How Irrational Labs is Leveraging Disco for Cohort-Based Learning of Behavioral Design

We sat down with Ryan Goble, CLO of Irrational Labs, to hear more about the program and how they’re leveraging Disco’s solutions to host their cohort-based experiences and bridging the gap between learning and community.

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Have you ever been curious why people think and act the way they do and how they make decisions? Behavioral design might be the subject for you, and nobody teaches it quite like Irrational Labs. With synchronous, asynchronous, and corporate trainings, anyone can leverage behavioral design insights in their lives and careers.

We sat down with Ryan Goble, CLO of Irrational Labs, to hear more about the program and how they're leveraging Disco's solutions to host their cohort-based experiences and bridging the gap between learning and community.

Tell us who you are and what Irrational Labs is.

So Irrational Labs is a company founded by Kristen Berman and Professor Dan Ariely. Now that's a significant partnership there, because Dan is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University copywriter and he's a New York Times best seller a million times over. His most famous book is Predictably Irrational, which is where our name comes from. 

Kristen is just an incredible thought leader in behavioral design. We do a lot of work in Silicon Valley in health tech, FinTech, sustainability, transportation, you name it, but all of our work is really about taking these behavioral insights back from the Ivory Tower and using it in applied settings and using all these psychological insights to help people design better products, better services, better user experiences, better UX/UI, among other stuff.

Notably — for all practical purposes — we built out the first 25 behavioral economics units at Google around 2008-2009. That's really where Irrational Labs started. Dan and Kristen collaborated at Google and built out their first VE teams. 

Primarily, we're a consultancy, and we bring these psychological insights to people and industries that need help on their products. However, a chunk of our business is dedicated to learning and development. We feel very strongly that education is important for everybody's professional growth and we feel like there are a lot of insights that we can't keep locked up. We have different levels of educational offerings to help people dip their feet into behavioral design.

“All of our work is really about taking these insights from the Ivory Tower and using it in applied settings and using all these psychological insights to help people design better products, better services, better user experiences, better UX/UI, among other stuff.”

Can you share more about what those educational offerings are?

I'm our chief learning officer and I primarily oversee three domains or three workflows within the L&D space for us:

  1. Self-paced course: There's one on general behavioral psychology, there's one for finance, and there's one for health.
  2. Live cohort: We ran our first one on Disco this fall, and we should be doing another one this spring. Super exciting. 
  3. Corporate training: We work with a lot of very high profile Fortune 100 clients, so we may go in and do a three day workshop, virtual or face to face, for set organization over say, three days. 

Those are our three primary educational spaces, but there's some Asterix to that. We do some one-off learning development things with certain clients if they ask, and sometimes people go through these courses in teams, so there are all kinds of permutations on the basic formula. Ultimately, it boils down to self-paced stuff, cohort stuff, and then formal corporate training stuff.

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Is it a membership model? Pay-per-course?

We do have a membership model but, to be fair, it's been in beta for most of 2022. So the way that it works is, generally, you're buying courses a la carte. When you buy the course, you are a member for the time that you're in the course. Our self-paced course, for example, is designed to be three months, so you're a member for three months and you can take part in membership activities, if you so choose. 

From there, you know, we say ‘Hey, would you like to continue your learning relationship with us?' And then we offer them membership pricing for the year, which includes our Slack space. Between March and December, we'll have hosted 40 live events. One a month is open, so we try to get a prominent academic or designer or something like that, and then the others are closed to members only. 

Interestingly, we've been in the process of transitioning our LMSs and we want to start working with a platform that would be able to solve three to four use cases: Self-paced courses, live courses, membership events, and potentially community. Now, we're building up to the possibility of putting all those into Disco, but we started with the cohort. Right now, we do use Slack for our community, but we were excited because I spent a lot of time auditing learning management systems.

Disco was the only one that could solve all those things if we so chose to take advantage of it. That's not to disparage any other LMS out there; there were a lot of interesting, cool products. But they weren't very versatile and, sometimes, they would have only enterprise pricing. Disco has creator-grade spaces, where regular people could pay or small businesses could pay. But if Microsoft wanted to work with Disco, they could pay you, as well! And you'd happily take their money! 

But Disco was clearly built to be versatile and service all these various use cases, which is how we ended up discovering you.

Irrational Labs case study Credit Karma

We can't wait to hear more about your Disco experience, but first: Do you have an ideal member of these courses, specifically the self-paced and cohort-based ones? And what are their goals? What are they trying to solve for?

We tend to attract product managers — that's not all we attract — but I would say at least 50% of our pie is product managers. 

There are no shortage of challenges that people are trying to solve, but some of them include:

  • How do we convert people? 
  • How do we make people click through to our landing flow and our landing page?
  • Beyond that, how do we design our funnel so it works? 

There's always a behavior that they're trying to deal with. 

One of our more interesting case studies that we've done a lot of interesting work with are telehealth companies. How do we get people to utilize telehealth instead of rushing into the ER? So we'll help them use psychological insights to unlock those things in the consultant space. Those are the types of case studies that you'll see reflected in our courses. 

We do share a lot of the very cool things we've done to make dramatic impacts for companies, but we also share what Alex calls Behavioral Economics' Greatest Hits — that would be the album cover. There are a lot of Greatest Hits that you have to know about: Lots of people know about nudging behavior change because this is the book that popularized behavioral design. Lots of people have heard about setting defaults. We introduce people to these canonical case studies during the course so that they know what all this is built on.

“But Disco was clearly built to be versatile and service all these various use cases, which is how we ended up discovering you.”

I bet these courses are super insightful. You mentioned yourself, Kristen, and Dan — are there other team members?

Our CEO does a lot of ops. Kristen is very much in charge of this. Dan is involved with lots of companies, so he's on and off with us on certain things.

But of course, we're a boutique consultancy. We have three managing directors and a good army of 20+ behavioral scientists that work under them. On the operations side, we have primarily one marketing guy, and primarily one learning guy, but we work with everybody and a couple of subcontractors here and there. All in, we're about a team of 25 on any given day.

The marketing guy, Brad, and I? We are the connect the dots dudes. We really bring almost all of our consultants in for these courses. They come on in rotations and share their expertise or pivotal learning experiences. All of our consultants have incredible backgrounds in a lot of work, like with the World Bank and major companies and universities and governments. One guy built the original behavioral nudge units for the country of Ireland! These folks have a lot of PhDs and a lot of advanced degrees in general, so tons of expertise that they're bringing to bear on whatever we're consulting with or in the learning space.

You mentioned earlier your community lives on Slack. How do you engage your community and re-engage your alumni once they've taken a course?

I yell at them all the time. All caps. No, I'm kidding. 

So if you stay on and you become a member the live membership events are a great way to re-engage and they are actually really fun. I actually host those. I'm not just saying they're fun because I host them. It's almost like the regulars at the bar: The same people get to hang out and catch up. So that's the first and foremost way to build community. 

The second thing is we've really just started building out our Slack space with intention. We put a lot of energy and beta into just event hosting. Now the issue becomes, okay: What kind of channels? What kind of discussions would be the most generative? I'll see something weird on Slack and go ‘What is this?' So we'll do a psychology of the week and we'll share a big psychological concept around that. 

We'll share more of the simple questions, too, like, ‘Have you seen this in your work life?' in the channel we have for asking behavioral scientists. Not everybody does consulting engagements with us, and not everybody necessarily can. But if you're a bootstrapping startup, you may need to get some advice but can't pay regular consulting rates. So you can ask behavioral scientist a question on our channel, and one of our scientists will give you a video response back.

Obviously, you see some frequent fliers in the digital space, but you get to just literally continue the conversation. It's the best of the hybrid world, right? You are seeing people — it feels a little different than just typing — to get to hang out in real time, and we've all gotten used to Zooming all the time so it becomes real life.

Irrational Labs method to designing and growing solutions that change beaviors.

Video responses are a great community-building strategy. Are you comfortable sharing how big the course has become in terms of membership?

We've had about 1,200 people go through the various permutations of our courses since mid-2020. Let's call it the last two years. 

We've had about 220 people go through live cohorts. The corporate training has been quite a bit more. 1,200 doesn't count in the corporate training engagements. That's a whole separate ball of wax. I honestly don't know those numbers because I just show up for those things. 

The finance vertical just launched this fall, and the health vertical launched maybe a year ago, but we've already had close to 100 people go through the finance vertical in just a month. People are coming and going at a steady clip. 

Interestingly, right when we started to reboot the membership, we made the decision to prune our membership. At one point, we had over 1,000 — I would say over 2,000 people — in our member Slack. Then we switched to this minimal paying model of $150 a year though, usually, we're offering it at $99. That brought the total membership down to about 600, which is so cool.

How big do you want the community to get?

Size doesn't matter. Quality does. Community builders might disagree, but…

Why not both?

I guess so. Right now, our focus is more on enhancing interactions in the online space. As we're kind of rethinking KPIs going forward, the first membership KPI for us was live event attendance. 

Now, we're more interested in how many people are posting. We're interested in online activity and asynchronous activity. In our world, we would say that's the key behavior we're focused on. One would hope if you are delighting and keeping people engaged, they would be sharing on the regular. This is very behavioral science, right? We don't focus on the outcome, we focus on the behavior. That's what we're looking at with our key behaviors: How can we amplify engagement in these asynchronous forums?

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Makes sense. How are you bringing on more members via marketing?

We routinely draw people from all over the world because Dan and Kristen have an international reputation. We're lucky that we have these brilliant leaders at the helm. 

But beyond that, we do a lot on LinkedIn. We post and share a lot of content and case studies and videos over there. Of course, we rock Twitter, but LinkedIn is our primary space and then Twitter's our secondary space. 

Our team does a lot of podcasts. We do these open webinars. Kristen was recently on the Lenny podcast. For those of you who don't know him, he's the big Silicon Valley product god (with a lowercase g). In the last month, at least half of the people that come to the kickoff calls for our self-paced course heard Kristen on Lenny's podcast. 

We're  omni-channel, like everybody, but I think we put the most eggs in our LinkedIn basket and just development of assets,like sharing our case studies, doing our blogs on the website — that's the work that drives the content that drives the conversions.

And do you offer a referral program with former alumni?

For anybody reading this blog? No? Kidding. We do use codes. I'm not a marketing guy. I can't speak with real depth to this, but we have had some affiliate relationships in the past, but I don't know the details of them. I think the safest thing to say is yes, we partnered with organizations in the past, but it's not our primary driver of growth.

Gotcha! As a Chief Learning Officer, we'd love to hear your thoughts on where the future of learning is heading.

I come from a K-12 and college teaching background. The biggest question on the horizon for all learning spaces is: Can we harness technology to help people learn in meaningful ways? 

Attributing meaning to learning is pretty subjective, though. What's meaningful for one person may not be meaningful for another. In our self-paced course, we have a simple multiple choice quiz at the end that gets you a course certificate. 

There are obvious reasons for this in a professional cohort setting, just as there are reasons for multiple choice tests in K-12 settings. 

The first and foremost one is efficiency, right? They're easy to grade, they're easy to assess. But do they elevate one to meaning? Well, that depends: Do you retain it? Do you use it? 

Our self-paced course is the best of both worlds in the sense that they post their homework in Slack, based on a project that they're working on for a challenge they have, and we give them feedback. We have a handful of fellows that I collaborate with to give people feedback on their projects. 

Another question is can we use technology to do meaningful things with people and displace teachers? Learning is messy and complicated and nonlinear. AI is a long way from being a wonderful mentor and guide through complex content, but technology can make your life a lot easier. Having taught college writing for 15 years, I always tell my students to put their writing through Hemingway app or anything, it doesn't matter, to get the low hanging feedback from a digital tool, but you still need educators to sculpt it. There are all kinds of higher order things — they can make sure your sentences are crisp, and look nice, but generally, if your brain is scrambled eggs and if your ideas are all jumbled, you need a teacher to help you sculpt that. 

We're not at a point where AI can say, ‘You should move this here and that there.' I think everyone knows the teacher shortages are so dramatic in K-12 education here in the States. A lot of policymakers are going to say AI is going to be the solution, but I would argue it should just be part of the solution. You should put educators in different spaces and different roles, and you should use technology in different ways — a lot of ways I think we have not yet seen.

“You can tell the Disco team is incredibly smart and fast to make these improvements, to make the software even more engaging, even more user friendly, even more delightful, better analytics, additional use cases.”

Fully agree. Mind if we switch gears to Disco? We'd love to hear what challenges you were looking for a LMS to solve.

The biggest challenge was just getting calendar invites right and clean. Calendars and archiving are the two biggest things.

A lot of organizations use their Microsoft Productivity Suite or the Google Productivity Suite; we do, too, but you also want a gated community where people can go in and they can get introduced to one another and network, so it needs to have a little bit more functionality than a Slack in terms of multimedia capacities, archiving, and things like that. 

First and foremost, Disco had a very clean conceptualization of the UI and the UX and how you would be making the learning experience very comprehensible to the listeners and viewers and participants.

The second thing and — again, we're still in the middle of our journey — but the flexibility of Disco for solving multiple use cases, so any learning organization or any organization that has a learning and development wing, can find the service they need.

This membership model, these live events, these self-paced courses and live cohorts, no one solution is going to get you to where you need to go. You need to be able to work in all these different domains and different modalities. Disco actually had been thinking through all of those things and, what was most interesting was, seeing the software develop over time. You can tell the Disco team is incredibly smart and fast to make these improvements, to make the software even more engaging, even more user friendly, even more delightful, better analytics, additional use cases. Disco is a young company, and I'm excited to see it grow into a teenager.

So are we! We're thrilled to hear your great feedback. What were you using before Disco in addition to Slack? Do you have any other tools in the mix? 

We were using Podia. It's a very clean user interface, it's very simple, but it's just not super flexible and our ops guy set up all the back end stuff with duct tape for sales and alignment with Active Campaign. 

We went back and forth as to how we were going to use Disco first, and we all kind of landed on, well, cohort makes sense because it's a low-stakes thing. Our self-paced actually is nice, steady, recurring revenue. The whole if it ain't broke, don't fix it mentality was definitely in place, but we absolutely want to move our self-paced course over at some point.

We figured we'd play around with Disco. I know you guys are building out your API, and we knew we needed an API integration. I know that you're developing a lot of these things, so there was no need to rush on our end and we could just kind of test as you grow and, hopefully, grow in parallel.

Why was Disco the tool you wound up choosing?

I like Disco a lot. In general, it's really easy to use and pretty self-explanatory. The thing that pulled me over the top actually was two pieces: 

One: You had developed a good buzz in the Valley. Our CEO was hearing good things about Disco. So, sure, there was heavy word of mouth. You were the only place that offered solutions to all four use cases of ours like membership, live event, live cohorts, self paced. Disco was the only organization, and I looked at, like, 50 LMSs. So that was a big deal, and you're trying to be the Swiss Army Knife LMS. 

Two: It isn't heavyweight. I don't want to name other LMSs, but some of them are incredibly robust. It's like going to the picnic in a Sherman tank, right? Like it doesn't like you can bike there. You don't need a Sherman tank. I think the weight of the solution matters a lot. Disco is a Goldilocks solution. It's not too heavy, and it's not too light.

Have any of those features helped you save time operationally?

It did save time, though it's hard to tell because we just did our beta on it. But I'm going to say it saves at least 20 hours a week. That's not just for me, that's for the team in general. Initially, we were doing recap emails manually or in Slack, and they wouldn't be archived anywhere, so that saved us a lot of time.

Ultimately, what was the member experience like using Disco?

It was very intuitive. When we do corporate training at Company X, education is so easy because you're a captive audience. Their managers said ‘You've got to be there for this three-day training' which is a whole different game. 

But when you run these async a la carte cohorts, where people are coming in from all over the world, the nudges are super helpful. I went and took screenshots of everybody's engagement data and I messaged all the screenshots to each student and I said ‘Hey, see you haven't opened anything. How are we doing?' Those little nudges make a huge difference. They help people in this setting,  as people are busy and they just need a reminder to be clued in. These are busy adults in adult learning experiences trying to make choices and trying to prioritize. 

Disco truly allows you to do all those things.

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