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Human Design for Engagement and Critical Thinking

by Chris Jennings

December 2, 2013


by Chris Jennings

December 2, 2013

“Designing courses from a user perspective involves paying attention to details like how you frame the course material for the learner, the personality you lend to the course voice, the overall course look and feel, and creating content with which users pleasurably interact. Remember, if you do what’s right for the learner, then all else will follow.”

(The opinions expressed herein are solely the author’s and in no way represent the opinions of Google.)

Amidst all the effusion of how MOOCs are signing up hundreds of thousands of learners, democratizing education, and forever changing the way future generations will learn, we often overlook learners’ low engagement and high attrition rates. While technology that teaches so many people at scale is certainly impressive, if an online course doesn’t inspire users to think critically about the subject matter, it has not met its course objectives.

It’s not enough to slap together a series of textual notes, PowerPoint slides, or talking-head videos followed by a quiz, and call it “eLearning.” In order to compensate for the lack of real-time learning feedback, you must use the advantages of the Internet to overcome its disadvantages and engage learners. At Google we always strive to do what’s best for our users. Similarly, when developing online courses, if you do what’s right for the learner, your metrics will reflect their engagement with the course material. Here are five guidelines that I believe will build engagement in any online course.

Tell the story

An essential part of teaching is providing meaning and context to make subject matter relevant. The dynamic flexibility of web content makes it an ideal medium to provide such context through situated learning. When tasked with building out an online product-training course at Google for DoubleClick advertisers (not exactly cat-video-worthy entertainment), we created a storyline that put the user in the role of a new hire at an agency tasked with creating an ad campaign for clients. This included mock emails from an “account manager” that communicated specific learning objectives around individual lessons, while simultaneously advancing the simulated storyline. We offered playful incentives like “clients” and “board members” that reacted to course accomplishments, and potential “promotions” after the completion of tasks. Occasionally, the client had campaign “emergencies” that required the learner to step in and solve problems using the new ad tools they had just learned. We included fun advertiser campaigns for “DinoWorld Theme Park” and taught the concept of rich media by having interactive ads that you could mouse over to make dinosaurs dance. In essence, we created an emotional connection with our learners that would resonate with aspects of their daily work.

Keep in mind, the developmental costs for this kind of engagement were extremely low. It didn’t require any technology, only a little creativity to align a relevant storyline to our audience and learning goals. We found that learners even mentioned these elements unsolicited in the course feedback, indicating their appreciation. For even more engagement, you could add gaming components that let learners compete for thematically related incentives on a published leaderboard to reward course task completion, although this requires a more significant technical effort.

Writing it well

An often-overlooked part of engaging users online comes simply from the tone and style of delivery. Just as a steady monotone can lull classroom students into sleepy submission, prosaic text devoid of dynamics can make an online course equally tedious. Express your enthusiasm for the source material, even if it’s something as esoteric as ad serving.

Use a style of writing that is light-hearted and clever; unique without being bizarre; congenial without pandering; humble, yet audacious. Your voice should convey the humanity, personality, and passion behind the subject matter. It should avoid cliché and trite phrasing at all costs, as well as business-speak. Much like overall Google design, your course voice should be straightforward, informative, and helpful, but with a spark of personality (think the laughing “e” in the Google logo). Imagine you were trying to explain something to your best friend’s mother. A strong, yet personal, voice can resonate with learners, making the difference between those who engage the material, and those who merely skim over your carefully crafted words without completing the course.

Designing without distraction

Course design is incredibly important for engagement, as well. Design communicates how much you care about your learners. They’re already in a bit of limbo in this unfamiliar online environment you’ve created; the least you can do is make them feel comfortable. Your pages should be clean and easily readable, with plenty of breathable space. The last thing you want to do is disorient your users with more information than they can reasonably process at a glance. Chunk your content thematically, which will not only help your user digest information manageably, but enable easier updates over time.

The navigation should always make it contextually obvious where users are in the course and where they’ve been. It should have flexible options for the self-directed learner to easily skip around and find what they need. Any repetitive page elements should be clear and consistent. Even the colors should support your learning goals. If you intend the subject matter to feel intimate, comfy, and inclusive, you may want to design against a darker background, as opposed to a white background, which will convey a more clear-cut, independent, self-sufficient feel. Consider how your design will look on mobile devices and make sure that a touch screen can replicate any mouse-click or hover interactions.

More than one medium=more engagement

One of the easiest ways to disengage learners is through rote, formulaic content. While video can be a great way to initially engage learners, having nothing but a series of long-winded, talking-head videos may drive users to seek more easily consumable and entertaining distractions elsewhere. Similarly, a course consisting of only text or bullet points can be hard on the eyes and is static compared to most consumable web content. Instead, consider leveraging the multimedia nature of the Internet and use different modes of expression in tandem. Alternate between discrete chunks of content that include text and images (which itself can be varied using bullet points, tables, etc.), infographics, video, interactive screen-capture, in-line quizzes, etc., which will keep the learner refreshing their cognitive focus. While including a variety of media in an online course demands more from course developers, you will potentially see a payoff in higher engagement rates.

Let them lean in

In addition to meaning and context, an intriguing voice, clean course design, and varying media formats, you can also look for opportunities to build “lean-forward” vs. “sit-back” content. Lean-forward content is course content that the user must actively participate in, whether it is a clickable graphic, a mouse-over definition, an interactive screen-capture video, an embedded Flash module, a discussion board, or other information requiring user attention. This is in contrast to traditional video or text, which the user consumes without any active effort.

There are easy ways to encourage lean-forward behavior, such as hyperlinked mouse-over definitions within regular text. This not only breaks up monotonous content and reduces the amount of text on screen, but buries definitions that more advanced users might want to skip over. This same effect could also be achieved using “zippies” (hyperlinks that reveal content) or embedding links that hide content until they’re clicked on. This makes the user an active participant in the flow of course content, allowing them to control the amount of information they view at any time.

For the DoubleClick online training, we needed to conceptually explain the complex steps of building an ad campaign, while keeping users interested. This was a formative course concept that can be complicated due to the various steps and roles involved in the process. We could have explained campaigns in straight text or video, which would have required a lot of passive, convoluted explanation. Instead, we created an infographic that showed the various steps and industry roles visually on a timeline and allowed users to mouse over different areas to explore detailed descriptions of the role and process. The visual also communicated not only the order of how a campaign gets built, but what happens at each stage of development and the assets passed between roles. While we built the graphic in Flash, you could easily use simple image-mapping software to build something similar (or even better, build it in HTML5 to be mobile-compliant).

Knowing that it made a difference

At Google, we try to make as many data-driven decisions as possible, and there are several metrics beyond general course participation that show whether your learners are engaged. Google Analytics is a helpful (and, more importantly, free) tracking tool that can determine aggregate engagement across web pages. Analytics can track the time spent per browsing session, amount of pages consumed per session, and average length of time spent per page. It can also track returning visitors and bounce rate (the percentage of users that left the site from the entry page without any other interactions). These metrics can help measure user engagement with very little developmental effort.

For the DoubleClick course, we found that users in the first three months spent 28 minutes per session and consumed 19 pages per visit! Did I mention this was an ad-serving course? We also tracked extremely low bounce rates at 10.38 percent (we usually consider anything under 15 percent pretty good) and high visitor-return rates at 77.7 percent. (These statistics are based on an internal study conducted at Google.) We included regular surveys throughout the course that not only showed us whether users were engaged enough to respond, but also provided valuable data to iteratively improve the course. One of the surprising outcomes of our surveys was how substantive the feedback was. People didn’t simply tell us whether things were broken or indicate that they didn’t understand (they certainly did), but they also made thoughtful course suggestions and complimented us on aspects of the course that compelled them. These are the kinds of engagement that makes all the work you put into a course worthwhile.

Designing courses from a user perspective involves paying attention to details like how you frame the course material for the learner, the personality you lend to the course voice, the overall course look and feel, and creating content with which users pleasurably interact. Remember, if you do what’s right for the learner, then all else will follow.

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Very helpful as we try to design better e-learning for practicing physicians. Thank you!
This document should be required reading for a) anyone new to instructional design, and b) anyone who is leveraging (c)rapid elearning tools.
"Unique without being bizarre" is my favorite phrase. Good, job, Mister J.
"Design communicates how much you care about your learners" - very well said! Thanks.
Let them 'lean in'?
What is that?
(hint: a first attempt to admit education dogma may be flawed)

The human cognitive capabilities and mechanics that embody and enable 'learning' to the greatest degree are present and optimized only when the learner is engaged in 'self-directed learning.' (very specific answer to what is 'human-cognitive' optimization)

From a human-centric design viewpoint, all instructional courseware and even traditional education itself (anything that presumes imparting pre-determined knowledge) is misaligned and suboptimal to meet the best needs of human-centered learning.
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