Two weeks ago, I was in front of a crowd of learning professionals who face a harsh reality: Their best attempts at employee training and engagement will never be as interesting as Game of Thrones, nor as fun as Angry Birds, nor as relevant to me as my Instagram feed. This was not shocking to anyone in the room, but the point was this: In a never-ending battle for employees’ mindshare, we must do better if we’re going to compete with the noise, distraction, and infinite entertainment possibilities made available by today’s technology.

As a speaker at the FocusOn Learning Conference & Expo in Austin, I had the opportunity to talk with training directors, curriculum managers, education specialists, LMS administrators, and every other “doer” that makes the learning industry what it is. On display and under discussion were the newest and most innovative training tools, technologies, and strategies available in the market today. The theme that stood out the most: Using technology in a clever way to accomplish more with less.

I was impressed by the open and collaborative nature of the conference. Attendees were actively sharing ideas, techniques, and lessons learned to help each other improve and reach a common goal of engaging their users and achieving better results with their training materials.

Given that, it’s no surprise that interactive video was a pervasive topic across the conference. However, like many other adopters of interactive video, conference attendees were unsure about the differences between different formats, and weren’t even sure where to start.

My session aimed to help attendees understand how they can find success with interactive video by selecting the solution that fits their needs, and by discerning the gimmicks from the game changers. To do that, one needs to start at the end of the story: the user experience.

“Cool” isn’t necessarily better

Interactive video was born in the marketing space where new, cool, shiny things are valued because they get people talking. In the eLearning space, that doesn’t get you very far. You need users to really engage with your content, and to make that happen you need to respect what the user wants—experiences that are better, faster, and easier.

The difference between gimmick and game changer comes down to two basic questions: Does the technology solve a real business problem, and does it create an experience that is inherently better? 

Gimmicks are new, cool, shiny technologies with little intrinsic value—they are tech for tech’s sake. They're cool because they’re new, which (in the short term) can drive user engagement because people like shiny things. Over time, though, will users continue to interact with the technology as that luster starts to fade?

Game changers are lasting solutions that fill a real business need and create a better user experience. They should also have an aspect of cool and shiny, but that’s not their sole value.

Interactive video is a very broad category

As is the case with all new categories, it takes a while for patterns to emerge and for subcategories to coalesce. We’re in the middle of that process with interactive video. Each type has its strengths and weaknesses, but some seem to lend themselves to gimmicky applications, while I see others as game changers.  Here are two examples.

Right now 360-degree video is really hot. You’re able to look around and feel like you’re living the experience. Gimmick or game changer? It’s immersive, and you feel like you’re there. It can be a visceral, emotional experience, and users are entranced by it. However, as the novelty starts to fade, I think it will start to lose popularity. There may be some applications where the immersive nature of 360-degree video solves a real business need, and it might be a game changer for that application, but in general it’s a cool technology that falls mostly into the gimmick column.

What about video that you can navigate by answering questions posed to you by the main character? It’s a very new and cool experience to have the video itself talk to you and respond to your inputs. Gimmick or game changer? In terms of allowing the user to navigate through a lot of information quickly, it has the same advantages as the web, but it’s easier than reading text on a page and is more engaging. And the content producer can capture valuable information about their users based on their answers. So choice-based interactive video is a better, faster, easier user experience (and it fills a business need). Game changer.

User experience matters

Your content's user experience is vital for driving engagement and affecting behavior change. I’ve heard people say that their training content doesn’t need to be as interesting, fun, or relevant as media or marketing content because they have a captive audience. If participation is mandatory and compliance is guaranteed, why bother with investing in game-changing content?

My response is that employees who just check the box and complete trainings are not necessarily learning or absorbing anything. And if they’re not absorbing the content, then what are you achieving (aside from fulfilling arbitrary training requirements)? Will safety metrics improve? Will turnover drop? Will employees feel more engaged and connected to the company?

If you’re investing in training content, make it work for you. If you provide employees with compelling and relevant interactive content, you’re offering a highly rewarding experience and thereby building equity with that employee. Employees start to feel grateful to you for sharing inherently interesting and worthwhile content, and they become more likely to engage with content in the future. This cyclical pattern continues to pay dividends over time, ensuring your organization wins more and more invaluable employee mindshare.

Final thoughts

My audience had a lot of questions, many of which came back to: where and how to start with interactive content? I gave them the advice I’ve given content producers across verticals: Create three or so smaller pilot projects, each testing out a different approach (either in terms of the technology or in terms of content strategy), and see what floats. Start small and start now. The future isn’t going to wait for you to get there.