Seven Things that Grab the Learner’s Attention when Designing Content

I’m always a little trepidatious whenever I have to do some elearning. Like most people, I expect, I’m doing it because I have to and not necessarily because I want to. Unfortunately, there is some dreadful elearning out there and it’s almost certainly guaranteed to make my eyelids heavy and I literally have to fight dozing off. When I reach the end, I ask myself if I enjoyed it, well, to be more honest, I ask myself this question all the time as I’m going through it. I want to enjoy it, I really do, but it’s like a fuel gauge on a gas guzzler and that “enjoyment” needle just keeps dropping. No, the real main question I ask myself is what did I learn and what – even more important – can I remember? You know you can read a paragraph or a page and then think to yourself that you haven’t taken in a single word? Well, that’s an elearning consequence too.

I think Elearning’s been a victim of a “pack it high and sell it cheap” philosophy, with little thought into what can be done to make it engaging. Just bung in the content, get that box ticked and we can all go home. Clearly, this is untenable, particularly when elearning is not cheap – although it can, and should be, cost effective.

So, here are my seven tips to transform this elearning dystopia:

1. Making it stick

Have an introductory sting that makes the learner sit up and think, “oh, this could be interesting”. Certainly, if audio is used, a very short burst of music can help to achieve this. (To prevent irritation – as overexposure can achieve, it could be played only on first entry into the course)

2. Aesthetics is essential

Have graphics that look the part, exciting, fresh and vibrant. Now, I know there’s an awful lot of compliance-based, financial elearning out there, and how many times can you show a pile of coins or a wedge of notes? But that is boring. Go for a completely different graphical theme. Why does it have to be images of money? Think outside of the box and find a better way to grab your learner’s attention.

3. The importance of video

Use animations and video to convey information and to help explain. It is quite true that a picture paints a thousand words.

4. New sound

Returning to audio as this is now so commonly used in elearning – make sure you use an “interesting voice”. That said, make sure the audio is interruptable. You will quickly lose your audience’s attention if they have to listen to too much. (There is another question, left for another day, of why, given that the majority of people read more quickly than it takes to listen to the same text, do we use audio in the first place; like I said, that’s a blog for another occasion.)

5. Engaging

Grab your learner’s attention with a meaningful challenge if you can. Get them to think about something, so ask or present it in a challenging way. Scenario-based elearning is great for this, as are “what would happen if…..” type questions.

6. Cram

Use the available screen space judiciously – never cram too much onto a screen so it looks crowded – maintain readability at all costs. Regarding text, keep the language friendly – I’ve heard it said that because the subject is academic, so the language must be suitably academic. But this, I think, is misguided, and it puts style over substance; I’m for substance any day of the week. Use a nice font – make sure it’s not too big or too small – it’s harder to read text on a screen than it is on paper. Causes eye strain. You could engage your learner by saying, “Right, that’s enough for now – grab a beverage and come back later”!

7. Keep learners hooked

After you’ve grabbed your learner’s attention, keep them hooked by treating them like a person and giving them respect. By this, I mean, don’t ask them a trite question or one where the answers are obvious. Interactions are all well and good, and a lot of noise is made about how there must be an interaction every few screens. But why? If the learner is engaged in the course, but there simply is no sensible interaction to ask at that moment, don’t include one just for its own sake. That said, I recently had to show a table (the sort with rows and columns), and I could have just shown it and expected the learner to passively read it, but I wanted the learner to actively engage with it, so I turned the whole thing into a row by row interaction. Get them to think for a bit!

8. Empathy

Here’s a free, bonus point – it’s a surprise as you were only expecting 7, and you’re possibly going to remember it all the better for it. Put yourself in your learner’s shoes – if you don’t find it engaging you, why should a learner?