It’s important to use your learners’ time wisely so that they gain new skills that they can use with confidence and a sense of accomplishment after the experience. How easy are your e-learning products to use? Are your learners frustrated or confused from the start? Improving the user experience will save instructional time and training dollars and increase the overall value of the endeavor. Usability needs to be a major consideration in evaluating the effectiveness of a learning program.

The list of specific considerations for effective usability is long, and it varies based on the modality of the learning. For example, some items are more applicable to print, and others are important for interface design. But let’s look at some overall points to help you start a good usability audit with your learning programs.

What Does the Learner Understand Prior to the Training?

It may seem like a simplistic question, but be sure that the learners understand why they are receiving training. Putting the new task in context improves understanding and the overall experience. Watch out for jargon, acronyms or abbreviations that the learner may not understand; define them first. They can be significant roadblocks to the learner’s success.

Consider the Senses

Learners gather information from e-learning by seeing it and hearing it. Be sure that sensory attributes are designed well. Audio and video content should be of high quality, and it’s a good idea to combine delivery options, such as mobile screens, monitors and projectors. On-screen text should be clear and large enough to read, and it should stay on screen long enough for someone to read all of it. Graphics and charts need to be pertinent, clear and easy to understand.

Give Them a Cue

The concept of interface user experience is based on providing visible cues that guide the learner down a path (Where am I going? What will happen next? How does this work?). Users don’t like surprises. When learners become lost in an interface, they become frustrated, confused and irritated and, in the worst case, quit.

Examples of visual cues include navigation buttons that look like buttons, clickable items that use a rollover state (i.e., they change appearance when the user hovers the mouse over them), and the consistent appearance and placement of labels and other content. Different cues lead learners to expect different outcomes. One of the principles for providing an effective user experience is managing expectations. Many learners will bring prior experiences with them, so capitalize on the familiarity of standard navigational cues and consistencies.

Test and Observe

Most experts agree that the most important step to providing a good user experience is usability testing. It’s the best way to confirm that your product is efficiently using learners’ time, uncovering user errors and providing overall satisfaction.

Understand that usability testing is more than the author’s running the new program and making sure the buttons work and screens advance. Although that is an important first step, the drawback is that the author already knows what will happen next. Will a learner who has never seen the interface achieve the same success when navigating?

It is important to use a structured testing process, starting with SMEs and developers who understand the content and then assembling some representative users. Select users who are not familiar with the task that the e-learning is teaching. Test the users individually, not in a group – you want each user to respond without being influenced by the others. Let them figure out navigations and solve problems by themselves.

Most importantly, observe the test users and what they do. Note where they are successful and where they have problems with the interface. If they make comments during the testing, write them down. After observing their actions, talk to them. Ask what specific problems they had and if anything did not meet their expectations. If the results warrant design changes, make the changes, and test again.

Here’s the key to effective testing and providing an exceptional user experience: Start testing early in the design process. Imagine the time and expense necessary to test a fully implemented design, only to find out that it contains a critical problem that might require major architecture changes!

Remember that the user experience will impact learners’ motivation and success. E-learning that is designed to optimize the user experience has a higher instructional value to the individual and will enhance productivity for the organization.