While a large number of organizations have adopted e-learning programs, far fewer have addressed the usability of their learning applications. More attention should be devoted to assuring the usability of e-learning applications if organizations are to fully benefit from their investments.
It’s no surprise that a large percentage of organizations have actively developed and implemented online learning programs. The reasons are clear: e-learning programs can be highly versatile and they have the capability to provide on-demand training that transcends geographic and time boundaries. Program offerings are frequently diverse and address the needs of employees, customers, and suppliers. The versatility, convenience, and scope of offerings would seemingly suggest that all is well for these adopters of e-learning applications. However, training practitioners within many organizations are discovering that individuals are, for the most part, not embracing the new medium of instruction to the extent that it was initially hoped. In fact, online learning programs typically exhibit higher dropout rates when compared with traditional instructor-led courses.
To be sure, there are a large number of reasons for the lack of adoption: quality of courses, relevancy of content, comfort level with the technology, availability of technical support, ability to interact with peer learners, and so forth. Another major contributor—often left off this list—is poor usability, which is characteristic of many e-learning applications.
Definition of usability: Usability has been defined by some as the extent to which an application is learnable and allows users to accomplish specified goals efficiently, effectively, and with a high degree of satisfaction. An additional component that should be added to this definition is usefulness; that is, a highly usable application will not be embraced by users if it fails to contain content that is relevant and meaningful to them.
Importance of usability
The field of usability engineering gained great prominence during the growth of the Internet, primarily as it pertained to the e-commerce industry. Countless online retailers quickly learned that one of the paths toward viability and increased sales was developing e-commerce Web sites that were highly usable. One of the most publicized lessons learned was the failure of Boo.com in May of 2000.
Boo.com was an upscale clothing e-retailer that prided itself on an elaborate and visually appealing Web site. The problem was that shoppers experienced great difficulty navigating through the site, locating items of interest, and finalizing purchases. Boo.com finally ceased operations, but only after having spent upwards of US$120 million in a mere six months.
Even though Boo.com wasn’t an e-learning site, much may be learned from its example. Intricate design and robust functionality will fail if visitors are unable to use the application to accomplish their objectives. Further, one cannot expect learners to visit the application time and time again simply to learn the interface. It must be understandable to them at the onset, if they are to access and absorb the content. Given the considerable dollars that are spent on e-learning applications it’s prudent to determine the extent to which they are indeed usable.
So, why do so many e-learning applications fail to stress the importance of or put into practice? It’s likely that the decision makers have a poor understanding of usability, are unaware of its importance, or do not consider it worthy of time and effort. Indeed, it would appear that far more energy is focused on the technology involved in developing instructional content rather than ensuring that users will be able to use the technology effectively.
There are many ways to determine the usability of an e-learning application, including heuristic evaluations, usability tests, and field studies.
Heuristic evaluations. A heuristic is a rule or well-established standard. A heuristic evaluation is a technique that entails the formal review of an application with experts in usability and interface design to determine whether the application is aligned with recognized and established standards for graphical user interfaces. Ideally, this procedure will be conducted before the application goes live or reaches another stage of development. The primary goal of a heuristic evaluation is to identify potential usability and ease of use issues in order to resolve them before final implementation.
Usability tests ask users to perform specified tasks on an application within a controlled laboratory environment. Typical metrics collected during usability tests include the levels of success users have performing a task, the amount of time that users need to complete a particular task, and the level of satisfaction that users have with the application.
Field studies involve watching users interact with the application in their own environments. The appeal of field studies is that they negate the need to make assumptions concerning how learners will use the application. Further, they frequently provide additional insight into the wants, needs, and expectations of learners.
In truth, there are many challenges associated with evaluating the usability of e-learning applications. For example, one challenge for e-learning applications is that they must accommodate the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and learning styles of users.
At this point, it’s worth noting that determining the usability of an application is not the same as evaluating its educational effectiveness. That is to say that a highly usable product is no guarantee that learners will retain information. Nonetheless, it is virtually assured that an application with low levels of usability will not enable learners to access and assimilate information at all.
Another challenge is that while there are numerous approaches to measuring usability, readily available and accepted standards of e-learning application development have yet to be developed. Even so, many of the same principles advocated by the usability and user interface design community, such as learner-centered design, iterative design, and ongoing testing, apply to the development of e-learning applications.
Learner-centered design. In brief, know your learners and address the fact that they represent diverse backgrounds with different characteristics. Effective e-learning application development will seek to answer the following questions:
- How do learners prefer to learn?
- How are they currently learning the information?
- Under what pressures (for example, demands of their job and schedule) do the learners function in their day-to-day life?
- What is their motivation or incentive to engage in online learning?
- What constraints, such as Internet connection speeds or computer platforms, do they face?
- What special accommodations do learners need?
- How comfortable are they using online applications?
- What experience do they have with e-learning?
This information may be acquired through focus groups, field studies, surveys, and
Interviews, and is used during the iterative design process.
Iterative design. The foundation of the iterative design process is a competitive analysis to see how other organizations deliver e-learning successfully. What products are they using? How is it being developed and implemented? How do their learners feel about the e-learning application? By combining the knowledge gained from the competitive analysis with what you already know about your learners, you can develop a highly effective and efficient e-learning application.
Even so, regardless of how comprehensive your efforts have been to gain insight into the end users and apply what was learned from the competitive analysis, it’s unlikely that the first product development cycle will attain final release standards. The key is to perform rapid, systematic, and successive evaluations of the application throughout the development cycle rather than as a one-time effort immediately preceding its release. That is, usability evaluations should occur over several instances within the development process. Doing so will enable you to resolve usability issues before they become costly problems to address.
Ongoing testing. Understand that usability is a process. Accordingly, you need to conduct usability evaluations (ideally, with actual users) periodically on an ongoing basis to ensure that the e-learning application maintains high levels of usability. The point is that the needs, environments, constraints, and so forth, of learners may change, and awareness of these occurrences enables the organization to make necessary adjustments. Further, ongoing testing is the only true way for developers to feel confident about the ease of use of the e-learning application following its release. Some may even contend that engaging in ongoing testing also demonstrates to learners that their needs are important and, therefore, encourages their use of the e-learning application.
While the usability and educational effectiveness of an e-learning application are not one and the same, the two arguably have very much in common. Even though many organizations have made great strides in their ability to develop and deliver e-learning programs to their employees, customers, and suppliers, the usability of these e-learning applications is often lacking or entirely overlooked. Given the large investments organizations are making in online training, and the unique needs of learners, it would be prudent to address the usability of e-learning applications. Doing so will help ensure that users can actually access the necessary material, have optimal levels of satisfaction with the learning experience, and enable the organization to maximize its e-learning investment.
Published: January 2005