• Kendra Oliver

What is utility and usability? How does it relate to e-instructional design?

Updated: Mar 31

There has been a significant boom in the development of online courses. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, educators at all levels, particularly in higher education, struggled to adapt. As we begin to see the light at the end of the socially distanced and online learning tunnel, we wait to see how an adult learner's enthusiasm for online learning is impacted? Do they have great expectations? Do they expect more than just content? Have the number of learners changed, and what are their needs?


It may be that bridging UX design and instructional design is the key. In particular, as outlined by Karla Gutierrez, usability, utility, and desirability may be the keys to effective online course design. The emphasis on emotional design focused on the learner's experience may help guide new and innovative approaches that are better suited for adult learners and, therefore, likely to be more successful.



In her article, Gutierrez asks a series of questions related to the usability, utility, and desirability of a course. As the course designer and director for the Drug Discovery Online program, I reflect on my experience and UX research on online course design over the past three years in the context of this "holy trinity" before designing the new video-based platform.


Useful: Is it helpful?

Don Norman says in his book Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things that "It is not enough that we build products that function, that are understandable and usable, we also need to build products that bring joy and excitement, pleasure and fun." He also clearly states that the degree to which users find the course's "usefulness" is measured by their ability to achieve their goals.


Will learners find it useful?

As we design each course for Drug Discovery Online, we try to provide benefits to students who take the course. We had thought that it could be the content itself or perhaps hearing from leading experts in the field. In most cases, we anticipated that taking the courses would help learners advance in drug discovery and development. While self-education is a significant motivator, we have also found that this usefulness is weighted against the effort and time needed to access the content.


Is it easy to navigate?

Early on, we found that the registration and navigation process what not straightforward. Adding additional frustration, it was nearly impossible for us to demonstrate the courses to key stakeholders unless we individually registered them or the course. Even then, getting to the site and working there was through no less than three systems proved too daunting. In many cases, the structure of the courses themselves were said to be "clunky" and "difficult to navigate." It was clear that a new approach was needed.


Will learners know they're on the right track?

The good news about our previous design was that it was clear to the learner where they were within the course. However, user research interviews with participants identified some miscommunication and misalignments regarding expectations. In the design, we relied heavily on automated feedback to minimize the workload for the instructor. However, more needed to be done based on the students' amount that was being asked.


Does your material acknowledge goal completion?

We always attempted to tie the material back to the overarching goal and individual learning objectives for the course. The objectives we clear skills that are built toward the larger learning goals. However, in our user interviews, we found at least two different user types with wildly different needs. Some users moved through the course material in a linear order, expecting and using the course content as an actual course. However, more advanced participants used the material more as a reference. They would browse the content for whatever was of greatest interest to them. In other words, we identified that the course goal that we initially identified was not relevant for all users. We wanted to move to a system that added increased customization.


Is the content tailored to fit learners' real-life situations?

Similar to our finding above, it became clear that the content needed to be contextualized and potentially personalized for each learner. Many user interviews also identified the need for case studies and examples.

Usable: Is it easy to use?

How easy is it for the users to understand the expectations and organization, find the content that is relevant for them, and engaged with the course?


Will learners gain more clarity on the subject?

It is undeniable that participants better understand drug discovery and design after taking a Drug Discovery Online course. However, the amount and extent of content that the participant gains are highly dependent on the user's background education. We believe that focusing on Medical Chemistist might be the most effective next step for user interviews and stakeholder interviews. Providing additional background content from non-medical chemistry might be necessary.


Can learners easily find what they're looking for?

One key finding from the user interviews was that the courses' organizational structure was not easy for users. It requires a high degree of unnecessary thinking, clicking, and searching.


Is your material readable?

Yes, the system suggested all text formatting to meet accessibility standards. We also highly relied on video for the course content. You can find our approach to video development here.


Can they quickly perform tasks?

The LMS system that we used seemed to make it easy to access the material while also abiding by copyright and other policy considerations. There were a limited number of interactive opportunities; however, we were able to add additional functionality with HTML and other embedding features.


Do interactive elements behave as expected?

Yes, we were able to take advantage of broken link search features that validated link activity. We extensively screened all video and other media elements.


Desirable: Is the experience engaging?

Does the course appeal to the learner's emotions? Desirability is how we can drive learners to take action through design.


Does your course attract and influence learners?

As previously stated, most of the users were interested in the content. The content itself was identified as being attractive to users. However, there were a few different learner groups that emerged. The first was advanced undergraduates or newly minted graduates with a background in chemistry or biology interested in a career in drug discovery. A second group that we identified was the advanced scientists working in drug discovery in either academia, biotech, or Pharma. While the new graduates tended to approach the online course similar to their previous course experiences, the advanced users used the content as a reference and a way to engage with the more extensive network. These insights would be beneficial as we began thinking through the new platform.


Finally, does your course appeal to their emotions?

Although we did not specifically as this question during our user interviews, the emotionality of these courses, I believe, feeds into a desire to achieve and succeed in one's career. Participants can use these courses to catch up, get ahead, or showcase their expertise in a particular area. They can also use the courses as a reason to network with other professionals. As a program, we should consider building metrics that demonstrate how these courses meet the user's desire to advance and thrive within their careers.

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