Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Applying Usability Techniques to eLearning Documents

By Donna Bryant

If you have ever designed online support documents that are used for quick online reinforcement learning, you know that not only do the documents need to contain the right information, but they must also be usable online.

What does it mean for an online support document to be usable online? Usability, in practice, answers a very basic design question—does it work? Can users find and use information quickly and easily?

In a previous post, Jay Lambert discussed Gottfredson’s Five Moments of Learning Need. Learning Moments 3-5 are summarized here:

• When remembering and/or applying what’s been learned
• When things go wrong
• When things change

When workers must find and use learning topics on the job, as in the case of the Learning Moments listed above, they may turn to online support documents. Have you ever thought about how you write and lay out these documents? Often, we retrofit former hardcopy documents for use online. The retrofit approach does not usually consider how learners use documents online.

What usability techniques could improve the effectiveness of online support documents? Here are some ideas:

Know your audience: Who are they? Why do they use certain documents? Do they need information or direct instructions? Audience questions are basic for the eLearning designer, but also consider additional usability-focused questions such as: What constraints will users have when using the document? Are there time limitations or printing limitations? These additional questions can guide how to present information and in what order, so that learners can find it quickly when needed.

For example, if you know your learners have no way to print documents, you can organize your document’s layout so that most-used information is listed first, and provide links to more details on certain topics.

How do learners access information? Search engine? Scan pages? Link labels on web pages? Is your document findable using methods learners would likely use to find it? Have you tested its “findablility?” The answers to these questions will help you to determine visual cues to use to guide learners to scan for information, such as:

o Meaningful link labeling
o Title of the document matching its topic
o Meaningful picture labels

Also, knowing how learners access information will help you to determine search tags for the document, so learners can find it quickly when searching the Internet or Intranet. Test your document’s findability by typing your key tag words into the internal or external search engine. If your document doesn’t come up, or if it’s several search pages in, you know you need to adjust your tagging.

Is the document easy to scan to find needed information or do learners have to scroll through much information to find it? Some quick testing with a colleague’s help to find key elements on a page will tell you if you need to adjust your page’s scanability. Also, include questions about usability and readability in any user testing you conduct for the documents.

Mental Model – does the design of the document fit your learners’ mental model? Donald Norman, in his classic book on usable design The Design of Everyday Things, explains (pg 38) that a mental model is our concept of the way an object works or an action happens resulting from our tendencies to form explanations of things.

For example, a call center agent’s mental model of an online job aid document is most likely that he/she can get to it fast and can find needed information right away. What is your learners’ mental model of how to use your document? Here are some ways to find out:

o Ask learners what tasks they use the document to accomplish
o Ask learners how much time they have to accomplish the task

In conclusion, here are some recommended design principles for online support documents:

• Write link labels so that they are meaningful and match the information in the document • Match document content to the title of the document • Make the document easy to find by using search tags directly tied to its content • Use visual layout techniques to help learners scan easily for information

If you have existing online documents, consider reviewing them with these principles in mind. If you are creating new documents, definitely consider usability throughout the design process.

Usability should be a focus of every project. And it’s never too late to start!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

5 Ways to Tell Stories in eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

We’ve talked about the value of storytelling for conveying tacit knowledge in eLearning and a formula for telling stories.

So once we’ve assembled an instructional story, how can we include it within an eLearning lesson?

Here are a few ideas to explore.

Comic Strip

Who doesn’t enjoy a quick comic strip? They’re a relatively quick read, an effective method for displaying dialog, and visually engaging.

If the rest of an eLearning lesson follows a standard, templated look, using fun images can contribute to the story’s attention-grabbing effect. It also opens the door to a more informal writing style...even a bit humor.

Interactive Timeline

If you’re telling a story from a single perspective (i.e., not including dialog), then a timeline format may be an effective way to communicate a sequence of events and consequences. An interactive timeline (perhaps built with Flash) can also help capture attention with appealing visuals and by offering learners the ability to move the story forward.

Though I’m not able to share stories I’ve set up this way (proprietary content), I recently drew inspiration from the Black History Timeline I found on the biography.com site.

Social Media

If a story is short, you might use a text-based narrative to inspire a discussion thread. Depending on the purpose of your story, you might encourage learners to share their own similar stories to personalize your point or analyze the story provided to draw out key content and tacit knowledge.

Audio Narrative

A story is often best told by those who had the experience firsthand or who are especially passionate about its message. With this in mind, an audio narration may be the way to go. Narration conveys expression and emphasis, which can make the message particularly memorable.

If you opt for audio, you’ll also need to decide what visual stimulus to include on the screen. While it’s appropriate to offer an optional transcript, experts seem to agree that including narration that reads verbatim text from a slide can actually be counterproductive for learning.

Instead, consider including an image of the storyteller or images and diagrams that supplement the story. You could also use audio to supplement any of the other suggestions above. Or, if you have the technology available, you might even consider having an animated avatar tell the story (think along the lines of CodeBaby).


Of course, you can potentially take the benefits of audio up a notch by using a video. A video of the storyteller also allows learners to benefit from nonverbal expressions – a human touch they might especially appreciate if completing large amounts of eLearning.

That said, videos don’t have to be limited to showing the storyteller. You could also use the storyteller as a voice over narrator while the video shows related action, such as scenes from the workplace.

How do you tell stories in eLearning?

If you’ve used the techniques above, please share your experience. We’d love to hear what worked well and what drawbacks you encountered. Or, if you’ve conveyed stories in eLearning in other ways, please describe what you did!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sparking Innovation in Your eLearning Design

By Shelley A. Gable

In scrolling through the Twittersphere, I clicked on a link to 14 Ways to Spark Innovation by Mitch Ditkoff.

The blog post offers advice for finding sources of inspiration for new ideas, which can apply to almost any type of role in any organization. Initially, I read it thinking about how I can be more innovative as an instructional designer.

As I continued reading, I started to feel as though the advice could also serve as design approaches for motivating learners and making learning stick.

Below I’ve listed some of the advice from Ditkoff’s post, followed by my training translations.

Follow your fascination.

In a nutshell, Ditkoff’s advice is to pursue ideas that grab your interest. So how can we create this effect for learners in training? How do we create a compelling and fascinating vision that inspires learners to actively pursue knowledge throughout training?

While outlining the “what’s in it for me” is certainly motivating, fostering fascinating is a somewhat different challenge.


The advice here is to become immersed in what you’re doing and avoid multitasking. How do we convince learners to immerse? In some situations, we can set an expectation that email and instant messaging must be off during training. But for eLearning situations that are truly self-paced, that may be difficult to achieve.

Perhaps if we manage to inspire fascination, learners will want to immerse. Complex (and relevant) scenarios in a problem-based eLearning lesson may accomplish this. If learners are intrigued by the problem and must really focus to figure it out, they may opt to log out of distractions for the sake of conquering the challenge.

Make new connections.

The original post emphasizes combining activities in new ways. For example, it simplifies MTV to the connection between music and television, and the idea of drive-thru banking to the connection between cars and banking.

This reminds me of two of Gagne’s instructional events: stimulate recall and present new content. Although many tackle these as sequential and separate elements within a lesson, they also work well when continuously combined. In other words, you can stimulate recall throughout a lesson and continuously connect new knowledge to existing knowledge to help learners make new connections.

Listen to your subconscious.

This makes me think of reflection. We all know the value of including practice and feedback as part of training – you don’t have to be in the training field to understand that. Though a piece we sometimes leave out is learner reflection.

Granted, people naturally tend to reflect on their experiences to some extent. But if our training is too fast paced, learners might not get a chance to consciously recognize what they’ve learned and cement that learning. Fortunately, we can prompt learners to reflect through individual activities, confidence measures, and insightful discussions. Social media in training can work wonders for this, too.

What else translates into design advice?

If you have a moment, take a peek at 14 Ways to Spark Innovation. And if any of the tips make you think of instructional design advice, please share those nuggets here!