Want to Create a Great Online Learning Experience? Make it a Great Website!

Author: Rachel Elfenbein
March 28, 2018
make a great online learning website

You Didn’t Think You Were Creating a Website, But You Are

Over the past four years, I’ve thought a lot about what the essential difference is between creating a live class (or even elearning) and building the same class online. There are many differences but the more I’ve swished it around my brain, the more I realize that the essential difference is quite simple – you’re not only building a class, you are building a website.

Yes, everyone knows that online learning experiences are web-based; however truly great online learning experiences are frequently webbier than most. So, you’re not only building a website, you’re building a pretty webby website.

Why am I writing an entire blog post on a mildly interesting observation? It’s because I have seen a trend that clients who think about building a great website experience just as much as they do great content produce better, more engaging learning experiences.

It’s one of the mindset shifts instructional designers need to make when designing online learning experiences in general, a subtle but crucial difference.

“Rachel,” you exclaim, “I’m a learning designer! I create kick-butt content. I’m not a website creator.”

Although you may not have experience creating compelling website experiences, you most likely have experienced great web design. So, the good news is that you probably already have the answers. You’ve just never had to think it through systematically before. I’m hoping that the rest of this blog post will help you do that.

Step #1: There is no guessing in great web design – talk to learners

You don’t need to visit a university’s website to appreciate the Venn diagram below. I think we’ve all experienced this frustration. How could that new restaurant in town NOT have their address front and center!? Why else would I visit their site?

Let’s harness that frustration, shall we?

The interaction between a human and a website is a conversation. Conversations happen because people need something from someone else – information, confirmation, or just to be amused. The same is true of visiting websites. We go because we need something. The best sites seem to know what we need when we need it.

For conversation in real life, we have the benefit of finding out exactly what someone wants and get to ask further clarifying questions during the conversation. So, how do great websites seem to know what I want and present it right away without the benefit of back-and-forth? Great websites feel like a seamless conversation because conversations actually happened in real life between the website owners and potential users before the website was designed.

Most likely, the university in the Venn diagram put a huge amount of effort into their website. They could have saved a large amount of time (and I’m guessing money) if they identified a few people that might visit their site and ask them what they were looking for – before they started building their site. Part of great website design is to not sort of know what users want, but to really gain an understanding of what users need when they come to the website.

Take an hour to have a handful of conversations with the target audience for your class. Ask them about the top 5 things they want to know. What do they want to do better as a result of taking the class? What would help them complete the class? Does their view of the subject or processes around it differ from your understanding? Tip: Ask “why” at least 5 times during your conversation.


Step #2: If you want them to click on content, tell them why they should—from their point-of-view

I have a teenager and, would you believe, she is not always receptive to the information I am trying to give to her. Sometimes I have to be very thoughtful about how I say something. It depends completely on how I think she might receive the information. How can I win her over to my side?

The same thing happens in the “conversation” between the content you have created and your learners. After speaking with your learners, you should have a pretty good idea of how to win them over to the content. Let the introductory and contextual content be your voice to win the over. Reinforce the “why” from THEIR point-of-view. For example, in a scenario where learners are having to learn an entirely new process and are wary of change, instead of introducing a section by stating “In this section, you’ll learn about the new X process” say something like “We’ve heard many of you have questions about why we are adopting the X process, this section has some answers for you.”


Step 3: Have a call to action on every page

Having a call-to-action on every page is all about keeping it simple in your design. Keep learners focused on learning, not navigation or intuiting what you want from them. Make it obvious! Retail websites are great with their calls to action. For example, they don’t just say “50% off sale.“ They tell you “Click here for 50% off all purchases.”

This might seem like a small tweak (it is), but it can lead to greater learner engagement.

Another aspect of keeping it simple is not trying to have every piece of information for every type of learner that might possibly come through your class. Apply the 80% rule – optimize for the 80% while acknowledging the 20%. Giving learners too much content or too many navigation choices can be demotivating. There was a study done in 2000 called “When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?” that concluded less can be not only be better but also more satisfying.

Findings from 3 experimental studies starkly challenge this implicit assumption that having more choices is necessarily more intrinsically motivating than having fewer. These experiments, which were conducted in both field and laboratory settings, show that people are more likely to purchase gourmet jams or chocolates or to undertake optional class essay assignments when offered a limited array of 6 choices rather than a more extensive array of 24 or 30 choices. Moreover, participants actually reported greater subsequent satisfaction with their selections and wrote better essays when their original set of options had been limited.

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995-1006.

And, that’s it. My 3 steps for thinking about the web design of your class: talk with learners before you start, always tell them why from their point-of-view, and keep it simple. My hope is that after reading this you’ll become more aware of great website design when you see it, question why you like it, and perhaps add those qualities to the classes you create online.

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Rachel Elfenbein Director of Product Management at Intrepid by VitalSource
About the Author

Rachel Elfenbein

Director of Product Management
Rachel Elfenbein is a product leader with solid experience working on SaaS products in the B2B space. She is passionate about building great products that identify and solve her customers’ biggest problems through research and analysis. Currently, Rachel is the Director of Product Management at Intrepid by VitalSource.

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