Tom K. advocates changing template for each course?

Apr 30, 2013

Howdy, I'm interviewing a developer candidate who insists that Tom Kuhlmann advocates that developers should change the template with every course. We have a full catalog of eLearning courses, and our template is consistent throughout the 30 lessons for the usual reasons of standardization, user familiarity, etc. When I pressed the candidate, she insists that Tom K. says a lesson-by-lesson template change aids retention and provides other measurable benefits.

Have I somehow missed a vital and game-changing improvement to my courses, or is the candidate incorrect?



6 Replies
Steve Flowers

I've read all of Tom's stuff and I don't think he's advocating that developers switch things up arbitrarily. I do think there's some validity to tuning the container to match a context. I think there are different ways to think about template and consistency. I'd recommend consistency in placement of navigation and other usability features but presentations and activities can be fairly fungible.

Some folks go overboard with branding, colors, and template. Marketing for external folks, I can see some benefits to cohesion but I'd take this level of consistency with a grain of salt. Adding a logo to every page and a header that takes up 20% of the screen real estate can be wasteful -- research (can pull the cite later - don't remember the authors at the moment) indicates that repeated exposure to a visual branding element will desensitize the viewer to the mark. 

Slinging content into a template and shoehorning content into place is a soul killer at both the senders and receivers end. On the other hand, spending a lot of time redesigning a template without purpose for the redesign (or worse, without a talent for it) is a far worse sin than using the same template over and over again in my book

Wayne Vermillion

Steve, we've been listening to the same music - I agree with your comments. In this case, I'm afraid that the candidate heard lengthier, more nuanced commentary and synthesized that into the terse directive to "change templates with every lesson." My alarm bells are ringing especially at the follow-on claim that constant template change has actually been proven to enhance retention. Given that the client organization is a conservative one in which it took three stakeholder meetings and seven template options to arrive at our present one, and given that she proposes to change the template with every lesson, and given that she insists it's a proven benefit ("Just search for it, I'm sure it's online somewhere, Tom says it all the time") -- I think this is an ominous harbinger.

Thanks for the commentary.

Tom Kuhlmann

Hello Wayne,

I can't speak to what the candidate said, but here's my take and what I usually share in the workshops:

We don't talk about corporate style guides because many of the decisions around style guides at that level have little to do with elearning design. But they are a reality when working on courses. SO if the client has a specific style guide or template that has to be used, then it's what has to be used.

When it comes to designing courses in a general sense, we talk about intentional design. And part of that is developing a style guide specific to the course. That may include type, layout, colors, imagery, etc. And as the context and content changes, then it makes sense that the visual treatment changes to match the content.

In addition we do a visual design activity where we map out the visual design for a practice course and try to match the design to the course topic and context. Because of that, each course may have a look unique to it's topic.

In an ideal world, you start with a blank slate and the course you design is open to that type of customization. Each elearning course is similar and has a lot in common in terms of its structure, but there should be some allowance to the context and content. Just like a book or movie. They all have similar structure, but they also are all unique in their own way based on the subject matter.

I always use movie posters as an example. If I were to design a western movie poster, then I know what font, color, and design elements would work. I'm probably not using teal and comic sans in the poster design. Why? Because the visual voice dictates that a western movie poster has a look that matches the content. And the visual design for an elearning course is similar.

In the same sense, the visual design of the course helps craft a visually immersive experience which can engage the learners and help enable the learning experience.

That's all in an ideal world, where you have complete control of the design process. The reality is that there's not that much flexibility when working with corporate groups who may have certain requirements. As in your example, it sounds like you've come up with a template and the group feels it's the best for the course. So at that point it's about working within the requirements established and still building the right course.

Personally, I'm not a fan of that approach, but that's the way it is. I'd also challenge the thought that you have to have the same template for 30 courses for standardization and familiarity. You can create a course theme where there's an obvious design similarity to the structure of the course but not have each course look the same. I also think you could create 30 different looking courses and still be just as effective delivering them, assuming sound visual design and UX design.

But that's a whole different conversation.

David Anderson

One of the things I've shared in our workshops is around visual strategies for signaling changes in content direction. I do this in the context of larger courses with significantly different content sections. This can be anything from using different characters across modules (Atsumi goes in Chapter 1, Christy in Chapter 2, etc.) or something more subtle like a change in color for each module.

A course on Six Sigma's belts is an example where each module or lesson could be colored to represent one of the belts. Book publishers do this all the time.

For example, the Chronicles of Narnia series is replete with loose and strict visual changes across book covers. The books (seven) all roll up into a single series (course) yet each book has its own story. Here's an example of a strict and loose approach to visual changes in the covers:

Using a different visual theme (color, shape, graphics, and design) signals a change in content structure or identity and makes it easy for learners to distinguish the changes.

Imagine if all road signs were red octagons:

Michelle Reeder

Interesting discussion. When I worked at an e-learning company we changed all of our courses to the  same template with the same branding, same font, same navigation, same, same, same. I found it rather monotonous and, although I understand from a marketing perspective why they chose to do this, I think it puts learners to sleep. So, I agree that each course needs to be unique in terms of graphics, design, context. The navigation and essentials of the course should be consistent, but let's not bore the learners to death with going overboard with branding. As with everything, I guess, finding a middle ground that is instructionally sound is probably the best way to go.

David Becker

I shall defend the candidate. Though her generalising shows a lack of critical thinking, she is onto something.

There is a concept called disfluency, in which a person can actually retain more if their learning task is made more difficult. A famous princeton study showed how this could be achieved by using a mishmash of fonts.

In this context and building upon Tom's comments, having a different interface for each course that is specifically designed to enhance that course and specifically designed to generate a carefully considered amount of disfluency, could in fact aid in retention of the material.

A related consideration here is metacognition. How does the interface design influence the learner's cognitive experience. Heres an interesting article on this:

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