A Digital Learning Experience About Great Digital Learning Experience Design
Great digital learning design is like a symphony with all of its sections–storylines, user experience design (UX), user interface design (UI), visual/sensory design, interaction design, etc.— each contributing a unique element to engage the audience, tell a story, and impart a lasting message. eLearning, digital learning’s precursor is more like watching a single person play the triangle. Read on to find out what makes powerful, beautiful digital learning experience design.
Digital Learning Experience vs eLearning
From Meh to Great: 5 Key Elements You Can’t Do Without in a Course
“If you want to make a great digital learning experience, you need to take all of these key components into account to the best of your abilities.” – Johnny Bustamante, Senior Art Director
5 Key Elements In a Great Digital Learning Experience:
- Establishing a Connection with the User
- Sensory Design
Meet Them Where They Are and Take them on a Journey
“You need to learn who your target audience is. A great digital learning experience is about learning the needs and the wants of your users and giving something to them in a way that is fun and memorable.” – Johnny Bustamante, Senior Art Director
The fundamental basis for a well-designed digital learning experience is establishing a connection with the user. At ELM, our aim is to touch the users’ hearts and heads. We want to nourish and focus their attention on the content and the retention of that knowledge. We find a commonality that ties the user to the content and builds around it.
From that connection, you can work on the storytelling aspect of the course. This is where you map out a story for the user that will get them from the problem state to the Emerald Kingdom. Just like Dorothy needed a road to get where she wanted to go, so does the user. It needs to be just as easy to follow as Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road, so the user can grow along the way.
With interaction design, big story ideas are mapped out on a broad level. The story acts to reinforce and exemplify the content, which should be taught, again, in a way the user can relate to. Along the road, you can insert obstacles, triumphs, and coaching that the user will interact with—learning by doing. You can take inspiration from popular movies and literature to evoke that emotional response in the user. Ask yourself: Is this better as a game? An infographic? Does this lend itself to animation? What mix of media would be best for the user?
Now Back that Up with Some Sweet UI/UX
That story you tell needs to be interwoven with beautiful user experience (UX) design and a user interface (UI) design so intuitive and essential that the user takes it for granted, like Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth.
The way you keep the user engaged is through good UI/UX design. Users have varying levels of tech knowledge, so your UI/UX shouldn’t frustrate or alienate anyone. While it’s impossible to make everyone happy, the goal is to make the most people happy.
Mobile apps are a perfect example of good UI/UX:
- Easy to navigate—a child should be able to use them.
- Visual—explanations are shown, not told.
- Hands-on—users learn by doing.
- Primitive—they don’t require sophisticated tools, just fingers.
A Meta Parable About Digitally Learning While Digitally Designing in a Digital Space
Anytime ELMies embark on something new, we seek knowledge and guidance in, you guessed it, the digital learning universe. Johnny Bustamante, our Sr. Art Director, tells a meta parable of how he’s learning how to use a video game engine, via a built-in digital learning experience, while creating a digital learning experience for a customer. Johnny explains it better:
“I’ve been exploring Unity, which allows you to build end to end video games, in order to implement Unity for our courses. Rather than just incorporating gaming elements in our courses, we’re moving into a space where we might create an entire course based in a gaming world. We have a project coming up about cyberbullying. I was playing around with the idea of setting it in a virtual school, taking a traditional approach to school-yard bullying, but in cyberspace.
Unity has this awesome immersive learning platform that they’ve developed themselves. They teach you while you’re using the software. While you work in their platform on your project, Unity takes you through the basics by showing you how to do each task. You can go at your own pace, and it branches out into more complicated actions. Unity is a great example of good UI and UX in learning and we use the same fundamentals in our own learning at ELM.
Enhancing the Ride with Sensory Design
When designing a digital learning experience, you have to invoke the senses through good sensory design for scientific reasons as well as aesthetic. Have you ever smelled something and it triggered a memory? In the same way, the more users physically interact with a course, the more receptors get set off in their brains. This is useful, as our brains attach sensory input to memories, like how the smell of paste reminds us of preschool or kindergarten. In a course with good sensory design, users can make sensory connections to the learning experience itself. This increases the likelihood that they will retain the information.
- Touch (click, drag, select, point)
- Hear (sound design, narration, music)
- See (illustration, photography, motion graphics, animation)
- Feel (storytelling, branding, personalization)
Humans are sensory creatures and respond to stimuli. Have you ever driven across a long stretch of flat road for hours on end with nothing in either direction? Without the benefit of some good road music to sing along with, most of us get twitchy and bored. Making it pretty with visual and sensory input is not to be taken lightly. It’s what keeps the user engaged and their mind stimulated.
If at First, You Don’t Succeed, Prototype, Prototype Again
Before you go really deep into custom visuals and other sensory design elements, it’s good to test. The Design Thinking Model dictates that you make low fidelity prototypes and test them with the user before you really spend the time and huge effort on making a custom digital learning experience. By creating a simplified iteration of the course and testing it with the learners, you can refine the course so that it has the greatest impact on the user. It takes more time and effort upfront, but in the end saves the customer time and money when they receive a beautiful and intelligent product that does exactly what it was meant to do.
Making Your Own Great Digital Learning Experience
We’ve talked about what makes a course great, and would like to help you get started. A platform like Unity might be a little robust for what you’re trying to do. If you’re designing a simple course for compliance or have a tight deadline, consider a template. Whenever we hear the word template, we like to share our spaghetti analogy. The difference between templates and custom digital learning experiences is like jarred spaghetti sauce versus from scratch.
When you cook during the week for just your family, you’re just trying to feed everyone quickly and stay within your grocery budget. You can’t have steak every night of the week or you’d go broke. Nobody in the family is going to remember that Wednesday night dinner of jarred spaghetti sauce, even if you add a few spices to make it taste a little better, but that’s okay because it gets the job done. That’s like a template. You can customize it a little, but at the end of the day, it’s utilitarian.
Why Someone Would Use a Template:
- For a small group of people
- with a tight timeline
- on a budget
- that needs to be updated often
- usually for compliance.
If you’re having a big family dinner, with every one of your cousins, aunts and uncles, you don’t serve jarred sauce. You want that dinner to be incredible because you are making memories. That sauce takes nine hours to make, because you make it with love, using a secret family recipe. You wouldn’t make it every day of the week, but for the good times, you do the sauce from scratch. That’s just like a custom digital learning experience.
Why Someone Would Use a Custom Digital Learning Experience:
- Courses for a lot of people at once
- that don’t need to be heavily updated
- where the goal is to create a lasting memory
- for example, an onboarding training.
This isn’t to say that templates are bad–they’re useful for when you need to keep it simple. But just like you wouldn’t use a nail file to saw a log, nor would you use a template to build your entire corporate training.
The Future of Digital Learning Design: Distributed Learning and Inclusive Design
This is going to sound counterintuitive, but I want to see digital learning taken back to a more human level. Digital learning is amazing but I don’t think all training should be digital. Just like with creating a great course, it should be a mix.” – Johnny Bustamante, Senior Art Director
With all the talk about gaming worlds and spaghetti sauce you probably wouldn’t expect this stance on the future, but we want to see digital learning experiences stay human. While technology is a valuable tool, it runs the risk of being devoid of social interaction. This is where distributed learning comes in, which is “a multitude of technological solutions through the lens of sound pedagogy while maintaining a human touch.” (From Distributed Learning by Maddison & Kumaran.)
Inclusive design, where we try to reach as many humans as humanly possible, is where digital learning experience design is going. If the goal of good design is to design for everybody, we need to acknowledge that not everybody is identical. A lot of digital learning is for able-bodied people. We wouldn’t give the same course to a person with a hearing impairment that we’d give to someone who is visually challenged. One idea we’re mulling over is to design courses in different ways, for example designing for people who are able-bodied, people with hearing impairments, and people with visual impairments, the same way we design a course differently for tablets, smartphones, and desktop computers.
Great design, regardless of what problems you are trying to solve, is universal. What makes a truly great learning experience is putting the user at the epicenter of it all. Solving problems they never even realized they had or could have. It’s about laying down your reservations of what separates a mathematician from an artist; or an architect from a philosopher. Borrowing approaches from different disciplines and adding them to your arsenal to solve those problems, to find the BEST solution, not the easiest one. And look good doing it.