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ATD Blog

Why Details Are Important in Your E-Learning Design

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

In 2017, Netflix’s “Skip Intro” button forever changed our lives. It gave users the control to binge-watch episode after episode of Orange Is the New Black without sitting through the theme song each time. Dozens and dozens of articles have been written about the change. There was even a Reddit thread, Time Person of the Year - Netflix Skip Intro, which was upvoted more than 78,000 times.

The button is a small detail that made a huge difference.

Almost any design article about not skimping on the details highlights the famous quote by Charles Eames: “The details are not the details. They make the design.” Details matter, whether they are a small one that makes a big difference or several small ones that add up to make a really great experience.

The Small Details That Make a Big Difference

When it comes to details in design, Paul Bennett of global design company IDEO gave a TED talk about why they are so important. He spoke about a device nurses use to input data while doing a procedure on a person's spine. The device works; however, they could not always be effectively applied when nurses could use only one hand to operate them while using their other to hold patients’ hands. Bennett and his team devised a new device that can be used with only one hand.

During the talk, Bennett gave examples of how we use the world around us to create design solutions. We do this when it comes to learning something new too. As learners, we engineer learning experiences to make them work better for our own situations.

One of the most common examples is the traditional “Click Next” button that allows users to continue moving through e-learning courses. After observing learners, I noticed that many took notes on information they might need later in the course. The reason? It was hard for them to return to the viewed content, so writing their own notes would be easier.

While the content might have been good, the experience was lacking.


What if learning designers engineered experiences well enough from the beginning so this didn't happen? To provide better solutions, we have to find out more about our learners and their needs. What is their day like? How does learning fit into their daily activities? Where are they in their moment of need? Are people engineering new learning experiences based off this one? If so, what does that look like? Could we have made it easier by creating some other content options like a short video or a document? Did learners even need a course?

The Small Details That Add Up to a Great Experience

It's not just a small detail in a project that makes a big difference. It's all of the details—all of the small things within an experience create an amazing or not-so-amazing one.

In the article, “The Design’s in the Details,” Arin Bhowmick of IBM states, "Details help build trust. In any app or web product, the layout, the iconography, the language, the colors, the button text, etc., all contribute to how people experience that product and influence their perception of it. Even if they don’t exactly know why, people can feel when some aspect of an app or website is ‘off’.”

Detail in the learning design helps the user focus on learning and applying information, and not on how to use design or second-guess whether it's trustworthy. Make the experience enjoyable, accessible, easy to use, and useful.


Even designs that look simple can have a lot of complexity behind them. Designer Naz Hamid writes in a similar article, "When doing detail work, ‘less is more’ is about leaving in only everything that is necessary and making it harmonious. Let the complexity be in the simplicity. A design is not useful when it’s perceived to be complex."

This quote resonates with me because in designing learning experiences there needs to be harmony between the content and the design. I use motion, graphics, colors, and interactions intentionally, sparingly, and only when I know it will aid in driving performance or making content more sticky.

Bottom line: The design needs to drive the person's performance; it shouldn't get in the way of it. Nor can the content successfully live on its own in all situations. The experience elevates the content to the user, how and when they need it.

For more tips, join me at the ATD 2019 International Conference & Exposition. During my session, Changing the Face of UI Design for E-Learning, we will explore how to scale your e-learning design while focusing on creating exciting user experiences and designing effective learning content.

About the Author

Melissa Milloway is a designer, developer, and blogger within the field of learning. She specializes in developing e-learning and virtual instructor led training. Milloway has supported learning initiatives at companies such as AstraZeneca, Blue Cross Blue Shield, JLL, and Johnson & Johnson. Milloway was chosen as a member of the 30 Under 30 group for Elliott Masie’s Learning 2014. 

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