Push the 'Next' button to the next level

The term 'page-turner' has haunted the elearning industry for the last decade, typified by the hastily assembled strings of cluttered screens with a quiz at the end. Often, these simply involve digitising a manual – and one that wasn't that great in the first place. They're universally maligned, but these examples of 'e-reading' are still inflicted on learners, especially as part of the dreaded annual compliance refresh.

But here's the thing. It's easy to lump together any courses that are navigated as a series of screens. Even though some people will equate page-turners with the ubiquitous instruction 'Click Next to continue', clicking a button to progress does not make a bad piece of learning, just as a scrolling design still needs good planning and writing.

Screen-sized pages or short pages are focused pieces of content that show a linear journey piece by piece. They have their place. Why would you want to scroll ahead on a branching scenario, for example? Or do increasingly complex activities in the wrong order. I discussed the importance of (often overlooked) learning curves in my post on microlearning

In fact, many great pieces of learning are created in tools like Storyline and Lectora, where the 'Next' button still reigns supreme. This doesn't mean that these experiences are second best to more modern layouts. But how do we define the difference between good and bad in such a well-worn format?

14 ways to effectively design courses with 'next' buttons

Here is some of what can keep screen-by-screen courses modern and avoid straying into page-turner territory. Of course, many of these ideas can be applied to any learning, no matter what the format.

Have an interesting theme and put stories first

Give your course a big idea. A story, a hook, a cute idea, a neat graphical treatment  all of those can lift a course beyond dull and all can be reasonably cost-effective to create. But whatever your theme or hook is, it's more than just an attention grabber. It's the glue that sticks everything together into a single context. It can inform your graphics, case studies and even word choice as you progress through the course. For example, we created a product knowledge course about cargo containers. It could have been a rather dry, technical course. However, we concentrated on the stories of the items the containers carried, the journeys the containers took and how they contributed to the business success of customers.

Just like a good novel, 'page-turning' is acceptable if the learner's engrossed in a good story and soaking it all up.

Don't cram too much text on the page

You're limited by the lowest resolution in the company which, thanks to older tablets, might still hover below 1028 x 768. Personally, I'd say that if you have more than 100 words on screen at any one time, you might be bordering on too many. Yes, 100. I'm going that low. And you can probably afford to make the text bigger while you're there!

Go large with your graphics

Big, colourful graphics – especially custom illustrations and photo shoot imagery – make a big impact. Pictures that have obviously been plundered from stock are one of the top page-turner tropes. Just like displaying them in a little box with a drop shadow. If you want the full set of clichés, why not throw in a business man meditating in a field or a chess set while you're there? Four people assembling a giant jigsaw perhaps?

Rethink how you use templates

Most screen-by-screen technologies are based on set screen templates. Screen templates aren't there to just add variety. They're there to offer different ways to present different types of information. Yes, it works better if you have a good mix in there but your first concern is making sure the content and the treatment (template choice and graphics) are good for each and every screen. We've all seen this kind of treatment: a picture of a generic office with four randomly-placed hotspots that reveal pop-ups about something unrelated to the image. Is that really an effective treatment? Consider devising new screen types tailored to your content and ditching ones that feel old and tired. 

Creating a new set of templates to reuse later? Don't just throw in the same parade of carousels, hot texts and tab screens – see if you can throw something more interesting into the mix.

Mix in rich media like video and games

Media within the pages can add variety and extra interaction where budget allows. Follow common sense on complexity and don't make video or audio longer than a few minutes (two to three minutes maximum in many cases). Just remember to adjust your metrics. Fifty screens might take far longer than the much quoted hour if you've included mini-games and videos. 

Don't confuse everyone with button soup

'Click the forward arrow to find out more'. Which one? There are sixteen on screen and none of them are labelled. It's good practice to use text labels on buttons wherever possible. And don't mix your terms. I've seen 'forward and previous' and 'next and back' paired together far too often. Challenge navigation conventions and look to general good web UX to keep interfaces lean and instinctive.

Think activities, not questions

Multiple choice questions on their own aren't always a great way to practice skills. The last thing you should water down to fit into templates is your learner's chance to practice and ways of giving them feedback. Consider spending budget for customisations on templates that allow quite clever practice opportunities. Plan your activities first and consider keeping plain old information delivery to a minimum.

Get experimental with your learning models

Think about what the learning really needs to do then devise a model to fit that. If there's a more interesting delivery model that meets your aims and isn't a standard info-dump tutorial, you've got a better chance of keeping your learners interested and delivering on behaviour change.

Don't make your sections too long

Practise good information design. Aim to cover one learning objective really well in each. Personally, I've not seen any real elearning marathons for a while. I've witnessed them in the past though. How does half an hour of non-stop, page-turning goodness sound?

Take care about making them too short

A screen-by-screen course full of two and three-page sections can work, but if you're not careful, they can end up lacking depth. Unless you're going for short nuggets that act as reference materials, make sure your sections are enough to explore areas to the level required.

Don't forget a proper progress indicator

Make sure learners know how far through the learning they are - and be imaginative with it! A page counter is great as a start but a visual indicator can add a real sense of progress.

The menu likely isn't as important as you think it is

Like a fireplace in a living room, the menu is the spiritual centrepiece of a course. However, never forget that content is king. Make the menu look nice, but there might be more valuable ways to spend your budget.

Do you really need a quiz?

And if so, can you test throughout and give the learner a score summary right at the end?

Most importantly, be imaginative

Many of the conventions and tropes of the page-turner began life on CD ROMs. We've come so far in that time, yet so many old and hackneyed trends have become ingrained as standard practice. User experience and learning preferences have progressed over the years, so feel free to push the boundaries. The 'Next' button isn't disappearing just yet so you might as well freshen up your screen-by-screen designs as much as possible. Have fun with them.

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