Recently, I stepped onto an elevator with my wife. On the control panel was a vertical series of raised squares with numbers on them, and like any rational person, I assumed that they were the buttons for choosing the desired floor. After pressing them several times though, I realized that the lighted squares to the right were actually the buttons.

I turned to my wife and said, “This is bad user experience design. What were they thinking?”

My wife rolled her eyes and said, “I think you’re thinking too much about it.”

But that is the point of user experience design, known as UX or UX design. The world is a very complicated place. Why would we want to make user interfaces that people have to think about to use?

The same is true for what we create for learning. Long gone are the days of slide decks. We now have interactive modules, learning portals, and mobile apps. Learning professionals have morphed into “learning experience designers.”

Learners, though, have less time to learn. They can’t be expected to learn a different way of navigating our content every time we come up with something new.

This is why it is important to understand some of the basic principles of good UX design. If you Google UX principles, you will find lots of lists. I’ve summarized the most common ones here and put them in the context of creating learning experiences. Following these principles can improve the learner experience, or LX.

1. Learners are not learning professionals

We do tend to fall in love with the things we create. We imagine that learners are as engrossed in consuming our content as we were in making it. But for the learner, this is just another thing to consume—among countless others.

When creating content, don’t use terminology that is specific to the learning field. Use terms that people find every day in their email and social media apps.

2. Learners need to get back to work

Learners have bosses that they have to answer to for the time that they spend. They need to be able to get through your content as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Don’t waste their time and energy. Don’t make the navigation unnecessarily complicated. Don’t hide things just to be clever. Make sure all the content that they need is easily accessible.

3. Users need to remember the content—not the user interface

Learners really do want to learn, but if they have to first figure out how to use your design, they can easily get frustrated. They use many applications throughout the day that have consistent navigation controls. You don’t need to re-create them.

Use what people already expect. Look at Amazon, Facebook, and Gmail. Mimic the tools they use to let users get what they want.

Every element in your design should be placed exactly where a user would expect it to be. As JD Dillon puts it: “If you have to explain how to use your application, then your design sucks.”

4. Irrelevance competes for mind space

Learners are constantly scanning the screen, looking for what is most important. If you put extra decorations on minor buttons or add explanatory text to something that isn’t relevant, it will detract from the users’ focus on your core message.

Keep your design simple. It is possible to have it look good and simple at the same time. Use sidebars or pop-ups for extra information.

5. Users expect feedback

People don’t trust computers. I wonder why? If they don’t get an indication that something has changed, they assume it hasn’t.

Every time a learner presses a button, they should get some kind of confirmation that the expected action has been taken.

6. Save creativity for the most important content

We all have an inner artist, and we want to create engaging content. But it is easy to spoil the usability with too much of what Cammy Bean calls “clicky-clicky-bling-bling.” I had an art teacher that pointed out that for any dish that you eat, the most interesting ingredients, the spices, take up the least volume.

If you want people to be excited about what you say, use your creativity sparingly. Apply it to the most important part of your content, to drive it home.

7. Learners are willing to talk

I’ve found through many focus groups, user observations, and discussion forums that learners are very willing to share their experiences using learning systems and content. I always learn something unexpected when I talk with them. Don’t just accept conventional wisdom about what learners want. Go ask them.

We are very fortunate to work in an industry where everyone is passionate about what they create and what they create is what is needed. We owe it to the learners to remove any impediments to their learning. Better user experience design will help improve the learner experience.


Here are some more resources to learn about UX design: