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Wait, what? Nice click-baity headline dude. Everybody knows interactivity is awesome. Learners want stuff to do, man! Drag stuff around, play a little game, uncover the gem behind the door. Interactivity is fun! Doing stuff keeps their attention!

I disagree. And you know what? I think a lot of today’s learners are with me. I wrote about this in a previous post, but it bears repeating.  I have a client in consumer electronics who serves thousands of learners each month. For about the last 6 months we’ve been testing design where we have zero interactivity. That’s right, none. No buttons to tap, nothing to toggle, no clever games to play. That doesn’t mean courses are boring and static – we use rich animation, clean iconography, and beautiful design to create something that’s still fun and delightful. The results have been very clear: NPS scores indicate 72% of learners would recommend the training, and – most critically – 78% of them would recommend the product we’re training on to customers. When surveyed, learners have told us things like:

  • “This is the best product based online learning I have ever seen. It has a beautiful setup with a very digestible learning method.”
  • “I love the way the information is concise and organized.  It’s very easy to absorb the info to pass along to the customer.”
  • “The layout of the entire elearning was rather pleasing, it wasn’t dry or boring. It was straight and to the point.”

When we stop defending interactivity and think of things from the other side of the screen, I think the story becomes pretty clear. Here are 5 ways interactivity is killing your elearning, and what we can do about it.


Interactivity is outdated

Back in the heyday of Flash, we all overindulged in the easy flexibility afforded us to do whatever we felt like. Build an entirely new interface! Make every button draggable! Animate animate animate! The sky was the limit. And there was a time in the mid-2000’s when this was a not-uncommon experience on websites, too (anybody remember the Flashy deliciousness that was 2Advanced?). But think about how our learners are using the web today. Facebook, for instance, continually studies their user experiences to elimate steps and stuff to do. To make it easier and easier to consume information. To minimize the number of screens, steps, and actions requires to share information. Eliminating friction minimizes frustration, making it more likely users will stay longer, do more, and come back more often. As elearning professionals we must consider what our learners are doing elsewhere in their digital lives and let that inform how we’re delivering our content.


It’s for you, not for them

I think one of the key reasons why learning designers inject a bunch of stuff to do into their courses is simply because they’re insecure about their content or their ability to deliver it. Not every paragraph or concept requires some little activity to “further understanding.” Is it well written? Well communicated? Rich with learning value? Then leave it alone.

I also think too may learning experience designers get lazy. Burying learning content some kind of game makes the learner work for it, which means we have to work less to develop undestanding. When we make everything a quiz or a choice or a toggle, we eliminate the opportunity for clear, authentic, delightful communication.

Finally, many learning initiatives are being driven by executives who just aren’t learning professionals. They’re driving from a perspective of personal experience or bias. As you can imagine, I’ve had resistance to my way of thinking about interactivity. I’ve had people scratch their head and ask flat out for “more stuff to do.” People are conditioned, especially from the razzle dazzle era of Flash, to simply equate “stuff to do” with “effective engagement,” even as modern digital experiences tell us users (and so, learners) are responding more to doing less. But when these executives hold the purse strings, and without adequate education on why there’s a better way, the same old elearning gets designed.


Interactivity increases cognitive load

Every time we introduce an interactive element or an unexpected or unusual interface device, we’re asking our learner to stop and think. Maybe just for milliseconds, but as those milliseconds add up they clutter the airwaves and lead to frustration. Why on earth would we intentionally do anything that could compromise the learning we initially set out to do?

A guy named John Sweller developed the Cognitive Load Theory in the 80’s. Part of Cognitive Load Theory examines 3 types of load: Intrinsic, Germaine, and Extrinsic. Connie Malemed over at The elearning Coach explained this nicely:

“Not all cognitive load is bad. But a problem arises when the load exceeds the capacity of the person processing it. So for example, what overloads the mind of the novice may not overload the mind of the expert. If the load is imposed by constructing new schemas and automating them, it will have positive effects on learning. This is germane cognitive load.

If the load is imposed by the nature of what is to be learned, including the number of information elements and their interactivity, it is known as intrinsic cognitive load.

Sometimes we can change the nature of the learning task, but not that often. People need to learn what they need to learn.

However, if the load is generated by the manner in which information is presented to learners, it is under the control of those who design learning experiences. Known as extraneous cognitive load, it is imposed by mental activities that can have a negative effect on learning if not designed appropriately. Extraneous load can interfere with the construction or automation of schemas.”

Interactivity generally falls into the realm of Extraneous load. Extraneous – defined as: “Irrelevant or unrelated to the subject being dealt with.” Stay focused on what your learners came to do, what behaviors we’re trying to change. Not on which gadget or widget would be most amusing.


Interactivity = interruption

I often equate interactivity to jerking the leash on a dog during a lovely spring walk. Fido’s just toddling along, checking – ugh! – everything out and hey is that – ack! – squirrel? and what is that – eek! – delightful small I think I’ll – erk! – pee right here. It’s hard to just get into the groove and enjoy yourself when somebody’s always yanking you in some other direction.

Every time we introduce an interactivity, we introduce an interruption. Every time. Even if it’s a meaningful interactivity, rich with learning value, we’re asking learners to flip switches away from one modality (reading, for instance) and into another (figuring out the exercise, executing commands). Too much of this, like with cognitive load, kills effectiveness. Some folks at Cornell conducted an analysis on technical interruptions in web-based learning, and found that test scores are lower, attrition rates are higher, and negative thoughts and impaired learning increased with those who experienced these interruptions.


Interactivity slows learning down

I came up with the TLC rule of digital learning – Time is Learning’s Currency. It’s no secret anymore that your learners want – and need – shorter courses. Just a year or two ago I was advocating for courses of 5-7 minutes for many of my clients – more often now I’m saying 3-5 minutes or shorter. In November 2014 Bersin by Deloitte said that most workers have just 1% of their week to dedicate to training. As learning professionals everything we do has to be shorter, easier, more succint. Payoff and takeaways have to be more obvious and less cumbersome. Filling courses up with exercises, tasks, and stuff to do often just creates frustrating busy work that doesn’t move the needle on performance.


We can fix it. We have the technology

I’m not saying all interactivity is bad. It’s not. I’m also not advocating for boring, remedial, voiceover-while-I-read, glorified Powerpoint miserable e-learning as usual.  In modern learning design, interactivity can be a powerful way to communicate and demonstrate. It can be a necessary and meaningful way of organizing and presenting content – which helps with cognitive load. But a lot of it is thoughtless. Interactivity for interactivity’s sake is pointless, wasteful, and compromises learning value. Let’s move away from that. A tweak in perspective can help guide us towards appropriate interactivity. Here are 3 techniques:


Think from the outside in

As you write and design, think backwards, from the learner’s perspective first. Ask: What do they need? What do they want? Is this activity I’m thinking about instructionally sound? How expensive is it to their cognitive load and to the few minutes of their attention I have? How does it feel? One thing I think you can be absolutely certain of: your learners are not asking you for more stuff to do.


Think mobile

Increasingly, the primary input device is the thumb. Think about that as you design for interactivities – how cumbersome will this feel on a small screen? Think about the most popular apps and websites that you use yourself. Study how modern digital destinations approach interactivity, and let that inform how you’ll approach interactivity. Almost always you’ll find that less is more.


The experience is the engagement

Content is king. Start there. Write interesting, effective learning design that is rich with value, is delightful with an authentic, credible tone, and doesn’t take forever. Then complement that with iconography, graphics, and meaningful animation that helps tell the story or demonstrate learning value. That’s what your learners are asking for. That’s what they need. Only then consider if your organization of content or learning materials better serve your learners by introducing stuff to do. This way you’re making informed, intelligent decisions about interactivity and where it complements, not dictates, the learning experience.

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