Pivot: How the MAYA Principle Relates to eLearning – by Joanne Astorga

Managing L&D projects is not always easy with so many competing expectations. Senior management generally expects new training to be developed and deployed on time and on budget, with immediate and demonstrable improvements in associated key performance indicators or compliance targets. Learning designers are often eager to incorporate the newest tool or technique they’ve read about. IT may take a more cautious approach, given their responsibility to make sure the new course plays well with the LMS and meets the organization’s technical specifications for browsers and devices.

If only there were a simple formula that managers could apply to each new eLearning project to help negotiate how different (or similar) the learning solution should be, compared to what’s already out there!

There is: it’s called the MAYA principle, for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. This industrial design guideline was introduced by Raymond Loewy (1983-1986), who was known as “The Man Who Shaped America” and “The Father of Industrial Design,” thanks to his design efforts across a variety of industries.

Loewy used the MAYA principle to design the iconic Coca-Cola bottle, as well as the logos for the US Postal Service, Air Force One, and Greyhound, among many others. The key to Loewy’s success was to balance what people knew and were comfortable with (the present) with innovation and the unknown (the future), by introducing the future gradually.

As this article points out, Loewy’s goal for each product was the most advanced design possible—but not more advanced than users of that product could accept. Indeed, he believed that:

The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.

Product and app designers who follow the MAYA principle often cite the success of Apple products, whose hardware and software have been (and continue to be) in constant evolution with each release, but never so much that users aren’t willing and able to quickly embrace an “upgrade” to their current device.

Applying the MAYA principle to eLearning

If eLearning managers were to apply this industrial design MAYA principle to eLearning, it could help them strike the right balance between the constant push for innovation and the pull (back) for the status quo among project designers, contributors, and stakeholders.

Specifically, when used as a benchmark for how far to move the innovation needle with each project, the MAYA principle reminds us that if the instructional design approach, user interface design, illustrations, or courseware are too different from what people are already familiar with, it will fail— even if it’s the best solution.

For example, if a new online course needs an elaborate Help section for users to orient themselves on the first screen, the course interface is either too advanced or complex for them to use. Learners should be able to understand the interface and navigate instantly, with minimal instructions or explanation.

Essentially, the MAYA principle reminds us that new eLearning projects should:

  • Represent an “upgrade” but not a revolution, compared to the last course learners took
  • Feature enough familiar elements that learners can orient themselves to the new ones
  • Assess and accept learners’ current comfort levels and appetite for change
  • Innovate constantly, but gradually

With the MAYA principle, managers can take for granted that innovation is the goal while keeping in mind the limits as to how much innovation learners (or other stakeholders) will accept with each learning solution.

At your next L&D team meeting, think about asking everyone to test ideas using the MAYA principle as a touchstone. Ask them to consider if their design or solution is the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable design or solution they can offer at this point. If it’s too advanced, perhaps a bit of patience is in order to gain acceptance. If not advanced enough, the learning solution may not model the performance improvement it seeks to support.

Either way, eLearning managers can learn from Loewy, who believed that consumers are torn between a curiosity about new things and a fear of anything too new. Can’t the same be said about learners, senior management, and everyone else involved in a new L&D project?

The MAYA principle can help navigate the competing expectations that are always involved in creating something new by reminding everyone that constant, gradual, and patient innovation is the surest path to acceptance.

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