Last night of the prompts

Last night of the prompts?

Are the days of wordy prompts in e-learning design numbered? Scriptwriter Jane Buffham says ‘Scroll down to find out more…’

Assumed to be indispensable for clear, precise navigation, written prompts are ubiquitous in e-learning design, but have they outlived their usefulness? Get them right and they’ll point users from A to B with the delicacy and discretion of a museum curator gently coughing when you stray too close to the Rembrandts.

Get them wrong, however, and you risk ending up with clunky, didactic text loudly sneezing its condescension all over your precious content.

Since the difference between a good prompt and a bad prompt is wafer thin, could we ever look forward to a time when we can dispose of them altogether? After all, do we really need to spell out SELECT START or PRESS PLAY or CLICK X TO CLOSE, when some familiar symbols can do the same job in half the time and with a touch more style?

In the beginning, when the internet was a curious cyber-Narnia accessible only when your dad wasn’t tying up the landline, one little online bookstore set up shop. Its first incarnation had all the design attributes of a self-published manifesto written by a raging conspiracy theorist; the platform laid out its wares as nothing more sophisticated than a list of hyperlinks. It might not have much in common with the ‘everything store’ we know today, but in the mid-nineties it was revolutionary.

Amazon Original, circa 1995Fig 1: An Amazon Original, circa 1995

These days, Amazon is more of an empire than an emporium. It’s cleaned up its pages to include bold headlines, banner images and the fewest words possible. As users have become attuned to clicking on images the platform has whittled away its signposting to the barest minimum.

The development of the platform (and its corporate cousins, whose logos and streamlined UIs have done so much to teach us how to ‘read’ these new languages) has heavily influenced the online user experience that inspires much of our own designing today. Its changing face reflects the evolution of human–computer interaction, showing just how fearless we’ve become with scrolling and rolling, and how at home we are with navigating icons.

From a learner perspective, familiar symbols provoke a pre-programmed response to a stimulus that doesn’t require even conscious awareness to be correctly understood and followed. Broadly, we know what the likes of  or © or × are communicating, since most icons we see are skeuomorphic, designed to be immediately understood through representing the real-world objects we already know.

When these visual prompts are used in online platforms, within milliseconds our brains process what they mean – and what we should do with them – from deep within our procedural memory; our cerebrum remains free to absorb new information uninterrupted.  That can only be a good thing from a learning design perspective, offering a means to gently lead learners around a beautifully crafted module without obstructing the view.

Fancy a hamburger?

However, the operative word is familiar. Any icon we intend to use as short-hand must be pre-programmed into the learner before it can be effective. The problem is we can’t always assume icons we choose will universally be understood, especially when our audience is disparate and broad. Just because certain icons are used ubiquitously by designers doesn’t guarantee that everyone will instantly understand them.

hamburger icon

Fig 2: Would you like fries with this icon?

Take the so-called hamburger icon, popularised in web design after it was adopted by Facebook. For those who don’t know what this is – and according to developer John Foster who conducted a user-survey in 2015, most people don’t – this is the icon usually used to denote that an extended menu lies beneath. According to Foster’s study, use of the hamburger function went up 7.2% when the word MENU was added, while presenting the hamburger as a button boosted its use by 22.4% (handy perhaps for German-speakers for whom the word ‘Speisekarte’ fits less comfortably on screen).

A clue to how icons alone are perhaps not quite as effective as we might assume is reflected in the changing design of the Amazon page. In 1999, for example, the checkout for purchases was represented by a small shopping cart icon discreetly tucked at the top of the screen. Now it appears loud and proud in the banner, the word Basket in 14 point bold font doubling the size of the button it sits on.  Perhaps then a clear sign that the linguistic prompt is not quite dead yet. Words do still have an important part to play as an ergonomic design feature to signpost functionality and encourage the user to perform an action.

Online shopping like it’s 1999

Fig 3: Online shopping like it’s 1999;
when Harry Potter novels were the only books published
and free e-cards were a thing

That’s not to say it’s impossible to go prompt-free. Indeed, the lack of written or verbal clues might even be used as part of the learner’s experiential journey. The 2016 video game The Witness is such an example where inscrutable functionality is a feature of the carefully crafted user-centric design. The player must use observation, experience and failure to solve a series of increasingly complex puzzles, all set against a backdrop of existential philosophy.

And it works beautifully. The balance of creating subtle visual clues is carefully calibrated to mitigate against frustration and annoyance when the player becomes stuck. The result is that players have a strong sense of autonomy over their own journey; they learn from their experience in a way that feels weightless.

As the game’s designer, Jonathan Blow, says:

“We strip out all the confusing things about video games, like ‘Am I pushing this button at the right time or not? … Should I be pulling this lever?’ And so forth. You get rid of all that stuff and it lets you focus on the communication…I’m interested in nonverbal communication broadly, in what kinds of communication are possible. Are there other forms of communication that we can refine in the way that we’ve refined language?

“What would those look like?”

As learning design branches into virtual reality (VR) and immersive game playing, the possibilities of bold experiential design crafted around absorbing narratives and brilliant interactive features are at helter-skelter levels of exciting.  The question ‘are prompts really necessary?’ becomes less of a broad-brush hypothetical pondering on a blog-post; rather, it can be used as a pragmatic approach to critiquing your own learning design work.

What you’re really asking is ‘does this prompt actually enhance the user experience, or is it just a lazy shortcut?’ When you answer honestly, it keeps you awake to the possibilities of clever, creative, innovative design.

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