A while back I wrote an article on five ideas for turning boring bulleted lists into engaging interactions. Fundamentally, those ideas were about transforming static content into something more engaging for learners.

But making content interactive doesn’t always improve the learning experience—or even guarantee it’s more engaging. Adding interactivity in the wrong situations just puts more clicks between learners and the information they need to do their jobs. So, if you’re not sure when to turn content into something complex like a full-blown branched scenario and when to keep it streamlined and simple, here’s some food for thought.

What’s the Training Goal?

Generally speaking, there are two types of training goals that instructional designers see. Let’s take a look at them and see how they impact course design.

Sharing information 

Here, the goal of training is to convey critical information—like policies or procedures—and for learners to show they can correctly recall them. 

When the goal is strictly to share information, try to keep it simple. Make finding those facts in your course as straightforward as possible, and even consider if you need a course at all. In some cases, an online glossary, an interactive job aid, or some other helpful performance support tool could solve your training challenge more effectively.

Building or acquiring skills

In this case, the goal is to acquire or improve skills. While this training may also involve sharing information, there’s much more emphasis on how learners should apply it while performing their jobs. 

Building a skill often takes time, guidance, and practice. And including interactions can give learners the support they need along the way. Consider experiences that help them practice application or break down complex skills into smaller ones that are easier to master. For instance, learning how to drive a forklift for the first time involves understanding how several different controls on it work. Rather than creating an interaction that has someone try to learn them all at once, you can make this complex skill more approachable by creating several smaller interactions: one for each control.

Interactions like scenarios and simulations can give learners a safe environment to try out how they’d use their new skills on the job. Going back to the example, once your learners had those simple skills mastered, they could take things up to the next level and try a scenario where they use multiple controls together. And since it’s just a scenario, they can safely make mistakes until they get it right.

Is the Interaction Relevant?

I once met with a client who wanted to build a training program for new salespeople. Their vision for it was an interactive history of the company. Learners would start by selecting an avatar and then they’d curate key pieces of company information to get familiar with the organization’s rich past. I’ll admit: it was a very cool concept. But it was also an hour’s worth of content that wasn’t particularly helpful or relevant to new salespeople. Ultimately I had to let the client know that idea wouldn’t help their new salespeople do their job: sell products. 

When it comes to training content, relevance is key. When the information you’re sharing is easy to digest and helps folks perform their jobs, you won’t need to add lots of bells and whistles (or clicks) to get their attention. That said, learners will appreciate a more complex interaction if it’s the best way to help them grasp or refine a skill they care about.

Where and How Will It Be Used?

Another important aspect of context is use. Learners accessing training on the go may not have half an hour to invest in a how-to course. Take an internet installation technician, for example. When you’re training them ahead of time to set up a fancy new modem, that’s the perfect time for an interactive simulation. But when that same technician is out on the job with a customer peering over their shoulder, asking them to sit through a thirty-minute interactive simulation to troubleshoot a faulty setup isn’t very helpful, is it?

More Learning

By considering these three questions before you add interactivity to your e-learning, you’ll avoid sinking valuable development time into interactions that aren’t necessary. It’ll also help you refine the interactions that you do include, giving learners experiences they'll find to the point and useful.

For more on this topic, be sure to check out these articles from the E-Learning Heroes archives:

When do you add interactivity to your courses? When do you keep it simple? Jump into the conversation with a comment below, or add your voice to the mix in our Building Better Courses forum.

And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.


Michelle Monroe
Linda Sampson
Mark Dawdy

Appreciate the thought-provoking article Trina. It made me think of how important it is to deliver the training in a way that meets the needs of the learners. Sort of like playing the game Pictionary - it's all in the way the picture is drawn. For example, if you're trying to get your team to say "train," you don't start drawing the caboose, cars, and then engine. You draw either the tracks first or front of the engine with the stack and smoke and 90% of people will say "train." Training is similar and we shouldn't over complicate it, even though novelty is important to stimulating brains, it doesn't mean activity in and of itself is needed. I really like what the authors say in Training Ain't Telling, Learning centered, performance based." For example, "you have a group of techni... Expand

Neil Stevenson
Zsolt Olah

Great, read, Tina! Part of the confusion out there is about the actual definition of interactivity. People tend to mix two types of interactivity: user interface (physical between your mouse and the application) and learning (mental process, decision making, feedback loop). The latter, you do it every day when you work. Without any courses. Like reading this post. You decided to read Trina's words. It does not involve too much, maybe scrolling. But the meaning behind the words resonates, you decide to try something new next time. You get feedback on how it went. That's important mental interactivity. On the other hand, for example, here's my pet peeve the "click to reveal" concept. That is physical interaction between you and the object to click on to reveal the text behind. Unless... Expand

Jeffrey Riley