By Kirstie Greany, Senior Learning Consultant | Last updated: June 2019
Your guide to designing awesome elearning
29% of workers find online content uninspiring, and many struggle to find elearning that’s relevant to their needs, according to Towards Maturity. So, how do you design engaging and effective elearning that meets end users’ needs?
This elearning best practice guide provides practical tips and lots of elearning examples for those designing online learning solutions – whether you call yourself an instructional designer, learning designer, performance consultant, or learning experience designer.
The modern learner has around 20 minutes a week for learning at work (Bersin & Forbes). That’s a mere 1% of their working week. This might not even be 20 minutes in one go or one place. So, a really crucial aspect of what makes effective elearning is that it respects its audience and makes good use of this time. After all, elearning effectiveness is measured on whether it makes a difference to a person’s behavior or performance habits. It needs to drive change!
“In order to engage with your learners, you need to meet them where they are. If they want short and sweet learning, then offer them that. And critically, it needs to be timely and relevant – learners need to access learning at the point of need.” Towards Maturity
Effective elearning design takes into account modern learner trends and dives into the needs and habits of its end users. Long haul, click-through, interactive elearning? No thanks. Elearning effectiveness comes from solutions that are engaging, relevant and personalized.
How to design elearning: Get to know your learners
Engaging elearning hones in on the audience’s particular needs and performance context. So, it’s vital you always research your end users as part of your elearning development process. This will drive the particular “ingredients” your elearning design should include.
But it should also take into account the habits of modern learners, which indicate where things are going. We highlight some habits of modern learners below.
5 essential ingredients of effective elearning:
👍 Solutions that overtly meet the specific performance needs of individuals in their context
👎 Taking a one-size-fits-all or a “top down” approach to learning
Modern workplace learners want personalized, quality elearning content. The average person gives content around 7 seconds to decide if a page of content is for them or not, and 70% of users will leave if it’s not optimized for them and their needs. (Profile of a Modern Learner)
To capture your audience’s attention and drive a change in performance or behaviors, your elearning needs to be overtly relevant and personalized.
Successful elearning hones in on specific help and actions individuals need to take to improve. It provides specific help in moments of need, and/or provides a targeted learning experience fit for the audience and their profiles.
👍 Content and experiences that connect with audiences and motivate them to do something
Is engaging elearning the same as interactive elearning?
For learning to take place and for people to form new habits, it’s vital they are engaged. But what does this mean?
Engagement can come from…
Being really useful– the mere fact that something is really useful to someone gives them intrinsic motivation to use it.
Emotional connection– having an emotional connection with content through immersive learning experiences, great storytelling and so on, that connect hearts as well as heads.
Participation– reflecting, trying, practicing, failing, discussing, doing. Active learning and practice are the building blocks of effective or “sticky” learning. They engage by involvement.
Engagement is not the same as clicking or interacting with a screen.
3. Available on demand
👍 Content and help available when users want it, wherever they are, and that’s easy to find
👎 Content that’s hidden in long courses, behind complex menus or systems, with obscure names
Modern workplace learners learn anytime, anywhere, on any device
Great elearning is super easy to use on any device
Over half of workplace learning happens at the point of need, and a third of employees learn on their commute via mobile devices. Effective elearning is sympathetic to this, and doesn’t force lengthy, hard-to-use courses on people using mobiles. Rather, it provides short form, responsive content. There’s a guide to creating mobile-friendly elearning below.
4. Integrates with workflow
👍 Content and help that can be easily looked up and referred to while applying it
👎 Content that is designed for people who have an imaginary two hours to sit and learn
The vast majority of workplace learners prefer learning on the job.
This means learning through doing, trying, observing and discussing. But it also means that any additional learning – e.g., answers to questions someone might have about a process or what tactics to use – should be easily available and helpful in those moments of need.
Effective elearning shouldn’t take one form, but open itself up to be job aids, resources, videos, and content that promotes and encourages action, collaboration and discussion in various “moments” of time.
Engaging elearning needs to be usable and helpful in the flow of work.
👍 Uses people’s time wisely, is no longer than it needs to be, allows people to do something in-between
👎 A splatter gun of disconnected pieces; just “info” without any support
There’s been a big shift toward developing shorter topics, “resources not courses” and microlearning in the last ten or so years. This is in part because of the shift to people learning on mobile devices, often on the fly, but also because elearning is now competing against all kinds of “quick answer” solutions available on Google and social networks.
Rather than sitting through a two hour-long course and forgetting most of it a few weeks later, the benefit of breaking learning into short chunks means there’s an opportunity for users to do something with that learning in-between, and to build up their competence and confidence incrementally.
Since practice, contextualization, and conversations are crucial for learning to stick, elearning best practice is when it’s designed for shorter sittings, but with pointers to tasks or actions in-between.
“Content does not become more useful simply by virtue of breaking it into smaller pieces. To create useful content we would actually have to talk to the people we are creating it for.” Nick Shackleton-Jones, 15 elearning industry experts on future of L&D
But effective elearning isn’t just short for the sake of it; for elearning best practice, go for solutions that deliver real value and make good use of learners’ time – whether that’s in 2 minutes, 10 minutes or longer.
Online learning materials can take many forms, from on-the-job performance support resources and diagnostic surveys through to microlearning skills training and immersive simulations. Some handy example articles to take a look at are awesome elearning examples and innovative elearning tips. Here are a few highlights to provide some immediate elearning inspiration.
Scenario based learning puts users in the driver’s seat and is a great way of increasing their engagement with a digital learning experience. “Choose your own adventure”-style scenarios like the examples below immerse users in a story and allow them to make decisions that control the outcome. This approach allows users to learn through experiencing consequences rather than being informed of them. In particular, it enables people to learn from (safely) making mistakes.
1. Video elearning example
This video branching scenario, based around mental health issues, asks users to make a call on what they think is going on and what action someone should take. The personalized results at the end analyze the approach the user took, compares it with others’, and sets out how other options would have played out.
2. Audio elearning example
This audio driven scenario helps prepare new sales hires for customer calls by hearing a recording of a fake customer on the phone and providing options for what to do or say next.
Great learning is neither passive nor a one-way street. Personalized learning taps into real needs and solutions for individuals through smart design approaches, and empowers learners to make a change.
3. Diagnostics – discovery learning
This personalized toolkit example asks targeted questions to users about their current work habits and struggles, then serves up a tailored report based on how they answered to help them see where they need to improve. It makes effective use of learners’ time by honing in on real gaps and providing targeted guidance on only the very next things they need to do.
4. Digital toolkit – exploratory learning
Of course, personalization doesn’t always have to mean sophisticated question-led approaches. It can be about using smart menus to give clear choices, like this exploratory learning experience aimed at supporting women who may be interested in engineering careers.
Microlearning takes various different shapes – some as standalone moments and some that can be pieced together into more cohesive learning journeys or campaigns. Here we have two examples:
5. Performance support resources
This performance support resource is aimed at fellow learning designers who might be wondering how to get the best out of different media options for their elearning. They can quickly pick a media option from the menu, see an example and get some tips – then put them into action straight away. This kind of “in the moment” learning is sometimes called learning in the workflow.
6. Blended learning campaigns
This blended learning resource example is designed to be part of an onboarding campaign for new starters. Sent out before they set foot in the office, this one-page resource offers a friendly welcome, introduces the team and some key facts about the company, sets out what they can expect from their first week and gives them the chance to type in questions or concerns that are on their mind. Pithy one-pagers like this are great one-stop shops of information and can work really well as part of a wider blend or campaign. There could be a lot more digital and face-to-face learning to accompany it further down the line!
Storytelling for learning
Storytelling is an incredibly powerful force for learning and memory. It has been part of what humans do since the beginning of time. When done right, it has the ability to strike up emotions and connect with users – which are both crucial to engaging their hearts as well as their minds.
7. Digital storytelling example
This storytelling for learning example shows how storytelling doesn’t always need audio or video to work. It’s a subtly interactive story that asks users to make some choices for themselves partway through. Great for the start of a wider performance change campaign.
How do you strive for elearning effectiveness when you approach a new project? Here are 7 tips for achieving elearning best practice.
Elearning tip 1. Start with clear goals and user profiles
It goes without saying that unless you know what problem you’re trying to fix, why it exists and what the audience needs, your elearning project is unlikely to be effective.
For details on how to go about this, there’s a detailed guide here on the successful elearning development process that provides templates and tips for creating user profiles, capturing goals, and asking the right questions upfront.
Elearning tip 2. Be action-focused
Encourage action and participation inside and outside your elearning. Hone your objectives by asking “what do people need to be able to do?” or “what would improve this person’s performance?” and work back from there.
Create practice activities and reflective exercises over telling people what to do. Aim to stretch your users, and help them learn from mistakes and the views of others. You can bring in social learning online via polling, discussions and more.
Make endings the beginning of something more – embed links to relevant next steps to create an effective elearning ending such as discussion forums, further learning and on-the-job guides.
A snapshot of the end of a mental health scenario-based learning experience.
Elearning tip 3: Don’t start with content
Content isn’t the equivalent of learning. Learning is personal, participatory and active. Get to content once you have pinned down the kind of learning experience you are going to create.
Curate– Look at what already exists and curate content that supports your solution – Youtube or internal videos, guides, infographics, web articles and more
“As designers we stop fretting over topics and content, and instead build experiences that make people care, resources that help people perform, and habits that help sustain the change.” Nick Shackleton-Jones, A new model for performance and engagement design
If you’re not sure why stories and learning are a winning combination, this explainer video – which also walks through a real-life example of elearning stories in action – is a great place to start.
Emotional connection is vital for any learning to take place, as neuroscientist Stella Collins explains in her article on brain-friendly learning. Stories are a fantastic vehicle for creating emotional reactions in people, and they also include devices that help us remember content such as sounds, voices, feelings and imagery. Text-based stories enable us to create our own internal visualizations and sounds to remember the content.
Personalized and adaptive learning are two of the hottest trends in L&D, and they’re here to stay. Users don’t just expect relevant content tailored to their needs; they’ll switch off if it’s not. Personalized elearning makes a lot of sense; it uses learner’s time more effectively by giving them just what they want and need, and helps drive targeted performance improvements. It is one of the six pillars of people-centered elearning.
Top ways to personalize your elearning:
Try a simple “role filter” at the beginning of your content, and then use dynamic menus or branching to serve up the topics or pages that apply to that role
Speak to them– is your tone of voice speaking to the target audience(s)? Is it at the right level? Is it helping turn theory into actionable outcomes?
Localize your content– translation can really help engage global audiences, but localization can go further. This is where someone from that location helps edit the written and visual content to bring it in line with local “norms” and contexts
Use adaptive learning technologies or smart authoring tools that enable you to set up diagnostic experiences so you can serve up a specific set of topics and tips that match someone’s needs
Created spaced learning programs– once you have a platform that enables you to serve up content and exercises pitched to where a user is at and what they need, split the learning experience into a series of short bites so users can build skills incrementally
Elearning tip 6: Write compelling content
Whether you’re creating a one-page guide or immersive experience, how you write your content is key for engagement and understanding. Don’t just copy and paste the manual; people can just read the manual, after all!
Less is always more– reading on screen from a mobile is hard work, and there’s only so much detail someone can take in at a time. Say what you need to say in the shortest way possible.
Use a direct, active voice– use the “you” word and focus on what people need to do (e.g., “here are three things you can do in this situation,” not “when in this situation, employees should…”
Talk like a human– elearning doesn’t need to sounds like a robot. Imagine the audience is in the room and say what you want to say out loud, then write it. Be friendly, supportive, fun!
Make it scannable– use clear headers, subheadings, emboldened sentences, bullets and more to help make the copy more scannable and digestible.
👎 Less of…
” This Data Security module explains the importance of complying with the Data Protection Act 1998, and sets out the actions required of employees in order to protect the organization from data theft and reputation damage.”
👍 More of…
“Data security – not your problem, right? Wrong. Find out how it affects you and what you can do to stay safe at work.”
Shorter chunks of elearning give busy users the option to use it in a moment of need, on their commute and on smaller screens. This article sets out further why bite-sized learning matters.
But design your solution in such a way that if a user does have more time, they can move on to the next relevant bite-sized chunk to continue their learning.
To do this, you need a good linking system and clear menus so users can leap-frog into the next useful topic or make a meaningful choice for themselves. This is where personalized elearning techniques can really help, as you can recommend a menu of options that suit an individual’s needs, yet still give them choices.
The future of elearning - best practice for top trends
Any learning or instructional designer keen to design effective elearning needs to keep an eye on where the industry is going. This article sets out 10 trends for the future of elearning and is well worth a read. Cross examining findings from that article with the results from other reports and Donald Taylor’s L&D Global Sentiment Survey, four key trends to be particularly aware of are:
Notably, gamification in learning has dropped off the recent lists. Is this because it’s become a norm, or because it was all just hype? Below, we look at gamification plus the other four top trends in elearning design, and set out some tips for your projects.
Mobile learning best practice
With people checking their phones 10 times a day, elearning that’s not responsive or delivering quality experiences on smaller screens is missing a trick. But this doesn’t mean you just find a responsive elearning tool and push out all your content to all devices without a second thought. This article contains the low-down on mobile learning design best practice. Here’s an at-a-glance view.
Learning professionals worldwide have ranked video as a hot topic every year since 2014, when Don Taylor first ran the Global Sentiment Survey. It’s dropped down the table a bit, precisely because it’s no longer an exciting, emerging trend, but rather an expected part of our L&D repertoire.
“I expect film to become even more popular in 2019. The power of narrative to stir powerful emotions and to create conversations is well known. Those qualities mean that film will become critical in the challenge to engage the workforce as we try to tackle widening skills gaps.” Matt Ash, The big digital learning trends
Video in elearning is good for…
Interviews with experts, leaders and peers
Promotional pieces to hook audiences in to a learning campaign, for example
Drama-based learning experiences, where emotional connection and reflection are key
Branching scenarios where characters “react’” to learners’ choices
Shareable content – standalone videos do well on social platforms
Demonstrations of best practice, and not so best practice!
But is not so good for…
Quick-glance performance support, where people would benefit more from being able to scan a few bullets or an infographic
Some complex content – a talking head explaining something really complex doesn’t always aide learning. Show the complex process by filming it step-by-step, or combine the person’s voice with supportive graphics or an effective use of animation in elearning.
Video-based elearning design top tips
Check if the perfect video already exists on YouTube or other platforms, and embed it.
Don’t splash the cash on bespoke video unless you really need to.
Interview professionally – if you have money to spare, spend it on a professional interviewer, not a scriptwriter.
Capture personal stories when interviewing senior leaders, not corporate messaging.
Do a few takes, each time helping your subject drill down to the essence of their story.
Experiment with selfie videos, taken simply on a smartphone, and have people upload them for you to use within or to complement your elearning.
Extremely popular yet somewhat controversial in the world of learning design, many argue about whether microlearning is all hype or holds promise. As with most aspects of effective learning design, it’s all about the execution.
It’s vital that microlearning isn’t used as a vehicle to deliver lots of pieces of content randomly. Doing so makes less good use of your audience’s time, not more, as they are drowned in a sea of noise. Make it count!
Spaced practice – think Duolingo, where competence is built through practice over time
Holistic approaches to learning, where the same microlearning nugget may support multiple performance outcomes and can be reused in different contexts and learning journeys
Speedy development – as the same template can often be reused
But is not so good for…
Identifying deeper problems and challenges – it’s good at solutions, but perhaps needs to be paired with more in-depth diagnostics and performance feedback systems to work best
Complex learning where, in reality, you need to give more than 20 minutes and really dive deeply
“We have heard over and over again the trends of microlearning and fewer courses and more resources. What is lacking is the method to contextualize, link together, or insert these into a learner’s day in a meaningful way. Everyone is bombarded with email, texts, and notifications. We need to drip feed all of these pieces of content, similar to how marketing automation runs digital campaigns, to nurture learners to goals and outcomes.” Lori Niles-Hofmann, The big digital learning trends
Microlearning design top tips
Create clusters. Avoid producing microlearning nuggets blindly. Know how each topic fits into overarching performance goals and connects with other content. Is it a performance support resource, part of an incremental skill building program, or both?
Be the answer to a specific problem. Google is so popular because it helps you find just what you’re looking for. Microlearning needs to do the same. But your answer can be better, as it can reflect your workplace and audience context. Make each bite-sized piece specific, targeted and concise.
Create spaced practice: In Make it Stick, studies show that providing learners with regular challenges that enable them to practice applying skills in slightly new situations helps grow competence and memory more than other approaches. String together microlearning challenges/learning into learning journeys that get harder or easier depending on performance.
Keep track: Consider allocating scores, badges, or some kind of reward to learners when they complete a challenge. Could the challenges be at different levels? Can you mark milestones for when X amount has been achieved?
Remember your learning design principles: Just because you’re producing something short doesn’t mean it should be dry or just “info.” Stories, examples, demos, challenges, expert tips and job aides should all be considered.
Personalize: We’ve written about this extensively above. Personalization and microlearning go together like peas in a pod. To make those 5 minutes really count, content has to tap into a personal need.
“Gamification”; “gamified learning”; “serious games”. Whatever term you prefer, games and elearning have something of a checkered history. Once the thing everyone was talking about, then something most people were only talking about (and not really doing), and more recently a bit of an abandoned bandwagon. But gamification in elearning is absolutely something you should care about, because it taps into a fundamental aspect of human behavior: motivation.
Gamification is good for…
When you’ve got a clear cohort or potential community who could make the most of the benchmarking, competition and social elements.
Longer-term programs and learning campaigns, where scores and rewards are threaded throughout
Simulation-based learning experiences when you can offer up scores in different areas – e.g., management training where choices may impact on the team’s mental health, business efficiency, innovation, productivity, quarterly targets and more.
But it is not so good for…
One-off courses – such as a single compliance course where gamification may feel more like a gimmick than delivering value in the long term
Perceived quick wins – while gamification has the potential to drive engagement and motivation for learning, done badly (too quickly or without research), it has the opposite effect
Gamification in elearning: design top tips
Start small, but don’t cut corners– rather than going all-in on a high-profile gamification project, target a particular business area, audience or program and experiment with different approaches. Don’t just add points to a task or tack a leaderboard onto an end-of-course quiz. The game mechanics have to serve a purpose beyond “making it fun.”
Prioritize the learning, not the game– points and competition only deliver value if they’re tied to behaviors and performance. Always get the learning objectives straight first and design game mechanics to be in service of those.
Develop a hierarchy of points: whereby points are easily earned (maybe for completing a profile or sharing the course) and accumulate quickly, but badges are more meaningful, offered only in return for doing something that demonstrates new knowledge, competence or skills.
Be clear on criteria and progression to keep people engaged and motivated. What tasks earn points? What do points mean? Perhaps they translate into badges or unlock new content. What’s the criteria for reaching the next level or reward?
Ramp up the challenge gradually: Learners need frequent, easy achievements to begin with. Once they’ve gotten to grips with things and seen that effort reaps reward, they’re primed and ready for a bigger challenge.
Don’t disregard individual competition: It isn’t always feasible or appropriate to pit learners against learners on public leaderboards – but that doesn’t mean you can’t successfully gamify your content. Social polling in elearning lets an individual see how they compare to others, but anonymously. Or, take FitBit: it has the community aspect, but plenty of people use it without that. Intrinsic rewards may count for more than social (extrinsic) achievements.
Learning analytics is any modern elearning designer’s best friend. You can look at analytics from a previous course, across a suite of learning projects or live for the project you’re working on right now and improve your solution. It gives you the key to upping engagement and impact.
“Every drop-off, click or share is a learner shouting their likes and dislikes. These actions are the eye-rolls, smiles and crossed arms from the classroom, simply in digital format.” Lori Niles-Hofmann, Everyday Guide to Learning Analytics
There’s a wealth of learning analytics data out there, but having confidence in drawing actionable insights is where many people become stuck.
Learning analytics: top tips
Go for elearning tools with ready-made analytics. Opt for an elearning authoring tool that has a live dashboard built into its features
Alternatively, look to Google Analytics, data from your LMS, top searches on your intranet
Survey users, teams and managers for insights, needs and feedback
Focus on measures that count. Which ones show success? You don’t have to look at them all. Here are some ideas:
Number of users – is word spreading that your elearning adds value?
Session length – how long is a user spending on it on average?
Session times – are they coming back for more?
Devices used – is mobile access different to desktop, and as expected?
Audience location – are you tapping into your whole target market?
Drop offs – where are you losing people? Is that page not delivering?
Popularity – which topics are resonating highest?
Questions – are users struggling with certain questions? Are others too easy?
At the heart of this elearning best practice guide is that the secret to designing engaging and effective elearning is to really understand your modern learners and what would genuinely help them up their performance and/or build new habits.
Getting under the skin of the audience helps any instructional or learning designer deliver real value through having a clear sense of what will be most helpful and what will connect emotionally or motivate people to make a change. Don’t reach for an all-in-one course, but consider what pieces belong in the puzzle. It’s likely you’ll need to create a combination of useful, mobile-friendly resources and some more immersive or incremental behavior-changing solutions that enable practice, reflection, discussion, and other active outputs. Out of all our elearning tips, for instructional design best practice, use learners’ precious time wisely!