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Improve Your Interface

by Bill Brandon

May 14, 2002


by Bill Brandon

May 14, 2002

"The most important thing you can do to create an effective interface is to examine your design process. Bad process leads to bad design."

The user interface is easy to take for granted, but it is the largest single influence on the learner’s experience. The quality of that experience has a tremendous effect on the success of your courseware.

What can you do to ensure a trouble-free interface for your e-Learning application? Here are a few ideas.

  1. The most important thing you can do to create an effective interface is to examine your design process. Bad process leads to bad design. Is it clear who makes the decisions within the team? How are the goals for a project set, and what are they? How will the team resolve the problems that are certain to come up during development? Does your design process allow for quality input from representative learners?
  2. Keep the interface simple. “Less is more” is a cliché, but for good reason. The team should not feel obligated to break new design ground on every project. Lean and elegant interfaces are difficult to create, but easy to maintain.
  3. If the learning application appears in a browser, make sure that the screens download fast. The user should not have to wait more than 15 seconds, even on a dialup, to see the next screen. Test over dialup and redesign as necessary to hit the 15-second target. There are some simple guidelines that will help:

    • Line art downloads faster than any other variety.
    • Properly optimized PNG files download faster than GIFs.
    • Avoid using non-native fonts. Times Roman, Arial or Helvetica, and Courier are perfectly acceptable. There is no reason to complicate matters by embedding fonts.
    • Don’t use sound on interface elements. Sound files slow down transfer rates, and sound is not only irritating to the user, but also to everyone within earshot.

  4. It’s OK to use clipart — sparingly — to provide some visual interest.
  5. Short lines of text are best. Keep your text 400 pixels wide or less.
  6. Use a spell-checker. Then have a proofreader go over every screen. The number of educational applications in which “it’s” repeatedly appears when the third person singular possessive is required is amazing.
  7. Be consistent in your design, especially navigational elements. Use templates to standardize your look and feel and also to save time. If the learner has to consciously think about how to use the interface, or guess what various controls mean or do, or figure out what to do next, there’s a problem. This is energy that should be going into learning. Frustration over inconsistencies will only get in the way.


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