Three Research-Based Elements To Design Incredible Learning Experiences

Three Research-Based Elements To Design Incredible Learning Experiences
Summary: Learning and Development professionals are responsible for designing and curating learning experiences that inspire and empower learners to grow personally and professionally so that they can tackle change and problem-solve on the job. This article offers three research-based tactics to do so.

Awesome eLearning Experiences Are Art And Science

Over the past few years, everything in the way we live, work, and learn has changed and continues to transform rapidly. Learners need to think differently so that they can tackle unprecedented problems and find new solutions. These changing needs of learners created a demand for immersive learning experiences. Professors Diana LaRocco and Lisa Fanelli define a learning experience as "any planned or unplanned experience in settings and contexts that transforms learner insights, supports emotional growth, and builds knowledge, skills, and dispositions [1]."

As Learning and Development professionals, we are responsible for designing and curating learning experiences that inspire and empower learners to grow personally and professionally. Research shows that inspired and empowered learners are more engaged in their organizations and are more productive, and develop better products and services that customers love.

As the way we learn has changed to meet the speed of change thrust upon us, learning experiences also are changing to meet learner needs across all age brackets, from K-12 to professionals. At the Portfolio School in New York City, K-12 students learn using a hands-on approach in maker spaces that empower them to inquire, problem-solve, innovate, influence, and inspire others. At the Google School for Leaders, Googlers learn through personalized learning programs that engage the senses through curated spaces, select furniture, signature scents, and immersive travel experiences.

The good news is that awesome learning experiences do not require huge budgets. Research shows that great learning experiences share three common elements: functionality, usability, and memorability. This article explores how you can design and curate awesome learning experiences for your learners and your organization.

Common Elements Of Great Learning Experiences

1. Functionality

When UX designers Aaron Walter and Jared M. Spool applied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the User Experience, the functional characteristic formed the pyramid's base [2]. In other words, the function is foundational, and this means that the experience must work, and it has to offer value. In architecture, the maxim "form follows function" means that the building must work well and be a design marvel. In the context of a learning experience, the learning experience you are designing must work well and have a clear Instructional Design structure, whether ADDIE [3] or SAM [4] or another construct.

Key questions to ask during the design or curation phase to discern whether the learning experience is functional include: does the learning experience include learning objectives, exercises, case studies, and questions? Does it clearly state what new knowledge or skills the learner will walk away with after completing the module? Does the eLearning experience include knowledge checks to help learners retain what they are learning? Did you test the minimum viable product of the module with the learners for initial feedback? Have you incorporated the feedback into the iterated next version of the module?

2. Usability

In his research, Peter Morville defined the User Experience honeycomb, which consists of the seven characteristics of the User Experience [5]. A well-designed product that offers an awesome experience is usable, meaning it meets the user's needs, and the user can use the product to address their need. In the context of learning, the learning experience must be intuitive and easy to use, whereby the learner can use it to learn new skills, solve a problem, or answer a question.

A good way to verify whether a product is usable is to conduct usability testing. Usability testing is a process you can deploy to evaluate a product or service, in this case, the learner. Usually, during usability testing, learners will go through the module while observers watch, listen, and take notes. Usability testing aims to pinpoint usability issues and problems by collecting qualitative and quantitative feedback from the learners. Specifically, usability testing can highlight whether participants can complete tasks and exercises in the module, and provide insights on actual module duration by gauging the time it takes learners to complete the module.

During the design or curation phase, key questions to ask to discern whether the learning experience is usable include: Was the eLearning module easy to navigate? How long did it take a learner who had never seen the module before to accomplish basic tasks in the module? How fast can the experienced learner complete the module? After interacting with the module, can the learner remember enough to use it effectively next time? Does the learner like the module?

3. Pleasurability

User Experience luminary, Don Norman, defined three layers of User Experience: visceral, behavioral, and reflective [6]. The visceral layer includes the user's immediate reaction to the experience, reacting to form, color, and design. Peter Morville defines the element of emotional connection with the user as "desirability." In Aaron Walter and Jared M. Spool’s application of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the User Experience, the pyramid's pinnacle is the pleasurable element where the user connects emotionally with the experience.

In their book The Experience Economy, Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore described the User Experience regarding time: whether the learner's time is well saved, well spent, or well invested. Well-invested time is at the pinnacle of a pleasurable experience. For an eLearning experience, this would relate to branding and whether the learning creates a positive emotional connection with the learner.

Key questions to ask during the design or curation phase to discern whether the learning experience is pleasurable include: does the learning experience engage the learner? Does it inspire the learner to come back for more? Does the eLearning experience engage the learner's senses? Do they see short videos that demonstrate the learning objectives; do they hear podcast clips from thought leaders expanding on the points made in the module; do they feel challenged by the learning? Does it ensure that the learner's time spent in the learning experience is well invested?


As learner needs rapidly change, awesome eLearning experiences must go well beyond the commodity-product-service construct and offer functional, usable, and pleasurable content to create an inspiring, engaging, and memorable learner experience. These elements will differentiate your content, ensure your learners keep coming back for more, and help you structure a learning culture vital to tackling change today and tomorrow.


[1] Universal Design for Learning for Clinical Educators: Design Thinking in Clinical Settings

[2] Designing for Emotion by Aarron Walter of InVision and MailChimp at Lean Product Meetup

[3] ADDIE Model: Instructional Design

[4] Successive Approximation Model (SAM)

[5] User Experience Design

[6] Norman's Three Levels of Design