e-Learning can be a great way to educate a large number of users wherever and whenever training is needed. It can be at least as effective as classroom training, but only when people actually use it.

So, how do you make sure that they use it?

Taking the Learner’s Perspective

The primary goal of every learning program is to achieve its learning objectives. But for e-learning, it also needs to be highly accessible — the audience has to find the training easy to use, effective, and satisfying. If your e-learning program doesn’t meet those needs, it can actually become a barrier to learning. People stop using e-learning that they find confusing, slow or unpleasant; even worse, they’ll complain loudly and often. Most complaints about e-learning are actually about how it’s delivered, rather than the training content.

By designing and testing your e-learning with usability in mind, you can improve both the learner experience and learning outcomes. Everything you do should be designed to support specific learner tasks, but learner-centered design means giving consideration to the entire learning experience from the perspective of your learners. It has to be intuitive, consistent, appealing, motivating, supportive and engaging. This drives learner participation.

Designing for Usability

Usable e-learning typically considers four dimensions: the quality of learning, the quality of teaching, the quality of the learning environment and the quality of interaction. Lessons should be well-organized and encourage both interaction and self-reflection. Feedback should be available and helpful. On the platform side, navigation tools should be obvious, help should be available (including a path to offline assistance) and everything should be visually appealing. While minimizing errors should certainly be one of your goals, it’s even more important that any errors allow an easy recovery (including, if appropriate, a phone number to call for support).

Always remember that a learner’s time should be spent learning the material, not learning the software. If business or technical constraints impair an intuitive learner experience, include a two-minute module that introduces the platform and explains the basics of navigation. This is always better than letting learners flounder with difficult technology. It’s also important to have clear goals and keep users focused on them, minimizing distractions along the way and using interactivity and challenges to keep learners motivated.

Usability Testing

Conducting usability tests doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. Plan the testing, get 5 testers from your target audience, find a room and start observing. There are, of course, several advantages to using usability experts and usability testing tools. The closer you and other project stakeholders are to the testing, the more bias is going to affect your results. The last thing you want to do is coach your testers and end up with results that aren’t objective. Outside experts may also be able to suggest an approach that’s more effective and extract more actionable feedback from your testers.

You can still generate valuable feedback if you coordinate testing yourself. Always start with a plan. What information do you want to know? What tasks can testers perform to produce the right feedback? Ask the testers to talk through everything they’re doing, such as where they’re looking and why they’re performing an action. If questions come up, stay neutral. If a tester asks, “Am I doing this properly?”, try countering with something like, “Can you tell me why you’re uncertain?”, rather than providing an answer. It can help to use software to capture tester interactions and audio; even inexpensive screencasting software will work. This allows you to observe participants remotely rather than hovering over them, and you can review results later on so you don’t miss anything. When you wrap up testing, include an interview or questionnaire that probes about the experience with open-ended questions.

There’s no right or wrong time to perform usability testing. Try a round whenever you think it’s appropriate, whether it’s during the design phase with paper prototypes, or just before launch with e-learning that’s ready to go live.

The important thing is doing the test and getting feedback from actual learners. You’ll end up with training that’s more engaging and, as a result, produces better learning outcomes.