Technical literacy impacts on excellent design of learning experiences

Learning technology – what can we learn from Norman Doors, asks instructional designer Ross Garner

A few years ago I was loosely involved in the redesign of GoodPractice’s core product: an online toolkit for leaders and managers. My role was simple: I had to spend a couple of evenings chatting to our target users, then take notes as they carried out a few simple toolkit tasks.

An example of one of those tasks is to ‘find the resources on Time Management’.

Our typical users are busy and often faced with competing demands, so they need to be able to find these resources quickly. To help them, we had a search box at the top-right of the home page, next to a drop-down menu that listed all of the topics we covered.

As designs go, it was hardly revolutionary. Most retail and media sites have exactly the same functionality.

But what did our testing group do? They scrolled down, and kept on scrolling until they hit the bottom. It seemed that they were pulled down by our use of images.


I was astounded. Was this how people use the Amazon website? Do they browse it like they would browse a paper catalogue in Argos?

For me, the experience highlighted a major issue with learning technology: levels of technical literacy vary widely.

Standard navigation features like search boxes, image carousels (of rotating pictures at the top of a webpage) and the small menu buttons (often called the hamburger button) are second nature to those of us who spend our lives online.


But if a catering manager can’t get past the first screen of an elearning resource, what use is it to them?

If an officer worker has no experience of software outside of her day-to-day responsibilities, how engaged is she going to be with a complicated game featuring points, badges and rewards?

How can we, as learning professionals, ensure that our tech solutions are accessible to everyone? How can we make sure that we don’t discriminate against those who aren’t as familiar with tech as we are?

For me, there’s a lot to be learned from ‘Norman Doors’.


A Norman Door is any door that encourages you to push when you are meant to pull, or encourages you to pull when you are meant to push. If you’ve ever grabbed hold of a door handle and yanked it towards you, only to find your arm nearly wrenched out of its socket, then you have fallen foul of a Norman Door.

A well-designed door is one where the user does not need to think about whether to push or pull. Its use is obvious, to everyone. It does not require instructions.

When I design elearning, I try to follow this same principle. Is it clear what the user is meant to do? Or has my poor design created a Norman Door?

I often see elearning that opens with five tutorial screens. Full disclosure, I’ve developed elearning modules where I could barely fit the instructions on the screen.

What did this tell me? That my design was too complicated.

Designing the experience

Learning a new skill should be challenging, but the actual experience itself should be simple. Imagine a learner let loose in a museum. They can roam from room to room, exploring the areas that interest them, returning to areas more than once if they want, and should never once run into a Norman Door.

Are your learning solutions designed like this? Or does your design leave learners so frustrated that they give up?

I learned a lot from that user testing experience. I learned that my enthusiasm for a new design meant I could no longer put myself in the shoes of my learners. I learned that I had to test early, prototype if I could, and make changes based on the feedback that I got.

And I learned that keeping it simple really is the best solution, but that simple isn’t always easy.


About the author
Ross Garner is an Online Instructional Designer for Good Practice and can be contacted through or @RossGarnerGP


Read more about learning design:
Using cognitive neuroscience to maximise learning


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