Heuristics & Strategies

11 Heuristics for the Design of Learning Interfaces

Jakob Nielsen has based the classic set of usability heuristics on years of ongoing user research studies. Without the kind of testing and polishing only years of crash-testing in a maturing field can provide, a new list of heuristics for the design of learning interfaces could never claim to be as solid or resilient as the well established usability set we have come to rely on.  Nevertheless, there is a need for guidance to support evaluation in this area, and I beleive we have enough research from which to draw for an initial set.

The heuristics below are informed by guidelines for the evaluation of online instruction available in the educational research and human-computer interaction literature. These will get refined as research findings grow and the field matures. Here’s a first set of 11 Heuristics for the design and evaluation of learning interfaces as presented in the book, Interface Design for Learning.
  1. Relevance of media and reduction of extraneous load 
    Causes for extraneous cognitive load, such as imagery, visual and decorative detail and other media elements that do not directly support the learning objective or required interactions should be avoided.
  2. Learner Control and Freedom 
    Level of learner control afforded by navigation, architecture and interaction design should be appropriate to audience characteristics and pedagogical approach
  3. Support for learning objective(s)
    Interface graphics, content graphics and interaction design should be supportive of the learning objectives as defined by educational designers or instructors.
  4. Alignment with specific learner needs
    The design should be influenced by specific audience characteristics such as prior knowledge, culture, literacy, computer literacy, visual literacy, age, professional or subgroup culture and any other aspects that can effect design decisions.
  5. Appropriateness of look and feel   
    The look and feel should reflect an image appropriate to the audience, message and content of the learning experience. (eg. neither to childlike as to be patronizing to experts, too serious as to depress engagement in children, or too light-hearted as to be offensive for serious subjects.)
  6. Support for the cognitive aspects of learning
    The design should support the cognitive aspects of learning relevant to the experience (eg. reasoning, cognitive load, problem solving, social interaction etc.) as defined by one or more theories of learning psychology. Obstacles to the cognitive aspects of learning should be treated as errors in learning interface design.
  7. Support for the affective aspects of learning   
    The design should support the affective apsects of learning relevant to the learning objectives (within the constraints of available research evidence.) Obstacles to the affective aspects of learning should be treated as errors in learning interface design.
  8. Media and tools appropriateness
    Uses media, devices and tools that are appropriate to the type of learning or activity.
  9. Accessibility
    Is accessible to all learners within its scope, regardless of disability, device type or technological literacy.
  10. Usability
    Conforms to usability guidelines and best practice.
  11. Feedback and responsiveness
    The design should allow for the provision of both operational and instructional feedback. Feedback should be intrinsic where possible and when extrinsic, feedback should be placed near the relevant item and leave room for instructionally “rich” responses. Operational feedback should be provided instantaneously.

104 Strategies for the Design of Learning Interfaces

The following is a consolidated list of the 104 evidence-based strategies elaborated on in detail throughout the chapters of the book: Interface Design for Learning. I include them here for easy reference.

Learning is Visual

Strategies to reduce overload
  • Stick to relevant graphics 
  • Simplify explanatory visuals 
  • Use thoughtful reduction to design data visualizations 
  • Group images and text together 
  • Design text for comfortable reading 
  • Use layers and hotspots to manage levels of detail 
  • Use negative affordances to rule out options for learners 
Strategies to guide attention
  • Support learning with visual hierarchy 
  • Support learner attention with conscious signals 
  • Use rules of rapid recognition 
Strategies to support visual perception 
  • Avoid color and texture faux pas 
  • Use luminance for visual detail 
  • Use depth selectively 
  • Support learning and learnability with color-coding 
Strategies to promote visual learning
  • Translate large data sets into abstract graphics 
  • Stay clear of the lie factor 
  • Use segmenting, sequencing and layering to tame complexity 
  • Avoid interference 
  • Use multiple representations 
  • Use a systematic approach 

Learning is Social

Strategies for improving social presence
  • Design for rich identities 
  • Include user images 
  • Support social awareness with visualization 
  • Show the network and its connections 
  • Consider virtual agents for delivering instructional content 
Strategies for encouraging participation
  • Make usability a priority 
  • Shape the path to entry 
  • Leverage social influence 
  • Design to prevent group-think 
  • Design to support scaffolding 
  • Design for persistence 
  • Balance the polarities of social learning 
  • Design for all member types 
Strategies for nurturing conviviality and community 
  • Design for specific community needs 
  • Use interface cues to encourage contribution 
  • Design to prevent trolling 
  • Design for matchmaking 

Learning is Emotional

Strategies for inspiring creativity
  • Set a positive mood for creative thinking 
  • Show personality 
  • Leverage the biophilia effect 
  • Leverage the cathedral effect 
  • Include delighters 
Strategies for supporting engagement and flow
  • Beware of primal attention grabbers 
  • Use segmenting and variety to sustain attention 
  • Make it harder 
  • Make it easier 
  • Apply constraints 
  • Mix up the level of challenge 
  • Use story and narrative 
Strategies for sparking motivation
  • Tap into intrinsic motivation 
  • Embed learning into meaningful activity 
  • Use multimedia to provide context, show relevance, and fuel curiosity 
  • Support autonomy by offering choices 
  • Support self-expression 
  • Show and reward progress 
  • Support social learning 

Learning with Multimedia & Games

Strategies for audio
  • Avoid background sound 
  • Use acoustic cues 
  • Watch for tangents 
  • Embrace narration 
Strategies for video and animation
  • Stick to relevant video 
  • Segment video and customize it for the web 
  • Let learners control pacing 
  • Use visual cues 
  • Use animation for physical procedures 
  • Use still images for conceptual processes 
  • Use motion sparingly 
Strategies for models games and simulations
  • Design games and simulations in alignment with learning goals 
  • Find the game in your learning 
  • Optimize the visualization of models for clarity and visual thinking 
  • Keep it simple, at first 
  • Integrate learnability into the game—let learners jump right in 
  • Integrate the game into life: contextualize learning through interface design 
  • Embed feedback into the game 
  • Use the advantages of virtual worlds 

Learning is Mobile

Strategies for mobile environments
  • Design for microlearning 
  • Design for the broader environment 
  • Pare down on features 
  • Apply Fitts’ Law 
  • Use animated transitions to communicate interface logic 
  • Leverage interactions unique to mobile devices 
  • Design for behaviors unique to mobile learners 
  • Apply strategies to support visual learning 
  • Tailor interface design to task type 
  • Tailor interface design to mobile learner age 
  • Design for social mobile learning 
  • Design for mobile-supported face-to-face interactions 
  • Prototype, test and evaluate in situ 

Designing the Space

Strategies for layout, navigation and screen design
  • Place pop-up feedback near questions 
  • Design to accommodate rich feedback 
  • Use defaults and suggestions to manage choice 
  • Introduce features gradually to manage choice 
  • Shape the path 
  • Avoid written instructions 
  • Avoid minesweeping 
Strategies for the design and configuration of learning spaces
  • Design for various forms of assessment 
  • Select tools based on the learning domain and activity 
  • Set learning in real-world context to promote transfer 
  • Give learners control appropriate to their level of expertise 
  • Support experimentation and play 
  • Welcome mistakes—design for retries and do-overs 
  • Act like you’re listening 
  • Design for socio-cultural context 
  • Design for age-specific learning needs 

For more detail, see Interface Design for Learning.