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The Importance of UX in Learning Experience Design

Don't we all love Buzzword Bingo? 'Learner experience design' is one of the newer buzzwords in our industry – and 'Learner Experience Designer' is the hot new job title. The emergence of these terms marks a subtle but important shift in thinking: from designing chunks of instructional content, to designing an experience for the learner. I'm not at all cynical about this trend. I think it's a long overdue development for the practice of learning design and for our industry as a whole. But I'm pretty sure I know where it came from.

Drinking the UX Kool-Aid

The practice of User Experience (UX) design has been vital to online industries for well over a decade. The legendary Don Norman came up with the phrase back in the 1990s when he was working for Apple. From our current vantage point, in the age of the iPhone, it might seem like simple common sense to put the user's needs first when it comes to designing a piece of technology. But previously this was just not happening. The fantastic success that Apple – currently the world's most profitable company – achieved through changing the model proved transformative. UX became the new god.

It has taken a while for our own industry to catch up, but it really does feel now at last that digital learning professionals are bringing UX principles and practices into all areas of their work – and creating great online experiences as a result. The trend is something that Julie Dirksen in the US has been encouraging for a number of years, particularly through her Usable Learning website. And it was Whitney Kilgore, in an article for US site, who brought the rise of the 'Learner Experience Designer' to wider attention.

Design + Utility

Here in the UK, Curve contributor Nick Shackleton-Jones has been eloquently hollering about this very shift for some time. According to Nick, instructional design is obsolete (and arguably always was). In one of his most recent blogs on disruption in learning, Nick says the only learning outputs that organisations genuinely need are 'resources' and 'experiences' (rather than 'courses' or 'e-learning'). Terminology matters. To replace obsolete learning design Nick looks towards UX and the legacy of Don Norman. However, in the learning context he redefines UX – using arguably warmer phraseology – as the fusion of Design and Utility. Is the learning well-designed – and is it useful? So far, so sensible – but perhaps easier to say than it is to implement. Getting the ideal blend not only takes time and skill, but calls for some courage. You have to be brave enough to look at digital learning interventions in a disciplined way. That means a strict focus on the audience and what the target learner actually needs in order to do certain aspects of her job – and furthermore, when she needs it. Just as importantly, SMEs and stakeholders must have completely bought in to this kind of approach for it to work.

Look and feel – truly meaning it

Working on the usefulness (or 'utility') of your digital learning is a practical exercise in ensuring there is a meaning and purpose behind each touchpoint and interaction. It's what takes you towards great UX. But it's the design element that makes the first impression and grabs the attention of your audience. And that first impression is vital in the work that we do. There is no excuse for designs not to be beautiful, with a genuine look and feel that gives people the sensation they are experiencing something meant especially for them. This is really important because, let's face facts: the materials we're in the business of creating aren't usually about subjects that people would actively research or Google themselves. By and large, modern learning designers are not in the business of creating quick-and-dirty 'how to fix a plug'-style just-in-time guides. They are looking to shape experiences that will stick in the memory. And only by looking amazing are these creations going to have any chance of serving as pieces of learning that people will want to work through: that comes way before any consideration of whether there is good UX behind the to-die-for interface.

Keeping up appearances

The reason I try to design learning that first and foremost looks beautiful is that it would seem ridiculous to me to do otherwise. Like everyone else, I am online a lot, whether on my phone or my laptop, and the majority of my website experiences are extremely positive. Nowadays even the most basic shop, everyday utility company or budget booking website will provide you with a lush, visually rich interface that creates a warm first impression. That's the competition.

But I'm not just motivated by reflecting and competing against the digital experiences that are all around me. There are smart scientific arguments for why good-looking design makes you feel good. Some commentators talk about it in terms of 'emotional design', but essentially, we should make things look beautiful because our brains like things that are attractive to look at.

Further to that, an interface design that has a sense of beauty about it will genuinely be perceived as easier to use, and will actually make users more forgiving if there happen to be any usability issues. Studies have shown that good-looking people are generally perceived as more intelligent, and interfaces benefit from the same neurological wiring. We can't help it.

Our primitive brains have evolved to keep us out of the way of harm and danger, and people and things that look somehow 'nice' will say to us, "this is safe." And vice versa. In his book Emotional Design, Don Norman relates this to how our brains process information via three levels:

  • Behavioural
  • Reflective
  • Visceral

There is a wealth of reading around this concept on the web, but it's interesting that the enjoyment of how a thing looks (the visceral level) is seen by Norman as key to its success.

Designers in many industries concur, and lean on theories old and new rooted in psychology and visual perception, such as Gestalt and Neuroaesthetics.

Setting the tone

The great thing for us is that there is so much inspiration all around. Visit any curated best-of-webdesign site, such as Muzli or Creative Bloq, and on display are rich web experiences galore full of atmosphere and emotion. Accompanying discussions around the future of user interfaces also point towards the use of high-end photography, immersive fullscreen video (even better if it's interactive) and a move away from flat design towards more vivid colours and gradients.

As is clear when you browse great examples of the above, this is not art for art's sake. This is about harnessing the power of the visual medium to quickly set a tone and create a sense of personality into the digital experience from the minute you land on it. Beyond usability and functionality, you start from a place that you might call, well, pleasure (check out Aarron Walter's reworking of Maslow's hierarchy of needs for some great thinking on this). Pleasure is the place where some form of emotional connection is made with the audience. It's where you as a user/learner will hear some kind of voice and personality. It sparks empathy – which is the beginning of understanding.

So, if digital learning is truly becoming all about creating experiences, this has to be the starting point: beauty and pleasure. What a great place to kick off a project!

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