January 23rd, 2018 E-Learning

Creating a positive user experience is an essential step toward building your online course.

Developing an online program takes a lot of effort. It’s not just assembling and editing the content, responding to learner feedback, managing the backend administrative tasks, and marketing the course. A successful program also has to be engaging and easy to use.

And yet, many course organizers overlook usability when assembling their course content. Maybe they’re too close to their own material to notice the errors. Or perhaps they believe that, after all the work they put into creating the course, it’s not too much to expect their learners to figure out how to use it. Or maybe they simply never noticed the problem.

No matter the cause, usability errors are ones that you can’t afford to ignore. Left unaddressed, these problems can frustrate and alienate learners, dampening their enthusiasm for your program, and ultimately damaging your reputation.

Which is a real shame, because many usability errors are easy to address, once detected. Let’s take a moment to look at what usability is and what educators can do to discover and correct them in their online programs.

Usability does more than ask whether a program works. It’s about whether it works well.

Usability (often discussed as “user experience” or “UX” among programmers) refers to all the factors that impact the way a user engages with a product. If you don’t know anything about usability, it can be tempting to think of it as a measure of whether something works or not. After all, if you can use it, it’s usable, right?

Not quite. Usability isn’t just about whether you can use a product, it’s about whether that product is intuitive and convenient, as well as functional. For instance, if I buy a can opener, but cut my hand every time I use it, it doesn’t “work” even if it successfully opens a can.

Because of this, online courses can fall into usability traps in a number of ways. If learners can’t complete basic tasks, that’s a failure of functionality (and also usability). But it also fails a usability test if it is needlessly difficult to use, if it doesn’t accomplish its intended purpose, or if it creates disincentives for users.

10 Usability Heuristics

Back in 1995, usability researcher Jakob Nielsen identified ten heuristics for judging usability. They are as follows, with examples for how they apply to online education:

  1. Visibility of system status: When your learners submit a piece of coursework, the system should tell them that their submission was successful.
  2. Match between system and real world: Buttons that are meant to be clicked should look like they are clickable.
  3. User control and freedom: Learners should be able to navigate through the system with as much freedom as possible. They should be able to skip ahead through a module and return to previous sections with ease.
  4. Consistency and standards: Use the same labels throughout. You don’t want to use “syllabus” in the navigation menu but “course plan” in the quick links section.
  5. Error prevention: Eliminate trouble spots, or put up a warning if a user might be about to unintentionally make an error.
  6. Recognition rather than recall: Make it easy for learners to see what options they have, and make sure they always know where they are when navigating your course.
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use: Add a quick links bar to help users get where they’re going faster.
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design: Too much information can lead to user fatigue and cause them to miss important messages.
  9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: If they missed a require form field, show them where they forgot to enter information.
  10. Help and documentation: Be available in case your learners have questions.

How do you find (and fix) usability errors in your course?

The best way to improve the usability of your course is through extensive user testing. However, it’s important to remember that this is an ongoing process. As technology evolves, so will the expectations users have for how they can engage with your course. And every time you create or update new material, you will have more to test.

That said, getting started doesn’t have to be intimidating. When you first launch a course, begin by having a few people who weren’t involved in its creation test every aspect of the course they can access. Have them create profiles, send emails, complete tests, submit papers—make sure everything works. (A good LMS should make this easier for you, but it’s still important to check in case you forgot to add a link or something.)

You can think of them as proofreaders, except that instead of searching for typos, they’re looking for broken functionality.

Once you know everything works at a basic level, talk to your test group about how they felt using the course. Could they find everything easily? Did the organization of the course make sense to them? Did they enjoy engaging with the course materials?

Use this feedback to re-think any common concerns you here from your test group. Maybe you find that they had trouble finding the course syllabus because it was buried in an unintuitive part of the navigation, or they were frustrated by how many clicks it took to get them to the page they needed to send in course submissions. Or maybe one of your security features got in the way of them accessing part of the course. Whatever you can correct, do so before launch.

Once you do launch, you should continue to run usability testing in the live environment. Look at your user data and see how learners engage with different parts of the course. Ask for feedback throughout the semester to track down any buggy parts of your course. And, if you want to go the extra mile, consider enabling software that can track user sessions to see if there are common click patterns that might indicate user confusion.

Usability puts your learners first.

A buggy, poorly organized, hard-to-use course creates a lot of barriers for any learner—even ones with a lot of motivation. It might seem a little excessive to suggest that a weird menu structure or a broken link can have such a negative impact on learners, but it’s important to remember where your users are coming from.

Any student trying to finish an assignment late at night after a long day at work can tell you how discouraging it can be to lose half an hour trying to find out how to submit a document. For some learners, that kind of experience can make them question why they ever signed up for your course. It will certainly affect whether or not they recommend your program to their friends.

By focusing on usability, you make your learners the priority. Which is exactly what they should be.


2 responses

Leave a Comment

Thanks for writing!

One question I have is regarding a course and letting students skip ahead. I’m fairly new to this and still learning the ropes. Do you think letting them jump ahead is a good idea? I would think that it is bad for the overall learning objecting if we are letting learners jump through without watching/reading everything but I can also see how it might be frustrating. Does it make a difference if we are talking about a mandatory course rather than an elective?

Depends on the audience and topic for sure. What you can potentially do is allow learners to have freedom within the course (make it a micro-course) but then require that they take the micro-courses in a specific order.

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