we break that down? And when you start focusing on the outcomes of what people, what transformation people will achieve, that changes, in my opinion, it just changes everything. You really start to see things like, Oh, my course is missing this particular resource to help people be to do x, or I completely forgot. You have learning gaps and you can start to see them.
Joel Hooks: So you mentioned backwards design, and this is something that, this is part of my, like epiphany that I've had this year about education in general. And can you describe backwards design for folks that might not be familiar with that?
Janelle Allen: Yeah, so the book is called, Understanding By Design by Mick Wiggins and, or I'm sorry, Wiggins and McTighe. And it's a book that basically, it can feel very academic, but the crux of it is that you should start your program, whatever you're creating, you want to start with the end in mind. So where should your learners end up? And work backwards to determine what you need to include in your instruction to get them there. So it was very revolutionary because a lot of times when we create courses or coaching programs or tutorials, we think forwards or however you want it, front facing.
Joel Hooks: Like starting from the beginning, right?
Janelle Allen: Yeah. We think about us, what, okay, what information, I want to teach such and such. I want to teach react. What do I know about react and what you I want to put in here. And it's flipping it and thinking about your learners first and where they want to go, what transformation do they want to achieve at the end?
Joel Hooks: I think it's interesting too, like this idea of backwards design, it goes beyond just education and being a learning designer, it really kind of gets into how we build software, how we might think about building software too, just in terms of the user and what are the outcomes the user wants. And that I think is what has just exploded my brain about the whole thing, because it kind of twists everything on your head. And if you think about what we do as software developers, it really kind of applies to this premise in general.
Janelle Allen: Yeah, I agree. I mean I think I learned about the book Badass from you and [Amy Hoy 00:04:58] talking about it and Kathy is saying the same thing. She's just using the word users. But it's about, really at the end of the day, it's about getting outside of your head and focusing on who you serve and what their goals are. That's the whole point. It's not about us. I have a group program and I just today told this to my cohort, I'm like, it's not about your idea, it's not about what you want. It's about what your learners want.
Joel Hooks: Yeah. I think I've heard you say start with your learner.
Janelle Allen: Yeah.
Joel Hooks: And start with your user. And I think that parallel is significant. And to me it's something that the software development community can learn a lot from the instruction design community because it's all about getting people to their end goal. And I think, I talk about software developers because that's who's listening. But we really like to apply our ideas and how we think and then just kind of feed it to people and hope for the best. But I think that's where user experience and those sorts of disciplines come into the fold.
Janelle Allen: I think software developers intuitively, the concept of backwards design makes sense. Especially if they're familiar, because okay, you're like doing usability testing or anything that helps you understand how your user is interacting and what are the obstacles that they're experiencing. Oh crap, now I need to fix those. As you said, it's the same framework, it's same theory or approach. It's just different. It's learning theory instead of software. But it's the same thing. It's just figuring out, it's not just about information, it's figuring out where are my learners getting stuck. I keep getting the same question, let's dig into that. So it's very applicable and it's very insightful.
Joel Hooks: Yeah. So I'm going to take it back a little bit and I'm curious what got you into the field of learning design and how did you make the transition from your writing as an undergraduate to learning design as your career?
Janelle Allen: Yeah, it's been circuitous. So I had this weird uncanny ability to help people whenever it came to training. Even my very first job as a teenager, I was asked to train and it didn't dawn on me until I got to college. And again, I was asked to train. And then I worked at Apple and I was asked to train and then I did some freelance writing and I ended up doing instructional materials and I realized that I had this ability to break things down into digestible bits. I was good at training. I wasn't the best at managing people, but I was good at training. And then I'm dating myself, but around 2004, 2005, I would say, I decided that I was going to teach myself how to code. And so I would stay up all night and I was teaching myself how to do that. And this is around the time online courses were just starting in academia and something clicked.
Janelle Allen: I don't even remember when or how I found, but I found out, I stumbled upon instructional design and it was like the two worlds combined, training, being really good at helping people learn things and creating online environments and I just went for it. Everything that I had been interested in all of a sudden came together in one nice package and it just, it worked out that way.
Joel Hooks: Yeah. I kind of feel the same. I went a different path, which is landing in teaching and education combined with technology and community and all that stuff has been really rewarding on my end.
Janelle Allen: Yeah. I mean, I tried to be, I tried to get into technical writing before I was an instructional designer and that didn't work out and I was grateful because it was really dry when I started, when I got into it I was like, yeah, [crosstalk 00:08:53]-
Joel Hooks: It still can't be [inaudible 00:08:59].
Janelle Allen: This one going to be it. But it was just, it just worked out, and I still write, but I just have always been very interested in helping people grasp concepts and be able to do things.
Joel Hooks: So what's the future of education online or offline and brick and mortar? Where do you see it going from where we're at now? I know predicting the future is kind of silly, but I want to hear what you think anyway.
Janelle Allen: That's a really big question.
Joel Hooks: It's huge.
Janelle Allen: So I've worked in corporate, I've done e-learning, I've worked in academia, publishing houses, doing online courses for colleges and universities, I've worked with for profit and I will not voice my opinions on that industry and now I work with individual creators, so I don't think I can speak to academia anymore. I'm so disconnected. But when it comes to small businesses and entrepreneurs who are creating and educating online, I think that we are seeing some shifts happening. And one of those is that people are starting to, online courses are coming now, right? So when you first started seeing entrepreneurs creating courses, I think I started seeing it around 2010 and that was early, right? I talked to Rob Walling and he started in 2009 he told me. So between 2010 and 2012 is when you really started to see a few people putting courses out there.
Janelle Allen: So it's still relatively new for entrepreneurs. And what I see now is that newness is starting to wear off in the sense that everybody knows, okay, they know what online courses are and what is happening is a leveling up because back in the day you could have a course that frankly wasn't that great but people would buy it because they didn't know what the quality should be. And now people know, they know when a course is good, they know when a course is delivering value and when it's not. And so what I'm seeing is people leveling up. The market is leveling up and instructors are starting to say, oh crap, I really need to do a better job. Let me pay attention this thing, learning design or just going in and making sure that my course is delivering results.
Janelle Allen: So that's the shift that I'm seeing and I'm seeing more people moving to live or coaching programs who previously had self paced courses because self paced courses can be very challenging when it comes to completion and engagement and motivation. So I'm seeing more live programs or hybrid programs popping up. So I'd be curious to see what happens next. There's this cyclical thing that happens, there's a lot of high value, high dollar masterminds that are happening right now and people are calling it new, but it's not new, it's happened before. So I just think we go around in cycles, but what's happening, it's more of a spiral upwards in that people are investing in quality and leveling up.
Joel Hooks: Yeah, I agree with that. And I think our conversations and, like my epiphany about instructional design and I'm running an education business and should probably be an expert in this particular area of thought is evidence to that. Right? We put out great product, but at the same time, if we want to be better, if we want to compete in five years from now, then we're not just going to be able to be good. We need to push that excellence. I think that's across the board because people are just more savvy and the delivery is better now, plus technology and bandwidth and computers and all that stuff has pushed us to a point where people just, you can't just get away with putting some crap out there, you have to put out some something that really helps people.
Janelle Allen: No, I remember one of the earliest courses I bought from an entrepreneur, it was literally like some html. It was a folder. You click on the files and you download it and it was, that's what it was. And the person did their best, I'm not laughing at that, but it's just, it has evolved. And the other thing I forgot to mention, but I want to make sure I say this, that I'm seeing happen is creators recognizing how important community is. I think that now we get it, that people, the Internet is a thing, right? It's been a thing but it can be lonely and that can be a real deterrent towards results and completion and engagement and people are really, creators are really starting to understand how important community is in addition to the instruction. I see more of that.
Joel Hooks: If you look at education and just how everybody's learned how to learn through our system, that's kind of built in, right? Like in school, you get that community and you get carrots and sticks and accountability and all that stuff, and then we're thrown out into the world and now you get to sit by yourself and read a book or watch some videos. And that takes a lot of of discipline, right? To sit down and do that by yourself alone and just hammer it out to learn something.
Janelle Allen: Yeah. And it takes a lot. So there's the discipline, the self discipline aspect of it, but it's also tied to the three domains of learning, right? Cognitive, affective and psychomotor. Well, we didn't really connect to, cognitive is the information, right? But the affective domain of addressing mindset and feelings and support, that is what I see people now saying, oh, you know what, this is a thing. And it's almost like we remembered that we're human beings and we don't just exist in a silo. We need to connect with people.
Joel Hooks: Yeah, I agree with that. So you mentioned that you worked with big brands and large companies before and now you've switched over the last several years to working with individual creators. How is it different working with individual creators in large companies?
Janelle Allen: Yeah, it's very different. So I had an agency before and I worked primarily with educational publishers and the difference is now working with individual creators and small teams. There's the ability to connect directly to the person who is making the decisions but also usually doing the teaching and that's super impactful. Just being able to work one on one with them instead of going through the bureaucracy of a large corporation where you may or may not have access to the end users. Oftentimes now when I work with clients, I have access to their learner's, their customers and that, it just was not a thing when I worked with larger corporations. So I love the intimacy, I love the direct connection and the agility of small teams that we can fail fast if something isn't working, we can make a pivot and that has been so refreshing.
Joel Hooks: I know we're both fans and friends of Amy Hoy and she has this great post where she talks about her f this moment. And I was wondering if there was any particular f this moment where you realized this isn't what you want to do and you wanted to work with individuals instead.
Janelle Allen: Yeah, it was 2015. So as I have mentioned, I had an agency and look, I hit the ground running and my former employer was my first client and I never had a bad year and I ran my agency for three years. And then 2015 at the end I got a call for projects from my former employer. They wanted me to take on this project because we had done so much good work for them and I didn't want to do it. Hey, I was like, ah. It was a project that they had fired another team from. And so I was like, yeah, I don't think so. But they kept asking, the money got higher and higher and so I took it like a dummy and ignored the red flags and that project ended up being one of, it was the worst project that I had ever been on in that they would not allow us to have access to the client.
Janelle Allen: So we were creating work that the client wasn't reviewing and we weren't getting feedback and then they would be upset about things and we would say, well, we didn't get a chance to talk to anyone. That, as you can probably imagine, that project just blew up and was a horrible, horrible learning experience. But it was also my f this moment where I was just like, I'm not doing this. I need to be in control. I need to have direct access or I'm not doing it. And in this current model, it's not going to happen. So that's when I, after that project, I pretty much fired my employees and made the pivot and it was the hardest, one of the hardest times in my entrepreneur career but it was worth it.
Joel Hooks: Yeah, that's a tough choice. And then now that like you're starting at, kind of almost starting from the beginning in a lot of ways in terms of building your business. You got all that experience under your belt, but at the same time now you have to find clients and do all that stuff.
Janelle Allen: It was hard. The hardest thing, letting people go. I resisted hiring because I just, I didn't know what to do and I had a great accountant at the time who also just became kind of an advisor and she walked me through how to hire and I was excited and things were going, and then, so then to have to turn around and let someone go who's depending on you and you had just hired them not long before, it was the hardest, hardest thing to do.
Joel Hooks: It's very hard. I've had to feel that pain a couple of times and as far as running a business, that's been my hardest and most gut wrenching experience I think for sure.
Janelle Allen: Yeah, it was very hard. But you get through it.
Joel Hooks: Yeah. And then at the end of the day everybody benefits. I noticed that too. When it happens and then people find new opportunities and you help them and do the best you can and it all works out. But it's so, it's an emotional, emotional experience that nobody ever can teach you about. So I hear something from a lot of people and I just want to switch this to thinking about making courses and what that even means. And one of the biggest objections I hear a lot is that somebody has already talked about that or somebody has already taught that, and I was wondering do you run into that with any of the people that you're coaching for making courses and how do you deal with that if so?
Janelle Allen: Yeah, I do run into it from time to time. I think that there's a lot of mindset stuff that, I mean, we could go on and on, we'd probably have a whole episode about-
Joel Hooks: A whole podcast series [crosstalk 00:19:41].
Janelle Allen: ... about mindset. Yeah. And so one of the things that I tell people is, first of all, if someone else is doing it, that's a good thing. That means there's a market, right? And so that's the first thing. And the second thing I say is what makes you different? Figure that out and leverage that difference. It doesn't matter if there's five people, I mean, in my market there's so many people who are teaching people how to create courses. So I leaned into my difference as an instructional designer and it was something I, and I've been guilty of this. I didn't think anyone wanted to know about instructional design. I used to hide it. I wouldn't really talk about it. And then people started asking and that's when I realized this is my differentiator. So I would tell anyone, first of all, if you're dealing with those thoughts of, well, somebody else's doing it, first of all, so what that means, there's a market, do it. Second, figure out what makes you different and start sharing value and also share your story, they'll go for it.
Joel Hooks: Yeah. People that people enjoy that. And I think when people say that, that somebody's already written this and you've read that and you've read 15 other things or you studied this, or you have your particular worldview to apply to what you've learned and it's like remixes, right? That's a great aspect of music and you can remix knowledge and I think literally every piece of knowledge that we're doing is some product of a remix because somebody's always done it. But what do you think? What's your voice? Is an interesting view on most things.
Janelle Allen: I love that you used that word remix because you know I DJ. So that's a perfect way to think about it because as a DJ, I might be playing the same 10 songs as the next DJ who, like down the street but I'm going to play them my own way. I'm going to put my spin on them and people are going to show up for the way that I play them because it's going to resonate with them. Those are my people. The other DJ is going to have their people and they're going to put their spin on it and that's going to be their approach. I think it's really important to recognize that when you start to share, when you start to put yourself out there, you're going to connect to your people. There's always a group and something for you specifically.
Joel Hooks: Yeah. And we call that an audience, right? In terms of marketing and just kind of the marketing jargon that we use. And that seems hard too, right? You start out and it feels like nobody's even listening. So I mean, what should people do when they're starting out? How do you build an audience and how do you get that sort of following that you can teach [inaudible 00:22:27] you can actually create a course and launch it to them?
Janelle Allen: I want to say that first of all, people are always listening even when you think that they're not. So a funny story. I was out this past weekend supporting my DJ friends and I was introduced to a pretty popular DJ in the city and he was like, yeah, you changed your DJ name. And I was like, how did he know that? And that was an Aha moment. The little bit of content I had been sharing, people were paying attention. So people are always listening. I just wanted to put that out there. But as far as how to get started with building an audience, I think the first thing is showing up. But I tell people one of the best things that you can do is to start an email list. So if you're building an audience from scratch, start an email list and it is something that intimidates a lot of people, but set it up, there's several tools. Share valuable content and be consistent. Those are the three key things. Start your list, share valuable content, be consistent. I say valuable content because it needs to be content that resonates with your target audience, not just something random from your life. So that's the key. I think the cornerstone to grow from.
Joel Hooks: And that's why you tell your story and it's very much your community. Because I fully agree with that 100%. I tell everybody, I'm like, where's your website? Are you blogging at all? Do you have an email list? And people, well, blogs are dead, medium took over. And literally all I see about maybe lately on Twitter is kind of how garbage it is. And there's like almost a revival of people blogging and people get scared to do this, right? They don't want to put themselves out there or have their personality or worry about the audience that they'll create. And in my experience you are the filter, right? If you're genuine, if you're yourself and you're providing value in that way, that filters the people that aren't your audience and kind of works out over time.
Janelle Allen: It's hard. It can be scary and there's layers to it. But it's one of those things where the more you do it, the easier it gets. I have shared some, like at the end of the year, I share my annual review and I don't filter. I tell people, look, this is what happened. And the first time I did it, it was hard. But I found that I get so many emails from those, and I realized that people are craving human connection.
Joel Hooks: In a big way.
Janelle Allen: In a very big way. So showing up and putting yourself out there is the best thing you can do to connect with people and start building your audience. The key, I don't want to leave this out is consistency though.
Joel Hooks: For sure.
Janelle Allen: You've got to show up regularly.
Joel Hooks: Yeah. If you go away, it's almost like breaking of trust, right? They're kind of expecting you and you're part of folks routine and how they kind of deal with the world and their sense of community. So being consistent enhances and enforces that over time for sure.
Janelle Allen: Consistency builds credibility. And I don't think people think about that enough. Even if you feel like you might have a small audience. When I started out, just showing up in people's email inboxes a couple of times a week got me my first customers. So it's huge. It really is.
Joel Hooks: Yeah. And it keeps paying off too over time and it grows and kind of compounds and you put in the work, you're consistent, you put in the work, like that, like being consistent, putting in the work and showing up. Not everybody's out there wanting to do the work. And that in my observation is a huge differentiator between most people is those that will do it and those that don't.
Janelle Allen: Yeah, absolutely.
Joel Hooks: So I want to talk about this idea of building courses and mindset. And I was wondering, do you have any kind of personal favorite resources that talk about mindset. I know there's the literal book Mindset. So maybe beyond that one, where do people go? Where can people start kind of digging into it to understand these things more?
Janelle Allen: Okay, so here's where we're going to start, books.
Joel Hooks: Okay. Yeah.
Janelle Allen: So all of the books that I've read that helped me change my mindset are, they're probably books that not many people have read.
Joel Hooks: Now I'm more excited to be honest.
Janelle Allen: There's a book that I love that I love that's called the, so I went through a period where I got really into Buddhist philosophy. There's a book called sacred Path of the Warrior. And I love that book because it talks about fearlessness is not the absence of fear, it is going through fear to the other side. And that book really started to transform how I thought about fear and doubt and showing up. So I definitely recommend that book. I also think that when it comes to mindset, there's two key components that I've learned recently that are super, super valuable. One is who you're surrounding yourself with. Being an entrepreneur can be, and I've said this before, and it's because it's something that I'm mostly working at home alone. It can be lonely. And so you need to make sure that you have the right people around you who are helping you to maintain a positive and productive mindset. And I think that that can be a mastermind group, that can be any type of community of other people who inspire you and keep you grounded and encourage and support you is going to be huge in helping you to stay grounded when it comes to your thinking.
Janelle Allen: But the other thing, just to be completely honest, that I've started this year is therapy. It's been amazing and there's a lot of people who are kind of, that might throw them off, but having someone to talk to regularly in dealing with the ups and downs of entrepreneurship has worked wonders for just keeping things level. So that's really what I would recommend.
Joel Hooks: With therapy, it's interesting to me because it's, somebody that's paid to listen to you talk about you and, like only you and your problems, right? You can do that with friends and family, but to, it has to be reciprocal for one thing generally. And this is somebody that you can sit down and you can just open up to and they're professional and it's a continued conversation and just such a beneficial and helpful thing to so many folks. I would agree with that completely.
Janelle Allen: Yeah. I don't think that we recognize the power of speaking things out often enough.
Joel Hooks: Yeah. Like saying it out loud instead of just the internal voices that constantly [crosstalk 00:29:26] us from the moment we're born, I suspect, I don't remember those, but they had to be there.
Janelle Allen: Yeah, it's really powerful. And you can have friends and family, but what I realized is, look, I'm the only entrepreneur in my family. I think I'm the only, I might have one friend, close friends. All of my close friends are employees, so they're not going to understand and then I'm going to bore them. So having someone who I can just talk to about challenges and not have to worry about whether or not they understand or I'm boring them, but who's there to listen is supremely helpful.
Joel Hooks: Yeah. Well, Janelle, I really appreciate you coming to talk to me this afternoon. Thank you very much.
Janelle Allen: Thanks for having me. This is fun.
Joel Hooks: Have a wonderful rest of your day. Thank you.
Janelle Allen: You too.