I like skinny books that deliver a lot of value in a minimum of pages. The Good Stuff that makes a difference in the way we think about our work and the way we go about our business often comes in packages that get to the point and don’t take up a lot of space on the shelf. Ruth Clark, Alan Cooper, Gloria Gery, Thomas Gilbert, Roger Kaufman, Ellen Langer, Robert Mager, Donald Norman, Allison Rossett – just to name a few – have given us concise guides that have had a profound influence on designers, some of them for decades. Now you can add another name to that group, and you can put another book on your “to-buy” list.

Successful e-Learning Interface: Making Learning Technology Polite, Effective, and Fun is a slim volume (224 pages) in the same league. To be released next Monday, July 18, by Pfeiffer, it is the third of six books planned in Michael Allen’s e-Learning Library series. Like the two previous volumes, and the three to come, it builds on the foundation Michael provided in his 2003 book Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning.

Volume 1 of the series dealt with the entire process of creating powerful eLearning and managing development processes, and Volume 2 offered a systematic look at instructional design. This latest entry addresses what Allen refers to as “a lacking and needed synthesis of user interface (UI) design principles used generally in software applications and of specific interface needs required by learning events.”

As he explains, the requirements for the learner interface and the principles of user interface design are sometimes at odds with each other, and at those times the learner interface requirements must take precedence. This becomes a problem during development of eLearning, especially when a team is involved, as team members from different disciplines (software engineering and instructional design) try to work out the conflicts. His book identifies a number of these issues, and suggests a practical model for dealing with them.

Extending the foundation from earlier in the series

As readers of his previous books have come to expect, Michael Allen provides examples and structure that make his ideas easy to understand, presented in a style and with humor that makes them enjoyable to read. He adds checklists and worksheets that engage and make reading the book an active learning experience. As with the earlier books as well, he uses the “Rapid Reader” feature at the beginning of each chapter to outline and organize the content.

The book is set up in four parts. Part One explores the need for Learner Interface design excellence, Part Two provides three Learner Interface design guidelines, Part Three provides insight into good and bad influences, and Part Four offers twenty pages of examples. There is also a section at the end of the book that summarizes the guidelines Michael has developed for Learner Interface design.

Questions and concepts that drive design

Continuing the “three M’s” criteria from the earlier books (Is it meaningful? Is it memorable? Is it motivational?), Allen presents in Part One the three concepts that provide the power of Learner Interface design: Connect (engage learners cognitively AND emotionally), Empower (as Jane Bozarth said in her column last month, “Let the learners hold the spoon”), and Orchestrate (make the experience safe and relevant, and respecting the learner’s time). These concepts drive the rest of the book, and he develops them fully in Part Two.

The foundation: CCAF

He also brings in from the second volume of the series “the four interlocking pieces of the instructional interactivity puzzle”: context, challenge, activity, and feedback, or CCAF. This is his unifying, foundational view of instructional events, useful for designing, describing, and delivering instruction. Allen elaborates these elements in Chapter 3, at the end of Part One, with multiple examples in the text, and he uses them in Part Two to provide specificity during his discussion of Connect, Empower, and Orchestrate.

Adam and Eve

Part Three begins at Genesis. The theology presented might be shaky, but the lesson for designers is not: be careful about being led astray. Readers will recognize many of the fatal attractions presented, not a few of which each of us has fallen for at one time or another. But it’s ok. Michael quickly moves on to show how to do the right things (rather than doing things right), with a collection of guidelines from experience in Chapter 8. These are highly specific bits of advice that will help designers avoid glitz, help developers stay focused on learning (instead of navigation), and help producers avoid overkill on “production values.”

Examples, examples, examples

It is said that amateurs plagiarize, but professionals steal. There is plenty of stuff worth stealing in Part Four. Examples show how excellent eLearning design is built on strong content. This section concludes with Michael’s answers to the UI vs. LI challenges he posed at the beginning of the book. This precedes the closing section, Michael’s Learner Interface Design Guidelines. The Guidelines are great, but I’d recommend not just incorporating them into the back of your style guide. The Guidelines only summarize what the rest of the book contains, and it would be too easy to regard this list as some sort of canon to be applied without enlightened understanding.

Buy this book

I don’t know – is that too blunt? Seriously, there will be those who disagree with everything that Michael Allen has suggested in this book and in the rest of the series, and there will be those readers (possibly most) who disagree with some of it or at least have questions. The simple fact is that we don’t know everything there is to know about how people learn, but we do have a pretty good idea of what actually works (to the extent that we can define and measure outcomes).

What Michael Allen has done in this volume of his series is to lay out what works, based on real experience. It’s an excellent guide, and it will help settle a lot of arguments or avoid misunderstanding about the Learning Interface. As an eLearning team’s experience grows, the members will discover for themselves what works and what fails in their own set of circumstances. In the meantime, we have to start somewhere, and in my opinion, Successful e-Learning Interface offers an excellent place to start.

Bibliographic Information

Allen, Michael W. (2011) Successful e-Learning Interface: Making Learning Technology Polite, Effective, and Fun. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

ISBNs: ISBN 978-0-7879-8297-3 (paperback); ISBN 978-1-118-03467-5 (eBook); ISBN 978-1-118-03684-6 (eBook); ISBN 978-1-118- 03685-3 (eBook)

Publisher’s Price: $35.00

Amazon: $31.50 paperback, $19.25 Kindle

Apple iBook: $28.99

Barnes & Noble: $31.18 paperback, $28.00 Nook

Editor's Note: Michael Allen will be presenting on his new book, Successful eLearning Interface, at The eLearning Guild’s August 9 Thought Leaders Webinar. This webinar is free to all paid eLearning Guild members, and a recording will be available after the live event. For more information and to register, visit http://www.elearningguild.com/content.cfm?selection=doc.1932.