What makes a good online course design?

Kerrie-Anne Chinn, Content & Editorial Manager

Designing an eLearning course for your staff or students? We recently published a handy eLearning course design checklist, to help you feel confident that you’re designing your online course in the best way possible for your audience.

Our comprehensive design checklist will help you make sure you’re covering important aspects of eLearning design throughout the process – such as accessibility, navigation, graphics, multimedia and assessments. Why are these factors so important to course design? Because you want people to be able to get what they need from your online course - and enjoy taking it!

If you’ve already read through the design checklist, and are looking for more in-depth discussion of online course design, you’ve come to the right place. As we said in the checklist article, the design process plays a major role in how effective and successful your course will be, with factors such as graphics, multimedia and accessibility all playing a part. Even the fonts you use in your course materials can have a positive or negative impact on learners.

Karla Gutierrez, Inbound Marketer at Aura Interactiva, recommends looking at the science behind what makes an eLearning design effective. “If you learn the science behind good eLearning design and use it properly, you will be able to connect with your learners, make them care about the subject and even change what they do and how they think,” she says.

So let’s look closer at what makes a good online course design, in terms of the fascinating science behind the design process.

Using Gestalt’s Theory of Perception and Visual Hierarchy

One of the interesting concepts Gutierrez raises is Gestalt’s theory of perception and its consideration of visual hierarchy. According to Gestalt, the human brain is wired to make sense of the world by ordering and structuring diverse elements into an organized, logical whole.

How is this important to eLearning course design? Well, you need to work with visual hierarchy, rather than against it. As Gutierrez explains, when designing your online course, "your screen's organization should create a visual hierarchy – leading the learners’ eyes from the first thing they should see to the next, in the proper order."

She recommends following these guidelines when designing each screen of your course:

  • Create a definite focal point for the most important element of the screen – doing this will lead the learner’s eye and attention to that part of the screen
  • Use large, eye-catching fonts for headings and sub-headings – this will help important information stand out
  • Make clear sections on the screen, using boxes and frames
  • Use plenty of white space to further define your sections and make things less overwhelming for learners

Using Shapes and Icons to Help Learners Navigate Content

Another concept Gutierrez explores is the way in which visual content is digested by learners. It’s important to use design tactics to streamline the scanning process for your students or staff. There’s no doubt about it, learners will be bored and frustrated by long endless screens of text – so you need to use design elements to break them up.

As Gutierrez explains, “this is where shapes and icons come in. The use of shapes and icons helps organize content into a scannable and easily digestible form. This discourages distraction, and helps learners make sense of your content quickly.

Shapes, lines, arrows and icons can be used to successfully point out info, allowing people to quickly identify and grasp the most important concepts on each screen. Shapes can also control the speed and direction at which learners take in content. Think about the way arrows guide your eyes across the screen, or bullet points lead you through information in a very clear and logical way – the clever use of shapes is particularly important for eLearning, where people are being asked to digest and absorb a lot of information in short periods of time.

Using the Psychology of Color and Emotions

Last but not least, Gutierrez discusses the psychology of color and how this needs to be considered when choosing the colors of your eLearning course. The use of color is about much more than just aesthetics and making things look ‘pretty’ – color also has a strong impact on the way we feel about things and respond to them. Even if that's happening on a subconscious and intuitive level.

In fact, 90% of quick decisions we make regarding products are based on color. Color speaks to our emotions, with red often signifying anger, blue bringing a sense of calm, and yellow evoking happiness or joy. Certain colors can also have particular cultural associations – think about how green and red are used at Christmas time, orange is traditionally associated with Halloween, and how blue and pink are marketed in a gender-specific way.

You should also consider the age of your learning audience – in general, older people tend to prefer darker, more mellow colors like purple, green and blue while younger learners may be drawn to bolder, brighter colors of yellow, red and orange. Whatever colors you decide to go with for your course, Gutierrez suggests using "a harmonious color palette that works to enhance your information, not distract from it."

Hopefully this glimpse into the science behind eLearning design helps you to feel more confident in the design process. With this information, as well as our eLearning course design checklist, you'll be well equipped to create online courses that are well-designed, engaging and enjoyable for your learners.

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