When it comes to user experience (UX), most eLearning designers will tell you they can do better. The problem? They are not really UX/UI designers. They are instructional designers, eLearning specialists and trainers. If they work inside an organization, they do not have the luxury of having a cross-functional team that includes someone with deep UX/UI design experience. UX testing is not even on most project plans! We assume we know what the learner’s experience should be like… and that is what we create. No testing required.

This 6-minute video challenges that idea. It is from a UX conference held back in 2009, but its message is pretty timeliness. The speaker starts with a quote from Picasso. “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Sounds like carte blanche to copy, right?

Nope. Because a great artist is really seeking inspiration from what he sees. A great artist analyzes other ideas to see what he can steal to achieve his vision. Then, based on his intentions (or need), he creates his own masterpiece from that starting inspiration. When we attempt to copy, without understanding the drivers behind the design we are stealing from, we can end up with user experiences that do not meet the needs of our users.

Skip the Cargo Cult

Jeff Veen, the speaker in the video, uses the analogy of cargo cults, which refers to indigenous people on Pacific islands who tried to mimic the behavior they observed US soldiers perform during World War II to bring more materials goods to their islands. These people hope that by mimicking the superficial actions they saw, wealth will return to them. Veen argues that UX designs do the same thing. They look at successful examples and try to copy without taking the time for a deeper analysis.

We need to be much more critical and analytical of our user, and we all need better education on what is even meant by user experience design. We need to know the difference between user experience design (interaction experience and usability of the site) and user interface design (graphic design/aesthetics). This slide show is a great resource for learning about user experience design.

Test Your UX Designs

To get better at making sure UX/UI design fits well with our target learners, we need to test our designs. We need to grab 4 – 6 target users and watch them interact with our prototyped design and invite them to “think out loud” as they do. We need to tell them to speak aloud their inner thoughts and communicate what they like, what they find confusing, and what they find surprising or unexpected. As we watch, we need to get answers to these questions:

  • Is our user figuring out what to do easily? Is the navigation intuitive to them?
  • What frustrates them about the user experience? Is there anything that is disengaging them at any point?
  • Are they be engaged and interested by what they see? Does what they see or experience motivate them to stay with the experience or are they trying to get through it as fast as they can?
  • What delights them? What bores them?
  • What are they ignoring that you need them to attend to? (Oh yeah, you will see users totally ignore stuff that you think is super obvious.)
  • Where do they need help?
  • What do they think is missing?
  • Do users get what they expect when they do something?
  • Is there any point at which users become confused?

Before You Copy, Find out the “Why”

It’s great to look at templates or existing eLearning courses, websites, mobile apps, etc. for design ideas. However, be careful not to simply copy a design without fully understanding the “why” behind it. Before you simply copy a design you like, ask yourself:

What instructional design problem was it designed to solve?

What learning need was it intended to meet?

What user group was it designed to appeal to?

Be very careful of simply grabbing something you’ve done before – or that someone else has done – and then trying to shoehorn your learning objectives and content into that existing experience. Understand the why behind the design you want to copy so you can assess whether you should be copying it as-is, tweaking it, using it as a kernel of inspiration for something that is mostly new, or continuing your search for inspiration.

Validate Your UX/UI

You can think you’ve hit the mark, but will your learners agree? UserTesting.com is a great resource for doing quick user experience testing for low-cost and quick speed. (Your results will come to you within an hour of you uploading your test.)  For less than $300, you can have 4-6 users test your user experience. You can quickly set up your test experience and write a “test script” for what you want to assess. You then specify the demographics of your testers (age, gender, education level, income level). You’ll get videos of people completing your test with screen actions clearly visible. You’ll hear testers “think out loud” as they go through your application or course. You will get written responses to up to five questions that you specify, and you can follow up with individual testers for clarification of their responses.

It’s a great way to skip the superficial and find out what really drives your target learners.