Posted by: bbannan | February 8, 2011

UxD for ISD (Thinking is Dead. Long Live Thinking.) – Philip

What’s the difference between a good learning experience and a bad one? As long as the learners can meet the learning objectives, do we even care? Or is user experience design something we should be thinking more about with respect to our instructional designs?

First of all, let’s define what we mean by user experience design.

According to Wikipedia, user experience is “about how a person feels about using a system.” How do you design how a person feels? Is it even possible? For an interesting discussion of this question, check out Oliver Reichenstein’s (Information Architects) post Can Experience Be Designed?

Here’s a sense of how he fleshes out the definition:

You don’t need to be an engineer to find out that your car doesn’t start. But you need to be an engineer to fix it. As a user experience designer you need to know how things work. When it comes to use, all opinions are equal, but when it comes to engineering, they are not (emphasis his). The engineer collects the feedback and finds ways to deal with it. His opinions are not just based on personal experience. Like a scientist, he tests and validate his assumptions, he develops both theory and practice—not merely relying on his own perception, but by actually testing his products with his audience. And yes, designing interactive products for over ten years makes you more experienced about what works and what doesn’t. But it should never stop you from testing it in the field. By dealing with feedback you get proficient in “experience design.”

(In addition to providing us with a useful metaphor for understanding user experience design, Reichenstein gets right into what we’ll be working on this semester — testing our products with our audiences and soliciting feedback.)

Next up is a post by Jared Spool (User Interface Engineering), who is awesome by the way, and someone you should see in a live seminar if you ever have the opportunity. He describes experience design as “designing what happens between the activities” and takes an interesting look at the experience of Six Flags versus that of Disney World, starting with how they design their maps.

The designers of Six Flags parks created a series of discrete activities. The park guest moves from one activity to the next.

In contrast, the [Disney] Imagineers design entire experiences. Each portion of the park is thought through, created with an iterative process (emphasis mine), until guests have the experiences the park designers are seeking.

As instructional designers, we are very task focused. We do task analyses to develop everything from goals and objectives to activity sequencing to evaluation methods. So we’ve got our activities covered, but what about the space in between those activities? Are they enjoying it? Do they even want to be there? If they don’t, how can we make it less painful? In Trista’s 704 course, where we all had to get up in front of the class and teach something using one of the models we were learning about, she gave us a brilliant tip: people like food. Many presenters ended up bringing in some kind of treats on their teaching day, which made learning about topics we weren’t necessarily interested in much more enjoyable.

Of course, that’s not to say we should build snack time into all our designs. But it’s helpful to think about the total environment (or as much of it as you can) that the learners will be experiencing. Things like the time of the day, room lighting, seating ergonomics, etc. all play into the learners’ readiness to learn and their ability to absorb the material.

Two Levels of Experience

For the purpose of instructional design, I like to think about user experience on two levels: one is the usability/interface level and the other is the learning experience.

In Steve Krug’s seminal book on usability, Don’t Make Me Think, he lays out some deceptively simple guidelines to creating websites that don’t suck. Although the book is geared toward web usability, the timeless and universal advice can easily apply to many of our instructional design projects, especially as more of our interfaces converge onto desktop and mobile browsers.

But wait a minute…”don’t make me think?” We’re designing instruction, so presumably we want people to learn, and that requires thinking, doesn’t it?

Of course it does, which is why I look at this level of experience as designing an environment that doesn’t put stumbling blocks in the way of the learners (things like good visual design, clear and concise language, and logical architecure/navigation) It’s like good writing. When readers have to constantly stop, think, and re-read because of bad grammar or confusing sentence structure, it distracts them from the content and allows this cognitive interference to get in the way of comprehension.

We don’t want them to think about the buttons, colors, interaction, where am I?, where do I go next?, etc. We want them to focus on the material: the content, activities, questions, and answers.

That brings us to the other level of experience. In constructivist learning theory, the experience is the learning. And it’s not supposed to be easy. The learners should take control of it, define their own goals and problems, construct their own knowledge, and develop their own solutions. But whether your instruction is based on constructivist models or not, this is where the learning happens — when learners are doing, thinking, reading, interacting, and questioning, which begs the question: what makes a great learning experience at this level? There’s no one right answer, but for me, I think about things like learner motivation, learning styles, prior knowledge, relevance of instruction to practical usage — all those user-centered elements should be part of instructional design.

So what does this all mean to us as instructional designers? With an understanding of the relationship between experience and learning, let’s think about opportunities for creating great experiences with our designs. Let’s go beyond “compliant” and “usable” to elegant and pleasurable and engaging.

Or maybe look at things in simplier terms. We’re creating a product. How do we want people to feel about that product? We want them to like it, of course. Well, how do we do that?

First, don’t annoy them. (that is, don’t make them think).

Second, go beyond giving them their money’s worth. Or as Seth Godin would say (in his latest book, Linchpin), give them a gift — something that makes the experience memorable, that makes them want to come back, and tell their friends about it. Something that helps them remember whatever the heck it was you were trying to teach them.

In that sense, we might think of user experience in another, more old-fashioned, term: customer service.

Further Reading

Dane Petersen of Adaptive Path responds to Oliver Reichenstein’s question in “Can experience be designed? Yes. No. Wait, yes. But.

10 misconceptions (what uxd is not)

A take on “10 misconceptions” from an ISD perspective



  1. Philip,

    Very well written! This topic of user experience design makes me rethink about the vital validation role of usability testing in the design research process. Not just validating that the prototype is functional and meeting the needs of the target audience, but also validating that an enjoyable user experience has been considered and integrated into the design.

    You bring up great points about removing the barriers to learning, and improving compliance and interest with engaging user designs. Certainly part of our design research process needs to evaluate these user experience intangibles, not just the basics of meeting learning objectives. So, what are the type of questions or line of questioning that then lead to insights into the persons feelings of their user experience during usability testing? Here are a few I would suggest, but I would be interested in others input:

    1) If you had one word to describe your experience in using this product what would it be (e.g. boring, interesting, fun, stupid, hard, easy, entertaining, etc)?

    2) Would you recommend this product to a friend, why or why not?

    3) Was your overall experience in using this product memorable in any way, if so, how?

    4) Did you find any part of the product distracting? If yes, please expain.

    5) Did you find any part of the product engaging? If yes, please explain.



    • Thanks for your comments, Jesse. You make some great suggestions that I’m thinking we should incorporate into our design research questions this semester. Instead of just using evaluations to determine whether the learners learned something, we can also use them to help figure out how they felt about it. And by incorporating “having a good experience” into our objectives, we can make that component of our designs more explicit.

  2. Thanks so much for your post Phillip! It is very thought-provoking and has made me think deeper about providing rich user experiences in instructional design.

    One conflict I run into constantly is clients who often want to provide training with the objective of having the learner be aware of material as opposed to having the learner demonstrate their knowledge of the material.

    For these training courses in which awareness is the goal, I think the user experience still needs to be evaluated during a pilot program. Most of the time, the clients use the objective of awareness as an excuse to bombard the students with written material and lectures. The user experience is sacrificed and diminished as a result of this approach.

    This article I found on creating more and effective and engaging security training ( provides ideas that support your point of “give them a gift — something that makes the experience memorable, that makes them want to come back, and tell their friends about it. Something that helps them remember whatever the heck it was you were trying to teach them.” The article suggests ideas like “A scavenger hunt. A Jeopardy-like trivia game. A well-known guest speaker. A movie about espionage”

    Thanks again for your thoughts! It really broadened my thoughts about how I can think deeply about and apply the user experience to the instructional design process.

    • Thanks for your comments and the link to that article, Andrew. Great example about the objectives. As I mentioned in my reply above to Jesse, I think defining the objectives can be key to giving user experience a more proper and legitimate role in the design process. If one of the objectives is, “Learners will be able to complete the training without wanting to jump out the window,” we won’t be able to ignore the topic of experience. 😉

  3. Great posting, Philip. You have given us a lot to think about. As I try to put together the concepts in your posting and the challenges that face us this semester, I find myself asking how we can all be better designers. I turned to the book “The Business of Design” by Roger Martin and in the last section, he talks about developing one’s self as a Design Thinker. He writes that we all “have a personal knowledge system that has three mutually reinforcing components – Stance, Tools, and Experiences. Stance is how we see the world around us and how we see ourself in that world – a design thinker sees the world as a place that welcomes new ideas, rather than a hostile environment that punishes change. The next component is Tools – the tools we use to organize our thinking and to understand our world. The final component is Experiences – the experiences we accumulate are the product of our stance and tools, which steer us toward some experiences and away from others.” On page 165 he suggests that “to be a better design thinker, consciously use your experiences to deepen your mastery and nurture your originality”.

    Putting all of the above in a practical framework, I propose that we can become better designers by first becoming aware of our stance and changing it (if needed). Some questions that we could ask ourself include “Do I see myself as someone who can bring about change?”, “Do I welcome the unknown?”, “Am I open to surprises?”, and if the answer to these three questions is “No”, then the next question could be “Am I willing to change how I see the world?” Once we have the right stance we can develop our tools by developing our powers of observation and imagination. Finally, we can develop openness to new experiences, become more reflective of those experiences, and then use them to think of new ways of approaching problems.

    • Interesting stuff, Cielo. Not what I would expect to find in a book called “The Business of Design.”

      Although our users may not necessarily think about experiences this way, I think it helps for us as designers to consider how these perhaps subconscious thoughts of our users affect their learning and experience with our designs.

  4. Really interesting Philip. Your blog and Reichenstein’s article brought up several points that really got me thinking. One is the idea that we should design so that our users don’t have to think; however, when designing a learning environment we of course want our users to learn. It made me think (ouch) that “thinking” has a connotation that it is a painful, unpleasant thing to do. While I believe that the point was that you don’t want you users to have to “think” to navigate through your design, it doesn’t mean you don’t want them to “think” in the spots in the design were you want them to learn. And also the design should be such that in those spots where learning should occur, thinking shouldn’t be painful. If you design using the principals we’ve learned, such as scaffolding and tapping into motivation, the learning can occur in a natural, organic, pain-free manner.

    The blog and article also made me think of the concept we’ve read about, “designing for the user’s mental model.” But don’t we all have a different mental model? We all have different ways of thinking, different perceptions, based on our past: education, experiences, personality, etc. Reichenstein makes this point in his article, Can Experience be Designed?, but his take is that by studying the target audience and simplifying the design you, “It will help you speaking more efficiently to your target group.” I enjoy his cynical take, how testing and analyzing can be over- and improperly used, sort of in a faddish way, by people going through the motions or trying to cover their butts (sorry to be coarse).

    I keep returning to the term “elegant design” from one of our early readings and which Brenda has repeated several times. A design so beautiful that it meshes perfectly with its context, pleasurable to use and efficiently and seemingly effortlessly achieves its purpose.

    • Hi Debbie,

      I think the Kuniavsky chapter on User Profiles (or what we learned as personas last semester) can help us with the idea of designing for users’ mental models, however different they may be.

      As he discusses in the “Prioritize” section, some personas are more equal than others. We should consider the needs of the persona who is most important to our business goals and design objectives, but also the persona whose needs most likely encompass most of the needs of the other secondary personas.

      We can’t be everything to everybody, but we can prioritize the user input (we get from testing and building personas) to find the solution that will work best most of the time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: