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Memory Retention: Instructional Design Tips #5: User Engagement – Fun!


Dr. Michael

Hanchett Hanson

In the last post on Instructional Design Tips I listed the five strategies Hickory uses to maximize user engagement:

  • Setting user expectations.
  • Aligning Hickory with training milestones.
  • Managers conveying the importance of Hickory.
  • Making users active stakeholders.
  • Making the experience fun.

Previous posts have talked about all of these, except fun. We save the best for last.

What is considered appropriate fun differs by organization, and Hickory encourages each to push itself to make the lessons as much fun as possible. At Hickory we give a lot of attention to this issue. Last summer the Hickory Customer Success went on a weekend retreat just to talk about how to push the envelope on fun. As a result there will be a number of product design features that enhance the fund of the Hickory experience over the next couple of quarters. We are also piloting a client workshop on “Finding the Fun in Your Organization’s Voice” with some of our clients. (Let us know if you’d like to be in the pilot group!)

We don’t have to look to the future, though, for fun. There are already some tried and true approaches. (And, by the way, fun usually also means more memorable.)


Four basic ways to insert humor into the lessons themselves are:

  • Use absurd situations and/or fictional characters for the application questions (Sherlock Holms, Dracula, etc.).
  • Use exaggeration.
  • Use comic gifs.
  • Make fun of your own jargon.

Using absurd situations and/or fictional characters.

Application lessons in Hickory usually include customers. For some products and services humorous customer scenarios are not appropriate, but for many they are. For example, a question in an introductory lesson for a financial services customer service group might read: [Leprechaun card from Hickory Humor lesson]Note that the setup then allows for a humorous answer option. This kind customer might also become a running character in the lessons with more issues in the future. (Note: some fictional characters are public domain, and others are not. Check before you use them.)


Take a point you want to make and think about how you might exaggerate it to comic effect. For example, a tech lesson on reporting programming bugs emphasizes the fact that ignoring bugs can have dire consequences. References to black holes, asteroids, earthquakes and floods can provide a comic throughline to the text.

[Card from Brian’s lesson on reporting bugs.]

Here, again, exaggeration is not always appropriate, but it can be a memorable and fun way to get across a key point of the training.

Funny Gifs

The example above – exaggerating the effects of not reporting tech bugs – could also just be communicated through gifs of the catastrophic events. Gifs can also be used in lessons to illustrate points not exaggerated in text. For example, a lesson on how to handle undelivered orders might start with a gif of an act occurring in reverse. Note that organizations need to purchase a licenses for gif images just as you would stock photography.

Having fun with jargon.

Finally, all industries have some kinds of jargon. Part of the learning, especially for new hires, will be the jargon. When appropriate, highlighting the jargon by making fun of it or making it literal can be, not only funny, but also usefully memorable. For example, a financial services representative needs to know the differences between Automated Customer Account Transfers (ACAT) and Non-Automated Customer Account Transfers (Non-ACAT).

[Show card / take out FA references if there are any.]


Competition is a powerful motivator, and Hickory can set up competitions for most training programs. Groups of learners within an organization can be set up as teams to compete against one another. Key to this approach is that team points are NOT based on getting answers right, but on using the system consistently (finishing lessons and reviews). We want for learners to think of Hickory as a tool, not a test. In setting up the point system a certain floor for correct scores is used to be sure that users read and answer questions, rather than just clicking through. Like any other competition, the teams should have names and users get regular feedback from Hickory about how the teams are doing. Prizes depend on the culture of the organization but can include gift certificates, vouchers for nice dinners, etc.


Everybody likes winning something that is not expected, and intermittent reinforcement schedules can be powerful in training. Hickory uses this kind of approach by giving small surprise gifts, such as $10 gift cards, when users do something positive, like finish the reviews for the week or finish a last lesson. Not everyone gets these and the winners are publicized so that everyone knows that the the gifts are possible. For extremely good students we have even had prizes delivered to the employee’s office – a way to improve someone’s day and let everyone see that Hickory is not just a useful tool but also a way to brighten a day.

Ongoing Question

Fun is hard to define and harder to measure. It is contextual and different for each organization. The key to making the learning fun is continuing to ask ourselves, “Could this be more fun?” “What would be a fun scenario here?” “What happens if we exaggerate this?” “What images would be playful here?” “Can this be a competition?” “What if we gave prizes?”

The Hickory team asks these questions as we develop lessons. It is important, though, that managers join us in this work. When they review lessons drafted by Hickory, they have to check for accuracy. It is also important to check for enjoyment, keeping the questions above front of mind throughout the lesson development process.

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