Web design in e-learning

Web design from scratch has a good overview of current web style. I love all these pages, with perhaps the exception of LinkedIn; the site it’s hosted on isn’t bad either.

In fact, I actually really like the style of the moment in general: big text, rounded corners, bold colours and unobtrusive shadowing. Emily Chang has an article on this too, where she notes:

Perhaps it’s the success of Google’s search page, or our collective reaction against the flashing banner ads and intrusive popups of the last decade, or the Jonathan Ives [of iMac fame] effect, but it’s as though web users, designers, and developers alike have all agreed to a new de facto standard of Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more.”

Further on in her article she asks a series of web services the question, “What is your design philosophy?” – and the answers are all on the same page: “Keep it easy and fast and get out of the way.” “I like open space and successful use of highlighting techniques to draw the viewer’s attention.” “Keep it as clear and simple as possible.” “Less is more.”

Visual design is an integral part of usability – a term in itself that instinctively makes me think of Jakob Nielsen’s UseIt.com, which seems deceptively awful-looking and unreadable at first glance. He does, however, have many interesting insights (take this report, which notes that sites rarely have support for multi-site usage behaviours) and is worth taking seriously. He notes that teenagers in particular are much less willing to stick around a poor-looking system:

[…] Teens are also much less willing than adults to stick around websites with useful content but poor presentation, Nielsen said.

“We saw that a lot in the study,” he said. “After one or two pages, (teens) are ready to make their judgment. Adults aren’t going to spend two hours, but they have more patience if they feel, ‘I need this for my job or for my vacation.’”

This has serious implications for e-learning systems, which usually erroneously put visual design way down on their list of priorities. At best, they’re functional; at worst, they’re plain ugly. Lazy, stupid and evil design is an interview with Nielsen that neatly categorises bad design practices. It’s worth taking five minutes and thinking if the systems you use in your institution fit the descriptions. A little time from a visual designer is often money very well spent.

Certainly in Elgg, visual design is something we’re looking to improve. Our edit screens are undergoing a redesign process which will result in a much clearer interface; in particular, incorporating resources from your file repository or external services will become far more obvious. And that’s just the start of the redesigns.

Emily Chang’s interviewees have something to say about the process of redesigning: “The customer is always right and will tell you what choices to make if you listen carefully.” “Roll it out. Get some feedback and get it right.” “We build what our users want.” “A lot of the things we do are a result of user feedback. User input is key to developing a useful product.” After all, as I mentioned in my post about open source, the value of an open development process is that the users become part of the development team; the more feedback you get, the more involved users are in the way a product develops, the better it’s going to be.

As any project should be, we’re open any time to feedback about user interfaces – or anything else. There’s no buy-in to influence Elgg development; we want to hear from everyone. We’re pretty good about replying to emails, and we certainly read everything everyone sends us, as well as most of the public weblog posts on Elgg.net. So the door is open at any time. But for now, in particular, I would like to ask you all to have at us; what are your top five most annoying interface niggles? I’m most interested in Elgg, but I’d love to know, in general, what irks you about the interfaces you use – and perhaps, how you’d like to see them improved. Comment here, draw us a picture, leave us a message on Skype; whatever’s most comfortable to you. We’ll then try and use that information to determine what the userbase as a whole would like to see.

I’d also be interested to hear how your organisation tackles visual design, and the sorts of issues you’ve come across. Web design for education is the kind of barely-addressed issue that could use a dedicated resource all of its own.

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