UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 750 October 25, 2011

Say Hello to Learning Interface Design

"So what do you do?" asks the aging hipster in the faux retro tee. "Oh, me? I'm a Learning Interface Designer.” I pause a minute to test the sound of it tripping off the tongue… sounds sexy enough. This party introduction marks the final stage in the beta testing of an emergent concept: learning interface design. Let’s take a moment to welcome the official debut of a brand new and desperately needed sub-discipline, which promises to see digital learning experiences come of age.

From university webinars and "Mathletics" in schools, to corporate eLearning, to spelling apps, learning has gone very digital. Learning is no less ubiquitous than technology and everyone at multiple points in their lives (arguably multiple points during the day) is a learner. So it's time to stop pretending learners are the same as all other users and get better at the way we design for them.

In order to go from user interface design to learning interface design, we need digital designers who have a sophisticated grasp of educational theory and educational psychology insofar as these can be applied to the design of interface and media elements.

Designers all over the world have been engaging in learning interface design (without calling it that) for projects such as employee training or educational technology, relying on tried-and-true design principles, instinct, experience, and the shared knowledge of interdisciplinary teams. Now it’s time to take it up a notch.

We haven't yet put a name on this speciality and it’s not just a style issue. Naming the art is critical to building a body of shared knowledge, encouraging desperately needed user research in the area, and working towards best practice specific to the design of interfaces for learning.

So why the fuss? Simple. The ways you employ graphics, sequence tasks, display information, use animation, provide controls for that animation, or combine narration with that animation can determine how well users will learn. If you've experienced bad online courses, you understand the pain of struggling against an obstructive interface when you're trying to learn something. On the other hand when people have a smooth, engaging, and enlightening learning experience via the Web, they may or may not notice how much the interface played a part.

It goes beyond usability. People have different requirements when they’re engaging in learning activities than they do when they’re buying something on a shopping site or information seeking on the Web. And this breaks down further: how users learn, and thus how an interface should support them, depends on their age, their level of content expertise, their previous experience, their conceptions of learning, and even potentially their learning styles. It’s a complex area and we need to start digging in.

While it's well understood that good curriculum design is foremost, and we know a lot about learning from research in the field of education (and its newer interdisciplinary sibling, the learning sciences) it’s not yet on many people's radar how critical visual and multimedia design are to success. Despite the fact that there's plenty of evidence for its influence (see Richard Mayer's work as a starting point), the front-end can still fall victim to old school prejudices that the visual design is mere decoration or not a serious contributor to the experience.

That's where a new sub-discipline needs to zip in to save the day with a new wave of specialist designers. We need learning interface designers (LIDs) to handle the recent investor craze for educational technologies. And we need LIDs for the plethora of online courses redefining universities, and for the multiplicity of learning objects, apps, multimedia materials, games, and training tools being unleashed on people of all ages in schools and outside of them.

In just a few years we should see LIDs working with instructional designers, subject matter experts, specialists in usability for learning (e.g., see Julie Dirksen's blog), together with the usual band of Information architects, developers, etc., all working as part of a learning experience design team.

But its not just formal education that seeks to benefit. Maturing our knowledge in learning interface design will inevitably improve UX design across the board. Because learning happens in small and informal ways every day and as part of other larger activities, what we learn about how to design for learning can inform our design of everything else. As an example, see basic learning theory applied to the design of e-commerce sites in the July issue of A List Apart.

With any luck, we’ll find a host of LIDs showcasing their work in design mags in the not too distant future. Until then, take note of what you learn today digitally, and ask yourself this question: did I learn something in spite of the way this was designed, or because of it? Could we be doing this even better?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Dorian is an author and designer who specializes in design for learning & wellbeing.  She is Creative Leader of the Positive Computing Lab and at the Faculty of Education, University of Sydney. Her books include Interface Design for Learning (New Riders) and Positive Computing (forthcoming from MIT Press).  You can find out more about her work at InterfaceDesignForLearning.com and PositiveComputing.org


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Comments

23
34

@sarit amar - hi, talk to me on facebook!
we have a group of designers and people who are interested in that matter.
see ya!

31
29

well, i named this type of profession as Educational Experience Design.
i think that designers who make interfaces for educational or learning purposes are part educators themselves.
i see a direct connection between learning principals and design principals, but that's another issue

28
29

Hi, this is a great article! Can anyone recommend good reading materials/books/blogs for studying this discipline?

30
27

Great read, I hear what you're saying and what's behind what you're saying. I feel I can also empathize with the other commenters as there can be much empty striving at importance and relevance while this arena is in flux.

First, I agree that poor LMS design is partly a symptom of not treating LID as a discipline. Same with frustrating eLearning interfaces.

Second, for all you rightfully complaining about the murky and frustrating SCORM standard, read up on Project Tin Can. It is the next evolution of SCORM and feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison.

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That's excellent! It's great to hear someone already acknowledging Learning Experience Design as unique. You're absolutely right, it's not just about the interface. I've opted to focus on that aspect, in part because, it's the one that has gotten especially ignored in the Education world. Education folks do research on the "Student experience", which overlaps to some extent withour idea of learning experience design, but the focus has generally been on pedagogical design and theory (logically) but without consideration for the design of the digital environment. Saying "interface" gets people who don't work in UX thinking in the right direction. Would love to know more about your process.

27
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I am so glad that I found this article while reading Zite yesterday. I saved it so I could come back to again today. My current job title is Learning Experience Designer, which I think gets more at the user-centric part of this article. It isn't about the interface (alone), it is about the experience.

I have really been looking for a community of folks who are doing just this, but I have had to mostly fall back on other EdTech folks from my previous jobs in eLearning and 7/8th grade teaching. I'm excited that there is a discipline starting to emerge and I would love to share and build with anyone else who is interested. Let's start a conversation for sure.

24
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Thanks guys,
The need for a shared title is not so much about business card glamour
- it's really about paving the way for recognition in the research
world. Research is necessary for discovering what really works and
what doesn't and uncovering principles we can all use confidently for
say... building a decent LMS. The fact that we don't have an LMS that
satisfies any of its users today is proof we haven't been getting it
right. If we don't acknowledge the unique needs of learners as
users, we never will get it right. Having a way of referring to these
users and to this specialization helps foster awareness, understanding
and research.

Matt, with regard to the research already out there, because there's
no shared name or language, it's very hard to find in searches! if
you're familiar with the Mendeley Research sharing community, we've
recently started a group to which members add relevant research
citations as they come up. The group is here:
www.mendeley.com/groups/778381/educational-multimedia-design-learning-interface-design/
I would love it if you could add some of your findings to the group!
I also post occasional research paper summaries on my blog: designerelearning.blogspot.com/.

28
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This is an interesting article. I agree, there are many opportunities to bring the Ux learning experience to the next level by having dedicated Ux experts in the field, as for any area of expertise like finance and banking (more my style). I can make a parallel with product design; 30 years ago you could become a designer and go work on designing a hockey helmet, a watch or a car. Nowadays you almost need to know if you will be a footwear or an automotive designer before entering college!

27
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Btw, +1 to the idea of modernizing SCORM. Standardization of LMS data was meant to spur compatibility and interoperability, but it comes at too high of a cost. The money that ought to be spent on making the learning experience better is going into backend SCORM-compliant engineering. Puts the cart before the horse, imho. Technical requirements shouldn't be allowed to supersede user requirements.

26
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I agree that the UX field is too full of self-aggrandizing job titles and empty pseudoscientific jargon. However, I think the author's point here isn't so much that we need a new job title, but that we need to recognize that designing UIs for learning is a discrete and specialized role. This suggests that there are opportunities for UX pros to specialize into this area, hence necessitating a new job title, and also elbowing out people who only know UI design but aren't specialized in learning UI design.

23
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What complete nonsense, we do not need yet another job title thrown into the mix. Get on with designing an LMS experience and interface that is half way decent instead of worrying about job titles.

27
29

COOL! Just what elearning needs -another pseudo-scientific job role and discipline! Me personally, I'd just like:

An lms that doesn't suck
A proper api for course-lms communication instead of that joke they call scorm

25
33

Great article! I'm really happy to see that there's at least some buzz around ux and usability as it pertains to instructional interfaces. This is currently the focus of my master's thesis. Is the author aware of any research or other literature that focuses on this subject?