Monday, June 27, 2011

Design Fatigue: A Deadly Problem in E-Learning Design

What is Design Fatigue?

I recently had the opportunity to go through an online course on an advanced finance-related subject matter. I took out my designer hat (pun unintended) for this task- I couldn't comment on it as a learner because I was not the right audience profile.

As I started going through the course, I was impressed. There were some good design elements, such as a reflection quiz to start each topic, explanatory diagrams and charts at places, good quizzes interspersed in between complex sounding concepts, easy to read and uncluttered pages, interactive presentations, and video interviews with experts on the latest events in the financial world. Someone has spent time and effort in designing this program...I said to myself.

However, into the 7th or the 8th module, I started noticing things that bothered me. The reflection quizzes at the start of the topics didn't seem very thought provoking. There were pages after pages of text only screens with no connection between concepts- it was almost like reading a PPT deck.There were hardly any visual elements. Even the tables looked fuzzy, as if they were made in Word and then imported as screenshots. The interactive presentations, few and far between, had loads of information crammed in them, requiring scrolling even inside cells. Even the videos became long winded and irrelevant. As if the whole course had become tired of itself! 

What happened? Was it just that I had gotten tired? Or was this really design fatigue? I am pretty sure it was the latter because I have been there and done that- I have seen design fatigue setting in front of my eyes in similar projects being handled by my teams.

So what is design fatigue and why does it occur? Since no formal definition exists (I googled it), here is how I define it. Design fatigue in e-learning courses is the gradual and progressive reduction in the instructional quality of a course that started out good.  Although it can set in any type of course, it is more pronounced in courses of duration exceeding 4 hours. :)

Why Design Fatigue?

Some of the reasons for design fatigue are obvious. Designers, both instructional and visual, get physically and mentally tired of doing the same thing and have no avenue for rejuvenation. Their passion to create great learning material dries up after months of working on the project. And there are several external reasons why the passion dries- the project no longer receives the attention it used to, the output of their hard work is buried under hundreds of screens, and no one really cares what the team is doing. 

There are other reasons too, such as QA fatigue. Even customers find it hard to maintain their passion to review and provide inputs modules after modules. Check any review report and you will see that the review comments for the first two modules far outnumber the remaining. Poorly managed projects also receive a lot of pressure to increase productivity at later stages of development. Shrunk production budgets, due to poor estimation, poor control or wasteful production, force Project Managers to push the team for higher productivity and cut corners on QA. Pressure to deliver the project earlier (due to own or customer priorities) also come into play.

The result- short cuts and lip service to great design done at the start of the project.

Can Design Fatigue be Avoided?

The days of long courses are over. More and more customers want shorter courses. And when a program of long duration does come along, there are ways to avoid designer fatigue. I will share examples from two projects where we avoided design fatigue. 

We once developed an 15-hour long online course on Six Sigma. It was divided into 5 sections, one each for Define, Measure, Analyze, Implement and Control. The subject matter was complex and statistical, requiring a lot of research, simplification, and inclusion of instructional activities to convert the base material into an effective self-paced course. We split the course into two main parts, each handled by a separate Senior ID (I was one of them). Work started on both parts simultaneously, so that the section on Define received the same amount of attention as the section on Analyze. To ensure that the two parts worked and looked similar, we encouraged designers to share their work in progress with each other. Even though the purpose was different, this inspired collaborative development and recognition of good work, which in turn kept the creative juices going. The PM managed the project financially from day one, keeping budgets and timeline in check from the start, so there was no last minute panic. Read any module in  this course, from the first to the 24th, and you will find the same high quality of learning experience. No sign of design fatigue here. 

In another case, to develop a 12-hour course for investment analysts, we had three IDs working under a Senior ID, who designed the prototype and set the design standards for the course. Except when continuity from one module to another was important, the three IDs were assigned alternate modules. The instructional and visuals teams shared design strategies and challenges with each other during frequent project huddles. When it was realized that the mind map designed at the prototype stage didn't work very well in some topics, changes were made to it to suit the requirements of the later modules. Instead of pulling along a design element just because it was thought up initially and therefore carved in stone, it was improved and adapted as required. And most importantly, development victories throughout the development phase were shared and celebrated with as much vigor as winning the deal had been. Once again, the course was a great example of consistent high quality of learning experience. No design fatigue here, even though the team was physically exhausted by this very demanding project.

In Conclusion

Design fatigue is a reality in e-learning courses of long duration. Although it is easy to understand why it occurs, allowing it to set in is the biggest disservice a designer can do to learners, who deserve to get the same amount of value from every part of the course, be it the beginning, the middle or the end. Being mindful of it from the start, and making efforts to avoid it, is what responsible development is all about.

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