Designing digital training for small businesses

Insight - Capacity Building

June 2022

Designing digital training for small businesses

This insights page is regularly updated and highlights what Strive Community is learning about designing digital capacity-building programs for small businesses. Do you have best practices or insights to share about this topic? Reach out to us.


Training programs that are delivered digitally show promise for small business owners who have limited time or want to access key information when they need it. Digital training is convenient, cost-effective, and engaging, so long as it is designed well. This insight brief discusses the potential of digital training for small businesses and best practices for designing digital training programs.

This brief focuses specifically on design considerations for digital training programs, while our complementary brief focuses on delivering training on a variety of digital channels.

The potential of digital training for small businesses

While reliable evidence specifically on the impact of digital training on small businesses is scarce, research in the educational sector over the last few decades has found positive benefits for students. For example, one meta-analysis of online learning studies found that, on average, classes with online learning produced stronger student learning outcomes than classes with solely face-to-face instruction. Similarly, another meta-analysis found conclusive evidence that digital technologies can support educational attainment, particularly when teachers identify and use appropriate digital tools. Similarly, other researchers concluded that learning depends not on whether technology is used, but how well technology is applied. Well-designed digital training programs, delivered through appropriate digital channels, become all the more necessary for small businesses. 

Digital training programs can leverage unique design components that contribute to increased knowledge retention and engagement. 

Digital training can:

  • enable storytelling from multiple perspectives, like peers and experts, to foster empathy and trust
  • simplify complex content or topics using graphics or videos 
  • make learning more efficient, enabling learners to go at their own pace, re-learn information, or accelerate through specific concepts
  • support behavior change outcomes through gamification and other engagement techniques
  • offer custom self-assessment and learning journeys to increase the relevance of content to learners
  • create convenient and mobile training schedules via short modules 

More and more practitioners and organizations that support small businesses are leveraging digital innovation within their programming.

Insights on designing digital training programs

Below, we outline some of the insights that Strive Community has learned about designing digital training programs for small businesses. We will continue to update this page with new information as our work progresses. 

Integrate user-centered design

Designing digital training programs that small businesses find valuable means understanding target users: their business stage, needs, pain points, and goals. User-centered design—an iterative design process that puts users and their needs at the center of the process—is a valuable framework for building this level of understanding. Providers that assess the business needs and contexts (among other aspects) of small businesses are better able to determine the most beneficial training topics and delivery methods. 

For instance, TechnoServe (a Strive Community grantee) employs user-centered design to initially connect with the entrepreneurs in its training programs to better understand their objectives and obstacles. Then, it designs a program focusing on these issues. With this approach, TechnoServe has found entrepreneurs are more eager and motivated to participate in the program and apply what they learn to their businesses.

Streamline training content 

When it comes to digital training content, less is more. For small business owners who have limited time to dedicate to learning, digital training is often most successful when it’s short and delivered “just in time.” For organizations that support small businesses, it is also important to recognize that digital training cannot solve all of the problems that small businesses face. Design training content that focuses on specific topics is more likely to generate positive outcomes. 

TechnoServe has learned over time how important it is to streamline and simplify content for small businesses. “We committed the mistake of trying to teach a whole MBA to our entrepreneurs,” explained Juan Carlos Thomas, Global Entrepreneurship Director at TechnoServe. “That doesn’t work at all. So, it’s key to focus on a few skills and behavior change that are really going to drive immediate and significant improvement in business performance.” To do this, TechnoServe identifies training topics—such as specific skills development—that are important to entrepreneurs and that would lead to easy business improvements. 

Additionally, microlearning—digital training modules that are only a few minutes in length—can be completed on the go, seamlessly integrated into the rhythm of a workday. EduMe, a platform that enables microlearning, has found that it holds learner’s attention and helps information stick better. EduMe offers some best practices when designing microlearning:

  • Keep it short. A lesson should be no more than five minutes so it can be completed in one session.
  • Narrow the focus. Each module should focus on a single topic with up to two learning objectives and clear applications for learners
  • Design for the audience. Choose a format that makes the most sense for your learners and the content.

Embrace storytelling

Storytelling is an important aspect of effective communication in a variety of circumstances. Sharing stories helps foster empathy, trust, and familiarity—as well as offering benefits for learning. As a teaching mechanism, storytelling can be effective because it works for all types of learners. Storytelling makes content relatable, and it helps to simplify complex or abstract content

Digital training programs that have embraced storytelling have been able to successfully engage and retain the attention of entrepreneurs.

  • Arifu (a Strive Community grantee) has found that storytelling helps drive engagement for digital training completion, regardless of gender or geography. 
  • Shujaaz Inc (a Strive Community grantee) found that the story and the storyteller are equally important to drive behavior change (<read more about Shujaaz Inc in our blog post>). The Shujaaz Biz platform uses real-life stories from entrepreneurial young people who have set up and run successful micro-businesses. 
  • ACCESS Development Services (a Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth Partner) created short episodic videos featuring an animated character, BuddhiMoney, that embed three to four key messages. An impact assessment found that both the BuddhiMoney character and the videos’ plots made the content highly relatable for audiences. 

Make training personal 

Self-assessment tools and customized learning journeys can make digital training more practical, personal, and useful. Digital self-assessment tools offer guidance on which business areas could be strengthened or improved with training. For instance, Mastercard’s Small and Medium Businesses Digital Readiness Score provides businesses with a custom score and advice based on different dimensions of digital readiness, such as cybersecurity or payments. 

One of the main challenges with diagnostic tools is encouraging small business owners and entrepreneurs to take action following guidance. This can be addressed by approaching learning as a journey: offering personalized training content and tools across a variety of formats, delivery channels, and sources. Users can self-select training content or follow a suggested learning journey. This enables small businesses to identify content that is most relevant and needed, which can encourage greater learner action. Further, interactive elements (quizzes, feedback mechanisms, Q&As, etc.) and gamification elements (earning points, badges, or leaderboards, etc.) can help drive further engagement. 

Link training to digital tools 

Covid-19 has shown small businesses the importance and value of bringing their businesses online. However, small businesses may struggle with the breadth of digital tools available: how to decide between them and how to implement them. Combining training with digital tool adoption can increase its relevance to small businesses. Providers can better support small businesses to learn by doing, leading to impactful behavior change and increased adoption.

This was the case for Fundación Capital in Colombia, which realized that micro-enterprises were aware of the importance of adopting digital tools but needed guidance on how to do so. It launched the DigitAll project, which aims to improve the business skills and knowledge of micro-entrepreneurs and guide them through the process of implementing digital tools. Fundación Capital mapped and tested existing digital solutions in the Colombian market to ensure they met the needs of small businesses. This information has enabled them to build a menu of high-value-added digital solutions, coupled with guidance, for microenterprises to select, implement, and use. 

Utilize gamification to motivate and engage

Gamification—the process of applying game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts—is another way to motivate and encourage small businesses to continue their training and create a sense of accomplishment. Digital training programs can consider adding gamified components—such as interactive scenarios, quizzes, feedback, points, badges, leaderboards, among many others—to engage users and encourage them to continue their training. 

EduMe added gamified components to their learning experience, including awarding points for completing (or repeating) lessons and a rankings leaderboard to help increase motivation and build a sense of progress. One client saw a 20% increase in learner completion rates after gamified elements were added. Similarly, Accion (a Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth partner) worked with BancoSol to develop a gamified app, GanaSol, to encourage positive savings behaviors for small businesses in Bolivia. Customers can earn prizes and rewards when they perform key tasks, such as using digital channels to manage their bank accounts, depositing cash regularly, and retaining a certain monthly balance. By integrating gamified elements into digital training programs, providers can increase learner motivation and engagement. 

Looking ahead

In the coming months, Strive Community, in partnership with our grantees and partners, will be gathering insights and best practices on using designing digital training programs for small businesses. Learn more about some of the programs we’re working on.

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