Usability and e-Learning – The Critical Connection

Usability and e-Learning _Critical Connection

An interface is the medium via which the human (user) interacts with the product or application. The design of an interface whether it is a hand-held device, a cockpit, a console or a website, impacts human performance. Since the interface is meant for the user who is executing the tasks, it only seems like common-sense that the user should influence the design of the interface. But as it happens, it is not the needs of the user that comes first but other factors – this could be because of the lack of resources like time or budget on the project or the lack of awareness how the user actually uses the product – at times it is a puzzle for developers to discover they have provided all the functionality and yet the users “don’t get” how to work the product. The interface that ends up easy to use but still provides complex functionality is the hardest to design.

This is where the intervention of an interface designer can make it look simple at the end – this is where one may look at its simplicity and wonder why a designer was even needed but common sense or the “user sense” is always obvious in hindsight and is most often sidelined in the design process itself. The trend for organizations to focus on user needs and experience, and not just functionality, has been no accident but a learned lesson. It usually takes an iterative process and the experience of the designer working with users to get it right.

E-learning is education via different technologies. Examples are, web-based learning, computer-based learning, virtual classrooms, and digital collaboration. It can include the delivery of content via Internet, intranet/extranet (LAN/WAN), audio- and videotape, satellite broadcast, interactive TV, CD-ROM, and more.

E-learning is not the traditional classroom based, direct, face-to-face interaction with the teacher but nevertheless involves interaction of a different kind – with technology. Technology is also the means of interaction with the teacher. Since e-learning is often self-paced and independent with no immediate interaction with a human when a problem arises, it is even more important to provide the user/learner, a smooth experience. Access problems or navigational issues faced by novices can put them off and produce a negative perception of e-learning. Hence, usability plays a key role in e-learning.

When usability is part of course design and development, it becomes visually pleasing, easy to navigate, users quickly find what they want, adequate user and environment profiles are obtained to ensure appropriate design and access for the young and adult learners etc. If these criteria are not factored in, e-learning becomes nothing more than disengaged, page-turning lessons. The intertwining of the steps of a user-centered design process and a process like ADDIE for design and development of instruction has many overlaps and commonalities that make using such a model very attractive. The requirements gathering phase is common to both, the design phase occurs in parallel in both, once the interface design for the product is stable the development of the e-learning begins, the usability testing can provide valuable input into what the areas of training focus should be.