2017: The Year of User Interface Design

User Interface Design

When I was tasked with identifying and elaborating on an instructional design trend for 2017, I did what most people do when they have no ideas: I asked Google. I noticed a pattern among the various trends that were identified. Many of the articles listed user interface design. Oh great, I thought. On top of being an instructional designer, now I also have to be an expert in UI?

In hindsight, that was a pretty silly response to have. Of course I have to care about user interface design. Learning does not occur in a vacuum; learning occurs within a specific environment, and that environment affects the ways in which learners interact with the course content. Thoughtful teachers physically rearrange their classrooms in ways that promote their teaching philosophies. For example, teachers may decide to have their students move their desks into a full circle in order to promote a full class discussion, or teachers may opt to have tables instead of individual desks in order to promote small group discussions.

Learning environments have what experts call affordances and constraints. Affordances encourage learners to use their environments in a particular way (e.g., moving the desks into a circle affords a full class discussion.) Constraints discourage learners from using their environments in particular ways (e.g., having students sit at tables discourages them from keeping to themselves. They are much more likely to talk to each other.) Affordances and constraints aren’t necessarily the plusses and minuses of having particular types of environments. They’re just the ways in which environments are likely to encourage or discourage particular student behaviors.

Affordances and constraints extend into the virtual realm. When instructional designers develop courses, they aren’t simply typing content that will magically be transported into the brains of their learners. Just like physical learning environments, learners interact with virtual learning environments that have particular affordances and constraints. These affordances and constraints will affect how learners interact with the content and thus their learning experiences. So as instructional designers, we need to make careful decisions about the learning environments that we’re developing for our learners, and we need to observe how learners interact with those environments whether through clickstream data or visual observation.

These are some questions we need to ask ourselves: how many clicks does it take to interact in a desirable way with the learning environment? How intuitively can the learners navigate the course content? Do learners have any visual indication of their progress throughout the course? Is my course a glorified PowerPoint slideshow, or am I leveraging the tools available to me in order to create an intuitive, interactive learning experience?

There are all sorts of interesting, innovative tools that exist to create virtual learning environments. It’s up to us to decide how we want to use them and to identify their affordances and constraints. We need to create thoughtful learning environments that will encourage our learners to interact with the learning content in meaningful and productive ways.

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