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Beyond 508 – UX e-learning design

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Since this very strong statement is one of the building blocks of the American state, it is very important for the government to hold true to it and strive to prove it viable and functional in society. It’s not that easy because if as far the human condition goes, equality is not debatable, people are ultimately unique and very different under a multitude of aspects.

People with disabilities are in no way lesser people but they do have a harder time doing certain things so efforts need to be constantly made in order to ensure a smooth sailing for them. This is where article 508 comes in.

What is article 508 and who needs to comply?

In a nutshell, 508 compliance means that all users, no matter of their ability or disability, can access technology. It’s a way to make sure that all internet users have the same opportunities.

Compliance standards are set by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that requires all federal agencies to make sure they provide software and website accessibility to people with disabilities. A website is considered 508 Compliant when all users can access it with no obstacles. Basically this means that all websites need to be compatible with assistive technology.

The institutions that have to be 508 Compliant are:

  • All Government agencies
  • Federal-funded nonprofit organizations
  • Public K-12 schools
  • Public higher education institutions

Many organizations that are not required to do so by law choose to be 508 Compliant as this provides greater inclusivity. Since this section is directly referring to all technology driven software, this also applies to all virtual learning.

For companies this means that all e-learning programs should abide to the rules and be easy to access by anyone in any circumstance. At a closer look, getting on board with 508 has great advantages not only for users with disabilities but for pretty much everyone.

Beyond 508 – UX e-learning design

Users that have hearing disabilities need subtitles in order to follow e-learning material yet people who have no trouble hearing the dialogue or narrative choose to use same language subtitles because they find it easier to focus, understand and process the information.

Furthermore, people are very different and have diverse learning preferences. I can definitely declare myself technically impaired as I cannot grasp the concept of how anything around the house works and thus stand no chance of ever fixing anything. My husband, on the other hand, is able to pull anything apart and back together again with absolutely no trouble. But ask him to write one hundred words on a topic that does not have to do with cars or software and he’s sure to be stuck indefinitely.

So when we are talking about e-learning design, all types of users should be taken into account, not just those under the incidence of the 508. Visual learners should have the possibility to see demonstrative videos while those who need theory, structure and text should be given the information in those formats as well.

And there are some things designers can do to make e-learning content more accessible for everyone. This is where user experience (UX) design comes in. Its purpose is to facilitate a better interaction between user and content, ultimately resulting in more positive learning outcomes.

4 Tips for a better UX design

Simplicity is best. If you thought that embarking on a journey to take an e-learning module and adding stuff to it in order to provide a better user experience, think again. The challenge is actually to clear all the clutter, take out all unnecessary information, buttons and features and focus on what is essential. It should all be simple and intuitive – the designers of the latest smartphones certainly have this down as my toddler has no trouble navigating my phone like a pro even though he can’t read yet. White space is actually a lot better than filling every little piece of the screen with text or images.

Mind the F shape. Back in 2006, the Nielsen Norman Group identified a certain pattern that users follow when reading web content. Research showed that first they read in a horizontal movement, usually along the upper part of the screen. This forms the F’s top line. Next, users move down the page a little and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower and shorter line. Finally, users have been found to scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. This last element forms the F’s stem. Since experience shows that usually users skim rather than thoroughly read, designers should focus on placing the most important information at the top and organize relevant content along this shape. Using key-words at the start of the paragraphs is also advisable.

Use clever titles. Since the natural tendency is to only skim the information and stop to dig deeper only when something grabs attention, clever titles that entice are a good way to ensure some time will be spent on that particular topic. Word play, intriguing assertions or funny puns are good options for getting the learner to stop the speedy overview and give some time to whatever comes after the catchy title. Even though the main objective of these cleverly constructed headlines is to stimulate curiosity, they should also give a pretty good idea of what the content is about. This way the learner can easily find the information that is of interest to them.

Get user feedback. The best way to design e-learning courses that provide a good user experience is to ask the actual users about what they think. Of course it would be a lot easier to get the information before beginning the actual design but since the goal is to improve the experience, there’s a good chance some tweaks will need to be made only after the module is finished and accessed by learners. There is also the possibility to have a beta version to be rated by a focus group of users. Either way, the best method to make sure the material is presented in its best, most accessible form is to be constantly ready to modify, update and innovate.

All in all

508 was set up in order to ensure accessibility for those who suffer from various forms of impairment. UX design appeared from the need of all of us to get some help when we have to make it through large amounts of information when we have limited time and an even more limited attention span.

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