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Avoiding the Trap of Clicky-Clicky Bling-Bling
(Part 1 of 2)

By Cammy Bean / June 2011

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"All that glitters is not gold." ~ William Shakespeare

For a modern translation, and applicable to our industry: "All that is clicky-clicky bling-bling does not make for an effective learning experience."

What is Clicky-Clicky Bling-Bling?

Clicky-clicky bling-bling (CCBB) is elearning with lots of whizz and bang and clicking in an attempt to add pizzazz to dry content and to make it more engaging. But once you unwrap the sparkle, sadly, all you're left with is a load of elearning junk. Don't mistake this for "engagement." It's just shiny wrapping paper covering up a pair of crummy socks with holes in them. This kind of design is fun and seductive, full of fantastic graphics and interesting—but convoluted—interfaces. The design might appear to be a "fun learning game"—perhaps a multiple-choice quiz dressed up like a game show—or it might have a lot of exciting interactions, in the hopes of making for an interesting experience.

What has happened with these elearning programs? Well, they've been dressed up with "seductive details." Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer in the industry classic e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, explain that seductive details are "interesting but irrelevant material added to a multimedia presentation in an effort to spice it up" (p.115). Seductive details are those elements in a program that draw you in, attract the eye and engage the brain. They seduce your interest, but distract from the main point.

Imagine: A screen with a flashing Next button. Trying to be a good learner, you scan the onscreen text and listen briefly to the audio, but then the twitch sets in and you do what you've been yearning to do: you click Next.

Imagine: A graphical representation of a doctor's office. Every item in the office is a clickable hot spot. To learn more, you need to explore the room and click on all of the items. So you start randomly clicking. Here and there you discover a few fun tidbits. The tissue box tells you about airborne viruses; the light switch tells you about the dangers of reading in a poorly lit room. Imagine now that there are 20 objects in the room that you have to click on. It's interactive! It's intriguing! But it's exhausting, and let's face it"—there's no point. Fatigue sets in and you move on.

Imagine: An exciting game show interface. Multiple-choice questions with background music and scores. It's glitzy. It's exciting. You're beating the clock! You're winning. But at the end of the quiz, you remember nothing except the catchy background tune.

You probably don't have to imagine. You've seen them. You've maybe even built them. We've all done a little of it, haven't we? Time to confess and be cured.

Why, Oh, Why?

Why do designers fall for the seductive allure of CCBB? Clark and Mayer provide some insight:

" ..consumers may feel that a "jazzier" product will hold the learner's interest better. This is the premise underlying the arousal theory, the idea that entertaining and interesting embedded effects cause learners to become more emotionally aroused and therefore they work harder to learn the material." (p.117)

Technology has made production easy. What once took months of design and development time can now be created in days, even hours. Rapid tools and easy-to-use templates make it easy for practically anyone to create a course these days. The elearning marketplace is filled with promises of "templates that make your elearning sizzle!"—supplemented by game shows, interactive exercises, and lots and lots of CCBB .

But we can't blame the template and tool vendors. Instead we need to look at the producers of these programs. Designers who are seduced by the glamour and hear that games and interactivity make learning fun and take that at face value. Designers who think more is more and pile on content layer on content layer. Designers who don't understand the basics of effective instructional design are committing what Clark Quinn of Quinnovation calls "instructional design malpractice." Kevin Thorn, an instructional designer and course producer at AutoZone, blames the deluge of CCBB on lack of real design skills. He says people are "hiding content behind CCBB because there's no real design (instructionally or otherwise)." It's time, he urges us, to stand up and defend our craft.

Bling Isn't Inherently Bad

Some bling may not be too bad. Research on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation indicates that simple learning games can help with perseverance. That is, by creating a simple game out of a quiz, learners may be more likely to stick with it. This is great if the game is being used for declarative knowledge—facts and information that you want the learner to memorize . Simulation games play a role in motivation and learning. "When trainees are intrinsically motivated, they exert more effort to learn the material, enjoy learning more, and are more likely to apply the material outside the game environment." (Ely and Sitzmann, 2011). Although we're not necessarily equating CCBB with simulation games, there may be something to dressing up content—even a multiple-choice quiz—if it may have the effect of intrinsically motivating your learners.

Ely and Sitzmann concluded that simulation games were effective and trainees learned more when "the simulation game was a supplement to other instructional methods rather than standalone instruction." Karl Kapp, professor of instructional design and technology and Bloomsburg University, notes this could have implications for designers who create standalone quizzes (perhaps game style) that are outside of the context of additional instruction. The better approach would be to include one within the course of instruction.

The Dark Side of Bling

CCBB design shines and sparkles wildly in the sun. These are the programs that make people say "cool" and "wow" or "hey, check that out!" But there's a dark cloud to all this sparkle; all that glitters is not gold. Too much clicking can lead to learner fatigue, is distracting to the learner, and doesn't promote deeper understanding

So let's dig a little deeper into the dark side of the bling. Quinn says in spite of the perseverance factor discussed above, "tarted-up drill and kill is still lipstick on a pig." Drill and kill is one way to get learners to practice your content. And practice, is good, right? Well, not always.

When we force learners to practice without context, they've memorized facts but may not be able to apply them correctly in context. This is why Jeopardy-type games are, for the most part, useless as learning tools. Unless you're a noted game show host, your day job isn't working at a Jeopardy board. We need to provide more contextual opportunities for drill exercises that will help the learner both retain and apply the knowledge they are practicing.

Kapp in Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning (2007), makes an argument for casual games as a keystone of learning, but reminds us that we need to write good questions first:

"Well-written, multiple-choice questions teach and assess knowledge within the context of a game. Poor questions simply allow the gamer to play the game without learning. Work to develop effective questions to force learning and require learners to think as they play the game." (p.71)

Distracting to the Learner

Will Thalheimer has written on the "seductive-details effect," and points to research in the late 1980s and 1990s that found "that the addition of interesting yet unimportant augmentations can divert learners from learning the main points that are being made" (2004). The same argument could be made about the flamboyant classroom instructor who inspires and excites the classroom, earning rave reviews, but failing to effect any lasting behavioral change in the learners or impart any lasting knowledge. You know the type: They care more about their performance than yours. Tom Kuhlmann, VP of Community at Articulate, writes about designers who add background audio when the course content is boring: "Guess what? If the course is boring, adding audio will only make it boring and danceable. You're best served to spend your time designing the right type of course and spending less time looking for ways to 'jazz it up'" (2009).

How to Tell if it's Seductive and Distracting

As you look at the design of an individual page, step back and blur your eyes a little bit. If you've been working closely on a project, you might not "see" it anymore. Now, take a look at the screen and see where your eye lands first. Is it the flashing Next button in the bottom right corner? Or is it the important content bit at the center of the screen? Ask an objective outsider to take a look, too. See it through their eyes and pay attention to what they notice. Pilot your program with some test learners. Find out what stuck with them at the end of the program—check in with them immediately afterwards, one week, three weeks. See what they remember and what they can actually apply. If all they can remember is the jazzy tune and a few new dance moves, well, unless you are the inhouse elearning designer at a dance school, then you've got a problem.

So is No Bling Better? And What About the Clicking Part?

By all means, don't take this to mean that elearning shouldn't look good. Learners may judge a book by its cover and dismiss your program in the first few moments if they don't think it looks professional or polished.

Extending your corporate brand identity into your elearning is one simple way you can do this. Does your elearning represent your company? Are you incorporating the color scheme and logo in a strong enough way—one that sends the message that this is our program and we're proud of it?

What about your LMS? At Kineo, where I work, we love using Moodle and Totara as an LMS solution for our clients, not only because of the great features and the fact that it's open source, but always because we can make it look like almost anything. Ever had someone look at your LMS and say "That's an LMS?"

Here are a few examples of client Moodles we've created. They lead with simple clean designs that carry over the client's branding and visual identity. Easy to navigate, but colorful and pretty to look at just the same.

Attractive design and visuals do indeed draw the learner in. Incorporating good graphics and strong visual identity will add great value to your elearning program.

Read Part 2: Tips for good graphical design, working with text, and creating instant interactivity.

About the Author

Cammy Bean is the VP of Learning Design for Kineo, a global organization specializing in elearning solutions. Bean has worked as an eLearning instructional designer since the mid-'90s (way back in the olden days, before we even called it elearning!) In addition to the occasional novel, she likes to read books on instructional design and learning theory. Mom to three kids, five fish and one lizard, she lives in Massachusetts . You can contact her on Twitter @cammybean or through her blog, Learning Visions.


Clark, R. and Mayer, R. (2007). E-learning and the Science of Instruction, San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Ely, K. and Sitzmann, T. (2011) "A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games." Retrieved March 31, 2011, from Advanced Distributed Learning.

Kapp, Karl M. (2007). Gadgets, Games, and Gizmos for Learning. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Kuhlmann, Tom. (December 2009). "Should You Add Background Audio to Your E-Learning Courses? Retrieved March 31, 2011, from The Rapid eLearning Blog.

Quinn, Clark. "Clark Quinn on ID Malpractice." Kineo Audio Interview. Retrieved March 31, 2011, from Kineo.

Thalheimer, W. (April 2004). "Bells, Whistles, Neon, and Purple Prose: When interesting words, sounds, and visuals hurt learning and performance— a review of the seductive-augmentation research. "Retrieved March 31, 2011, from Work Learning Research


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