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Don’t Look at the Designer Behind the Curtain October 15, 2009

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

This article, by Eric Matas, is the second of a three part series on the Psychology of Elearning. (The first post is Cognitive Load vs. Load Time.) Eric is an Instructional Designer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Thanks, Eric!!

Ah, yes, my title alludes to the wonderful Wizard of Oz. Revered and feared, he was just one trainer like you. He hid in his little cubicle but made magic for Dorothy and her fellow learners. Truly, though, most tricks—the bells and whistles of his wizardry—were simple. He made some smoke, fire, and thunder. The Wizard did most of his work with the stage. His stage set the, well, stage for his audience to expect shock and awe. Elearning developers can do the same, working the templates and backgrounds to do the work often allocated to text boxes and narration.

To really squeeze all the juice out of templates so you can reduce assets and thereby file size, think visual conditioning. It is possible, even helpful, to use color and template cues to condition viewers’ expectations. Most likely, you use such conditioning already, creating consistent text box styles, for example. I suggest that you maximize this effect to reduce redundant assets.

Let me explain the psychology using grammar. My background is teaching English, and the psychology of reading correlates to the psychology of learning. This quick grammar analogy makes the conditioning clear. When we use a subordinate clause, we create expectation. Look at how that last sentence starts:

    When we use a subordinate clause,

That is a subordinate clause, also called a dependent clause. Readers experience a natural expectation reading such clauses because they know the clause is incomplete—grammar conditions readers to anticipate the completion of that thought:

     …we create expectation.

Templates create similar expectations, which is why designers make headings consistent in font and font size. Consistent choices say, in effect, “Hey learner, this is the header for this screen.” A smart template can say a lot.

Slide Style

Start with a lean template. You’ll need a course title slide and a section title slide, which get used rarely. As for body slides, I have found that one is used extensively, and having a couple alternate options breaks monotony and signals to learners that something special is happening. I made a short Screenr video that shows a simple template for scenario training:

Keep scenarios simple. Tom Kuhlman writes The Rapid Elearning Blog focused on Articulate and great tips for PowerPoint. One excellent post shares how to keep elearning scenarios to three simple steps.


You can find characters to play the narrator in many places. I found the images of this female character in various poses from Kuhlman’s blog. He offers free templates too that you are free to use or edit.

Female Character Group of 5

To avoid boredom, pose the character for different expressions. Use one pose consistently to express something normally narrated. A good expression of delight, for example, will say, “Congratulations, you got it right.” for you. That saves narration or allows you to use narration for more valuable information like reinforcement of the key take-away. Besides some free character sets, you can buy them. I met Bryan Jones on Twitter (@elearningart), and he offers many tools including affordable characters at elearningart.com.

My favorite way to get characters—and to get all the shots I want and need—is to corral a colleague. Many will be willing, and in 1/2 hour in a conference room you can have excellent digital photos showing the 10 facial expressions you want most. One last tip: the character pic does NOT need to appear on every screen. Once learners have “met” her in early screens, they suspend their disbelief on screens that only offer her narration. It saves kilobytes!

Warning Triangle

Colors and Sounds

Learners expect specific types of content on slides of the same color. Make a smart template to say what it can for you. Section title slides are obvious. You rarely emphasize the new section with other assets because the section title slide screams out, “You are starting a new section called…”

Besides the color choices I mention in the Screenr video, you can do a lot with color-coordinated street signs. An orange triangle could indicate an important point and green circle, with a question mark, could prompt learners to answer a question.

One reason templates condition viewers is that viewers are getting more used to seeing elearning. In other words, learners progress with less hand-holding and prompting. Color themes are unobtrusive and still effective at establishing expectations.

Sounds make great signals. I made a demo of a very busy software. As the demo progressed, text boxes popped open with guiding tips. But, the software also had windows popping open. It was confusing. What did I do? Before the demo started, I added a happy little ting sound to my text boxes as they opened. That conditioned learners to expect a text box with important information when they heard that ting.

It may sound (no pun) simple, but that little sound helped—on those busy demo screens, that ting made learners scan for the text pop-up. It’s a little like Pavlov’s dog, which can seem controlling, but in the hands of responsible educators, it will only serve for good.

In the first of these three posts (Cognitive Load vs. Load Time), I shared tips on eliminating redundancy. So many redundancies are automatically avoided by starting with a carefully planned template. If your background prompts learners, you will not need a narrator or a text box to explain. Your elearning module will be leaner and more agile for the impatient learners.

In the next post, I propose a more radical design change. Look for it soon:

     #3 – Extreme Makeover Elearning Edition

About the Author

Eric Matas designs elearning, teaches college composition, and writes for several blogs like Kidundated! and Blah Blah Bleric. He welcomes you to meet him on Twitter by following @tweric.

Are you interested in writing for eLearning Weekly?



1. Ami Caster - November 25, 2009

I feel like such a putz for using pre-fab templates now. Duh. This totally makes sense, I mean, street signs are the perfect example: I don’t really need to “read” a stop sign because when that red octogon with white font shows up on a street corner, I just know what’s up.

I need to revise everything I ever made.

2. wiredjava - December 9, 2009

Great post! The only thing I would quibble with is the use of a logo — if something does not promote or aid the learning then it does not belong there. Thus while it might certainly belong on the title and credit slides, I don’t see the purpose of putting it on everything in the middle.

3. Sara - December 9, 2009

Subordinate clause? You are such a grammar nerd. 🙂

Seriously, that grammar example really helps me to see how communication can make expectations. Whether with text or image. I think early elearning worried about the isolation of the learner, stuck alone with no help from the teacher. So, too much instruction and explanation was added. We’re lucky that we’re moving passed that.

Thanks for the link to the “one excellent post” by Tom K. That is really helpful too.

4. mlobel123 - January 1, 2012

This is an excellent article! I enjoyed the example course template and comment on simplicity. White space is always a missing design element in many courses.

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