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The Science Behind What Makes an eLearning Design Effective

Design is not accidental; it is based on intentions and choices. It is inevitably great to put your heart into designing a course that looks "nice", but at the same time, you must ensure that your design is functional and effective. A beautiful design would be of no use if it were not able to communicate your message to the target audience.

If you learn the science behind good eLearning design and use it properly, you will be able to connect with your learners, make them care about the subject and even change what they do and how they think.

What Makes a Good eLearning Design?

Color, fonts, contrast, imagery, and shapes (and more) all factor into the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of a good eLearning design. Let's take a look:

1) Let the design create the flow

Your eLearning course is not the time to take an Avant Grade approach to design. The elements on your screens shouldn’t compete with information, but should, instead, point your audience in the right direction. 

Create a Strong Visual Hierarchy 

Your screen's organization should create a visual hierarchy, meaning it will lead learners’ eyes from the first thing they should see to the next in the proper order. 

The concept of visual hierarchy is rooted in the Gestalt theory of perception. According to this theory, the human brain is wired to make sense of the world by ordering and structuring diverse elements into an organized, logical whole.

When designing your screens, you should consider these points:

  • Start by creating a focal point for the most important element, then use spacing, sizing and shapes to lead to the next most important things. Watch out: Without a focus point, the learner’s attention gets scattered easily as the eyes move all over the screen without resting on anything particular.
  • Use large, rich, and eye-catching fonts to make headings, sub-headings, and critical pieces of information stand out.
  • Make clear sections. Sections can be created with boxes and frames, headings, colors or anything else that clearly defines what goes with what. 
  • Let white space do the work. Sometimes less really is better. White space helps define sections and gives your learners a kind of visual breather. White space is a design element all on its own, and it doesn’t even have to be white! Blank space would be another word for it.
  • Images and graphics should be oriented in a way that directs the reader's attention inward and onward, never away from the screen or your content.
  • Make it easy to read: Your learners are here to read through the content in your course. So don’t make them strive hard just to make out what’s written on the screen. 
    • Make your font easy on the eyes (nothing too elaborate or cartoonish).
    • Don’t cramp your words or space them out too much.
    • Style your headlines and subheadings the same throughout the course to give a sense of unity and visual cues.
    • Utilize bullet points (Kinda like how this list is bulleted out. Clever, huh? *wink*)
    • Put related information and elements closer to help learners see them as connected and so they don’t have to waste any additional energy trying to pull them together in their mind.

Read more: Design Tools to Build Visual Hierarchy in eLearning

2) Use contrast to highlight what's important

When you want your viewers’ eyes to be drawn to a particular element within other elements, you can use techniques to make it stand out. A very basic version of creating contrast is when you bold a phrase within a paragraph. Your eye is instantly drawn to that difference. You can also do this with shape, size, typography and a variety of other elements.

  • Don’t overuse Contrast: Obviously highlighting out an entire paragraph isn’t a great idea, nor is using multiple contrasting elements on the same screen. Emphasize the most important element only!
  • Before Using Contrast: Before contrasting elements in your screen, ask yourself what you want to accomplish? What do I want my learners to see or interact with? Once you’ve answered that, take your primary element and put in a bright color to contrast it with a darker or more dull background or make it bigger to grab attention immediately.

Important note: Whatever you do, don’t be that designer who doesn’t contrast their text enough from their background. It’s not year 2000, and whatever cool look you get is not worth how hard it is to read! Follow these rules for better text visibility.

Read more: Understand These 10 Principles of Good Design Before You Start Your Next eLearning Project


3) Use Images that Convey Emotions

As purveyors of instructional information, eLearning designers can usually get the rational side of things down, but you also need to engage your audience’s emotions. You can often succeed in this by using the right images.

Example: When you buy a new smartphone, the technical features are likely a big part of what draws you in. The amount of memory, screen resolution, camera pixels, etc. are all relevant. However, for most of us, what gets us to buy is what these aspects can do for our lives.

More memory means I can save more of the things I love, and a better camera means I can have nicer pictures of my loved ones and big life events. Therefore, it’s important to include information about this and images that convey what the phone will do for me.

Speaking to your learners’ emotions will help them tune in and relate to the info which will also make them want to continue learning and retaining what they’ve heard.

So, how do you choose images that will do this?

Let’s say you’re creating a financial course and you want to convey the importance of monetary security in retirement. Instead of choosing an image of a bank or money or a random landscape, you choose one of an older couple relaxing on a porch together. You could also go another route, and use an image of an older person still having to work at a crappy job or, worse, on the streets. Both images are far more effective at getting your audience’s attention over a random one of dollar signs.

When choosing an image, you need to ask what it’s saying. What feeling are you trying to provoke by using a particular image? Is the image relevant? Will it resonate with your audience?  Use Plutchik's Emotion Wheel to explore each of the eight primary emotions (and their combinations) to identify which are the best to use or emphasize in your courses.

Read more: Can You Really Change Behavior Using E-Learning Design? Yes!


4) Use shapes and icons to increase "scannability" of your screens

Since you won’t literally be able to stand next to your students and point at stuff, the next best thing is to use shapes and icons to point out info. This can be done with arrows as an obvious choice or with lines and other elements. This also helps control the speed and direction at which viewers go through the page.

Shapes and icons unclutter our focus, making it easier to skim through major ideas presented on a screen. The right use of shapes and icons allows the learner to easily grasp the basic ideas before reading through the material for further details.

In 2008, a Nielson Norman Study found that web visitors only read 20% of the text on the page. In late 2013, Slate asked Chartbeat to analyze its pages only to find that on average (on any website) most of the readers were not reading more than a few starting paragraphs of the text even reading through. This time around last year Tony Haile, CEO at Chartbeat discussed how 55% of the visitors spent less than 15 seconds being active on a page.

The problem is that people do not want to digest content at first sight. They want to skim them to determine if they’re worth the effort.

What these stats scream out is the need for visual content that could streamline the scanning process for the users. A long screen of text may bore a learner unless there is a visual break in the form of a shape or an icon that will instantly draw attention, making the text less intimidating.

This is where shapes and icons come in.  The use of shapes and icons helps organize content into a scannable and easily digestible form. This discourages distraction, and helps learners make sense of your content quickly.

Read more: Bring Your eLearning Designs to Life with Simple Shapes and Icons


5) Importance of color

Color is about more than just making your course look nice. On a basic level, you should use a harmonious color palette that works to enhance your information, not distract from it.

But, on a grander scale, you also need to consider the psychological factors involved with color. A study featured in Management Decision showed that 90% of quick decisions we make regarding products are based on color. These intuitive responses are some of the strongest we have and shouldn’t be ignored by designers.

Why are these reactions so strong? This largely has to do with our survival instincts, and our reactions are not conscious. It starts in our central nervous systems which respond to our basic needs for food and water along with a fear of danger. So, somewhere within certain colors and designs, something is triggering our responses to these things.

Colors also connect to emotions and culture along with being tied to certain seasons, holidays, weather, etc. For example, orange and black are highly recognizable as Halloween colors to Americans though these colors might not have the same significance for other cultures.

Overall, there isn’t one color or color scheme that is going to suit everything. You have to take your audience and course type into account to determine the appropriateness of color. 

Learn more about making good color and design choices here: The Complete Guide to Color Combinations in eLearning


Also read: A Look at Why Good Design Is Absolutely Critical for eLearning Success



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