How many ways to improve learner engagement have you heard about? While there are many paths to better engagement, one of the overlooked obstacles to better learner experience is as omnipresent as the presentation design itself. User Experience Design (UXD) can help ensure that learners pay more attention to the eLearning content than to the features that interfere with usability. Sean Pyle, a learning designer with Lenovo, has some thoughts about that.

BB: How does user experience design affect learner engagement?

SP: Learners need to be both extrinsically and intrinsically motivated to engage in the content. Some designers think that users will just be forced into using our courses. Because we take the learner’s agency for granted, we don't think about how to engage the user and how to make the experience for the user good so that they're enjoying it and they don't mind coming back to do it again. Sometimes instructional design can be similar to building web pages when trying to help learners navigate through courses. Like trying to go through a house without doorknobs, it can be difficult for users to navigate. Key user experience elements haven't been considered when we've been thinking about the pedagogical implications and the adult learning research. But we also have to consider the interface and how our learners are navigating and interacting with those web components.

BB: You mentioned doorknobs, which made me think of affordances. What are the affordances that a designer should be thinking about or maybe even trying to avoid?

SP: Sometimes we have affordances that confuse the learner. For example, take icons. The way that we use icons can be an affordance, or it can be something that really hinders learners. If your team doesn't have a consistent icon usage, when the images are sort of random in the way the designers chose them, the users can end up pulling on a door handle when they should have pushed on it. Affordances can be as simple as “how do you design a button?” Does it actually look like it's a button that needs to be pressed? The user spends a lot of valuable time trying to figure out how to navigate and interact with your learning module rather than actually learning. That can be frustrating.

Similarly, learners may not even see the icons or cues because of the scanning behavior they use. They often don’t think through things deeply when they're using a web medium. The designer must consider these factors in more detail than the person who's actually using the interface.

BB: What is scanning behavior?

SP: A person’s socialization determines the direction that they will scan the page. On top of that, when users read they may also scan in an F-shaped pattern. Essentially a user will get a lot of content at the top of the page by reading the first couple of lines horizontally, but as they move down the page, things that fall in the right to middle corner towards the bottom are the kind of elements that are usually missed by the user because the scanning tapers off into that F-shaped pattern. That's an impactful consideration when designers just place things on the page or screen. You really have to consider getting the most crucial information where people’s eyes tend to scan.

BB: What do designers get wrong most often?

SP: Intentional design. When you're writing for eLearning, not only are you writing in a technical sense, you're really aligning all of your content with your learning objectives, from a pedagogical standpoint and in terms of eliminating mental chatter. There's a concept that I'll talk about in my presentation called cognitive load. There are ways that poor designs can make it more difficult for learners to process information, and there are strategies a designer can use to make it easier for people to process information from a screen. Eliminating mental chatter means giving people the best opportunity to process the content and the best opportunity to digest everything that is crucial to the learning experience.

That's all part of user experience design. In my presentation at the eLearning Foundations Online Conference, I'm going to talk about different ways that learning designers can restructure even the most dry content to move learners down different paths. Learners are drawn by certain types of layout formats and the ways that we structure the content. At Lenovo, I work in marketing education and what I realize is that all day, every day marketing is thinking about how to leverage subliminal processes. It’s also about how to get people to make certain connections and drive user behavior on the web. But learning designers aren't necessarily thinking about layout or eye scanning behavior. Maybe a designer is only thinking about the graphic sense of, “does it look good or not?”, but not in the sense of how will the learner react, how will they behave, and how can we use that to leverage our goals.

Learn more about User Experience Design

Sean will deliver the session "Please Don't Make Your Audience Think! UX Design for Learning Designers" on December 12 at the eLearning Foundations Online Conference. He will show you how to eliminate mental chatter, do usability testing, and keep your course navigation out of the learner's way, along with other simple design solutions for better eLearning outcomes. Seven other sessions during the conference will offer more help with creating effective, engaging online instruction. Register today!