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Experience-Enabling Design: An approach to elearning design

First published May 28, 2004

L. Ravi Krishnan (ravikl-at-trina.biz), Trina Systems, India
Venkatesh Rajamanickam (venkat-at-sp.edu.sg), Singapore Polytechnic, Singapore

Table of Contents


This paper draws inspiration from diverse media to understand what constitutes experience. In doing so, it seeks directions for building experience into design of elearning products.

By exploring other media, one discovers that building experiences is not about doing complex things. It is about doing simple things that will impact the eventual experience.Experience is the point of emotional engagement with the consumer. Today, experience drives consumption of both products and services. Products and services--irrespective of what segment they operate in--sell experiences rather than features. To achieve this, the scope of design has to extend beyond functionality, to satisfy the experiential need.

For example, a logically well-laid building plan might fulfill a functional need but not necessarily the experiential need. The functional needs could be space, plumbing, electrical etc., and the experiential need could be privacy, character of a space, mood it evokes, ambience etc. For elearning to fit into today's consumption, its design too needs to be crafted for experience.The paper contends that thinking only about the functional aspects of elearning hampers our experience outlook. It identifies strategies to overcome this conflict and to successfully engage today's learners. Through a range of examples from diverse areas such as print, documentation, presentation, and elearning, the paper illustrates how deliberate attempt to think beyond mere functionality, makes an obvious difference to the experience of the output. The cues from these examples provide directions to build elearning products that are functionally sound and experientially engaging.

Keywords: Layout thinking, experience design, elearning.


Every time we use a product or a service, we essentially consume the experience it enables. The product is not a thing. The service is not an act. They are vehicles for the experience that their designer intends to bring about. Thus, when a designer creates a sharp, safe, and well balanced cutting knife, she is not only putting metal, plastic and rubber together, but also setting the stage for an experience of pleasure of using a good tool effectively, and a feeling of skilled accomplishment, on the part of the user. In an Internet forum, an impressed guest recalls checking into Four Seasons Hotel to find TV Guide on the bed, with a bookmark placed on the current date. What appears to be an easily attainable minor detail has resulted in a disproportionately large measure of good experience and goodwill. Likewise, compelling elearning is not about navigating content, but about staging experience.


Experience is a way in which the self relates or connects emotionally to the world. Experiencing something involves a complex set of psychophysical processes: sensation, perception, apperception, cognition, affection, and sometimes conation. Added to this, is the interplay of psychosocial factors like expectations, attitudes, needs, desires, etc.

Experience plays upon the part-whole relationship. The experience of a faulty part can affect the experiencing of the whole and vice-versa. Experience can be rich or poor, depending upon the variety of senses it plays upon and the variety of meanings it can generate.

Between 1998 and 2000, leading interaction and experience designers met under the leadership of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) to discuss the nature of design responsibility in a networked economy. They concluded that design is increasingly less about creating objects and more about creating conditions that support user experiences (Davis, Meredith & Dubberly, Hugh 2001).

Creating experiences is a challenge for any industry. There was a time when market was governed by selling and buying of commodities interpreted as simple products or things to be used in a certain manner. Today, experience is the differentiator that drives the consumption of both products and services, irrespective of the segment of industry. It is experiences that are sold or bought rather than the features of a product or a service. Features acquire relevance or irrelevance based on the way they shape experience. The product is no longer a thing but a transaction that enables experience.

Creating experience is the art of emotional, behavioral and cognitive engagement with the consumer. For example, Hollywood blockbuster movies use spectacular special effects and beautiful movie stars to emotionally engage movie audience. Many movies often cross cultural and language barriers to become hugely successful at foreign markets. That is because they exploit our primitive, biological reaction to beauty, shock, fear, sexuality, desire, danger, etc.

A well-designed product such as the knife we saw earlier, offer satisfying experience at the behavioral level. Such products provide feeling of pleasure during, and a sense of accomplishment, after the use. The experience enjoyed at the cognitive level is as a result of reflective thought. However, cognitive experience does not operate in isolation, but feeds off of the emotional and the behavioral, while at the same time biasing the behavioral (Ortony, A., Norman, D. A., & Revelle, W. 2003).


For elearning to be successful, it needs to be crafted for experience at all the above three levels. Psychologist Alice Isen and her colleagues have shown that positive experiences are critical to learning, curiosity, and creative thought. She discovered that people who felt good were more curious, better at learning, and were able to come up with creative solutions (Isen, A. M. 1993). The scope of design therefore, should extend beyond functionality to fulfill the need for experience.

The engagement that a learner has with the elearning material is spread out over time. It has implications for both the immediate mood at the time of 'engagement', as also, the long-term impression of the learner. Experience enablement is critical to this engagement. But experience is problematical if approached in a general way. What constitutes this experience is elusive. Its elusiveness can only be anchored in another concept ''Trust''.

An elearning course can create a satisfactory experience only if it commands trustworthiness in the way it is designed, the content it presents and the user perplexity it prevents. How do I trust the elearning product when I open it? What are the cues that generate trustworthiness in those who experience the course? An experience-centric view of trustworthiness is different from a content-centric one. For example, when Phenyl is used, its strong pungent odor inspires the trust that it will kill germs. Sure, germicides can be odorless, and all pungent things need not be germicidal. But strong associations about the germicidal power of pungency are built into the experiencing body over a period of time, and deeply entrenched in the persons' mind that any anti-germ activity is an incomplete exercise without the smell.A common mistake while working through a concept or an idea is missing out on such consistent or conflicting experiential cues that emerge during implementation. This leads to the gap between the idea and the final experience.


The constraints on the designer and the expectations of the learner create a gap that is difficult to bridge. A designer thinks a great deal about what his product will be like, but the environment in which his product is consumed might change. Likewise a designer cannot control the development of expectations in the learners' minds. The designer can only control the product.This difference often leads to a layout-experience gap. A brilliant design fails because of a failure to pay adequate attention to small but decisive details that shape the final experience. To elaborate on the point, let's consider a parallel example from architecture and understand what it implies for elearning. A logically well-laid building plan might fulfill aesthetic and functional needs but may not necessarily fulfill the experience-needs. The needs that may be taken care of by an architect might be things like space, services, etc. But the architect might still miss on experience needs like privacy, lighting, ambience, etc.When a building-plan is thought of as a layout-plan one sets a certain standard for building-design. But when this layout is translated into experience, it can get far away from the expected standard. Design should be understood not as layout, but as the translation of layout into experience.The following is a case from an apartment complex. It illustrates the gap between the design of the building and the experience of living there.

Layout -- The Promise

apartment layout

The apartment complex as seen from a layout perspective is well conceived and impressive too. It promises to be a quality construction, made out of quality material. The documented instances that follow establish the gap between this layout promise and the living experience.

Layout - The Experience

stepping out

Stepping out
You step out to a world of conspicuous drainpipes and the collection ground. The landing place outside the lift is small and makes stepping out a delicately balanced act. Here one encounters the bluntness of functional thinking. Exiting from the lift is a transition from private place to public place. Such a transition is best if it is smooth, unlike the example here. The physical treatment of a building has to permit the possibility of a smooth transition between the different worlds of its dwellers.

getting in

Getting in
The void deck is the first contact with the building that outsiders have. Visitors can only find their way to the exact lift points by moving around through the deck. One can see here the sheer absences of structural orientation cues. Added to this, is the confusing maze of open and closed spaces and a gloomy and rugged floor to traverse while finding your way out of the confusion.

moving about

Moving about
There is a transition space between fully concrete flooring and the pathway. The protruded blocks of masonry accentuate the plausibility of tripping and getting hurt. This masonry work exists to fulfill the functional need of drainage. Such bad transitions stand justified from a functional perspective but considered from an experience perspective they are at all the wrong places, making transition from void deck to pathway very bumpy.

moving below

Moving below
There is no clear demarcation of covered and uncovered area. One may encounter unexpected water or other debris thrown from the top. One has to always negotiate the walking on the alert of such eventuality.

looking out

Looking out
Viewed from the layout perspective one is likely to conclude that each flat is independent as no common wall is shared between any two flats. The word independence has been translated to mean 'not sharing a common wall' which is a layout-centric interpretation. A flat that promises independent walls falls short of securing privacy of the inhabitants by permitting an unasked for mutual relationship of neighborly observation.

walking and meeting

Walking and meeting
How people and vehicles meet is an important experience-pattern for living. In this case, what distinguishes the car zone and people zone is just the use of material - one is concrete and the other is grass with stone slabs. The pathway discourages walking with its undulating surface and edges forcing reliance upon the car-path for walking around, thereby accentuating the risk of speeding vehicles knocking someone down.


One may relate the above example to elearning products. Layout decisions like the course structure, navigation, media, etc., affect the experience of the product. For a learner, the ease and intuitive way of getting in, moving around and exiting are the experience factors. How do we bridge this gap between layout and experience? Four possible guidelines, which can help a designer ensure outcomes are experienced in an elearning product, are:

  1. Embrace experience as an outcome
  2. Create a shared language
  3. Narrow the gap from idea to outcome
  4. Drive constituent parts towards total experience
Bridging the gap between layout thinking and experience outcome

Figure 1: Bridging the gap between layout thinking and experience outcome

1. Embrace experience as an outcome

The first step in bridging the gap between layout and experience is the need to embrace experience as the outcome for the product. The architect in the previous example should not have seen his contribution as creating a layout. He should have seen his contribution as creating spaces that evoke desired experiences. He should have imagined how it feels to stand in different points in the building. The darkness of the cellar, the privacy of the bedroom and the entry points to lift are some of the experience considerations that should have influenced the thinking. Layout is just a convenient visual tool to communicate the specifications and is not the natural way of building spaces. If 2 dimensional plans disable experience thinking for architecture, layout grids do for pages in a book, course curriculum does for learning. This is not to undermine layout thinking. We need to acknowledge that layout is not the end but a means to attain experience outcome.Case – Dorling Kindersley publications
Let us examine how experience considerations have made a difference and enabled a sustained credibility for a brand.

A page designed to evoke the wonder of bicycle

Figure 2: A page designed to evoke the wonder of bicycle

Dorling Kindersley, popularly known as 'DK' is a household name in children publications. DK evokes feeling of finely printed glossy visual books rich with photographs and illustrations. By themselves all of these are not impossible qualities to achieve by several others in publishing today. What is so unique about DK? DK consistently distinguishes itself in making its book an experience to the readers. There is one experience that any of DK books so consistently provide - 'generate awe about the world around us'. The design team of DK page after page ensures the awe and wonder of the world is experienced. Such awe cannot be built by simply putting a high quality picture and some text. There is a deliberation to combine pictures and text in ways that enables readers to connect with the world by demystifying details and yet retaining the wonder. This must not be possible if designers do not embrace experience as an outcome. Let us examine one page from the book to see how various design elements induce the desired experiences in the reader.
  1. ''A cycle is a complex object''
    When all the parts are put in a page the complexity of the object is revealed. We like to believe that a cycle is complex and that natural expectation is fulfilled when we see 'so many parts' in one page.
  2. ''A cycle has more parts than I thought!''
    By dissecting the cycle into so many parts it kind of surprises the reader on the number of hidden parts to the few visible parts that externally one sees in a real cycle.
  3. ''There are parts that go with each other''
    At one level the complexity is revealed and at the same level with the proximity of parts it is made so easy to relate which parts go with which one.
  4. ''There are big parts and small parts''
    The comparative sizes are so subtly revealed that one can make scale comparison of any disparate components in the cycle.
  5. ''Now I can name the parts of a bike''
    By having the label of each part close to it the child is encouraged to learn the name while focusing on a part. There could have been numbered components with a legend at the bottom. But this would have spoilt the experience.
  6. ''It is like my cycle''
    The use of photographs is also a deliberate attempt to get the child see a 'real' cycle. Furthermore, photographs lend themselves to realism and colourfulness – both of which appeal to young children.

2. Narrow the gap from idea to outcome

A seemingly impressive design idea can cease to be effective when implemented. This happens because translation of an idea involves narrowing ones own gap in thinking. The 'first idea' always leads to disastrous implementation. The 'first idea' always comes as an expectation from the customer. One needs to cultivate a method of detachment by distancing oneself from the idea in order to evaluate its validity. Common decisions like choice of the photograph or illustration or icons to depict an idea involve the narrowing down of an idea into executable outcomes. Experience as a need and expectation becomes the criterion that challenges such outcomes. For example, if the use of a certain photograph seemed like an obvious choice, it might not seem so, when considered experientially, and a replacement might be warranted.

Case – Use of characters in corporate presentations

Corporate presentations feel the need to add flavour by interspersing text with visuals. The visuals are mostly stylized clipart predominantly cartoonish characters. It is believed that clipart will break the monotony of content.

Transformation from detailed representation to effective minimalism

Figure 3: Transformation from detailed representation to effective minimalism

Though as an idea there is a merit in most of the implementations one will see the clipart sticking out. The content or the idea gets diluted with clipart grabbing the attention. In some cases the clipart are so much out of style and out of context with the tone of the presentation that it greatly undermines the value of presentation. Here is a case to demonstrate how the idea of use of characters by deliberate narrowing from the idea to outcome resulted in a powerful implementation (Ravi Krishnan L. 2001).

Parameters and thinking that went into the process of narrowing down:

  1. The original idea is the first reaction to characters. With details like this one will grab a lot of unwarranted attention and debate on race, colour, sex, age, dress etc.
  2. Use characters that represent both the company and the customer. A slight change of colour that can consistently identify them
  3. The characters also need to be shown in more than one context if they stay meaningful throughout the presentation
  4. The character needs to have just enough details to communicate without being intrusive
  5. The style should enable seamless integration with multiple contexts in which it will be shown
  6. The character should help get across abstract ideas
  7. The characters should be flexible for scaling and manipulation without altering the style.

3. Create a shared language

A product involves several specialists pooling their expertise together. Designing experiences is possible only when there is a shared language amongst the contributors to the product. This shared language should capture the mission of the outcome in a simple language that enables everyone to link his or her contribution for the final experience of the product. Specificity helps remove ambiguity. Rather than the adjectives that tend to be very broad in their meaning and liable for multiple interpretations, the language has to be very precise to correctly orient the efforts. Designer's role in establishing this shared language is key to get the team to shift to experience as the outcome.

Case – Use of shared language for an elearning product to train volunteers of Red Cross

The purpose of the product was to train volunteers from any part of the world on setting up of a warehouse at the disaster site. After working out the various specifications of the product the team came out with a shared language, at a glance. This directed the team to dig out patterns that at a glance stand for and incorporate them. The interface, the treatment of the content, choice of colour, style of writing, style of illustration and several other aspects worked together to generate the at a glance feel in the end (Trina Systems. 2002).

Content treatment to enable experience at a glance

Figure 4: Content treatment to enable experience at a glance

The use of the shared language at a glance did the following for the team
  1. Made end purpose recognizable: For many team members, the end outcome might feel distanced from the activity they are performing. But each and every contribution go to build the outcome. So shared language becomes a practical way to keep the end purpose recognizable by one and all.
  2. Helped contributors to self validate their contribution: Individual contributors are the best judge of how well their contribution can make or break the outcome. This language constantly goads self-validation. As it captured at the level anyone can connect each ones prior experience of at a glance helped refine their own contribution.
  3. Generated self-mandated discipline: Especially in a design team there can be difficulties of resolving conflicts. In this case the complimenting of visuals and text was the biggest challenge. A little more detail or text could have disturbed the balance. The language helped to sensitively establish this balance as the contributors disciplined themselves.

4. Drive constituent parts towards total experience

Time and again in elearning products, we see brilliant experience being achieved in constituent parts, but the product experience as a whole falls short. This problem is more pronounced in team efforts where individuals in team possess different levels of skill and command varying degrees of influence over the final outcome. Each of the team members should extend or underplay their own contributions keeping the final experience in view.

Case – Visual explainers in El Pais

El Pais is a Spanish news website that provides reconstruction of events such as accidents and crimes. Their style of documentation, commonly known as visual explainers (Nichani. M and Rajamanickam. V, 2003) has become a genre for news depiction on the Web. A key objective of these explainers is to explain visually by giving the reader a vicarious experience of the event. This example explains the collision of two trains triggered by an automobile veering off a nearby highway. The key to recreating experience for an event like this one is to establish the role of geography, the cause, the chronological sequence, and the facts of the objects involved. All of these factors have to be communicated effectively with right amount of detail and emphasis to make sure the viewer experiences the incident as authentic as possible.

Well considered parts forming an effective whole

Figure 5: Well considered parts forming an effective whole

  1. Presenting the geography: Establishing geography lets the viewer get the bearings on the topography of the event. The designers have chosen the top view because the key components are the highway and the tracks below. One may notice the view is closer when the first collision happens and gets wider during the second collision. Through this the difference in scale of collision is established. The viewer is able to experience the fact that a small vehicle has triggered a catastrophic collision.
  2. Pointing the cause: While showing the cause the exclusive trigger that set the event is important. For instance here the vehicle that triggered the event is the only one shown. By not showing the rest one still gets the feel it is a busy highway. It would have been redundant to show movement of other vehicles. This discipline of calculated depiction comes from the emphasis on what is important.
  3. Showing the sequence: The sequence in which the geography, the objects and the trigger interact over time determines the extent of the mishap. There is a specific detail in each of those components that are critical to appreciate the event. The narration needs to connect all these details precisely to make sense of these components. This visual explainer brings about in a significant way the interplay of all of these factors.
  4. Communicating the facts: Experience of an event enhances with the knowledge of associated facts. Too little may lead to an incomplete experience, while too much may result in information overload. In this case, the El Pais designers have struck an optimum balance by providing limited information related to locations, locomotives, wagons, and history of train accidents.


So how does the foregoing discussion connect with the elearning context? The answer lies in the commonality of certain principles across diverse spheres of human enterprise. Layout-experience gap is not unique to elearning, as the comparisons in this article might have amply illustrated. The guidelines derived from these examples provide us a framework for experience-enabling design that helps designers to get away from layout thinking and focus on the outcome. Experience-enabling design requires questioning, reflecting and drawing on links between product and its experience.


This paper was presented in May 2004, at the Global Conference on Excellence in Education and Training, Singapore Polytechnic.

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