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!