User Experience Design and eLearning: A Conversation with Julie Dirksen

User Experience Design and E-Learning: A Conversation with Julie Dirksen
Summary: For many e-learning developers, User Experience design can be the key to unlocking a great experience for their learners. Julie Dirksen, one of the pioneers in applying UX principles to e-learning, argues that all e-learning developers need a basic knowledge of UX design to create an engaging experience. She also supplies some excellent resources to get started on that journey. What follows is a transcript of a short e-mail exchange with Dirksen; it has been lightly edited for content and length.

A Conversation with Julie Dirksen: User Experience Design and E-Learning

Andrew Winner: For those in the audience who don't have a lot of experience with UX Design, how would you describe it to them?

Julie Dirksen: UX or User eXperience design is about creating the best/most effective experience -- if you've ever used a software application that was complicated and frustrating and ugly, then you know what UX design is by its absence. In fact, good user experience is frequently invisible because it doesn't get in your way -- you are too busy checking your bank balance or ordering a sweater to notice that the interface is carefully designed to be pleasant and effective.

AW: How did you personally become interested with UX Design and its applications with e-learning?

JD: UX has some interesting implications for learning and development.  Early in my career, I was a trainer in a call center, and it took a really long time to get people up to speed -- mostly due to the horrible computer system the customer service reps had to use.  It would be a good six months before the reps really got comfortable navigating all the arcane green-screen systems.

The best training in the world couldn't really shorten that timeframe that much.  We started looking at designing a front-end system that would pull the information out of the old system, but display it in a way that made sense for the customer service reps and their workflow.  I wound up managing that project, and started to do research into interface design for this front-end system.  I went looking for guidelines about how screens should be laid out, etc. I found the fields of Usability Engineering and Human-Computer Interaction (it wasn't called UX yet) and got really interested in those areas.

UX can help e-learning designers create better e-learning, but more importantly, it can help learning and development people look at the question of when is it best to fix the user (training) or best to fix the interface or system (UX).

AW: So it sounds like, out of necessity, you became a UX Expert in addition to an e-learning expert. In your opinion, do you think every e-learning professional should have a working knowledge of UX design?

JD: Yep, I pretty much think that every elearning design should have a working knowledge of general UX principles and practices. At a minimum, they should know about some of the user research methods, prototyping, and usability testing.  There's a lot more than that, but everyone in e-learning should have at least that much.

AW: Finally, what resources would you recommend for e-learning professional hoping to upskill his or her UX Design chops?

JD: The book everyone starts with is Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think, which is a very accessible starting place. Everyone designing anything should read Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things. Some other resources include:

I have compiled a list of some other resources on my website, here:

Julie Dirksen is the author of Design for How People Learn, an exploration into the intersection between UX Design and E-Learning.