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Interface Design for Learning: An Interview with Dorian Peters

Instructional designer and author Julie Dirksen interviews Dorian Peters, author of Interface Design for Learning: Design Strategies for Learning Experiences, about the importance of interface design for learning, how it differs from typical web interface design, and some of her favorite learning interfaces.
Like this article? We recommend Julie Dirksen: What caused you to write Interface Design for Learning: Design Strategies for Learning Experiences?

Dorian Peters: For over a decade now I’ve been marvelling at the lack of information available for people like me who do interface design in the learning context. There are great resources on instructional design and web design, but not visual design for learning specifically.  Working at a research center means I came to see that the knowledge is out there, but hidden in other areas (like education research, human-computer interaction, instructional design, etc.)  So in 2012 I decided it was high time to bring all this knowledge together and make it accessible to the designers who could really use it. That’s when I took some time off work to write the book. My hope is that it will direct attention to the area in general, since the industry and learners stand to seriously benefit from better interface design for learning.

Julie: Who is the audience for your book?

Dorian: I always had two key audiences in mind: interface designers and instructional designers. From the beginning my number one audience was people who, like me, do graphic/multimedia/interface/interaction design at places like ed tech companies, in corporate learning, at universities, or at design studios.  But many instructional designers out there are also tasked with doing or evaluating visual design as part of their role and would benefit just as much from this knowledge, so I always kept them in mind as well.

Julie: What do you think are some of the interface challenges that are different for learning interfaces, as opposed to more general types of interfaces?

Dorian: While user-centered design is often about supporting task completion, Learner-centered design is really about transforming the user, and designing for a changing user is an interesting challenge. Also, while interface design focuses on user goals (usually in aid of business goals) learning interfaces have to support learning goals, which may or may not be fully understood by the user. These learning goals can exist at many different levels too, from subtask, task, activity, class, and course to degree or career.

At a practical level, this means attention to cognitive load is far more important for learning interfaces than it is for other interfaces. While a user can follow a well-designed task flow without much thought, you can’t really learn anything without much thought. Some effort (ideally “hard fun” as many put it) is required. That’s why facilitating focus is so critical for learning interfaces.

Finally, in interface design we measure task completion and work to reduce the time it takes.  In learning, the learner has to learn something, which occurs inside their head, often at their own pace and in their own way.  This means we can’t be as prescriptive about the user experience in learning. We have to embrace the fact that each learner brings unique un-designable variables to the table (things like prior knowledge, social resources, location constraints, etc.), and these will all be part of what shapes their experience. We can design optimal conditions for learning, but we can’t design the experience itself.

Julie: What are some of the general principles of interface design that are frequently unknown or ignored by learning designers?

Dorian: One of the key things that can derail effective learning interfaces is the great temptation to add decoration in order to “engage”. We think, “Let’s add this flashy animation or some more colors to keep them interested”. The problem here is that in doing so, you reduce their performance. Everything you add to a learning experience, from visual content to novel interaction right down to color, will contribute to their cognitive load. Any cognitive load learners spend on processing the interface is no longer available for learning.   

You may have noticed how many websites for successful technology companies like Apple, Dropbox, and EverNote are pared right down visually. Ten years ago they would have filled their homepages with features and flashing banners, but now they’re often little more than a simple image and big button on a white background. Even the graphically rich sites that have been successful, like Pinterest, Instagram and Flickr, have done well because they do little to compete with their core content. Good designs today help us focus, and this is critical if we need to learn something.  

That doesn’t mean you can’t have beautiful and sometimes quite rich interfaces – in fact, sometimes visual detail is critical for realistic training – it’s just a question of knowing why you’re adding that extra visual information and whether or not it’s to support the learning.

Julie: What are one or two really interesting pieces of research related to interface design for learning?

Dorian: One really interesting research study that really brings home the value of minimalism is a study by Godwin and Fisher in which they compared two variations on a kindergarten classroom. One set-up was the typical highly decorated variety (artwork and posters all over the walls, etc.) and the second was a minimalist set-up in which these decorations were removed.

What they found was that children’s attentional focus and learning scores were better in the minimalist classroom. Now of course my first reaction was “How sad!” An empty kindergarten classroom felt wrong somehow. I like to refer to this study because it’s a great example of the tensions we have to resolve as designers. The study, of course, highlights the powerful impact that extra visual information has on learning. But it also illustrates how design for learning is about more than test scores.

My emotional reaction stemmed from the fact that kindergarten is about so much more than math and literacy. It’s about supporting kids in developing self-confidence and socio-emotional skills, and wonderful kindergarten teachers support these things by putting artwork on display, hanging up team-built creations (look what we did!) and turning the classroom into a space that is co-created by everyone in this little community. Now to me, that is an incredibly valid trade-off for slight variations in scores. So this study, at once, drives home the importance of minimalism for learning gains, while highlighting the point that design is balance. Your design decisions should always be based on what you’re trying to achieve, and sometimes social connectedness, personal development, or other types of learning goals will trump other considerations.

Julie: You talk in the book about reducing extraneous cognitive load—basically making the interface as easy to use as possible. Later though, you talk about desirable difficulty—how you may want to "make things harder" for a learner. Can you explain why you might want to do both those things in a learning interface?

Dorian: Learning doesn’t happen without cognitive effort; it’s the unhelpful or “extraneous” variety of cognitive effort that we’re aiming to eliminate from a learning experience. So, if you're doing a math problem, your cognitive load should be taken up by the problem, but if it’s being spent on trying to figure out how to enter a number symbol onscreen, or by a distracting but interesting story about a mathematician in a sidebar, then that’s extraneous.

People might think visual designers just want to make things easy (as in Steve Krug’s usability classic Don’t Make Me Think). But actually, this is really just shorthand for “Don’t make me think about the interface because I need to be thinking about the task,” which in our case is the learning task. It’s not that we want to turn our learner’s brains off, it’s that we don’t want to waste them on things that don’t support the learning.   The mere operation of the interface shouldn’t be the cause of irrelevant challenge. Any challenge should be designed in deliberately to support the learning itself.

In general it will be instructional designers or teachers that apply the desirable difficulty. But every once in a while there will be interface design decisions that favor learning over ease-of-use, so it’s important for visual designers to be aware of these principles, too.

For example, for a software program designed to help students improve their essay writing skills, we used an algorithm to automatically provide feedback to learners that indicated possible breaks in narrative flow between paragraphs. Now writing is fairly subjective stuff—so this feedback wasn’t meant to be a pass or fail indicator, but to trigger reflection: “Could I rewrite this to improve flow?” The trouble is, we displayed the feedback by inserting a lightening bolt icon between two paragraphs below a certain flow threshold. Instead of triggering reflection, students took the lightening bolt as a concrete error. They would try to make small adjustments to get the icon to disappear. They were missing a learning opportunity because of an icon. As a result we changed things around. We added a slider bar that let the students themselves control the threshold at which icons would appear. Slide left and get more, slide right and get fewer. This made the feedback mechanism transparent and the relativeness of it very clear. This small change did not make the interface any easier to use, but what it did do was improve student understanding and learning in a critical way.

Julie: What criteria do you use to evaluate a learning interface?

Dorian: Initially, I’m typically interested in how well interfaces stand up to those tried and tested guidelines like Nielsen’s usability guidelines or principles of good information architecture or visualization. Of course these aren’t learning specific, so to provide the field with a useful tool, one of the things I did in my book was to compile a list of heuristics specific to the design of learning interfaces. These are essentially 11 core principles, at the same level of granularity as Nielsen’s list, but tailored to interface design for learning.  

These sorts of criteria can support professional reviews but, of course, the bottom line criteria will be learning gains. How you evaluate those will depend on the project. When I’ve worked for eLearning companies we were seldom given license to test the outcomes of our learning programs after delivery. In the university environment evaluation is built into the system. We can run pre- and post-tests, look at grades, and see student satisfaction surveys, etc. To specifically target interface design, technologies themselves can be a great resource. We can get log files from LMSs that tell us only 30% of learners watched the video, or that all those who engaged with the virtual world did better on the exam. You might even be able to run A/B tests on specific interface elements. Clearly, evaluation is something that remains tricky in eLearning for all sorts of reasons, and I hope among the things a new professional community in IDL will do is share experiences about evaluation.

Julie: What resources (aside from your book) would you recommend for people who want to know more?

Dorian: It might sound gauche to recommend your interviewer’s book, but actually Design for How People Learn happens to be a uniquely accessible introduction to those core principles of instructional design that works for non-experts, so I would recommend it to the visual design audience, most of whom lack instructional design knowledge.

On the other hand, for the audience of instructional designers I would recommend design foundations like Nielsen and Loranger’s Prioritizing Web Usability, and Don Norman’s classics like The Design of Everyday Thingsand Emotional Design – two books that can really change your whole perspective on design.

For both groups, I would say Mayer and Clark’s eLearning and the Science of Instruction is fundamental as it’s one of the few books that gives significant attention to visual design for learning.  I would also recommend any resources by Connie Malamed like her eLearning Coach blog, and her book Visual Language for Designers. She is one of the few industry leaders with extensive experience in both visual and instructional design so her work is a great resource.

Aside from books, there are also a few excellent MOOCs and blogs out there. There are really too many resources to mention, but I try and keep an updated list on my blog.

Julie: One of the concepts that I find really interesting is the expertise reversal effect. Can you explain what that is, and why a learning interface designer might need to understand that concept?

Dorian: “The expertise reversal effect” is a really good reminder of why we should never apply design strategies blindly, and why we need to do user research. The effect basically refers to situations when what is true for novice learners is not true for experts.

For example, the research on animation shows that still images are better for learning difficult concepts. Specifically, weather patterns and science processes have been found to be harder to learn when delivered via animation, but this effect reverses for experts. Meteorologists are weather map experts and know what to focus on, so they can learn from animated maps where novices are overloaded. There’s a similar effect for segmenting video as well. At the end of the day, experts know what to focus on, and novices need much more simplicity and support.  So respect the classic design tenet—know your users!

Julie: What are some of the main considerations that people should take into account when they design interfaces for social learning?

Dorian: Interface designers should consider things that foster learner participation, social presence, and a sense of community. Interface design choices can help in all these areas. In a general sense, the style of a design can help establish boundaries and expectations – a professional “look and feel” helps communicate this is not the place to post your drunken party photos. At a detailed level, design cues (like badges and stats) help motivate participation. For example, interface cues in discussion forums that show a user’s authority (how much they’ve posted) and ratings of helpfulness can both boost participation significantly.

Another key point is the power of design to convey a sense of social presence. We learn more when we feel other people are around (even if they’re not synchronously). A sense of social presence is so influential to learning that even choosing to write text in first person improves learning outcomes! Interface design can increase a sense of social presence by encouraging learners to upload images to represent themselves, by visualizing the network of people in the community, and by allowing users to create rich identities. The Reading Eggs program for primary school kids has a menu with buildings and whenever you enter one, there are always “other players” walking around in the same space. Of course these are just computer generated, but to the child learner they are peers so they never feel alone in this space. They feel part of a vibrant community that is socially validated and shared.    

Julie:  How important is it for learning designers to understand visual design?

Dorian: If you’re a learning designer responsible for visual design then it’s pretty important! Otherwise you risk undermining all your hard work with obstructive visual design. But even if you work with visual designers, it’s still important for at least two reasons: 1) many visual designers still don’t have that learning background, so you’ll be better placed to guide them and make suggestions that are well-founded and 2) you’ll want to be able to judge their work based on more than just personal opinion. So while you don’t have to be an expert, having some core principles under your belt can give you ground to stand on whether you’re engaging in visual design yourself or working with those that do.

Julie: What is one of your favorite learning interfaces, and what do you love about it?

Dorian: There are so many delightful examples that it’s hard to choose, and I include some in my book. Project Noah, the Big History Project, and learning apps for kids come to mind. I remember being taken by the Toca Doctor app for its restrained but vibrant color palette and clear instructions that required no text.  I’ve also been encouraged by the improvements being made to the LMS experience by some of the MOOC providers like Coursera, who’s interface is uncluttered and easy to grasp at a glance.

But I’m probably most excited by the potential for games to provide interfaces to learning. One of the most moving learning experiences I’ve had to date was playing “Half the Sky”. It’s a free Facebook app based on a book and social movement supporting the empowerment of women and girls. The visuals are delightful and the game does this astounding job of bringing home serious social issues in a context that is engaging and even fun. I played with my son and we both learned so much about day-to-day life for many women in developing countries in a way that was surprisingly empowering, and for him addictive! (He kept begging me to let him play.) Half the Sky really impressed me because I felt it transforming me and getting at my sense of resilience and capacity to make change, as well as teaching me new things in the traditional sense. Check it out and be inspired.

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