How To Improve eLearning Course Design Usability By Adopting The 10 Usability Heuristics

Image courtesy of Naypong /
Summary: Asynchronous eLearning is different from traditional classroom studying and requires strong motivation and self-discipline from learners. As there is no person-to-person contact and immediate reaction to problems emerging in the process of learning, eLearning professionals should pay special attention to eLearning course navigation and usability. To help you remove all the barriers to effective eLearning course design the article provides an idea of what eLearning usability is and how to improve it by applying common usability heuristics. 

Usability is the central part of eLearning course design and characterizes how simple is for your learners to use your eLearning course. Usability checklists can come up to 997 points (as in the example of Smith and Moser’s guidelines “Designing User Interface Software”) and can take several days to accomplish. Most usability experts use the 10 “usability heuristics”, which will be applied to eLearning course design.The “Usability heuristics” term was introduced by Jacob Nielsen and refers to the 10 most commonly used principles of interface design. They are called “heuristics” because they are more in the nature of rules of thumb than specific usability guidelines.

The Practical Implementation of The 10 Usability Heuristics in eLearning Course Design

  1. Visibility of system status"The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time".How to apply it to eLearning? You always need to inform a learner on what is going on the screen, whether you are uploading course files, sending a confirmation message, asking a learner to proceed with a credit card or exporting the data. A learner needs an explanation rather than looking at an empty screen. For example, to register an account a learner needs to choose a username and type in a password. If you have any special requirements to the password strength you need to inform the learner about it by displaying an appropriate message. Or if the process requires time to be accomplished, add a progress bar so that the learner will know how much time he/she needs to wait.
  2. Match between system and the real world"The system should speak the user’s language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order".How to apply it to eLearning? Developing any eLearning course, you should have a clear understanding of who your learners are and “speak the same language as they do”. Your eLearning course content needs to be clear, easily readable and not to include any jargon. The eLearning course materials should be organized and managed properly.For example, when you are organizing a learning path: create path chapters => add steps to chapters => specify pre-requisites thus ensuring eLearning course completion.
  3. User control and freedom"Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo".How to apply it to eLearning? This principle addresses the eLearning course navigation and means that a learner needs to be able to find a way back if he/she clicked a wrong button or link. To enhance learner’s experience add the “Go back”, “Remove”, “Close”, and “Are you sure” buttons to your eLearning course.
  4. Consistency and standards"Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing". How to apply it to eLearning? Use the same design, fonts as well as the pages’ layout consistently over the whole eLearning course.
  5. Error prevention"Even better than good error messages is to carefully design, thus preventing a problem from occurring in the first place". How to apply it to eLearning? When registering, we are frequently asked to fill in personal data. By forgetting inadvertently, we might not fill in a phone number, for example, and then an error message appears. To avoid this, a registration-form-creator needs to mark the field as mandatory. By giving clear instructions, possible errors are prevented.
  6. Recognition rather than recall"Minimize the user's memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another".How to apply it to eLearning? People’s brain recognizes things better than recalls them. Provide information a learner needs or might need on the same screen or provide links where the learner can easily have access to it.For example, if there is a search window or tagging system, add a function “Did you mean…” or spelling mistakes checker. Instead of making the learner type the information add a drop-down menu. Use the icons associated with actions: printer icon for print, scissors for cut and so on.
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use"Accelerators -- unseen by the novice user -- may often speed up the interaction for the expert user so that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions".How to apply it to eLearning? There is a difference in eLearning course usage by novice and expert users. When a learner has been using your eLearning courses for a long time he/she starts to find “short cuts” and quick links to access the necessary data. Use their knowledge to simplify your eLearning course usage.For example, separate commonly done tasks from the rest or apply content versioning to see the latest changes.
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design"Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed." How to apply it to eLearning? While designing an eLearning course, be careful not to overload it with irrelevant or outdated information. Work on the eLearning design and avoid using the elements that can distract learners.
  9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors"Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution".How to apply it to eLearning? Help learners find the solution to a problem that may has occurred.  Let them know what has happened, why and how to proceed. For example, if a learner’s password is incorrect suggest disabling CAPS LOCK or changing the language.
  10. Help and documentation "Even though it is better when your eLearning course can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search and be focused on the learner's task. List concrete steps to be carried out that should not be unnecessarily large."How to apply it to eLearning? Be sure that you have manuals or tutorials explaining the eLearning course usage in case a learner faces a problem. When creating tutorials try to make them short, simple and informative. To facilitate the search and prevent free learners from scanning the whole document to find the necessary information, categorize the documentations and add phrase search.

Last but not least you may want to read What Is The Importance Of eLearning Usability? Now it is time to test your eLearning course usability based on the Usability Heuristics!


10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design