Behavioural science principles: smooth out the learning experience

Published by Carole Bower on

Behavioural science principles: smooth out the learning experience

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Do you have the attention span of a gnat?  How easily distracted are you? Are you one of those multi-taskers who ends up with several unfinished projects?

That’s a good description of me. Those year-old paint swatches fading away just like my intentions to redecorate my living room. I guess I just got distracted with other projects.

There are widely debated claims around declining human attention spans (due to social media and other competing distractions). However, regardless of the debate around the validity of those claims it’s still worth considering that learning and comms are going to be competing for user attention.

Divided attention, aka multitasking is a reality. We need to reduce ‘friction costs’ when designing a learning experience, but it’s too easy to fall into some of the traps that get in the way of learning and behaviour change.

The science: Even small details can create ‘friction costs’ that prevent people from completing important tasks: just one extra click can deter people from completing an online tax form (Service et al., 2014).

woman working on multiple digital devices

So, how do we reduce friction costs and smooth out the learning experience? Here are 4 things that have caught my (divided) attention recently when reviewing some of our learning and comms experiences.

1. Piggybacking can help create a useful structure

When creating a structure for an experience (usually represented in some sort of menu), there can be a tendency to let the content dictate the order of things. For example: an intro; the big picture; the detailed bits that fit into the big picture; and a sum of all the parts as a finale. However, there are other ways to structure content to encourage people to change/acquire habits.  A technique that caught my attention recently was when one of our designers used a piggybacking or habit stacking approach . They used this approach to create a logical learning sequence for a compliance learning course about Security. In this example the designer piggybacked learning messages alongside routines that happen during a typical working day, g.  wearing a pass as you enter your workplace, logging in at the start of the day, checking emails, and leaving your workstation. Using a familiar structure (a typical day), provides people with mental short-cut that can make it easier for them to remember and stick with their newly adapted routines and (hopefully) help them to form new daily habits.

2. Forced/locked sequences are frustrating

Whilst it’s tempting to try and force people through a particular learning path (you need to learn this thing before you learn the next thing), I dislike the use of locked menus/sequences that prevent people from making their own choices. People don’t like to feel they are being controlled in a learning experience.

They should be allowed to explore for themselves and if the path/journey is clear. It can help users to find out what they don’t know; think about the questions they want answered; and feel their existing knowledge is acknowledged/respected. After all, learning is personal, so why not give people a choice. They are more likely to feel motivated if they feel they have the autonomy to choose their own path.

3. Less is more

It’s easy to think that you add more variety and interest by presenting a learning experience in different ways. But going for the fully blinged up approach can distract and even prevent people from taking anything in.

For example, if you take the Redundancy Principle as explained in Clark and Mayer’s book on E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, people learn better from graphics (or animations) with narration than from graphics, narration and text. So, less is more in this case.

In fact, it’s usually the audio that will dictate the pace for those who try to listen and read at the same time (therefore,the text can become redundant). Ultimately though, it’s about choice, allowing people to choose what works for them and it’s also important to ensure no one is excluded from the learning experience.

The science: When several types of information are presented simultaneously, such as text, images and narration, our attention is divided across those different types of information. This means that we have less processing capacity available for any one source, which can cause cognitive overload (Mayer & Moreno, 1998).

4. Too many clicks

Designers of e-commerce sites know this is a costly mistake. Reducing the number of clicks and decision points can help with securing a sale. Too many clicks = friction costs! People have expectations around digital experiences (they are just part of daily life) so making it easy and avoiding those misplaced extra clicks is important.

As an example, a click reveal that only has one purpose – to reveal another chunk of information can be annoying (especially if those two chunks of information presented together on screen would achieve the same result). So, the click needs to have a (real) purpose, to reveal answers to questions or create an element of surprise or a reward (it’s a reveal after all!) Incidentally, Amazon knew what they were doing when they introduced the buy with one click button feature. Its introduction removed the checkout friction and reduced the number of abandoned shopping baskets – thereby significantly increasing the number of sales.

Since 1999, the 1-Click patent has generated billions of dollars in revenue for Amazon. Simply eliminating a few clicks can be enough to close a sale. With just one click, there’s nothing standing in the way of those impulse purchases and no time to reflect on them.

close up of person's hand clicking on computer mouse

Get in touch if you want to hear more about how we develop a digital learning experience that uses behavioural science principles to create something truly effective.

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