Learning Design: Is Form, Fit, Function (FFF) Applicable In The eLearning Industry?

Learning Design: Is Form, Fit, Function (FFF) Applicable In The eLearning Industry?
Summary: Can learning be “engineered”? What if we were to use best practices from other domains to improve our learning design? Here’s how a basic concept from the manufacturing industry can be adapted to the eLearning industry.

FFF (Form, Fit, Function) And Learning Design 

While working on a project for a manufacturing organization a few months back, I created a storyboard on Form, Fit, and Function (also referred to as FFF or F3 in engineering parlance). I hadn’t thought much of it back then, but for some reason it stayed at the back of my mind and lately it’s been haunting me every waking hour.

Why, a voice in my head screams out, can’t this concept be applicable to learning design as well? So, having mulled this over, I’m now putting my thoughts down on paper.

Defining Form, Fit, Function

But first, what is the concept of FFF? BusinessDictionary.com defines it as the “Physical, functional, and performance characteristics or specifications that uniquely identify a component or device and determine its interchangeability in a system.”

A simpler explanation is as follows:

Form involves the physical properties of the product, like shape, size, mass, weight, dimensions, color and other visual parameters, etc.
Fit is the ability of an item to physically interface or interconnect with or become an integral part of another assembly.
Function is the action that an item is designed to perform. This is the reason for the item’s existence.

Mapping FFF To Learning Design

Let us now try and relate this concept to the learning design. Before I proceed, though, here’s a little disclaimer – these are my perceptions, and I look forward to other interpretations that could broaden my horizon.

So, what would constitute “Form” in the eLearning space? I would peg it down to the visual aspects like user interface (UI), as well as the technical design of a course based on the deployment method (and hence the selection of technology/tool for development). Taking a step back, I would probably include the training needs/gap analysis as a precursor.

Next is “Fit”. I would consider the instructional and graphical approaches as part of this element. Depending on the profile of the learner group, we would decide which approach “fits” best for maximum impact. The level of learning (as per Bloom’s taxonomy) and developing the learning objectives would also be a part of this component.

And, finally, “Function”. I would equate this to mapping learning outcomes. Is the course teaching what it’s intended to teach? Are the learners actually learning?

Test-Driving The Idea

Let’s assume a hypothetical situation and take this idea for a test drive.

Basic Premise:

  • The target audience is around 30 years of age, mostly management graduates, currently mid-level managers; all native English speakers.
  • The topic to be taught is “Conflict Management”.
  • The course duration is approximately 30 minutes.

Everything else, I shall assume along the way.

So, what does this information tell me about the learner? Being around 30 years of age, s/he has probably passed that “wild and reckless” phase of life, and possesses a certain degree of maturity. Young, so tech-savvy in all probability. Management graduate, so well-educated. Mid-level manager, so has a team to manage. Probably recently married, or in a serious relationship (this may seem too personal, but it’s important for me to gauge the amount of personal time I can encroach upon for delivering learning).

I now have a pretty clear mental picture of the person I’m dealing with. My imaginary learner/friend’s name is Michelle, and she looks like Anne Hathaway :-)

Okay, let’s teach Michelle a thing or two about managing conflicts. But how?

  1. Form.
    First off, let’s consider the deployment method. Should we design a course that runs off the mobile phone, or should we focus on the desktop? 30 minutes on the mobile phone – probably not. Besides, courses deployed on mobile phones tend to infringe on personal time, which is not always appreciated by employees. From a more technical standpoint, mobile phones are better suited for knowledge reinforcement, not core learning. We’ve written about the limitations of mLearning (beating them, actually) earlier, so I won’t dwell on it. I would, straightaway, select the desktop/laptop as my preferred choice of deployment. Next is the UI. Let’s assume there are no brand guidelines to follow – what colors should we use? Bright, vivid colors might be overkill, while dull colors would be, well, dull. Taking into account the age group of the target audience, a slightly muted color scheme (tending towards bright) with a flat design approach might be suitable. Appropriate icons, sleek buttons… you get the drift.
  2. Fit.
    What should we teach Michelle? And, why? Since she handles a team, she is sure to have faced situations where her team members have squabbled, or she has had differences with them. Now, there’s an easy way to handle conflict – slug it out, and may the best warrior win. Unfortunately, this is not a viable solution within corporate environs. That leaves us with teaching Michelle how to handle such situations in a level-headed manner. And how should we teach her this? Pegging the course to be at the “Comprehension” level, I would use a combination of didactic and scenario-based approaches. (I’m taking the easy way out, here – this being a hypothetical scenario.)
  3. Function.
    Finally, course evaluation. Michelle can tell us how useful she found the course through a post-course survey form (online, or offline). Here, I would also offer her mini scenarios to assess her knowledge retention – immediately after the course, as well as after a decent period of time (a few months, maybe?). I’m going to take every bit of learner feedback and let that be new learning for me. Right now, I shall invoke my author’s license and assume I’ve done a great job with the course. And, I shall pat myself on the back :-)

In Conclusion

I’m not trying to challenge any of the existing theories or models that exist for learning design. Nor am I proposing a new theory. I’m just trying to see how an “imported” concept can simplify my life as a learning designer. Can we just think “Form-Fit-Function”, and create the framework for our courses? Can we, once we have our basics in place, use our models, theories, and principles to design great learning? Can all the Michelles out there actually benefit from evolving ideas in learning design?

What do you think? Could FFF be your new learning design mantra?