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eLearning Learning
February 19, 2024

Improving Usability in Learning Experience Design

The user experience is more than just usability. In this episode, learning experience and design consultant Connie Malamed shares practical methods for improving the effectiveness of eLearning.



Show Notes:

Connie Malamed shares tips for learning experience design including:

  • Importance of User Experience (UX): User experience is the totality of a person's interaction with a product or learning event. This includes factors like engagement, satisfaction, and even support from managers and others who contribute to a positive learner experience.
  • Common Mistakes in Usability: One prevelant mistake is the failure to use interviews and surveys to better understand the learner, their need for the learning and how they will apply it. 
  • Think Aloud Method: Connie introduces the Think Aloud method as an effective and inexpensive approach to gather learner feedback. By observing individuals as they perform specific tasks and express their thoughts aloud, designers gain insights into user experiences, preferences, and potential challenges.
  • Creating User Personas: Developing user personas is a valuable practice in instructional design. While some critics argue about potential stereotyping, Connie suggests breaking the audience into subgroups and using personas to humanize the approach. This method helps designers understand their audience's characteristics and needs.
  • Tools for Improved Usability: Connie recommends tools borrowed from user experience design and design thinking. These include personas, empathy maps, journey maps, and storyboards. These tools contribute to a more inclusive and accessible design process, enhancing the overall usability of eLearning projects.

Visit Connie's eLearning Coach website

Powered by Learning earned an Award of Distinction in the Podcast/Audio category from The Communicator Awards and a Silver Davey Award for Educational Podcast. The podcast is also named to Feedspot's Top 40 L&D podcasts and Training Industry’s Ultimate L&D Podcast Guide.


Susan Cort:The user experience is critical in making learning successful. The UX of learning design is big. It covers all of it. One of the benefits to thinking about user experience design from the start is it helps us maintain motivation for the learners. It can reduce frustration and friction with the learning experience.

Connie Malamed: And it creates a positive affect in the learner. And all of those things are important to learning according to research. That's Connie Malamed, Learning Experience Design Consultant, Mentor, Author, International Speaker, and Founder of Mastering Instructional Design. Connie joins us to share best practices on usability and learning experience design. Next, on Powered by Learning.

Announcer: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. d'Vinci's approach to learning is grounded in 30 years of innovation and expertise. We use proven strategies and leading technology to develop solutions that empower learners to improve quality and boost performance.

Susan Cort: Welcome to Powered by Learning. I'm your host, Susan Cort, and today I'm joined by d'Vinci President Mason Scuderi and our guest, Connie Malamed, who is the force behind the elearningcoach.com website and podcast, and the founder of the Mastering Instructional Design community. Hi, Connie.

Connie Malamed: Hi, Susan. Thanks for having me.

Mason Scuderi: Thanks for joining us Connie.

Connie Malamed: I'm looking forward to it.

Susan Cort: It's great to see you again, Connie. It's, it's great to see you again. Connie, you've been a guest on Powered by Learning before, and we're so excited to talk to you again. Of course, you're a longtime partner of ours at d'Vinci, but let's get started by telling our listeners a little bit about your journey with the e-Learning coach and mastering Instructional Design.

Connie Malamed: Okay, well, it's really hard to believe this, but I started the e-Learning Coach website. I started blogging in 2009.

Susan Cort: Hmm.

Connie Malamed: Then I started the podcast in 2013, but it's only once a month, so not [00:01:00] the same type of pressure that most people face. And after years of working with clients and writing articles and doing the podcast, I realized that there were just so many people who needed a good foundation in instructional design. So four years ago, pre pandemic. I started the mastering instructional design membership community, and there I teach all kinds of courses related to instructional design. The exciting part is there are so many aspects to instructional design. We're going to be talking about one of them today, usability.

Connie Malamed: So, um, never bored.

Susan Cort: and we're never bored talking to you. You have such great insights to share, so thanks for coming on the podcast again.

Connie Malamed: I am really happy to be here.

Mason Scuderi: Yeah, many years of experience and we're excited to hear from you. to help us get warmed up in talking about usability and, and learning experience design, uh, let's start with your definition of usability. I.

Connie Malamed: Okay, so [00:02:00] my definition of usability is taken from usability experts, and it's a measure of how well a product can be used by an individual in a particular context to achieve a goal. So we're thinking about when about unit usability, when we think about usability, we're thinking can the learner or user reach the goal? Is it, is the product easy to use? Those are the kinds of things that affect usability.

Mason Scuderi: Yeah, I feel like usability is a term too that's often More associated with, uh, the commercial side of, uh, of technology and, um, creating a product to sell. You know, did a customer have a good usability experience, uh, when they, when they checked out? Uh, but it's also, uh, important to recognize that it's a part of our learning design as well.

Connie Malamed: It really is. And when we [00:03:00] think about our learning events and interventions as products, it helps us be able to wrap our heads around their usability. I.

Mason Scuderi: So what is it about thinking about the user experience, uh, from your perspective that makes it important to include in learning design?

Connie Malamed: So use the user experience really refers to the totality of a person's experience with a product or maybe a learning event, and then usability is one part of the user experience. But also the kinds of things we're thinking about is, is the product satisfying? Uh, is it engaging? Does it have few errors? And in terms of the total experience, if we really want to look at it big picture, we might be thinking about how is someone told that they need to take some, [00:04:00] let's say, compliance training. What's it like to log into the LMS we're talking about e-learning, how smooth and fun of an experience or engaging of an experience, is it when they're going through an e-learning course and perhaps what kind of support are they getting from managers? Um, what kinds of discussions are they having about what they've learned? How are they able to apply it? The UX of learning design is big. It covers all of it. And one of the things that, one of the reasons that, and benefits, uh, I'm gonna start that one over. Pick up. One of the benefits to thinking about user experience design from the start is it helps us. Maintain motivation for the learners. It can reduce frustration and [00:05:00] friction with the learning experience, and it creates a positive affect in the learner. And all of those things are important to learning according to research.

Mason Scuderi: So we've all probably had our own run-ins with bad, uh, user experience design, whether it's, know, checking out, buying something online or, you know, a parking garage or some other, some other place. But in the lens of learning, um, I. What are some common mistakes that us as learning professionals and instructional designers might make when it comes to usability?

Connie Malamed: Mm. Well, from the very start, not getting to know your users through interviews, surveys, failure to spend time with them it nearly impossible to create a product that meets their needs because we don't know who they are. And sometimes this is not the fault of the learning designer. Sometimes the system that they're working in [00:06:00] doesn't give them the option. To talk to learners. In fact, I've been in situations where clients thought that they knew more than people for whom we were making training, and that's a problem. Um, another issue might be failure to understanding the context of the work that's being done. For example, I set out one time to build a course for nurses. and you know, the specs were that I was going to put audio in the course and then by spending time with the learners, I discovered that these nurses are on a floor where they have to serve patients. So none of the computers had audio cards.

Mason Scuderi: Wow.

Connie Malamed: So that's, we really want to understand the context and I think another problem, and, and this all really goes back to design and development, you know, having, uh, not having type of [00:07:00] process you can test and get feedback from learners then make revisions and test, you know, perhaps one more time, all of those can really improve usability and all of those, when there's a failure to do them, um, are common mistakes.

Susan Cort: Yeah, we always hear about focusing on the learner. I'm hearing you say that maybe this is a mistake some people are doing in kind of providing, uh, training that they think people need without really talking to the learner first.

Connie Malamed: Right, because so often what some higher up who may not be in tune with the people think it's a performance problem. That's not the problem at all. I, I frequently will hear from someone after a subject matter expert has told me. Perhaps giving me an example that I can use in a scenario, the person will say, well, actually that never happens. What really happens is, you know this they know. They know it all. You know

Susan Cort: Well, it's, it's good [00:08:00] advice not to just throw training at a problem until you really understand the problem. That's for sure.

Connie Malamed: Yeah.

Mason Scuderi: Connie, do you think creating user personas is is a good way to combat that?

Connie Malamed: I really do. Now, there are some people who don't like personas who think that perhaps they stereotype or generalize. So I think if you really want to start doing personas, it's a good idea too. Um, be aware of the criticism so you can make sure that. You're not stereotyping. I think it's helpful to break the audience up into subgroups and have multiple personas if you have time. Um, I don't think you need to, uh, spend, you know, lots and lots of money on developing personas, but I think that it's great way to humanize. Approach. Um, and for people who aren't aware of what personas are, I guess I should have defined that first, it's a fictionalized representation of a person or a subgroup of your audience [00:09:00] that has the characteristics that are very common throughout the audience, such as if we're talking about managers that most of them may have degrees in, um, business, that kind of thing.

Mason Scuderi: Another method that you've mentioned on your podcast to get to know your user base is called the Think Aloud method. Uh, how does that work?

Connie Malamed: The think aloud method is really a wonderful, and it can be an inexpensive approach. So what you do is you provide a product to a participant. You request that they perform specific tasks. And here's the tricky part. You asked if they speak their thoughts aloud as they perform the task while you're observing them, and you observe their actions, their gestures, their facial expressions, you're recording it all. So possibly taking [00:10:00] notes so that you can go back and look at it. Now, a lot of people have trouble. They're not used to thinking aloud. So it's great to, at first demonstrate what it's like so the, um, the interviewee or the observer would demonstrate, think the thinking aloud approach, and that really helps.

Susan Cort: How have you seen that work, Connie, and and, and work that you've created? How has it made a difference?

Connie Malamed: Well, one experience that comes to mind. Was, I was working with a client who wanted to do something really cutting edge and she didn't want to put a next button in an e-learning course. We were making, um, it was to study for an exam, a high stakes exam, and I just wasn't sure about not putting the next button in there. It seemed like we were going through [00:11:00] contortions. Just to not put the next button in there, even though I totally get it, nobody wants to go. Next, next, next, next. So I completely understood it. So I said, why don't we just observe a few people do think aloud it was done remotely, and see what they, what, how they experience it. within one minute of looking at the interface, the user is saying, let's see, I'm looking for the next button. I'm looking for the next button. I don't see the next button. Maybe I should click this button. And she must have spent several minutes confused and frustrated. So then of course my client oh, well let's put the next button in there better

Susan Cort: but better to find that out then than after you've done the course. Right.

Connie Malamed: Oh my gosh. It would've co, it would've wreaked havoc, you know, to, to design it the other way. And you know, the thing is when we're working [00:12:00] together and collaborating, it's like no one has an ego in it. We all just wanna do the best thing. So it doesn't matter, you know, we're not thinking in terms of right or wrong.

Connie Malamed: We're thinking what's best for this user. So it's when I work with people, I think of us as a group mind. You know, there's no one individual contributing. And it was great because everybody wanted to do what was best for the learner.

Mason Scuderi: It sounds like a really effective way and in a really rich way. When you, when you think about observing someone going through the experience, perhaps you've got a video camera or two, maybe you're tracking mouse movements. Uh, that sounds really great. Sounds like there's a lot of outputs that come from that that can drive insights. what if you don't have the, the budget for that? Does that take think aloud completely off the table, or are there any more budget friendly approaches that you can.

Connie Malamed: Well, that's interesting that you mentioned that because. I interviewed two researchers from Penn State, and that's a one of, on one of my podcasts who were, um, did the [00:13:00] think aloud method and wrote a paper about it. For their new learning management system and they really had a setup. They had two cameras, you know, they were observing everything. They did research, collected data. I mean, it was a true research project, but the way I'll do it is very inexpensive. I'll just set someone up with something like a Zoom call or, or a similar approach. They share their screen so I can see what they're doing and they talk and I can observe, you know, you can get that Second window of the person who's speaking. And, um, it really only costs the time to figure out the questions, probably run the questions by someone else to say are, are these clear? And then, um, to actually do the think aloud test. So that's not very expensive. But there are, there is even a, an even cheaper way if you're really in a rush because In an ideal world, we're not [00:14:00] rushed, but the reality is we can have awful deadlines. Just grab a family member, a friend, or a colleague, and ask them to take a look at it and think aloud. That can frequently show up the most obvious errors.

Mason Scuderi: Well, that's great to know that there's a variety of different options and we can, we forward with think aloud, uh, no matter what our budget. Well, are there any drawbacks to the think aloud method that you've experienced?

Connie Malamed: I don't know if I've experienced so much, but the research talks about, first of all, people feel uncomfortable thinking aloud. And I, I get that. In fact, um, years ago before there were, uh, mice devices as input devices. Before they had mice or mouses, um, we pronounce it. Um, I was observed, I was doing a little work [00:15:00] for a company and I was observed using a mouse. And the first time you used a mouse, I don't know if you can remember this, um, I was all over the screen and it was embarrassing, so, and they were recording me. even worse would be someone getting an insight into how you think. I mean, that would be truly embarrassing. I understand why people feel uncomfortable. So this is where you give them a whole talk and say, we're not judging you, we're not even interested in really You as a person, we just want to get feedback on the product and improve the product. Then you prompt them, um, if they forget to talk about it, and again, you demonstrate it. Um, then there's the expense.

Connie Malamed: If you're going to go all out and do the two camera prob, you know, the two cameras set up. So those are probably the only negatives I can [00:16:00] think of.

Susan Cort: It sounds like there's a lot more to gain from doing something like this. We all get so close to the work that we do that it seems like an important step just to pause and make sure that what you're thinking actually is gonna resonate with your learners.

Connie Malamed: I agree, and that's why, um, I think prototypes are so great. So yes. Prototyping or making a demonstration of the object of the product. Let me do that one again. And that's why I think prototypes are so important. And for those who aren't familiar with prototypes, they're a demo or some type of demonstration or short version of product. And those are the kinds things you can test, uh, in your think aloud. Testing

Mason Scuderi: well, Connie, it's, it's an exciting time for e-learning tools in general, but, um, are there any tools for instructional designers, uh, to use to help improve the usability of their projects.

Connie Malamed: Sure. And some of these were borrowing from the world of user experience design, which is kind of a little bit [00:17:00] more perhaps daring in, in what they use their research and, and from design thinking. So there are personas which we already spoke about. there are empathy maps, and if you just look up empathy maps, you will find 500 of them online. And those are visualization of how person thinks, feels, um, how they act and what they do. And you're kind of capturing all of that from interviews. So that's almost a next step of a persona are journey maps that originated, I believe, from following a customer's journey. So in our case, we're going to follow a learner's journey and notice all of the touch points where they come in touch with the system and where there are pains. So that's goes back to that idea of looking at the totality of the experience. Um, [00:18:00] I think it's helpful to think things through with storyboards. Not all learning experience designers use storyboards. They can help us create more inclusive and accessible designs, so we can think about that from the start. And that's all I can think of right now.

Mason Scuderi: Well, that's a great list and great to learn more about the think aloud method, uh, to get to know our users.

Susan Cort: Hey Connie, circling back to your Mastering Instructional Design Community you established, can you share some of the lessons that participants have learned from each other that would be of interest to our listeners, and maybe just information in general about how people could get involved.

Connie Malamed: Sure. Well, they can go to MasterID.com to get involved and when. You ask, um, what they've learned from each other. Are you talking about the courses that we've taken or just from our live events when people discuss those [00:19:00] kinds of things?

Susan Cort: Oh, I, I, I guess mostly from each other, but whatever you wanna share.

Connie Malamed: Well, sure. Um, I, that to me is the beauty of a live community because people can ask questions in the forum. Um, but where I think feel that it really happens where the community gels is during our live events, and we have two every month. Um, one is with usually a well-known speaker, and that speaker is very informal and it's kind of an intimate gathering. And then when I give live courses. Um, the questions that people ask are always something that the more introverted or shy people also want to know the answer to, but they won't speak up. So that's wonderful. Um, although there are a lot of newbies there and people who want to transition into the field, there are also people with many years of experience and they Since I'm just one person with one perspective, [00:20:00] I love the way they can contribute their experiences to whatever it is that I'm teaching. And I've had also had people say, you know, it's an international audience. And I've also had people say, I've never worked with, you know, in small group work. I've never worked with international before. it gives me a new perspective. So it's all just been Um, wonderful for me and for the members, so thanks for asking.

Susan Cort: Oh, it sounds great.

Mason Scuderi: Well, before you leave us, Connie, uh, tell us what's next in your journey with, uh, mastering Instructional Design and the eLearning Coach.

Connie Malamed: Um, right now I don't have any big changes in plans. I just plan to keep finding out. I just did a survey. What topics, interest I. And I plan to either get speakers on those topics or I already have and develop courses, maybe one or two sometimes, um, on occasion, an eight week course to help people [00:21:00] improve their instructional design skills.

Mason Scuderi: Awesome.

Susan Cort: Connie, we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today and share some of your, your newer insights with our listeners. And as always, thanks for being a, a friend of d'Vinci and a guest on Powered by Learning.

Connie Malamed: Thanks for having me. It's really been fun speaking with you.

Mason Scuderi

By Mason Scuderi, President

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