User Experience Is Not Extra. It’s Everything.

The rapid introduction many have had to online learning this year has given us a better understanding than ever before of the impact a well-designed user experience can have on learners. More accurately, we are seeing the unfortunate negative impact of a lack of design strategy. The requirement to almost instantly transform instructional approaches from face-to-face settings to online environments has helped many realize that employing the use of a virtual classroom is no different than holding a hammer: it’s a tool and not a strategy. Online learning is by no means a new phenomenon but how we design online instruction may still be a relatively novel concept to many educators and trainers. The truth is that, for an online solution to be successful, the focus has to be on designing and implementing a complete digital environment that actively engages learners.

This begs the question of how can we structure online learning environments to meet the unique needs of this generation of learners? Tech-savvy learners are entering the workforce with digital learning expectations that allow for self-exploration through endless amounts of content combined with the ability to connect with others through online platforms. Long before Covid-19, online learning environments have become more attractive to students at all levels of formal and informal education and to employees who want to further their professional development skills. To this end, the rise of user experience, or UX, as a core principle of digital design has gained more urgency in the learning technology space. The thoughtful design of an entire user experience that meets the needs of each type of user in an online learning environment is not a value-added bonus, it is core to a successful solution. In our view, UX is not extra. It’s everything.


The Psychology of It All

An important component of successful online learning is understanding how unique learner characteristics are impacted by the learning environment. And therefore, how these are translated to the user experience. The field of psychology can provide a more in-depth understanding of learning and how emotional, cognitive, and social processes impact learners. For example, we must be mindful of how learning conditions, backgrounds, course materials, and learning tasks can all affect learning outcomes. Learners’ levels of motivation, autonomy, and self-regulation can strongly influence their performance in online environments. When designing for online learning; we have the ability, or rather the responsibility, to design for individual user experiences instead of averages.

In the last couple of decades, there has been a growing amount of research about the persuasive power of interactive technologies, or persuasive technologies as they have come to be called. Much of this research has focused on how these technologies are used in sales, marketing, politics, and online game design. This concept of persuasive technology is not about a new form of technology: rather it is about the utilization of existing tools in a manner that persuades changes in the attitude or behavior of its users.

Persuasion as a learning strategy dates back to ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. Aristotle is seen as the father of persuasion. Just as persuasion took place on the streets of ancient Athens, it is still used today to present ideas and produce changes in our behavior. Persuasion, much like instruction, is about convincing someone to look at a concept or subject differently. The goal is to change their behaviors or understanding of a given topic. If it is accepted that the object of instruction is to impact learners’ knowledge, beliefs, and behavior and that there can be both a positive cognitive and affective learning response to persuasion, then the use of persuasion becomes inherent to the instructional process.

In accepting the position that educators or trainers can be considered persuaders, we must also acknowledge that persuaders often use technology to amplify their message, like using a megaphone or a projector to present a lesson. In these examples, however, these technologies cannot persuade anyone to do anything without the persuader. The same cannot always be said of more modern forms of technology. In the case of instructional designers utilizing technological innovations to design elearning environments, the persuader in many cases is no longer present and thus the technology could appear to have become the persuader. In reality, the intelligence of the persuader (i.e., the instructional designer or UX Designer) has simply been embedded into the design of the learning environment.


Learning Pool’s Persuasive Design Strategies

The design strategies we utilize at Learning Pool to improve user experience are based on over a decade of research exploring how individuals interact with digital content elsewhere in their daily lives and then aligning that understanding with proven instructional design strategies to help persuade the desired behavior of online learners. By adopting this learner-centered approach to adapting technology to the needs of the learner, our research in persuasion and persuasive technology has provided insight into how instructional designers can adapt existing eLearning technology to utilize proven design principles, which we call Persuasive Design Strategies (PDS).

  • Reduction – Clean design that reduces the cognitive load. If you make a complex task simple to do users are more likely to do it.
  • Tunneling – Guided persuasion, allow users the option to give control of a process over to the experts.
  • Suggestion – Design the platform to place triggers in the path of motivated learners. Thus delivering the right message to the right learners at the right time.
  • Tailoring – Allowing learners the power of choice. By providing options learners are more likely to complete a task they chose to do.
  • Conditioning – Consistency. Consistency in design layout and consistency in reinforcing targeted behaviors persuades users to repeat desired behaviors.
  • Self-monitoring – Allows learners a view into their own process. Learners are more likely to complete a task if they know who close they are to the finish line. Never underestimate the thrill of checking a box.
  • Surveillance – Observe learners throughout and report back to them about their own behavior. Collecting data is meaningless if you don’t analyze and share the results with your learners.

PDS focuses on two key areas: increasing learner engagement and building trust and credibility between the learners and the platform that’s placing them in a learning state of mind. But don’t let the term “persuasive” sway you into thinking the strategy is at all about controlling the experience. It is just the opposite. We focus on achieving what Behavioral Science Online Magazine calls the “gentle tap of good sense” level of the Nudge Continuum.

Given the current generation of digital learners’ desire to have technology-enhanced learning experiences, organizations will continue to observe an increased demand for online education and training opportunities. The role of instructional designers, administrators, and industry leaders is to ensure courses, training, and the platforms themselves are developed based on understanding the uniqueness and complexity of these digital learning experiences. This will be of utmost importance for industry leaders who are responsible for the design, implementation, and continual enhancement of a training program. CEOs, CLOs, and COOs need to understand how to select curricula, promote leadership and professional development in this area, and maintain a culture of excellence through up-to-date organizational development approaches.

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