The prospect of a technology-driven future might inspire excitement, dread—or both. Innovations in technology shape nearly every aspect of human society and interaction, including the ways we learn and work. Tech Humanist author and founder of KO Insights Kate O’Neill is adamant in her description of the best possible future: “We must make intentional choices that align the best of technology’s promise, and the business objectives that provide fuel to it, with the best and broadest of human objectives.”

A key human objective, O’Neill wrote, is seeking meaning. “We create the meaning we crave through shared understanding, alignment, relevance, and doing what matters.”

Embodying this technological humanist approach in eLearning could mean a focus on storytelling, sharing relevant experiences and scenarios, and using our human ability to “project likely consequences.”

In design terms, this means designing meaningful learner experiences “through empathy, context awareness, and an understanding of how the experience will come across in an integrated way,” she wrote.

Metaphor can add meaning

A relevant, well-considered metaphor can help embed meaning in an experience. It can trigger associations that help learners understand a message. O’Neill offered as an example an early logo proposed for Netflix. The logo captured an image of a TV screen. But Netflix was seeking a different metaphor: Rather than an emphasis on the experience of viewing content on a TV screen, the company sought the metaphor of a plush movie theater seat, a velvet curtain, and the enjoyment of a movie personally chosen from an enormous selection and viewed from the comfort of home.

“Metaphor is about creating a place in someone’s brain for them to conceive of the thing you’re giving them to do,” she wrote. That thing inherently brings along information—metadata—that frame, shape, and help interpret the experience.

Metaphors abound in the eLearning context, both within learning and to provide information about using and finding eLearning. Consider the idea of a dashboard, for example. Similar to a dashboard in a car, a dashboard in your analytics program would visually present and provide access to valuable information. A well-considered metaphor within an eLearning course or activity could make the content more relatable and help learners remember it.

Human-centered design

O’Neill aims to provide anyone developing technology projects or products—including eLearning—with a “roadmap from a holistic human-centric perspective.”

According to, human-centered design consists of innovative solutions, based on observed human needs and tailored to meet the needs of users. It entails designing from the perspective of end users and refining potential solutions by trying them out—ideally with actual users or learners. The iteration cycle might consist of multiple attempts, each improved with user feedback, using an Agile model of product management, design, and development.

Instructional design that focuses on creating exceptional learner experiences starts with empathy—a deep understanding of who the learners are and the circumstances under which they will access and use the eLearning. It extends to the information gathered on learners and their interactions with the eLearning courses or activities.

O’Neill cites the example of collection and use of personal data on users, learners, or customers: “We need to recognize the humanity in the data we mine for profit; to see that most of the time, analytics are people.”

Recognizing the humans behind the data can help instructional designers and developers create meaningful experiences based on that data. Better data enables IDs to create more personalized and relevant content, and to offer each learner the most appropriate content and experiences. The flip side, of course, is collecting too much data or using data in inappropriate ways. “Targeting is a big opportunity in business, but if you don’t think through the ramifications of demonstrating what you know, you could come off as creepy,” O’Neill warned.

Keep the focus on humans

As more processes, including hiring and training employees, become automated, keeping human needs at the forefront becomes more essential. This means grounding technology and innovation in human scale, senses, and needs. To O’Neill, that is the essence of technological humanism. “The future of humanity depends not on benevolent robots but on benevolent businesses,” she wrote.