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Designing Learner Interfaces - Unity, Liberty & Charity

Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist
by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

Last week I commented on the idea that "learner interface design" perhaps suggests different strategies than traditional "user interface design"--that some of the user design standards that are in place to facilitate the automatization of standard operations, speed up actions, reduce decision time, etc. may not do much to actually enhance learning.

(I need to be clear that this discussion applies specifically to lesson designs that embrace the concept of instructional interactivity.  If the lesson is primarily an information dump with inserted comprehension questions and tests, which is really more about information delivery than about creating learning experiences, then user interface principles may well be sufficient.)

The graphical elements of an interface can be exceptionally powerful in creating a meaningful and memorable experience in the learner's mind, but the more general and unspecific those elements become, the less useful they can be in conveying instructional meaning.  Distinctiveness for instruction must be balanced with principles of user interface design to achieve an interface both functional and meaningful.  For example, here are two screenshots. One is from the Employee Security modules I’ve mentioned before; the other is a course on Substance Abuse that comes from the same course.

At first glance, these screens look vastly different. The first uses a bird's-eye-view to represent a dynamic environment in which the learner holds great control; the second use imagery to represent filing folders containing employee records, implying a more extended, thoughtful response.  The first is symbolic and illustrated in style; the second is realistic and photographic in style.  The first uses rollovers and drag-and-drop as the multiple choice answering mechanism; the second uses quite markedly different hot spots and popup menus as the multiple choice mechanism.  But learners seem to have no difficulty managing to succeed within the variability of these interfaces.  Partly this is because the interfaces share many common conventions, even though they present highly distinctive interfaces. In both cases: the scenario description is found in the upper left corner; the title is found in a distinctive font in the upper right; identically-formatted blue hypertext links provide access to resource materials; font sizes and styles are identical; a curved graphical framing device cradles the learning interaction; a standard menu bar of lesson options anchors the bottom of the screen.  But additionally, it is because the actual gestures for each interaction feel like natural responses to the context and challenge established in each case.

I’m not advocating randomness nor abandonment of rigor - but designing learning interfaces requires the same sort of openness that good teaching requires. Learner interface design is really a combination of art and science. I like to look across disciplines and traditional boundaries to find meaning. 

There’s an adage that has been part of my consciousness since my earliest memories, and I use it to keep the importance of design balance in mind.  I grew up a member of the Grange (or Patrons of Husbandry), a lovely organization with roots in nineteenth century rural America. That is largely irrelevant except that each month the Illinois Granger newspaper arrived in our mailbox, and I would read the masthead slogan “In essentials Unity, In non-essentials Liberty, In all things Charity” regularly, and now it seems to bear curious significance to the design problem.  How does this apply to learner interface design? 

For me, “In essentials Unity” means that those interface elements that create the core framework of the learner experience need to be uniform so there is no question of how to proceed, how to perform standard operations, how to gather critical information, etc. “In non essentials Liberty” means that some freedom and variety is usually necessary and instrumental in conveying specific contextual elements that will increase the active engagement of the learner.  “In all things Charity” simply means that the design must above all be kind to the learner in striving to be both functional and interesting. 

It’s an admittedly odd metaphor, but I find it exceptionally helpful as a philosophical guide in addressing the continuing challenge of achieving balance in a learner interface.