06 April 2011

10 principles of usability for learning

Nielsen and Loranger’s book, Prioritizing Web Usability is a world of value and a bookshelf essential, but what does it have to say about designing for learning on the web?  The Nielsen Norman Group offer detailed reports on specific genres like e-commerce, but, nothing yet on education.  Nor does the book showcase any educational sites or make reference to these in user studies. This, of course, makes user testing our own work all the more important. It’s also why I thought it was worthwhile to put a few of their guidelines in educational context.

Here are the top ten lessons for learning interface design that I believe stand out from Nielsen and Loranger's (N&L) general usability findings.  

  1. Do your own testing.  It’s cheap and easy.  The reminder that “you’re not your average user” is especially true in education.  And the implications of jumping in with an ineffective design because you didn’t test, could mean a whole classroom or generation of learners failed to succeed because of an untested visual design.   Not pretty.
  2. Cut, pare down and insist on simplicity. N&L's warning against overblown design becomes especially important in the learning arena where cognitive load should be reserved for the learning, and not the tool or environment.
  3. Know how old your users are – N&L’s work exposes some drastic differences in web usability between children, teens and adults so knowing those differences before you design is essential if you’re targeting K-12.
  4. Know your users are primed to act – Much educational content demands learners to read, watch, listen or engage passively.  If you want them to do that, it probably shouldn’t be on the web.  Users are conditioned to act, click and move on quickly when they’re in a web environment.  They have different expectations and behaviours.  Not because they’re lazy or impatient, but because the medium has conditioned us to filter and stay task-focused. This could have implications about how things like readings and long videos are presented online (eg. divide long text into chunks, redesign the presentation for the web, or encourage offline use via printing or download). 
  5. Keep text and type readable from anywhere.  Follow the basic guidelines for text so your users can read easily, without fatigue, under varied lighting, and with different devices (in other words, realistic conditions).
  6. Design for your learner’s equipment - Research shows kids, teens and office workers are often on hand-me down or old equipment, in which multimedia plug-ins are behind and downloads are prohibited by parents or firewalls.  Office workers are often blocked from viewing flash and youtube, and audio is problematic for both groups. Nearly half of users still have dial up.  Know what your learners use and target those realities or your design will fail them. For our postgraduate courses we make access to a reliable broadband connection a pre-requisite.  If students don’t have it at home, they can use the campus computer lab, but at least they are aware of the commitment up front and we know what we can expect users to be able to use. For corporate learning, you can often find out what technologies your learners have access to.  In any case, applying accessibility guidelines is part of the solution (and generally a legal obligation in the educational context).
  7.  Use visuals to communicate, not to decorate.  For instructional content, bending this rule won’t just annoy your users it could literally reduce their learning outcomes.  Here comes cognitive overload again, and thoughts of Mayer’s research into multimedia learning.
  8.  Know when and how to use multimedia on the web.  And when not to.  Complex things can be better explained with multimedia sometimes, but not always.  N&L present two cases in which a static map worked better for users than an interactive one.
  9. Make tools self-explanatory, and avoid the need for tool instructions. Again, cognitive load should be reserved for the learning content, not for learning the tool or environment.  Students have enough to learn without novel gadgets getting in the way.  
  10.  Be interested in your users, not resentful of them. – As professionals we need to make best friends with our users (after all, they are entirely the reason our job exists).  Don’t let user rage lead to comments like “If they can't figure it out, they're too stupid anyway" or "they should just upgrade their system".  Revel in the improvement process.  Discovering a problem so you can fix it is like striking gold.  As N&L say, “Don’t defend your interface, just fix it.” 
While these 10 principles stand out as especially influential in educational context, there's little in the book that doesn't apply as much to designing for online learning as it does for designing anything else on the web.  So check it out if you haven't already.