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Want better courses?
just add usability...

By Lisa Neal, Michael Feldstein / August 2006

TYPE: OPINION
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While many online-course development teams bring together experts in the design and development of courses and course components, few include usability-engineering or -testing professionals. This may be due to rushed schedules, inadequate budgets, or a general lack of awareness and understanding as regards the value of usability practices and their impact on e-learning. Rather than argue the benefits of augmenting a team with usability professionals, we suggest that all members of a course-development team receive training in usability fundamentals. The potential benefits include a stronger team and better-designed courses that truly meet learners' needs. We have prepared basic guidelines for bringing usability into the mix.

Usability testing has two parts: strategies for usability engineering that can be applied by course designers early in the development process, and usability testing of completed courses. These practices increase the likelihood that a learner will be able to focus on the task at hand—learning—rather than on how a course is delivered. Just as an instructor has to work hard to overcome the discomfort and distractions of a poorly designed classroom, even well-designed online materials are less compelling when a course is poorly designed, hard to navigate, or inappropriate for the target learner population. A course with poor usability can have measurable negative impact on course completion rates and post-test scores.

Simple techniques may be learned by members of a course development team to help incorporate usability fundamentals. The two that are easiest to learn and most effective—and arguably most fun for a course development team—are personas and heuristic usability testing.

Personas help the members of a development team identify important characteristics of their target learners and design courseware that better meets their needs. After interviewing a handful of prospective learners, the team constructs profiles for imaginary but prototypical learners which are then used during design and testing. The personas consist of relevant characteristics, as well as a few extraneous ones that give each a unique identity.

When the University of Puerto Rico developed their first online program, one of the personas they developed was Maria, a new college student who wanted to major in biology. She was highly motivated but had little computer or Internet expertise. In planning an introductory biology course, many of the design decisions about the course's style, the quantities of text and graphics, and the types of support needed were made to ensure Maria's success.

Another persona was Jorge, who worked in the pharmaceutical industry and wanted to complete his bachelor's degree. He had technology access at work and good technology skills, but poor study skills. While Jorge may respond well to many of the same course-design decisions that work for Maria, their larger needs diverged. While Maria may benefit from an introductory course in the use of the Internet, Jorge may need one on how to be a successful online learner. The designers included features designed to help both types of learners.

The second technique, heuristic usability testing, relies on a set of general principles of usable software design as applied to e-learning. When a group of reviewers look for violations of these principles, they tend to catch a high percentage of problems. Catching these problems before learners do is essential to creating usable courses.

Our guide to adding usability to e-learning development provides practical information on personas and heuristic evaluation. These techniques achieve the best results when they are woven into the culture of a development team, especially over time as experiences are shared among the team to promote best practices.

Please let us know your experiences using these suggestions.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Michael Feldstein
  1. What's important in a learning content management system
  2. Ill-served
  3. Disaster and opportunity
  4. 'E-Moderating' by Gilly Salmon and 'In Good Company The Secrets to Successful Learning Communities' by Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak
  5. Back to the future: what's next after learning objects
  6. What is usable e-learning?
  7. Ignore usability at your peril
  8. Don't Just Teach to the Metrics
  9. E-learning basics: essay: developing your e-learning for your learners
  10. When Weblogs Can Be Harmful
  11. Desperately seeking software simulations
  12. There's no such thing as a learning object
  13. Do you really need reusability?
  14. How to design recyclable learning objects
  15. In defense of online learning (and veggie burgers)
  16. Informational cascades in online learning
  17. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  18. Just "DO IT"
  19. The digital promise
  20. Unbolting the chairs
  21. A call to arms
  22. Lisa Neal
  23. Q&A
  24. Storytelling at a distance
  25. Talk to me
  26. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  27. Online learning and fun
  28. Everything in moderation
  29. eLearning and fun
  30. The basics of e-learning
  31. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  32. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  33. My life as a Wikipedian
  34. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  35. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  36. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  37. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  38. Do it yourself
  39. Predictions for 2004
  40. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  41. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  42. "Deep" thoughts
  43. "Spot Learning"
  44. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  45. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  46. Learner on the Orient Express
  47. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  48. How to get students to show up and learn
  49. Blended conferences
  50. Predictions for 2002
  51. Learning from e-learning
  52. Q&A with Don Norman
  53. In search of simplicity
  54. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  55. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  56. Just "DO IT"
  57. Senior service
  58. Formative evaluation
  59. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  60. Predictions for 2007
  61. Not all the world's a stage
  62. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  63. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  64. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  65. Degrees by mail
  66. The Value of Voice
  67. Predictions for 2006
  68. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  69. Five questions...
  70. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  71. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  72. Music lessons
  73. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  74. Advertising or education?
  75. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  76. Predictions for 2008
  77. Serious games for serious topics
  78. Back to the future
  79. Predictions For 2003