The term engagement has been a bit overused, but what it really refers to is emotional involvement or commitment. It has been well documented that in eLearning, and learning in general, higher engagement produces higher retention rates, which translate to better performance results. In the end, it is all about results, and engagement is a well-paved pathway to better results.

A major reason that serious games and gamification techniques are so popular across industries is that they are designed to obtain emotional involvement from users. Apart from good game mechanics and dynamics, there are some common design techniques employed by game designers that are also applicable to eLearning course designers.

Whether a game is meant for a learning context or strictly for entertainment, elements such as a compelling storyline, interesting content delivery, and immersive aesthetics make for an engaging experience. Since we are not all masters of programming, and regularly face budgets smaller than a pygmy shrew, we are often confined to the tools of the trade and driven to find financially creative solutions.

Crafting the content

The most important aspect in vying for the emotional attachment of the learner is the manner in which you deliver the content. Stories, creative content delivery, and immersive backgrounds are three ways to make sure you are presenting the content in the most effective way possible.

Tell a story

An interesting and captivating story is the absolute best way to get people emotionally invested in anything. Since the content is fixed, and the story is fluid, it is always best to shape the story around the content, rather than coming in with a storyline and trying to make the content flow around it. When looking to craft an effective story or theme for your course, here are two ways to get the creative juices flowing.

  • Start by identifying the running themes and “story” of the content. Is the learning centered on a product, a process, or a skill? For example, if your content revolves around a product—say a vacuum cleaner—ask yourself how do people interact with that product? What would people love about it, what annoys them about it? With less tangible content, such as with processes or skills, read through your content materials thoroughly, talk to your SME’s, even ask your kids. Try to identify the stand-out and recurring learning themes.
  • Next, think of an obstacle related to the key learning themes. With the vacuum cleaner, wouldn’t it suck (pun intended) if it developed sentience and decided to run amok in the owner’s house? Wouldn’t it be great if a hero (our learner) might rescue the distressed cat from the clutches of the evil vacuum, and if we learned more about the product to the point we could disable and reprogram it for the good of all house kind?

I firmly believe that there isn’t a product, process, skill, or any type of learning for which you cannot create a story.

Make a list

A bulleted list can be an effective way to present information, but like many content delivery strategies, it is most effective when used sparingly, and for the proper applications. To help keep the bullet points from taking over the course, here are some suggestions I employ myself.

  • Look at other ways to present sequential information—use charts, diagrams, shapes, and arrows with text. This will help keep the eye awake—especially if the charts and diagrams are interactive.
  • Ensure that you time the information presented to not appear all at once; time it to appear with your voiceover segments (if you use VO) or, at the very least, space the timing accordingly to allow the learner to absorb key bite-sized points.
  • Think visually when your content is text-heavy. Look for key learning take-aways that you can better express with images, shapes, video, and audio.
  • Finally, if you simply cannot get away from using bullet points, provide some visual flare and variety by adding subtle (i.e., not flying in and zooming around like a demented wasp) entrance and/or exit visual effects. A well-timed text animation can make all the difference when time and budget do not allow for more comprehensive design.


Many games are heavily dependent on aesthetics, and their developers have mastered the art of immersing the user by using the correct graphics. An important consideration when designing backgrounds is to remember that you need to achieve a balance between using interesting design, and distracting the learner. I like to think of backgrounds as the vehicle for the content. The vehicle must get the learner from point A to point B, but must not be too distracting. You don’t want to encourage the learner to look out of the car window all day long.

Try to tie in the background art with the story and the content. On a recent project, the story called for a time-travelling elevator—different eras represented different lessons. In one case, the 1960s, bright (but not overpowering) psychedelic backgrounds were used with appropriate fonts and images. This could well have turned into a visual disaster, but we maintained subtlety and synergy with the subject matter. Well thought-out backgrounds provide the best canvas for the art that we call course content.

Tools of the trade

There are several course authoring tools, each with its own merits and drawbacks. In our case, Adobe Captivate 8 has been the tool of choice, and there are some creative ways that you can use this tool, both by using off-the-shelf functionality, and by incorporating third-party widgets for expanded capabilities.

Right out of the box, many eLearning content-authoring tools offer efficient methods for content creation. In both Captivate and Storyline, one can import PowerPoint presentations and output a basic eLearning course in minutes. But, as I’m sure many instructional designers will agree, if you want to engage your audience you have to move rapidly beyond the basics.

Luckily, out of the box, Captivate 8 comes with quite a few extras. The ability to add pre-built interactions such as charts, animations, and mini-games all add to the user feeling more “active” within the course. Presenting knowledge in a non-repetitive manner is paramount to keeping the audience engaged. Clickable flow charts and diagrams, for example, are easy to create and allow for optimal knowledge transfer; while you can use the pre-built mini-games wisely (albeit sparingly) to reinforce key learning points.

In addition, Captivate has advanced functionality that includes toying with variables and chaining advanced actions together. For our latest project, we utilized a variety of third-party widgets (courtesy of that allowed us to create unique custom user interactions. At the end of the day, it’s true we can seem limited by the tools we use, but there are ways and means to squeeze every ounce of eLearning goodness out.

Budget and time restrictions

Budget and time restrictions are something most everyone can relate to. If you don’t have time to design your own graphical elements, use authoring-tool-provided assets and sign up for low-cost royalty-free images and animation services. The good thing about using stock or authoring-tool-provided assets is that you can still animate them within your authoring tool to provide visual stimulation. I have also found that, as you build up your own course catalogue, you are building up your own repository for multimedia—a great boon for saving time and budget down the road. More specifically with time restrictions, make use of master slides and templates to ensure you do not have to create a unique interaction for every slide. Sometimes you can simply reverse an image, flip the background, or change the entrance and exit animations in order to reinforce new information. I recommend, in the conceptual stages of the course design and once the story or theme is decided upon, that you create five or six unique slide sets that can convey key learning objectives AND that you can easily repurpose with minor tweaks to the assets.


By using elements such as points, badges, and leaderboards, you give the user immediate feedback, which provides extrinsic motivation. Within a course, interactions and mini-games help to keep the user wanting to get to the next slide and “win.” Captivate 8 comes with a decent drag and drop widget that you can use as a pseudo-gamified interaction in conjunction with images, sounds, and video. Completion of any mini-game or interaction should reward the user with an achievement. This can be as simple as a congratulatory text, or a badge, a video message, or even by allowing the user to branch to different areas of the course—collect your $200 and do not go to jail!

If you really want to engage your learners, take a page out of the book of game design and craft the content using stories, creative content delivery, and immersive aesthetics. Make sure to maximize the power of the authoring tool of your choice, be savvy about expenditures, and implement gamification concepts in interesting ways.