Usability Testing for eLearning

Aspects of usability testing: wireframes, visual treatments, alpha / betaOnline learning can be a great way to educate your audience. But if you don’t take the learner’s perspective into account, your course may not be as effective as you’d like. Research has shown that ease of use is a key component of eLearning effectiveness.

How do you get people to engage with online learning? One way is to conduct usability testing as part of the course development process.

What Is Usability?

It sounds self-evident, but usability is simply a measure of how easy something is to use. The object can be almost anything: a tool, website, or eLearning course, for example. In the case of websites or eLearning, usability has been defined as the ease with which an average person can use the website or software to achieve specific goals.

What Is Usability Testing?

Watching people try to use what you’ve designed and built with the intention of making it easier to accomplish tasks is the essence of usability testing. The act of actually watching people use your product is what makes usability testing different than focus groups and interviews, where you’re asking people for their opinions about what you’ve made.

In usability testing, a facilitator sits in a room with the learners (or observes them using online tools), gives them some tasks to accomplish, and asks them to think out loud while they do them. The tester may also need to ask a few questions along the way, such as:

  • What would you click on to complete this task?
  • What’s being conveyed on the page?
  • How would you find information about …?
  • What do you think this graph means?

Although a large portion of usability testing is observation, the tester might track some quantitative metrics, such as time to complete, number of steps, and any issues the participant encounters while completing each task. After the tests are finished, observers should have a debriefing session where they decide what problems should be fixed and how to fix them. Even the best-designed eLearning products have usability issues that can be fixed.

Why Do Usability Testing?

In addition to helping users achieve the learning objectives, eLearning needs to be highly accessible — learners need to find the course easy to use. Learners will stop using courses or resources that they find confusing, slow, or unpleasant. Most complaints about eLearning are actually about how it’s delivered instead of the training content itself. Learners will give up if they can’t figure out how to navigate your site or course quickly.

Different Ways to Conduct Usability Testing

You want to start testing as early as possible during the development process. It’s possible to detect serious usability problems very early, even if you have little to show. It’s a lot harder to make changes once you have a nearly complete product.

You might start by testing sketches or wireframes for your eLearning product. Testing these won’t take long because there’s not a lot people can do with them. The main thing you’re testing at this point is how you’ve categorized and named items. Are things where people expect to find them? Is it clear how the navigation will work? You may find that you’ve organized content according to your own categorization system but learners don’t think that way.

After wireframes, the next phase is creating visual treatments (or “comps”) for the different types of screens. After you’ve created and tested the wireframes you may also want to test the comps. To do this, you should show your testers each screen and ask them to walk you through them. By doing this, you can see if you’ve introduced any usability issues by adding design to your eLearning product.

After making any changes based on the usability testing of the comps, you can then go ahead and develop your eLearning product. Of course, once you have an alpha or beta of the course is another good time to do more usability testing. Early in course development, we frequently build prototypes using tools such as PowerPoint. PowerPoint is a nice way to show mockups to users quickly and easily.

Embracing User-Centered Design

A user-centered design approach ensures value, ease of use, functionality, and usability for learners, which increases the likelihood that the course will meet the intended learning goals. Studies of eLearning have demonstrated that usability is often a key to a course’s effectiveness.

Monarch Media has extensive experience working within a user-centered design framework. Our research into this approach under the auspices of a National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research grant helped us hone our user-testing methodology.

We recommend two separate user interface testing sessions, one early in the design process and one later. These sessions will help you collect feedback and recommendations from learners.

By taking the time to test your eLearning products as you create them, you’ll ensure your online course and resources will be used — and used successfully.