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Why User Experience is not an optional extra in learning programmes

This post was written by John Helmer and first appeared on the LINE blog on 18th February 2014.

Why User Experience is not an optional extra in learning programmesJohn Helmer responds to the presentation ‘User Experience (UX)’ delivered at Learning Technologies 2014 by Steve Barden, and co-written by Paul Thorpe.

Once it was all so simple. E-learning got delivered on desktops as modules of self-paced instruction in meaty chunks of up to two hours at a time. The user interface (UI) was defined by reaching a happy medium between what the client wanted and what the content developer’s graphic artist felt looked good.

As for the UX, well, pedagogy took care of all that, didn’t it?

But now User Experience (UX) is becoming more important in our industry than ever before and learning designers are paying much more attention to it. Why? Here are two immediate drivers:
1. The range and diversity of devices on which people can now access learning and communications
2. The shortening of courses, tending towards the eventual collapse of the course as the default unit of instruction in workplace learning.

This thought-provoking presentation has some big implications for learning in the age of learning architectures.

Even before these transformative drivers brought UX to the fore, people were growing tired of the rather formulaic look that e-learning screens had fallen into and asking for something different. Although the focus of this dissatisfaction was often the user interface (UI), trying to change it would throw up wider problems to do with UX. This forced a recognition among designers that UI was a subset of UX – which might seem rather philosophical point to make, but which in practice called for quite a big change of mindset.

It helped that knowledge and expertise around UX already existed in most reasonable-scale e-learning development companies. E-learning campaigns involve a good deal of web design – for learning portals, or information and education websites – and UX is an important part of the web design skill set.

So when suddenly – as it must have seems to many – the multi device, post-course world was upon us, a ramping up and a percolation of UX knowledge and awareness could take place, and there was no necessity to start painfully from scratch. Nevertheless it won’t be easy for some to make the shift. In retrospect it seems bizarre to realise how early e-learning coalesced around a fixed set of UI presumptions that cut it off from the mainstream of UX design. Two streams that separated maybe a decade ago have to be reunited.

And meanwhile, the expectations of general web users has also changed.

‘Hands-free’ learning

Today’s web users demand more, and what used to be a one-way, static medium has evolved into a rich and interactive experience. Interaction has always been a big part of e-learning, but as with UI design had fallen into some characteristic forms (drag-and-drop, MCQ, scenario-driven branching, etc.) characteristic of the medium and fairly particular to it. Bringing e-learning back towards the mainstream of web design, in a multi-device universe, has meant designers engaging with a whole new gestural language of interaction developed specifically for touch-screens (swiping, pinch-and-spread, etc.) and a greater awareness of the user context.

Our users can no longer be assumed to be sat at a desk, indoors, facing a post-it-note-plastered computer; keyboard, mouse and cup of coffee at hand. ‘Could you do this standing in a taxi queue with only one hand free?’ has to be a consideration now for certain user tasks.

This ‘context-of-use’ issue is essentially a new one for learning designers, and as Steve and Paul pointed out, will only get harder with the advent of wearable computing. In a conference session at Learning Technologies, David Kelly described his experience of trialing Google Glass and talked of the many apps developed for the platform he had to abandon early on because they just required too many clicks. Technology stretches designers whose task is essentially to translate the capabilities of new devices into useful benefits for users.

We all have daily experience of good and bad user experience (my sympathies for any fellow-sufferers who like me have tried to live with the Halifax online banking app). The key point is: whether or not you chose to think about UX, your users will have an experience, good or bad.

UX and learner journeys

I don’t want to over-egg the pudding when it comes to describing the difficulties faced by learning designers (it might sound as if I’m lobbying on their behalf for a wage rise!); but a further level of complexity comes in when you apply all this to learning.

UX in the context of commercial web design is fundamentally about the relationship between the user and the brand – e.g how you feel about an airline depending on how easy or difficult it is to book flights and check in. There is a simple read-across to the learning situation in that it’s about the learner’s relationship with their employer or institution. But with learning there is also another dimension.

The learner also has a relationship to the particular pedagogy – or androgogy, or to use a more fashionable term, Heutagogy – that is being employed, because the way that you learn something is an intrinsic part of what you learn. In this yet wider dimension, UX is a part of – and even a proxy for – the learner journey.

This is important, because learner journeys are what is replacing courses as a way of structuring the various interventions by which learning objectives are achieved, or desired behaviours attained, or specified competencies mastered.

Which leads us to a major point made in Steve and Paul’s presentation: one of the many things that UX is not is optional.

I’ll finish by reiterating a handy check list of nine questions given within the presentation, which serves as a place to start for any UX project

•What is the business goal?
•What is the strategy?
•Who are all of the audience groups?
•What are your audience requirements?
•What will success look like?
•How does it make money?
•How are you solving the end-user ‘problem’?
•What context will this be used in?
•What mindset is the user in?