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What Makes an Experience Engaging? May 18, 2007

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
Tags: ,

I went to a concert in Kansas City last weekend with my wife. After the concert, I made a direct connection to learning that I think is worth sharing here.

Back to the concert… It was at an outdoor venue on a Friday night, and the weather was beautiful. I was excited for the concert; it was one of my favorite bands. (I’m not going to tell you who it was. You’ll see why.) There were two opening bands that were surprisingly good and then the main act took the stage at 9:15pm. They began their set with great fanfare and played all of their hits, plus a few songs that weren’t as well known. The lighting was great, the sound was great, and most of the crowd was enjoying the show. But I wasn’t. For some reason, I wasn’t that thrilled about the whole experience and I couldn’t figure out why. I had all the makings of a great night out, but something wasn’t clicking. I just wasn’t feeling it. It dawned on me a few days later: The band was going through the motions, but not really getting into the show. Sure, they tour 95% of the year, so I can see how it could get boring and/or tiring for them to perform so often. The guitarist barely moved throughout the whole show; the lead singer meandered back and forth. This band normally has a reputation of being much more interesting and lively. I didn’t get the full-throttle, 100% exciting experience I was hoping for. I wasn’t into it. I wasn’t engaged.

How does this relate to learning? I see it this way: We can create a course or a learning experience that has all of the sound, graphics, animation, video, and simulations we want, but if the overall experience doesn’t pull the learner in and grab their interest, we’re missing the mark. We’re not engaging them. A significant part of engaging the learner comes from focusing on the design of the user experience from the very beginning. If you miss one critical element, things can go down hill quickly. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of focusing on an awesome Flash interaction or powerful software simulation, and then neglect the overall user experience. If you don’t focus on what really counts, you’ll end up with a situation like the one I described above: the individual won’t be engaged, and they’ll leave feeling like they missed out on something.

Elements of Engagement

I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few sessions put on by Clark Quinn, Director of Quinnovation. Clark does a great job of outlining and describing the elements of an experience that make it engaging. He then describes how to apply this information and make learning experiences engaging.

According to Clark, an experience is more likely to be engaging if it:

  • Is something new,
  • Is interesting to the individual,
  • Provides some sense of exploration,
  • Gives some sense of freedom, and
  • Provides a novel experience or novel events.

(These are only a few of the elements; see Clark’s book, Engaging Learning, for more information.)

Can a concert pull off all of the elements mentioned above? I believe it can, in its own way. Can a learning experience pull off all of the elements? Absolutely. I’m going to keep this concert example in mind from now on when I design anything related to learning. I’m going to put myself in the users’ place more often and try to see what they’ll see. I don’t want my learners to feel like they’re at a mediocre rock concert. 🙂



1. Clark Quinn - May 18, 2007

BJ, great post (even if it does mention me ;). Pine & Gilmore (in “The Experience Economy”) say that we’re currently in an ‘experience’ economy, where we pay for experiences. That experience definitely needs to have a visible commitment, when live through performer’s intensity, when ‘canned’ through quality of design. (Of course, what I’m talking about is Pine & Gilmore’s next stage, the ‘transformation’ economy, where those experiences transform you).

Your list of elements is good, though I’d replace ‘something new’ (which is redundant with novelty) with ‘challenge’. But I’m absolutely in synch with you that thinking from the perspective of the learner experience is a key to making engaging (and effective) learning.

2. Designing eLearning Interactions « eLearning Weekly - May 29, 2007

[…] Tools, Design. trackback I’ve written articles about making sure learning experiences are engaging, but I haven’t written much on how to actually build the interactions that make an experience […]

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