Tom Kuhlmann: The “what, when and how of interactivity”



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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 worldÂ’s best known e-learning designers and currently number three in the ‘WorldÂ’ list of the top ten movers and shakers in corporate online learning, discussed the ‘what, when and how of interactivityÂ’.

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 ‘courseÂ’?
  • WhatÂ’s the right ‘look and feelÂ’ for the course?
  • What does the learner have to do?

“When youÂ’re building e-learning, donÂ’t just ‘crank out coursesÂ’,” 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 isn’t 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”

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 don’t know what the user’s 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 user’s 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 they’re 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 you’re 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 Frankenstein’s monster was cobbled together from bits of different people and ended up as a monstrosity.

“If you don’t understand the authoring tool you’re using, the user won’t have a good experience – and, thus, won’t have a good learning experience either,” he said. “Don’t over-build your course. The most successful course builders stay within their skills and don’t 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 ( as a forum for gaining helpful feedback. He added: “Even if you’re building a course with proprietary content and aren’t able to share the actual content, you can build a prototype indicating the sort of approach you’re thinking of taking.”

Tom said that itÂ’s important to create content thatÂ’s 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 isnÂ’t necessarily a great course but it wonÂ’t get the userÂ’s attention if it doesn’Â’t look good. IÂ’d rather have a good looking bad course than a bad looking bad course!

“Then, you should engage the userÂ’s senses – in terms of ‘touchÂ’, ‘seeÂ’ and ‘hearÂ’. For example, a good narration is better than good visuals. People wonÂ’t 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 they’re 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. Don’t just give the users information. Give them a reason to explore the course and collect the information they need. It’s 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 it’s 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 (‘pullÂ’) 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 doesnÂ’’t have to be in the learning. It could be in case studies which accompany the ‘learningÂ’ part of the course.