The term learning experience design is having a moment. An increasingly utilized and recognized phrase within and even outside the field of online learning, it’s popping up in many places as people discover what this kind of design is all about.
At Extension Engine, learning experience design is one of our areas of expertise. We’d like to share how we approach this type of design work, how we navigate the many challenges of the projects we tackle, and why we think a top-notch learning design is crucial for the learner.
Learning Experience Design: What It Is and How It Works
Simply put, learning experience design is the process by which a designer builds a framework that teaches something specific to a learner. “A great learning experience design understands why the learner came to learn and helps them reach that objective and those goals,” explains Learning Experience Designer Marc Campasano. “Secondarily, it understands the designer’s purpose. So a good learning experience listens to the user and any other stakeholder as to why this experience is happening and why they’re experiencing it, and it’s aimed toward that end. Included in that is making sure it’s accessible and attainable for anyone.”
When you’re trying to teach someone a new skill or topic, therefore, you have to know both your goals — whether you’re the designer or the assigner or another stakeholder — and your learners’ goals. Then you have to align these goals in a way that transforms the learning experience into something the learner can absorb and use. Senior Learning Strategist Lauren Gould says, “To do that, a learning experience designer will usually practice what I call learner-centered design. It’s built on the same principles as human-centered design, where the design process is really focused on the people who you’re designing for and creating solutions that are customized to meet their needs. It’s a process of doing research to really understand who your learners are, to generate empathy for them, and then as important as empathy, it’s including them as part of the process — not just to get feedback but to get their ideas and incorporate their ideas.”
This process is complex, and success often requires the collaboration of designers with knowledge in many disciplines. “The interesting thing about learning experience design is that it sits in between cognitive science and design, and user experience design,” Learning Experience Designer Mac Crawford says. “So you can pull a lot of different ideas and principles and fundamentals from a lot of different places to create something that requires thoughtful synthesis.” Because of this cross-disciplinary approach, learning experience design as a field draws people with a variety of backgrounds, which can be a huge benefit to the learner through the way the design is approached. “My background is history and philosophy, so I bring that with me, which means I am very interested in things like design, understandability, sequence, and organization,” Mac says. “But you could also have designers that came very much more through the hard sciences and who rely more on other domains of knowledge.”
Learning Experience Design Versus Instructional Design
The meanings of the terms learning experience design and instructional design are often raised by people trying to understand whether they’re actually different things or just different words for the same thing. To make matters more confusing, some people use the terms interchangeably. However, for those who see them as separate, learning experience design refers to designs focused on making the best, most effective learning situation for the user, while instructional design connotes designs that are more focused on curriculum delivery. Lauren says, “I think the push for that [use of the term ‘instructional design’] was that it came out of academia: You’re designing instruction. The learning designer is trying to flip that, like, ‘No, we’re actually designing for the learners and users, the humans,’ and I think it took a lot of thinking from fields like user experience design and human-centered design in general.”
The Fundamentals of a Good Learning Experience Design
Semantics aside, the big question remains: What does the designer need to think through to create a good learning experience? For Mac, a holistic approach is best. She says, “It comes from looking for connections in everything that you do, recognizing that you get a lot of really interesting inspiration, and also that you can use information in a way that’s very transferrable.” This is where the designer’s background experience in other fields comes into play. But there’s also a lot of information available about how humans respond to design and move through online learning platforms, so a good learning experience designer makes use of this information as well. Mac adds, “It comes from just having a very open mind and constantly looking to make those connections, to see where things are in tension, and then to try to work out that knot to figure out, OK, in this case do I want to think more about design? Do I want to think more about user experience? Do I want to think more about the learning science?”
Another key factor to keep in mind is exactly which learners you’re designing for. You’ll need user testing and user feedback to really understand your learners, and although the cohort may seem overwhelmingly large, there are ways to parse what you know about them even before you reach out. For example, simply knowing the age of your typical learner will help you make a lot of design decisions. Lauren says, “You need to know what your learner needs and their motivations for learning this,” and she suggests asking a few guiding questions:
- What is the learner's background?
Where are they coming from in the world?
What knowledge of the topic do they already have?
What relevant skills, attitudes, or beliefs do they have?
What technologies will they use to access the learning experience?
The Challenges of Learning Experience Design
With a process this complex, it’s not surprising that many challenges arise during any learning experience design process. Lauren compares it to building a plane while you’re flying it. “[Sometimes clients] know they want to talk about X or do Y, but they don’t know everything about that, and so we’re kind of designing alongside them, creating the thoughts that are underneath the design. And that makes the design a little bit chicken-and-egg. It’s something you have to think about in terms of flexibility.”
One way to avoid some of this potential confusion and to leave room for flexibility is to gather as much feedback as possible, before you start, from the learners who will be using your design. Lauren says, “We want learners whom we can interview and talk to and think things through with up front, so we try to advocate for a sort of learner advisory committee, a group of learners who would be your target group, or alumni who have gone through it before and can speak to it. Then it’s at various points throughout the process as well, because when we start having ideas, we need a lot of feedback. And we also want to open up space for learners to give us their ideas: Here’s the challenge, here’s what we’re looking at, what do you think, how would you solve this? It’s democratizing the design process.”
Of course, part of knowing what to do also involves knowing what to avoid, or at least what to consider very carefully. Marc cites some common pitfalls he sees in the development of learning experience designs:
Forcing learners to follow a certain path. “For a lot of experiences, the right move is to let learners access whatever they want in the learning experience platform in any order, because you’re there to serve them,” he says. It may not be necessary for them to step through every assessment sequentially in order to learn what they need to know.
Adding gamification as a feature. It can be useful — but only if it serves the learning experience in addition to adding a sense of fun.
Assuming high-tech, flashy solutions are always necessary. “High-tech and cutting-edge are not better in every circumstance,” Marc says. “Sometimes I advise, ‘I really think this should just be a printable PDF.’ Because, going back to the learner and their actual use case, you’re doing professional services. You want these things to stick. ‘There’s some detailed knowledge here, it might be great if they could just reference it anytime, and the best way to do that is a printout.’ And it’s the most accessible. Getting into accessibility, the flashier it is, the harder it is to make it accessible.”
The best learning experience designs do sometimes incorporate these elements, but they only work if they’re done in an organic way that serves the learner. A couple of Marc’s favorite examples of success in this are Duolingo and Code Academy. He says, “I love Duolingo. I’m paying for the expanded version, but it’s got user choice, it’s got enough things to meet you where you are, for your purpose. I think Code Academy is really awesome because their assessment is: Can you code? They’re not asking you quiz questions about coding, you’re just coding. There’s nothing purer than an assessment that’s just doing the thing that you said you came here to learn how to do.”
Lauren’s favorite learning experiences are those that don’t feel like learning experiences. “I think of things like DIY.org. It’s really cool; it’s basically for kids to try out, hands-on, all different types of projects and experiments and to do them and to share them and kind of collaborate with each other and show the process. It’s really interesting how many elements of a learning experience are inherent within them, but they’re not necessarily there like, ‘I’m a learner, I’m going to come away with a certificate or a piece of paper.’ It’s the fun and engaging nature of the experience that draws them in and keeps them there until they’ve got a new skill.”
The Ideal Learning Experience Design
The best learning experience designs aren’t cookie-cutter creations built from a checklist. There are multiple examples of well-constructed designs that work for their particular situation that wouldn’t be good with a different set of learners or in a different set of circumstances. And that’s the point: Each design needs to be built to meet its learners where they are. As Mac says, “The number one thing is, can the learner understand how to move through this? The worst thing, in my opinion, is for someone to look at something or to start something and get so confused that they essentially rage-quit the experience.”
Lauren also mentions the gap between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for using a learning experience platform. She says, “For an adult learner to come in and be able to say, ‘This is immediately useful and relevant to my life, I can dive in and apply this and get what I need here from it. I see the value.’” That’s what learning experience designs should aim for.