"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?