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Want better courses?
just add usability...

By Lisa Neal, Michael Feldstein / August 2006

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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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    Michael Feldstein
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