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UXD in e-learning

UXD is a rather exciting sounding acronym that simply means ‘User Experience Design’. This is the art of designing from the user’s point of view, in order to give them the smoothest ride possible. If you’ve ever had the displeasure of coming across a poorly designed, difficult to use, non-intuitive app or website, you’ll know how important UXD is. This is why any app or web designer worth their salt invests considerable time and money into this area.

While UXD is seen as vital to app or web design, it is often brushed over in learning technologies. Why? Because when it comes to the perceived importance of UXD, e-learning differs from websites and apps in a crucial way. For the most part, apps and websites serve as a marketing tool, with the aim to leave a good impression of the company, sell a product and/or get the user to return. Needless to say, achieving this purpose requires the user to have a good experience.

E-learning on the other hand aims to impart knowledge to the learner – to this end learning theory and instructional design are often seen as the only important factors. Learner experience can fall to the wayside and courses default to the classic ‘click and read’ style e-learning. This stems from the traditional view that if the course structure is correct and it follows solid learning design theory, the learner will sit through it and absorb knowledge. It’s not like the learners do the course out of choice – so why bother with the expense of making it enjoyable?

While I’d never understate the importance of good learning design, the user experience (UX) should be considered just as important. After all, if you enjoy the process of learning, you’re more likely to take it in.

It’s worth taking a close look at how app and website designers go about improving UX. What that comes down to is qualitative research – which basically means interviewing a group of users to find out what they would like to get out of the programme. The other area UX designers spend a lot of time on is prototype testing, getting people to use the programme and collecting their feedback.

What does all this qualitative research achieve? At her presentation at ‘Reasons to be Creative in Brighton’, Evgenia Grinblo argues that the answer to that is empathy – understanding the user and their point of view. Evgenia’s main focus is on the app world where she has applied this model successfully. That’s all well and good for commercial apps and websites, but would it also apply to e-learning?

It may seem obvious that you need to design a piece of e-learning with the learner in mind, but they are often the piece that gets lost amid the learning objectives, design theory, client branding, stakeholder opinions and the myriad of other considerations a company may have for its learning. As an instructional designer, it’s important to cut through all this and see the learner as a person, and put that person at the centre of the design. To do this you need to empathise with them.

Empathy requires understanding of the learners of that particular course. Are they likely to respond to large exciting graphics, or are they on the academic side and prefer to see more text? Would they see a game as a genius piece of e-learning, or as a waste of time? Would illustrated comic book characters be cool or immature? Does the tone seem chatty or patronising? Beyond their preferences you should think about how they have come to do this course and their relationship with the material – are they excited to be learning this, or is it an inconvenient piece of compliance training? Have they already ploughed through five hours of e-learning that day, or is e-learning a new medium to them?

Just by answering these questions (not assuming the answer – actually finding it out) and incorporating that into the design, an e-learning course will go from a lifeless stream of text and images to a learning experience that talks directly to the user.

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