Aliens and inspiration

Inspiration can come from the strangest places. Personally, I think that Jeff Wayne’s musical masterpiece War of the Worlds is a perfect model for effective e-learning. Bear with me on this one…

Most people who work in instructional design agree that learning should be an enjoyable experience. The problem is that we sometimes try to make it too enjoyable, by adding too many characters, storylines, complex interactions and the like, which can have the opposite effect of bewildering the user and losing their attention. War of the Worlds balances music and narration perfectly to immerse the listener in a terrifying world of alien invasion, without once trying to pack too much in and losing sight of the overall goal of telling a story. Sure, plenty of things happen, but they do so in a logical order – aliens blowing up Horsell Common isn’t dropped over the top of the pivotal guitar solo, allowing the listener to enjoy each aspect independently.

So why would we try to use an interaction on every screen whilst five characters vie for our attention? Or have an elaborate background that, whilst being impressive, distracts the user from the content? I’m not saying that we should go back to the image-and-text formula on every page, but that design elements are more effective when they stand out.

I recently saw a ‘learning game’ that had an overload of on-screen features, meaning that my attention was dragged all over the place and I couldn’t properly engage with any of them. Between the flashing boxes, the videos and the perky course guides, I didn’t take in any of the information it was trying to convey. Instead of this, I suggest these guidelines to producing engaging but not overwhelming content:

  • Why is that element there? I don’t mean that every colour needs a justification, but if you are putting in a Flash asset, take a moment to think about what it is going to achieve. Does it support the content, or smother it?
  • Pick and choose: Don’t be tempted to throw all of your tricks at one screen. Space them out a bit and the user will appreciate them more.
  • Have an overarching theme: Make sure that your design elements tie in with one another, so that the result looks clean and stylish.

If you stick to these simple ideas, you should be able to avoid overcrowding your screen and losing out on effect. The learner will be able to engage with each on-screen element separately, and will get much more out of the experience than if they were spending half their time being distracted by neon backgrounds. Plus, you will be able to devote more of your time and energy to creating each section, which should result in a better end product and less time spent rushing to cram one more interaction in. Have fun! And listen to War of the Worlds. It will blow your mind.