How do we create INTUITIVE
(Findable & Usable) online learning experiences?


If you need instructions to find it or use it, it’s not intuitive.

Findability refers to course navigation: content and activities are easy to find; usability refers to ease-of-use: once found, content and activities are easy to use. The experience of navigating through an online course, or of engaging in an online activity, should be intuitive for learners. The design of the interface, and the underlying technology, should be invisible.

What happens when it isn't? When it intrudes itself on a learner's consciousness, it can become a distraction and get in the way of learning (it does this by directing learners away from the learning material and towards the technology).

It can also become more than a distraction. As Norman says, "Confuse or frustrate the person who is using the product, and negative emotions result" (p. 37). Negative emotions mean unhappy learners, and unhappy learners are not effective learners:

Students who are anxious, angry, or depressed don't learn; people who are caught in these states do not take in information efficiently or deal with it well.

(Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, p. 183)

Our goal, then, is to create intuitive online experiences, and satisfied/happy learners. Dubbing this his "first law of usability," Krug (2006) stresses the importance of effortless user experiences:

Don't make me think! I've been telling people for years that this is my first law of usability.... It means that as far as is humanly possible, when I look at a web page it should be self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory.

(Don't Make Me Think, p. 11)

So, how do we design for this kind of efficiency and effortlessness? The following tips from experts like Steve Krug (2006) and Janice Redish (2007) are a great place to start:

  • Make things self-explanatory and predictable
  • Make what’s clickable obvious
  • Provide clear visual hierarchy
  • Design for scanning (people don’t read online)
  • Use headings to ask questions; then answer them
  • Make instructions concise and easy to read

University of Waterloo learners who participated in user research on the UXDL framework  emphasized the importance of good structure and findability in online learning:

The Student Experience

I liked that all the assignments were well-organized in a clear section that was easy to find with their respective units and dates listed, so I didn’t have to write that down myself.

(Troop et al., 2020)

The Student Experience

I really hated when I had to search and hunt for information. (Troop et al., 2020)
How can you, however, ACTUALLY know whether something is easy to find and easy to use? "Well, that's easy," you might say, "if it's easy to find and easy to use for me, then it should be easy to find and easy to use for our learners, right?" Not so fast. Jakob Nielsen (2006) offers some useful perspective on this kind of reasoning:

One of usability's most hard-earned lessons is that "you are not the user." If you work on a development project, you're atypical by definition. Design to optimize the user experience for outsiders, not insiders.

(Growing a Business Website: Fix the Basics First)
As course authors, designers, and developers, our experience with an online course into which we may have invested dozens, or perhaps even hundreds, of hours, is necessarily going to be different from that of our learners. We have what Nielsen calls "elite experience" (or, more charmingly, "bubble vapour"). Contrast that with the online behaviour of a typical Millennial student:

We frequently see Millennial users getting stumped in usability testing when they encounter difficult user interfaces. Their interactions tend to be fast-paced. Because they spend less time on any given page, Millennials are more likely to make errors, and they read even less [online] than the average user (which is already very little).

(Meyer, Millennials as Digital Natives: Myths and Realities, 2016)

We are indeed NOT our users. According to Nielsen, the best antidote to "elite experience" is user testing.

What is user testing?

User testing is a qualitative methodology based on observation. We're not going to go into any detail here about how to conduct user testing sessions — either one of Steve Krug's books on the subject (see References) provides a great overview of what user testing is, and how to do it:

Don't Make Me Think book cover

Steve Krug,
Don't Make Me Think

Buy on Amazon
Rocket Surgery Made Easy book cover

Steve Krug,
Rocket Surgery Made Easy

Buy on Amazon

We will, however offer a quick overview. In short,

  • find some representative learners (if your course is a first-year course, recruit first year students, for instance; 5 or 6 will do);
  • sit them down in front of a computer (preferably one of their choosing);
  • give them a series of authentic tasks (i.e., tasks that they would typically do in our courses); and
  • observe them.

Do take notes. It's amazing how much you will learn. Here's an example:

Usability problem solved via user testing


Video capture image with ‘Watch’ in top left corner; hand with outstretched index finger in bottom right corner; time code top right.


Video capture image with ‘Watch’ in top left corner; a red circle with a white ‘play’ arrow in the centre; time code top right.

In a series of usability tests, we discovered that the majority of users (4 out of 6) did not understand that the image on the left was a video icon; they thought it was a static image and so did not click it to watch the video. Video is costly to produce; it is important to ensure, as far as possible, that video icons are, to use Krug's words, ". . . self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory." After all, we want learners to click them! The "after" picture shows the redesigned icon, which takes advantage of YouTube's familiar 'play' arrow in the centre of the icon. Problem solved.

Usability testing sounds like a good idea, but, given that tests are conducted one user at a time, they can also be time-consuming. "Wouldn't a survey do?" you wonder. It's true that surveys are much more time-efficient — you can collect many more responses in a given time frame than is possible with usability testing, which typically requires an hour per participant. However, Norman (2004) explains why this kind of instrument is not likely to produce the best data about what learners 'do' online:

Focus groups, questionnaires, and surveys are poor tools for learning about behavior, for they are divorced from actual use. Most behavior is subconscious and what people actually do can be quite different from what they think they do.

(Norman, Emotional Design, p. 81-2)

The magic, as they say, is in the observation.