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When learning experience design goes wrong

Learning design has benefited greatly from the influence of user experience design (UXD) over the last decade. However, there is a trap for the unwary in following this influence too far. 

When you look into the theoretical underpinnings of learning experience design, it can come as something of a surprise to realize that this new practice area does not lean particularly heavily on traditional learning theory (e.g. Bloom, Gagne, etc.). External influences are also significant. One of these, UXD, is particularly influential – with many good consequences, but also some that are potentially quite dangerous.

We talked to numerous experts on learning theory in the course of preparing our White Paper: Experience: Theory, Design and Supporting Technologies for an experience-based Learning Culture. Two things became immediately clear from these conversations.

Firstly, there is a real sense of a break with the past. The move from learning design to learning experience design really does signal an important shift and is not just a modish rebadging of job titles. The influence of UXD, which shifts the focus of design towards a more individualistic, learner-centered model plays a big part in this newness; this sense of a real change.

Secondly, there are some serious concerns about learning experience design voiced by these experts – concerning the fate of the baby that risks being thrown out with the theoretical bathwater here.

The illusion of learning

‘Part of the problem with all this talk about “learning experience”,’ says Leonard Houx, Senior Instructional Designer at the Cass Business School and director of the eLearning Network, ‘ is it’s questionable whether learning is actually experienced at all.’ Donald Clark, the noted speaker, blogger and director of numerous companies (who will be well-known to readers of this blog) places this quote at the head of a blog post attacking bad learning experience design.

‘… All too often (writes Clark), what we see are over-engineered, media-heavy, souped-up PowerPoint or primitively gamified “experiences” that the research shows results, not in significant learning, but:

  1. Clickthrough (click on this cartoon head, click on this to see X, click on option on MCQ) that allows the learner to skate across the surface of the content.
  2. Cognitive overload (overuse of media) 
  3. Diversionary activity (Mazes and infantile gamification). What is missing is relevant effort and cognitive effort, that makes one think, rather than click.’ 

There is a danger, it seems, that a focus on creating ‘engaging’ learning experiences more similar in style to what people encounter in their leisure activities and entertainment media consumption, will result in the Illusion of learning rather than real learning; a pleasant experience that holds our attention and ticks all the boxes on a notional ‘happy sheet’, but which fails to produce anything that sticks. We can feel that we’re learning something when in fact we are not.

Desirable difficulties

In this regard, both cite the work of cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork, who talks about ‘desirable difficulties’ in learning. Recent research shows that we are poor judges of our own learning. Due to the way that the brain works, making something lodge in long term memory often ‘requires doing things that are unintuitive and unappealing’. Consequently, what can appear to the learner as a great experience is not necessarily, in actual fact, a learning experience at all in the true sense.

Leonard Houx makes a more explicit connection to UXD in discussing these worries: ‘when people talk about experience, what they’re really often talking about is UX and how to apply it to instructional design. Now, what’s interesting about this, among other things, is they really come from the same place, which is cognitive psychology.’

Houx points out that Robert M. Gagné, a highly influential figure in instructional design whose ‘Nine events of instruction’ have heavily influenced the structure of elearning courses (some say to the detriment) for 20 years or more, worked with Paul Fitts, the formulator of Fitts Law, the result of a foundational piece of research in the world of user interface design. 

Instructional design and user experience design have in a sense been joined at the hip ever since the earliest days of computer-based training (CBT) because of this common origin point in cognitive psychology. 

‘I think the real conceptual overlap is probably somewhere around a concept of cognitive load and … cognitive efficiency. That’s the real meeting place … when you identify usability problems, what you’re really identifying is a wasteful use of working memory.’ 

Where the two disciplines diverge, however, is in where this focus on cognitive load and efficiency is ultimately headed in terms of the job at hand. Because the job at hand is not the same for a learning designer as it is for a UX designer.


If the user of a product we have designed can get it, understand it quickly and use it to accomplish the task for which she selected that product to her own satisfaction, then our job is done. The ultimate aim of UXD is user satisfaction. However, as we have seen, in the world of instructional design user satisfaction is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for learning to have taken place. The user can have had a happy and efficient experience, but still not have learned anything.

There is an important point of difference between the two disciplines regarding the techniques necessary to bring about transfer into long term memory. This transfer is vitally important to learning design, but much less so if at all to UX. The consequences of this fact for learning experience design – learning experience design that really works to produce sound learning – are profound.

Good learning experience designers will use the insights of UXD to create seamless, engaging learner experiences. At the same time, they will appreciate the limits of UXD’s usefulness and apply principles of cognitive psychology where real learning is needed. And above all, they will understand that designing for learners is not always the same as designing for users.

What these issues highlight is that not everything that takes place under the rubric of learning within organizations is actually learning. Large amounts of it do not require anything to be encoded in long term memory and can be more usefully thought of as performance support

If you are interested to read more on this subject, why not download our white paper: Experience: Theory, Design and Supporting Technologies for an experience-based Learning Culture  Now.

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