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Looks matter: tips for better visual clarity in e-learning

We’re always told looks aren’t everything, but we all know from our day to day work life, they often are. Everything from staff dress codes to powerpoint presentations - appearances and first impressions count. And it’s really no different for e-learning courses. The truth is, if it looks better, it’s more appealing, it’s more engaging and learners are, well, more likely to learn. Now this isn’t something you don’t already know, so in this article we’ll open the hood of the Carrot machine and see what techniques our learning consultants use to achieve the best visual clarity in our courses.

Visual clarity & processing fluency

But first, let’s back up and see what we mean by visual clarity. Thanos Dimtriou in an interesting piece on clarity in UX design. Visual clarity is the ‘measure of how effectively visual design prioritises and conveys information.’ He goes on to add ‘clarity revolves around the transmission (or communication) of information, and the information quantity itself.’ Here he touches on something really important: the quantity of information presented. We’ve all been there, we’ve logged onto a web page or e-learning course and we’ve been met by a wall of text. In these situations it’s all too easy for enthusiasm levels to drop. Now this seems like an obvious response and the science backs this up. For most of us, if the ease at which we can read and understand information drops, so too do learning outcomes. In the learning world we call this ‘processing fluency.’ Resources with low levels of visual clarity have a direct impact on processing fluency; this can often lead to drops in positive aptitude for learning which ultimately can limit key aspects of learning such as comprehension, retention and recall.

So how do we ensure the best visual clarity and in turn, processing fluency? Here are some of Carrot’s top tips.

Instructions shouldn’t be a task in themselves

Keeping the instructions simple is as important as the learning content. Seems obvious doesn’t it? But often as L&D managers, we prioritise the learning content leaving the instructions as an afterthought. Remember, this is often the first experience of the task and at this stage and first impressions count. Instructions should be separated into several easily digestible stages and numbered logically to guide the learner through the task.

In a study by Song & Shwarzman, instructions were presented with identical instructions to a simple task. One set of instructions was displayed clearly whilst the other was displayed in a difficult to read typeface and lacked numbering. The impact on the task was stark. Users scored considerably less on the latter version and took almost twice as long to complete the full exercise. The respondents even felt the exercise was more difficult than the control version and started to doubt their ability to tackle the task. The takeaway is clear - keep the instructions concise and easy to understand, and you’ll set the learner up for success.

Keep colour contrast high

Another study by Reber Schwarz, again put two versions of the same task forward for learners. The twist this time? Colour contrast. Respondents expressed high processing fluency with high contrast colours i.e blue or black on a white background or light colours on a dark background. When it came to low contrasts for example yellow on a white background learners described frustration and a drop off in enthusiasm for the task.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Of course if something isn’t legible the learning outcome is going to suffer, but the picture’s a little more complicated than that. A further study by Reber & Schwarz looked at credibility when it comes to legibility. Learners were more likely to find more legible statements to be factually true.

Create a logical visual hierarchy

Now this is a more general point but again, vital in creating overall clarity. Repeated elements need to be consistent throughout the piece. What do we mean by this? Well, content must be chunked logically in order of importance. We know that learners read left to right, so the critical content must be positioned to start on that side. Things like headers, sub headers and body copy should be in predictable and consistent fonts. This can help to highlight and distinguish the critical information to retain from other supporting narratives. Building this out to include repeated colour schemes and consistent use of other graphical elements like iconography can help to sign post recall for learners. The more an element is repeated the more likely it is to be retained.

For more information on clarity in e-learning contact the carrot learning team on

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