Your eLearning module is complete. It is visually stunning, and the content was developed by highly paid experts who are tops in their field. But the employees at your company refuse to use it. Why?

Your content might be fascinating and important; your images might be beautiful; the training might even comply with a whole raft of specifications—but if no one can figure out how to use it, or if the module is not accessible to many users, you’ve wasted your time and money.

A user-centered design (UCD) approach can help you avoid such an expensive eLearning failure. UCD focuses on understanding who will be using the end product and how. The design aims to make the eLearning product useful to those actual learners. Usability is primary. While designers should also consider the business and learning goals and create products that are attractive and engaging, if the users cannot or will not use an eLearning module, the learning goals will never be met.

User-centered design is good design

International web standards bodies recognize the importance of designing for usability. The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative emphasizes “Designing for Inclusion” in its guidelines and provides resources to help designers and developers understand the needs of various users. UCD is called “human-centered design” in ISO specification (ISO 9241-210:2010) to emphasize that you must consider all stakeholders, not only “typical” users. UCD is accessible to a broader range of potential users, including learners with disabilities, older employees, those who are not tech-savvy, etc. ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) defines UCD, or human-centered design, as an “approach to systems design and development that aims to make interactive systems more usable by focusing on the use of the system and applying human factors, ergonomics, and usability knowledge and techniques.” The ISO standard stipulates that users are involved throughout design and development, and that the design is refined based on user evaluation. Usable systems are less stressful for users, and they result in improved productivity and reduced risk of harm, a result of including ergonomics considerations as well as other aspects of usability.

Putting users at the center of design embodies a culture of accessibility, a belief that making usable products matters. It’s also good for the bottom line. “Accessibility encourages good design and development practices. In our work with clients, they continually indicate that implementing accessibility best practices just makes their lives easier. They focus more on good design and user interaction, and even their own coding and development practices are optimized because of that,” Jared Smith, associate director of WebAIM, told participants in a July 7, 2016 webinar, Implementing & Evaluating Web Application Accessibility.

Designing with end users in mind is not a new concept: Think about the first home computers. To get them to do anything, the user had to enter lines of code. As computers got more sophisticated and were able to perform more functions, users had a longer list of codes to memorize. If users made a single mistake, the computer froze, crashed, ate their data, or worse. Then, Apple invented the Macintosh. Users interacted with the computer using the familiar analogy of a desktop, folders, and files. They could move things around using a mouse. Rather than forcing users to enter the engineer’s world, Macintosh computers fit easily into the users’ world.

Imagine—or engage—actual learners during design

A UCD process might begin with the designers creating a set of “personas”—archetype users—to keep in mind while designing look, feel, and function. They might then write scenarios—fictional stories that document the personas’ encounters with the product. How might each user interact with the learning module? Scenarios should include examples where things go well for the personas and examples of those inevitable days when nothing works as it should. The design is tested at every stage with actual users. According to, a resource for user experience (UX) best practices, UCD is compatible with many development methodologies, including waterfall and agile. The design process should include four general phases:

  • Identifying the context of use—who will use it, why, and under what conditions
  • Specifying requirements—business or learning goals that the product must satisfy
  • Creating the design—here, any of several design models may be used, and the design might occur in stages
  • Evaluating the design—usability testing with actual users is the best way to evaluate the design
When designing eLearning, think about your users. What is their age range? How comfortable are they with technology? Might they have visual or auditory impairments that make it challenging for them to see or hear content? Can you present content in more than one way to accommodate various users’ abilities and preferences? Don’t start designing until you can answer these questions!