The Essential Design Process for Digital Learning: Where to Start?

Graphic or Visual design in digital learning solutions can make or break a great learning experience. It is not purely about pretty colours and imagery, but rather used as a visual tool to help support the instructional design by communicating the key concepts in the learning content, increasing learner engagement throughout your programme.

According to Dr. Lynell Burmark, an education consultant who writes and speaks about visual literacy: “…unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about seven bits of information. Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched.”

With that in mind, it can be tough to know where to start if you want to take instructional design content to higher levels through enhanced graphic design and User Experience (UX). In this article we will look at the step-by-step essential design processes and design principles that will elevate your content to ensure that learners will appreciate and interact seamlessly with it. If you are not fortunate enough have access to a design team, we will also cover some areas that will help guide content creators or instructional designers (who are not design experts) to apply good design principles to their content.

So…where to start?
The Moodboard
1. The Mood Board

Putting together a mood board is always a great place to start. It helps everyone involved in the development process to see the potential visual aspirations that stem from the storyboard. There are a few things you need to take into consideration when putting this together. Ask the following questions:

1. Who are we designing for? This is usually when you dive into the learner personas to understand the learner audience and what graphic style will resonate with them the most. This will allow you to provide value for the targeted users who’ll be interacting with the digital learning asset.

2: Does it need to reflect company Corporate Identity and Branding guidelines? If it does, you will need to refer to their Brand Identity document to ensure visual alignment (we often work closely with marketing departments). If you have been given the freedom of a blank canvas, it is important that you still follow best practice design principles.

3: What is the primary mode of delivery? Is it via mobile? Desktop? This is also an important consideration when it comes to layout and UX.

Dedicate some time and research what’s out there and start correlating your inspirations onto a digital board. There are so many places to find inspiration such as Pinterest, Dribble, Behance or Awwwards. We generally look at different illustration styles, photography treatments, icons, fonts, colour schemes, feedback boxes and navigation assets, and consider the ones we like and think would suit the learning content best. To kickstart this phase of the project, it is generally an important way to get the stakeholders excited and involved by getting their input and feedback. Creative collaboration and stakeholder buy-in is half the challenge already won!


The Conceptual Step

2. The Concept

The next step in the process is to start designing the various elements for your template based on the style direction agreed upon in the mood board and putting them together into a conceptual mock-up for client approval. We usually design about three different concepts to showcase how various UX and graphic design elements will assemble into a layout template for the assorted outputs. These concepts could be designed for differing e-learning software such as Articulate Storyline or Articulate Rise, PDF’s, Apps, ebooks etc.

When designing these concept layouts, it is very important to take design principles into consideration. These principles are often talked about separately, but in practice, they work in harmony to create a design that’s visually appealing and makes sense to the user, who in this case, is the learner. Expert designers understand how the principles support, reinforce, or even contrast with each other to create the desired effect. It is also important to consider designing for various touchscreen devices. If your solution is responsive or mobile-first, remember to think about your hit targets, the thumb-zone, and ensure text is easily legible.

Even if you are not a designer, it is important to understand the fundamentals and logic behind them. Interaction Design Foundation quotes “Designers use principles such as visibility, findability and learnability to address basic human behaviours. We use some design principles to guide actions. Perceived affordances such as buttons are an example. That way, we put users in control in seamless experiences.” Our job is to ensure that learners are engaged in the important content, and do not get frustrated by complicated functionality, navigation and irrelevant graphics causing them to drop-off and disengage.

Take a look at this great article by UXMag to understand the Gestalt Principles and how they relate to visual design. We will delve into that further in a future article.

Once your various design elements are cemented and agreed upon, consolidate them into an easy-to-access style guide, so if there are multiple designers working on the project, it ensures consistency and continuity across the assets and modules.


The Prototyping step

3. The Prototype

Once your final concept has been approved, it is important to translate it into a functional prototype. We usually take a small module from the full programme and start to develop it using the design elements from our concept. Often, as with most prototypes, you will find you may need to tweak a few things here and there to suit the content or the interactions, but this is the nature of the iterative process of prototyping…putting the theory into practice. By creating a prototype before commencing on the full build, you are helping smooth out any possible obstacles or barriers to learning. We have learnt the hard way that it is far easier to fix and amend design issues in the prototype, than at the end of the fully developed programme where you may have multiple modules to update consuming time and money. The prototype sign-off milestone is an important one to achieve allowing designers to go full steam into development.

Once the prototype has been signed off, it is important to develop a programme-specific design style guide that can be accessed by all parties involved in the development of the programme. This gives the designers or developers the design parameters that must be followed. As mentioned earlier, if there are multiple developers working on the programme, the style guide gives them the design protocol which they must follow, minimising any confusion or reigning in any overzealous design cowboys.


Quality Assurance and User Acceptance Testing Step


4. Quality Assurance and User Acceptance Testing

Once the development is complete, it is important to conduct user testing and a quality assurance review. This can be done by various people; via peer review, with the client and small learner cohort. We have a very useful Quality Assurance (QA) checklist you can download here, (or at the end of the article) and it is critical the review is conducted against this or your own checklist to cover all areas of possible error. This checklist is divided into different sections testing for design accuracy, functionality and technical components.

UAT is usually run with a small cohort of the learner audience. This usually results in some interesting feedback and gives a fresh perspective. During these sessions, the intuitive design and functionality is tested to ensure a seamless user experience. If there are any errors or user obstacles, they should be documented and sent back to the development team for updating.


The Conclusion:

Once this simple, but essential design process is put in place with either yourself or your team, you will find that it will drastically improve internal errors and mitigate unnecessary time spent on implementing changes. A stream-lined process gives confidence to clients, knowing that they will receive a polished, high quality learning solution that they are able to roll-out to their organisations. It is important to remember that their reputation is also at stake, and it is not only our job to make them shine but to give learners an impactful learning experience. Don’t forget to grab your essential Design QA checklist below!


Download Design QA Checklist


Contact us today to find out more about how TTRO can support you build transformative learning experiences.


Author: Kate Atkinson

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