SIMPLE? How I missed the obvious (or maybe not, after all)

This is a short (and somewhat embarrassing, but instructively useful) post that reflects on a recent development in my work designing online courses. Recently, I developed a new course template / design for two completely new, fully-online professional graduate programs my department is rolling out for the first time this fall. I have previously collected feedback from faculty who will teach these new courses, and implemented some changes to reflect their perceptive comments, but the design had never really been used in a live course yet. So I was absolutely thrilled when one of the faculty who taught a professional, graduate course this summer (that is not a part of the new programs), had generously volunteered to implement this new template as a “pilot” aka “dry run” in their course, to see how useful and useable the template was, and how it would be received by students. This “pilot” and the feedback, in turn, lead to several small but significant tweaks and improvements.

The new course design / template has a few innovative, clever ideas that were intended to enhance the usability / use experience for students n these courses. One of several such innovations, that I had adapted (with permission) from one of our faculty, is the inclusion of a downloadable compressed (zip) file in each course module that gathers in one place all the PDFs of readings, handouts, PowerPoints, and other materials (with the exception of videos, due to file size, and web links, for obvious reasons).

Another small-but-meaningful innovation, is using a consistent naming convention for all files in the course, that makes it easy for students to recognize which course and module each file came from (when they look at them a week or a year later), whether the material is required or just recommended/optional, and – important especially during the course / when the course is being offered – how much time it will likely take to review (read, or view) the content (this is a feature I adapted from Blinkist, and Pocket – two phone apps I use and appreciate for their clever UI/user interface design): file names include run-time for videos, and page count for PDFs, and PPTs or DOCs.

Recently, I had a chance to talk to a student who was taking the “pilot” course and I asked them if the innovations were helpful. There was a pause. Then it became clear that while the student thought the innovations could potentially be very helpful, they were not aware of most of them… Some things, more immediately obvious, like page-count and run-time for videos (which we also list in each module whenever the video or reading is mentioned) were described as useful, and appreciated. But the student did not notice that there was a zip file that would not only let them download all of the module’s files, but would also helpfully “decompress” all of them into a properly named folder (course name and semester, module number), with files whose names included relevant information (length, page count, and so on), and the information-packed file naming convention went completely unnoticed (except for the page count/run-time). Not only did my effort not fully paid off (which was disappointing in itself), but – more importantly – students were obviously not getting the full benefit of these small yet potentially massively time-saving and helpful design features…

Honestly, I should haven known that – years ago, I read a whole book that (indirectly) talks about situations like this – Duncan Watts’s Everything Is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer .(from NYT review: “If we drop a match on a forest floor, we cannot predict whether the result will be a conflagration or a campfire just by knowing a lot about matches.) So here is a quick, and painfully obvious conclusion: when you create and introduce UX / user experience innovations, in a course, app, software, or technical documentation, even if YOU think they are obvious, take a moment to point them out to users, and make sure they understand how these innovations are intended to make their lives easier in everyday, practical, down-to-earth situations and typical use.

Thanks to the student’s feedback, next week, I will be recording a very short 1-2-minute video (screencast, to be technically precise) that is titled Anatomy of a Course Module . The screencast will walk students through all potential course and module design features that may not be expected or noticed, but could be impactful and helpful, and it will very briefly explain the practical benefits of each feature. One important lesson learned

Photo credit: The very clever “Simple” photo/concept graphic on this page is licensed from Fakurian Design via Unsplash.