Skip to: Navigation | Content | Sidebar | Footer

How Usable Is Your Online Course Content?

The worlds of web design and online learning are interconnected in many ways. As an instructional designer, I work to ensure that courses are effective not only in terms of online navigation and working links, but also in the presentation of meaningful content and interaction. Not all websites are created equal – some have much more helpful layouts and information than others – and it's a similar situation with online courses. Just as web designers consider the "user experience" when creating new web pages, you should consider "learner experience" when creating new materials for your online course.

A recent article from, geared toward web design topics, caught my attention with the "User Experience Honeycomb" developed by Peter Morville to guide designers in the creation of "useful, usable, engaging content." With its seven related facets, it could be a helpful decision-making resource for instructional designers and instructors creating activities for online courses.

As an online instructor you may not be serving in the role of course designer. You may be teaching courses that were completely designed by someone else, but you may be able to provide feedback for course revision. You may also have the opportunity to serve as a subject matter expert (SME) on a design team charged with developing a new online course. The creation of "useful, usable, and engaging content" is critical to the success of your students. As you review my take on Morville's User Experience Honeycomb, as it relates to online learners and course design, consider how the facets have an potential impact on your courses.

  • Useful: What do your students do with the activities, materials, links, and other content you include in your course? Does each of these items add to the understanding of a complex concept in some way? Or perhaps they directly support the achievement of an established learning objective in the course? Consider the usefulness of each item from the student's perspective.
  • Usable: Does the content work correctly within your course site? Students, like the rest of us, can be deterred when links are broken and interactions don't work as intended. Are your course materials easy to use? Look for places where the addition of detailed instructions can help students get started.
  • Findable: This component deals with navigation and layout. How easy is it to find the different materials included in your course? Review the menus and links in your online course when adding a new item and consider where should it be added on-screen and in relation to other existing content, so that students will not only be able to locate it, but will use it.
  • Credible: Rarely is an online course, with all of its related materials, the creation of a single author. Whether the course is created by a team or by a single instructor who includes links to outside materials, it's important for the students to know that the content is credible in terms of its source, purpose, currency, and relevance. Provide background information about why you've chosen the materials you have for the course. This could also be a great way to introduce your students to leaders in your field and relevant resources and publications.
  • Desirable: Morville's description of this facet includes "an appreciation for the power and value of image, identity, brand, and other elements of emotional design." We've all landed on web pages that didn't grab our attention, causing us to move quickly to something else. How well does your course capture the interest of your students?
  • Accessible: Accessibility issues are a major consideration of web designers, including those who work on education and training projects. How will students with disabilities access your course materials? Depending on the type of media and content you are providing, there are multiple ways to assist learners including captions for video presentations, provisions for screen reading software, and printable text-based transcripts for audio recordings. Take a look at The University of Central Florida's Teaching Online site for more accessibility resources.
  • Valuable: Does your course content support your students in their pursuit of course learning objectives? Morville notes that "the user experience must advance the mission" and the mission of your course is student learning achievement. You can also help your students understand the value of your course and its related materials by discussing how they fit into the larger academic program, build on prior learning and experiences, and connect them to career goals.

If you've been involved in instructional design before, this list may seem basic – a sort of primer on web and usability design – but it serves to focus (or refocus) or attention on the learner experience. All too often we are distracted by the latest and greatest tool and by the priorities of other stakeholders in the process. The User Experience Honeycomb is one way to pull the necessary components of our often complex academic courses together with the goal of a high-quality experience for each of our students. If our student's can't find the materials they need, don't understand the value of the activities and assignments, and aren't interested in completing related tasks, they aren't likely to succeed in the course.

How usable are your online courses? What feedback have you received from students that could be used to improve overall usability? Work with your school's faculty support and instructional design teams to find out more about the resources available as you conduct course usability reviews, collect student feedback, and make changes with usability in mind.

Share your success stories and lessons learned as you've worked to provide a useful learning environment for your students.

Image used with permission from Peter Morville.