Usability applies to any user interface, from a door handle to an airplane cockpit - or an eLearning course. It means, simply, how easy it is for users to get what they need out of the device. How usable your eLearning course is, is one of the most important factors that make or break your entire program. Usability is so critical in eLearning because every minute students spend learning to use the software is a minute out of their time spent learning the content.
What is Usability?
Usability is a measure of how well a specific user in a specific context can use a product/design to achieve a defined goal effectively, efficiently and satisfactorily.
If you are in the middle or just starting an eLearning course, before you go any further, ask yourself if you have covered the 5 E's of usability. Use these as guidelines or standards to make sure your course is as easy to use as you can make it.
This first item sounds simple: does the content convey everything it needs to, fully and accurately? Is the eLearning course doing what it is designed to do?
As basic as it sounds, it's easy for eLearning developers to miss an intermediate step that seems obvious to them, or, more commonly, they just focus on making the design attractive at a cost to content clarity. If a learner can't complete their task, it doesn't matter whether the rest of the experience was good or bad.
Rather than test only at the end, check throughout development that every course element works well, matches the storyboard, and is easy to follow. Chunked and easy to read content, as well as clear instructions all help learners get what they need out of a course. Also, check for relevance: does the content solve the users' main needs and questions?
While effectiveness describes whether tasks were able to be completed, efficiency describes instead ease of use, how quickly in time or actions a task can be completed.
As Susan Dray says, "If the user can't use it, it doesn't work."
Learners should use your material without difficulty. Efficient learning experiences respect the user’s intention. It encourages users to engage, discover, find, read or do whatever relevant action is necessary to accomplish learning goals. Common tasks should take only one or two keystrokes, or else they become unnecessarily time-consuming (and frustrating - see #3).
The key to efficiency is precision. Figure out what single goal your course is intended to achieve, and then pare off everything that doesn't directly contribute to that goal. Clear, easily navigable content groupings that follow a logical sequence are key, as is focus whenever possible on common, non-technical vocabulary.
Expert tip by Dmitry Fadeyev: What you really really need to do to make an interface efficient is to figure out what exactly the user is trying to achieve, and then let them do exactly that without any fuss.
Does the course appeal to the learner’s emotions? Does it grab AND KEEP their attention?
An eLearning course qualifies as engaging if it is enjoyable, interesting, or at least satisfying. It's how we can drive learners to take action through design. Studies show that people find a program easier to use if it is more aesthetically pleasing - even compared to an otherwise identical one.
It's important not to impair efficiency, of course, so focus instead on how you use design elements to boost engagement, for instance: fonts, color schemes, and white space. The goal is a clean and uncluttered visual design.
Make your course more desirable by paying attention to detail—from the language used to the effects produced by visual elements. In the text, strike a balance between formal and informal tone: "you" and "we" are more engaging than "customers" and "the Department of An Excruciatingly Long Name". The readability of content also influences in creating an engaging relationship between the learners and the interface.
Expert tip by Steven Bradley: "How a thing works is more important than how it looks, but how it looks will affect your perception about how it works."
Also read: Five Rules of Engagement All eLearning Designers Should Live By
4) Error Tolerance
The unattainable dream is for all courses to run perfectly and all learners to respond perfectly; however, human (and computer) errors continue to have their way. In a world where handling errors consumes 25-50% of a typical user's time, it is important to help students recover from errors more than to prevent them from ever making any. For example, simply adding a clear back button can assist learners.
Evaluations should explain not only that an answer is wrong, but why. On a more technical level, any error messages should be in plain language, clearly explaining the nature of the problem and a recommended solution. Avoid making errors irreversible; students should be able to return and correct their mistakes at any time. And always maintain flexibility.
5) Ease of Learning
In an ideal world, a well-designed eLearning course would be such that you use it once and then remember the process forever. Failing that, remembering it next time is a solid goal to set. It's important to make interfaces intuitive because the energy learners expend on a difficult interface is the energy they won't have to expend on the difficult topic; they're here to learn.
The goal is maximum learnability: each screen should help people learn. More than just being usable, a course should encourage students to learn by presenting material in a compelling manner. Build on students' interests or prior knowledge to create content that is easy to learn.
Focus on the familiar: don't add much at once, and give a clear explanation every time you do. Keep all options visible to reduce the number of things a student has to remember. Above all, don't change interface input: the same action should always have the same effect.