Tom Kuhlmann: The "what, when and how of interactivity"
On January 31, 2013 we were honoured to host a joint event with Articulate. Held at Vinopolis on London’s south bank, Articulate’s Tom Kuhlmann, one of the worlds best known e-learning designers and currently number three in the World list of the top ten movers and shakers in corporate online learning, discussed the what, when and how of interactivity.
The event gave Tom Kuhlmann an opportunity to outline his personal philosophy with regard to building online learning materials. He began considering interactivity by posing three questions:
- What content needs to be in the course?
- Whats the right look and feel for the course?
- What does the learner have to do?
When youre building e-learning, dont just crank out courses, he said. Anyone can create courses without giving much thought to what the course and the learner – is supposed to do.
Once you start to consider the learner, you start to get involved in interactivity.
Interactivity getting learners to do something and even allowing the learner to choose her/his own path to learning boils down to doing stuff on screen and learning things, observed Tom. He added: In online learning, there are two elements to interactivity: touch, where the learner interacts with the screen and decision, where the learner interacts with the content.
He explained that people like to touch the screen. In other words, they like to do something that gets something to happen on screen. This isnt a learning experience but, rather, a user experience. It has a novel, even gimmicky appeal but it soon wears off, so it can only be used as a vehicle to lead the user to build knowledge via a learning experience.
You need to get learners to touch the screen and learn, said Tom. There are some books on usability and you can find examples of interactive content at www.elearningexamples.com
There are three basic ways in which a user can interact with the screen: click and reveal, mouse-over and drag objects. The variable in all this is the user.
You dont know what the users doing, said Tom. Maybe you could allow the user to build something within the program for added interaction. There are lots of possible interactions and many ways to approach interactivity. As the designer, you have to decide makes the best sense for the users experience. Novelty is a good thing but too much of it can be counterproductive. Of course, contrast in interactivity design is as important as contrast in visual design.
It can be beneficial to create tension in the learner when it comes to taking decisions during the course of the learning especially if you can make these into life or death decisions, he observed.
Tom suggested that people interact with online learning materials in order to navigate; collect information, and make decisions. So, he said, when you are building these materials you have to ask yourself, what are the learners doing? The answer will be one of these three things. For example, if theyre navigating, then a clicking type of interaction is helpful. With a mouse-over, learners may miss something important.
Avoid creating a clunky course, Tom advised. Get to know how to use the authoring tools youre using otherwise you will create a clunky course which will only generate negative feedback. It will be a Franken-course in the same way as Frankensteins monster was cobbled together from bits of different people and ended up as a monstrosity.
If you dont understand the authoring tool youre using, the user wont have a good experience and, thus, wont have a good learning experience either, he said. Dont over-build your course. The most successful course builders stay within their skills and dont get over-ambitious.
Tom confessed that, as a designer, he is not over-fond of templates. He commented that templates are OK to start with but, as you develop your skills as a designer, you move away from templates. He added that the most effective way of developing your skills as a designer is to put your courses in front of people who will give open and honest feedback. In particular, he recommended the Articulate Community (http://community.articulate.com/) as a forum for gaining helpful feedback. He added: Even if youre building a course with proprietary content and arent able to share the actual content, you can build a prototype indicating the sort of approach youre thinking of taking.
Tom said that its important to create content thats relevant to what the user has to do.
You should also consider the visual aesthetic, he continued. Visual design has a key role to play. Does the course look interesting? A good looking course isnt necessarily a great course but it wont get the users attention if it doesn’t look good. Id rather have a good looking bad course than a bad looking bad course!
“Then, you should engage the users senses in terms of touch, see and hear. For example, a good narration is better than good visuals. People wont tolerate bad audio but will tolerate poor quality video.
Give the learners control of the learning. Give them a map to enable them to see where theyre going. Let them choose how to learn allowing those who need more and those who need less information to find the course helpful.
Let them explore. Dont just give the users information. Give them a reason to explore the course and collect the information they need. Its the push versus pull argument: let the users decide how they get the information they need.
Tom outlined a simple course scenario:
- Challenge understanding find out what the users already know and, therefore, what they need to know.
- Offer some Choices
- Choices produce Consequences
You can do this via complex branching or via a critical path, he said. The critical path is probably the better option, if only because its simpler and subject matter experts rarely give you more than two good questions or choices in a scenario.
Tom went on to outline a rapid interactivity designer model: the SAID model. This comprises:
- Situation during which the user is given relevant, clear expectations
- Advice the user has to explore and collect (pull) advice to get the necessary information to make an informed decision
- Interpret the advice to make a
- Decision and get the appropriate feedback
The learner has control over the interpret section of the course. The decision aspect is based on the challenge/ choices/ consequences scenario.
Tom concluded by reminding his audience that, when you build online learning courses, the interactivity part doesn’t have to be in the learning. It could be in case studies which accompany the learning part of the course.