BOOK REVIEW: “Design for How People Learn” by Julie Dirksen

“Design for How People Learn” by Julie Dirksen

© Ugur Akinci

“Design for How People Learn” by Julie Dirksen is a heavy book, both literally (top-quality glossy paper) and figuratively. It’s an important reference work that I think all trainers, instructors, and e-learning designers should read.

We are lucky to have today e-learning tools like Adobe Captivate and others. Setting up slides, quizzes, links, buttons, voiceovers, inserting images, videos etc. is a breeze.

However, when it comes to designing a learning experience that would actually help the students learn, and make a difference in their lives by changing the way they ACT, I believe there is no one-click app for that.

That complex skill, which requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of our prospective audience, needs to be deconstructed first, its individual components pulled apart and laid bare, and then reconstructed for a training package that really works and changes lives.

Dirksen’s easy-to-read and well-illustrated book accomplishes that goal in 300 full-color gorgeous pages.

The author starts from the A-B-Cs of the subject like “How do we remember?” and “How do you get their attention?” and ratchets up the discussion to higher orbits by diving into different design styles and goals: designing for knowledge, for skills, for motivation, and designing for habits.

One of my favorite chapters in this lovely guide is the last chapter devoted to “Designing Evaluation” since it asks the same questions that I ask myself all the time: does it work? Are the students learning anything? Do they remember anything? Do the learners actually start DOING the right things once the training is over?

Another favorite section is “How learners are different from you?” since for me the greatest trap is to assume that my readers are more or less like me, which they rarely are. Just to realize the ways in which our readers are different from us and understand what we should do to close that perception and cognitive gap is a major design accomplishment, I believe.

The book is rich in laying out the general principles and the research that supports them. But it’s also jam-packed with examples and illustrations to drive home the message.

Chapters are divided into sections, each with its easy-on-the-eye subheader, making it a pleasure both to peruse through the volume and to stop and dive deeper by concentrating on various characters playing different roles during the design process.

For example, in the subsection “Remember, Change Is Hard,” Dirksen presents the photos of four characters, each with a “plausible” excuse not to change and keep doing everything the same old way. Such presentations make the material immediately accessible since it becomes so easy to identify with the characters. We end up saying “yeah, I do that too…” after which we have a renewed and stronger commitment to the material in front of us.

Here are some suggestive headlines from sections that might change the way you design your training materials in the future:

  • “How can you know what your learners are thinking?” (p.51)
  • “What’s pace layering?” (p.74)
  • “Storytelling & Conditioned Memory” (pp. 110, 111)
  • “Tell them less, not more” (p.185)
  • “Create friction” (p.166)
  • “Have learners consider what they already know” (p.162)
  • “How do you give directions?” (p.177)
  • “The anatomy of a habit” (p. 231)
  • “Social and informal learning” (p. 243)
  • “What are we trying to measure?” (p. 272)
  • “Are the learners actually doing the right things?” (p. 283)

Get your copy today. Highly recommended.

Essentials of Interactive E-Learning


essentials of interactive e-learning

At a recent workshop, we reviewed some of the essentials of interactive e-learning. Here are some of the highlights from the presentation. They focus on what the course participant should DO and not what information they need to SEE.

Basic Course Design

essentials of interactive e-learning 3 considerations


We discussed this in the post on what every new instructional designer should know. When building courses there are three main considerations:

  • What content needs to be in the course?
  • What’s the right look and feel for the course?
  • What will the users do in the course?

This last point is where we consider how the user interacts in the course. One of the challenges many e-learning developers have is that they don’t properly identify the performance objectives for the course and without that, they can’t build meaningful interactions.

The first thing is to understand the performance expectations and then from there build the interactions and activities that teach how to meet those expectations.

Objectives for Interactive E-Learning

essentials of interactive e-learning how to

It’s important to step away from info-centric design and step towards learner-centric design. A course focused on the learner frames the content so that it’s relevant to the learner’s needs and meaningful to the types of decisions they need to make in the real world.

  • Identify who’s taking the course.
  • In what situations would they need the course content?
  • After the course, what should they be able to do?
  • How do they prove they can do it during the course?

Use a Backward Design Strategy to Focus On Meaningful Interactions

essentials of interactive e-learning backward bull's eye design

Training specialists always fret over the return-on-investment (ROI) for e-learning. That’s usually the case when they’re not properly aligned to the organization’s goals and end up building a lot of information-based e-learning with very little focus on real performance improvement. It’s like they shoot a bunch of arrows during the year; then at the end of the year draw bull’s eyes around them to show the organization how well they’ve done.

  • The real bull’s eye is identifying what the learner needs to do.
  • Then determine how they can prove that they can do it.
  • Training is built around how to prove their understanding.
  • Focus on the activities. What do they need to do and what do they need to know to do it.

If you focus on the activities and not the information, you’ll most likely built more effective, engaging, and interactive e-learning.

Good books to learn more:

When it all comes down to it, effective interactive e-learning is built around meaningful activities that are relevant to the learner and aligned with the organization’s goals. The mistake a lot of course designers make is to not properly define the performance objectives and from there build meaningless or no interactivity.

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A lot of the interactions I make at work are based on not allowing users to continue until all of the interactions on a slide have been completed. 

An exmaple could be there are four buttons, which need to be clicked so they show all of the popups, and then the next button will appear. 

I’ve heard from videos online that there are mixed views on this approach and am interested to hear what are your thoughts. I know from a usability point of view, it breaks one of the heuristics, which is to give freedom to users with navigation, but it comes up so often with what I do day-to-day. 

Really interested to hear your thoughts.



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